AFTER 18 YEARS OF VAINLY trying to get its man, the FBI wanted to be absolutely sure it had the right one. In the woods outside the rude shack where the suspect lived in the distant mountains of Montana, the FBI had assembled enough high-tech spying equipment to stage a James Bond movie. Special agents from the bureau's elite Hostage Rescue Team peered down from the trees through night-vision goggles while highly sensitive listening devices eavesdropped on any words the suspect might have chanced to mumble. Thousands of miles overhead in space, satellites surveyed the desolate home the suspect rarely left in the raw of winter.
Washington was determined to be patient. Director Louis Freeh wanted a no-holes case after the longest and most trying investigation in the history of the FBI. ideally, the Feds wanted to catch the suspect in the act of mailing a bomb. But last week the investigators were forced to move quickly. From a leak, CBS News had learned about the stakeout and was threatening to break the story. At the justice Department, Attorney General Janet Reno was confident enough to obtain a search warrant. Still, when the FBI SWAT team knocked on Theodore Kaczynski's door last Wednesday afternoon, the gumshoes in Kevlar were not sure whether they would be greeted by the true Unabomer, or an innocent middle-aged hippie in his underwear.
What they found inside, reportedly after a brief scuffle with the reclusive owner, was a do-it-yourself bomb lab. There were scientific volumes and 10 three-ring binders full of meticulously drawn bomb diagrams; jars full of chemicals useful for making explosives; metal ingots that could be used in explosives; batteries and electrical wiring for detonators. The agents also found a pair of old manual typewriters, one of which the Feds believe matches the typing on the 35,000-word anti-technology screed the Unabomer mailed to The New York Times and The Washington Post last June. G-men also discovered and defused a finished bomb that was all ready to be mailed.
Since 1978, there have been 26 victims; three of them died. The Unabomer has struck in 16 different places across the country, from New Haven, Conn., to Tiburon, Calif. Though Kaczynski has not yet been formally charged in any of the Unabomings, federal officials are confident they have the right guy. At last: federal agents had spent more than $50 million as well as a million work hours trying to catch the killer. Some FBI agents had worked most of their careers on the case and retired, despairing. "I didn't hold out any hope we'd ever find him," Chris Ronay, the former chief of the FBI's explosives unit, told NEWSWEEK. The special 80-man task force of FBI, ATF and Postal Service agents had developed a vast computer system with 12 million bytes of information, but it added up to little. Most crimes are not solved by the ingenuity of investigators but by the mistakes of the criminals. The Unabomer case may be no different; it's just taken a lot longer. The story of how the Feds finally caught their prime suspect, pieced together by NEWSWEEK, is a tale of long shots and close calls, of dumb luck and fatal pride.
For years it appeared that the Unabomer was only getting more clever. His bombs were more deadly and harder to trace. He seemed to enjoy maiming scientists, and to relish leaving the FBI clueless. It became clear that the Feds were dealing not with the usual serial bomber but with a well-educated, well-organized executioner.
What finally tripped up Ted Kaczynski, Harvard '62 (B.A.), University of Michigan '64 (M.A.), '67 (Ph.D.), was his vanity. Like many true loners, Kaczynski was actual desperate for attention; for all his years as a recluse, he craved recognition. You could see it in his expression when the Feds paraded him by reporters and photographers after his arraignment in Helena, Mont. Most criminal suspects taking the so-called "perp walk" try to cover up their face. Kaczynski stared straight ahead and smirked ever so slightly--the smile of the smartest kid in the class.
The Unabomer, it now appears, could not stand competition. Last April, he was outdone, both in headlines and sheer mayhem, by the Oklahoma City bombers. The day after the Murrah building was blown up, the serial terrorist sent out letters to the Times, two scientists and a Yale professor he had dismembered. In the notes, he whined about how hard he had to work--at night and on weekends!--"preparing dangerous mixtures." He taunted the FBI as "a joke." That same month he mailed a fatal package bomb to a California timber lobbyist whose body parts had to be collected in 11 separate bags. In June, he threatened to blow up an airliner in Los Angeles as a "prank" to remind the public "who we are." Then in June, the Unabomer sent his 35,000-word diatribe to the Times and the Post, advocating a return to "wild nature." If the papers did not print the tract, he warned, he would kill again.
The publishers of the Times and the Post (which owns NEWSWEEK) were willing to go along in order to save lives. Some at the papers and in the Justice Department worried about giving in to blackmail from a terrorist. But others argued more persuasively, as one participant in the meetings later put it, that the manifesto "might offer a clue to the Unabomer's identity, if the right person saw it." In September, with Reno's blessing, the ponderously written document was published in the Post.
