When Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, was finally arrested in 1996, he’d been outwitting and evading police for 18 years.
From 1978 he led a solo campaign of terror from his tiny log cabin in the remote bushland of western Montana — killing three people and injuring nearly two dozen others with his homemade explosives.
On February 20, 1985, the first of the Unabomber’s victims died when he opened a package containing a homemade bomb that had been left in the carpark outside his computer store.
What was the relevance of the computer store? One of Kaczynski’s biggest gripes was modern technology. He targeted businesses and universities, as well as public areas and homes across the US. The desperate search for the Unabomber goes down in US history as one of the biggest manhunts ever, involving more than 150 FBI agents.
Yet, his eventual capture would be largely thanks to his own brother and sister-in-law. When he was eventually arrested, people were shocked to see that he was nothing like the monster they’d imagined.
Who could have possibly guessed that the terrifying Unabomber was a highly intelligent recluse? He was once a highly acclaimed genius who had entered Harvard University when he was just 16 years old.
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The first bombs
On May 25, 1978 in Chicago, an ordinary looking brown paper package was found at the University of Illinois, apparently sent by a professor at Northwestern University.
But the professor insisted he hadn’t sent the package at all, and, being suspicious, he had the package taken to campus security where it exploded, severely injuring a security guard. The main component of the bomb was a length of metal pipe containing smokeless explosive powder and contained in a box which was handcrafted from wood.
Two more packages exploded in 1979 — another bomb at Northwestern University as well as one on-board an American Airlines flight bound from Chicago to Washington DC. The explosion, which happened mid-flight, resulted in smoke inhalation but no injuries.
A year later, another of the Unabomber’s homemade bombs injured United Airlines boss Percy Wood, who suffered burns and severe cuts. By now, the FBI had formed an official taskforce known as UNABOM, named due to the bomber’s primary targets; airlines and universities.
Investigators were completely puzzled.
Numerous forensic examinations of the bomb components resulted in no clues as to the Unabomber’s identity. The bombs were made up of common materials such as nails, tape, fishing wire and wood. Yet, whoever made these bombs left absolutely no identifying trace behind — no fingerprints and no DNA.
Initial lab tests showed that the Unabomber had taken the skins off the batteries used in the bombs and made his own, using a glue made from melted deer hoofs. How incredibly strange — but still not a strong enough clue.
As the years went by, the attacks continued, and the bombs became more destructive and sophisticated. In 1985, John Hauser, a captain in the US air force, lost four fingers and vision in one eye when one of the Unabomber’s bomb exploded.
On 11 December, 1985, another bomb exploded at a computer store in Sacremento, California, killing the store owner Hugh Scrutton, the first victim to die of his wounds.
The bomb that killed Scrutton was also handcrafted and made with wooden parts.
It wasn’t until 1987 that there was a breakthrough; a woman claimed to have seen a man in a carpark outside a computer shop in Salt Lake City just before a bomb exploded.
A police artist created a sketch of a man with a moustache, wearing a hooded top and aviator sunglasses. (That sketch became famous but, when you compare it to Ted Kaczynski’s face, you’ll see why it led police to several dead ends).
Then, the bombings stopped for six years. Perhaps the bomber had had enough? Maybe he was dead? No such luck.
In mid-1993 the Unabomber struck again with attacks on university professors in San Francisco and New Haven, Connecticut. This was followed by more fatal attacks: On 10 December 1994, advertising executive Thomas Mosser was killed in New Jersey, and timber industry lobbyist Gilbert Murray was killed in Sacremento on 24 April 1995 (just two days after the infamous Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, which killed 168 people.)
The Unabomber Manifesto
The Unabomber came a huge step closer to revealing his true identity when, in June 1995, he sent a manifesto to major US newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The manifesto was essentially a 35,000 word rant against the Industrial Revolution as well as what he perceived as the horrors of modern technology. Officially, US law doesn’t give terrorists a public voice but, in this case, both US Attorney-General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh decided it was in the public’s best interest to publish the Unabombers’ words.
They reasoned that the move might lead to somebody recognising the bomber’s rants.
The Unabomber’s Family
The decision to print the Manifesto paid off immediately — Linda Patrik contacted police to tell them the Unabomber’s manifesto was very similar to letters her husband, David, had once received from his older brother Ted.
She told them the brothers are no longer in contact. Letters to David included a 23-page essay in which he raged against the modern world. Ted had written: “Technology has already made it impossible for us to live as physically independent beings.”
This was very similar to the tone of the Manifesto.
David Kaczynski told ABC News in 2016: “I thought I was going to read the first page of this, turn to Linda and say, ‘See, I told you so. But on an emotional level, it just sounded like my brother’s voice.”
The early days
Born in 1942, Ted Kaczynski was a maths genius who won a scholarship to attend Harvard University at the age of 16 before receiving a PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan.
In 1967 he became the youngest-ever professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, working as an assistant mathematics professor. But he only lasted in the job for two years.
He quit in 1969 and by 1970 he became a recluse, living in a small wood cabin in western Montana with no running water, heat or electricity. It was from this isolated wood cabin Kaczynski began his terror campaign.
David Kaczynski was convinced his estranged brother was the notorious Unabomber. He gave a sample of his brother’s writing to the FBI which convinced them that the author of the Manifesto was the same person who had written to David.
On April 3, 1996, police arrived at Kaczynski’s tiny cabin and arrested him. Inside, they found an enormous amount of evidence, including bombs, bomb-making equipment, as well as the original handwritten manifesto.
One of many reasons the manhunt dragged on for 18 years was because the FBI was convinced that the Unabomber was based in Chicago. So, even though Kaczynski’s name had appeared on a list of potential suspects, based on the locations of the attacks, he’d been ruled out a long time ago.
Kaczynski rejected an insanity plea and, even though he attempted suicide in his prison cell in early 1998, he appealed to US District Judge Garland Burrell Jr to allow him to represent himself.
After undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, Kaczynski was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, which meant Judge Burrell ruled that he couldn’t defend himself. The paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis meant prosecutors and defense teams were able to reach a plea bargain, and that prosecutors couldn’t argue for the death penalty for a mentally ill defendant.
On January 22, 1998, Kaczynski was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, in return for a guilty plea to all federal charges.
In 2006, all the items seized from Kaczynski’s cabin, including the cabin itself, were auctioned off, with the money going to the survivors as well as families of the people he killed. The auction raised US$232,000 and Kaczynski’s cabin is now on display at the Newseum in Washington, DC.
If anyone really cares what the Unabomber is up to in prison, apparently, he writes hundreds of letters to penpals, perhaps continuing the rants made famous in his Manifesto. If he was angry about modern technology back in the 90s, no doubt he’d have plenty more to rant about today.
— LJ Charleston is a historical features writer for news.com.au. Continue the conversation @LJCharleston