The "right person" may turn out to have been the alleged bomber's brother. A social worker with a degree from Columbia, living quietly with his wife in Schenectady, N.Y., David Kaczynski began worrying after he read the Unabomer's diatribe. It mirrored some angry writings by his brother that he had seen over the years. In January, while helping his mother move out of her house in Chicago, he found hundreds of letters from his brother that brimmed with the same disturbing rhetoric. His loyalties torn, David Kaczynski decided to approach the FBI. Using a Washington lawyer as a go-between, he offered to help only if his name was kept from the public. The request was perhaps naive, but the FBI agreed to try to honor it. The Kaczynski family also reportedly tried--again vainly--to extract another promise: that the Feds not seek the death penalty for Ted Kaczynski.
At first, the Unabom team was unconvinced about the former Berkeley math professor turned mountain man. Kaczynski didn't exactly fit the FBI's profile. judging from the postmarks on his mail bombs, investigators had thought the Unabomer lived somewhere in the Bay Area. Montana seemed too remote; Kaczynski got around on an old bicycle, and his shack lacked even the electricity to power a drill. But the more the Feds studied the documents turned over by David Kaczynski, the more hopeful they became that, after hundreds of thousands of false leads, they were finally on the right trail.
Beginning in March, a small army of agents infiltrated the rural hamlet of Lincoln, Mont. The locals wondered at the strange new folks in lumber jackets who were riding around on U.S. Forest Service snowmobiles, but assumed they were federal agents looking for Montana Freemen, the extremists who have settled around the state. Other agents fanned out across the country, from Berkeley to Salt Lake City to Chicago-places where Ted Kaczynski was believed to have lived at different times in cheap hotels and shelters for the homeless. Old Unabomer victims were shown Kaczynski's photograph and resume. Pat Fischer, a Vanderbilt University computer scientist whose secretary was wounded by a letter bomb addressed to him in 1982, had originally thought that he had been targeted at random. "The guy has a "Who's Who,' throws a dart at it, and the first time the dart hits a computer scientist, he says "Aha'," Fischer told NEWSWEEK. But when Fischer learned more from the FBI, he began feeling "more and more small-world occurrences." Fischer's father had taught mathematics at Michigan while Kaczynski was there in the '60s, and his brother had worked down the hall from a Yale computer scientist maimed in a 1993 bombing.
All of this digging was bound to produce a leak. Last week CBS News told the FBI it was planning to run a story identifying Kaczynski as the prime suspect. The FBI pleaded for more time, but CBS began feeling competitive pressure from ABC, and told the Feds that the news could not hold. In the end, CBS did wait long enough for the bureau to mount a raid, but the agents had to move fast. The FBI crime-lab team had not even left Washington for Montana when federal agents were forced to swoop in on Kaczynski's cabin ahead of the camera crews. FBI Director Freeh was off on spring break.
The hasty scramble may complicate the chances of winning a conviction. David Kaczynski was furious when his name leaked and reporters began clambering all over his front porch. According to federal officials, he has stopped cooperating with the investigation, at least for the time being. For now, Ted Kaczynski is being held on a lesser charge of possessing bomb components. To put Kaczynski away for life, the FBI will have to tie him to at least one specific bombing. The Justice Department would prefer to try the Unabomer in California or New Jersey, where he could get the death penalty for his lethal attacks in those states. A senior Justice Department official expressed confidence in the case, saying that the FBI had conducted a "good search" of Kaczynski's cabin. The bureau will try to match Kaczynski's saliva with the DNA of the saliva on the postage stamps used to mail the bombs. The FBI's crime lab also has a partial fingerprint from at least one of the Unabomer's devices, which will be checked against Kaczynski's prints. And the typewriter match is potentially devastating.
Whatever new wrinkles develop in the case, they are nothing compared with the vexations government investigators experienced for well over a decade. The first hint that the Feds were dealing with a brilliant nemesis came in November 1979, after a makeshift bomb detonated aboard American Airlines Flight 444, forcing an emergency landing in Washington. As Chris Ronay, then newly assigned to the FBI's crime lab, looked over the remnants of the device, be noticed that the triggering device was an altimeter, rigged to set off the bomb when cabin pressure reached a certain level. Ronay had never seen anything quite like it; he immediately knew that whoever built the weapon was a criminal of ingenuity and sophistication, even if he wasn't much of a bombmaker-yet.
Because the American Airlines flight left from Chicago, the FBI asked the Chicago police to search their evidence lockers for any earlier bombs that might suggest a pattern. The Chicago cops reported two that had been found on college campuses in the area. One had been placed in a home-made wooden box; the other was in a cigar box. At the FBI crime lab, Ronay was struck that every part was made from something else--sink traps, household pipes, castoff furniture parts. The unknown terrorist was quickly nicknamed "The Junkyard Bomber."
At first the Feds speculated that the bomber was a college student who liked fantasy games. In 1980, the FBI identified "some really good suspects," said Ronay--a cabal of engineering students who liked to play Dungeons and Dragons. But then one of the group showed up at FBI headquarters playfully dressed in a chicken suit. The FBI eliminated them as suspects.
BY LATE 1985, THE bomber had struck 10 times, injuring seven people. The bureau began building a behavioral profile. In 1985, an aspiring astronaut and engineering grad student named John Hauser opened a plastic box in a computer room at Berkeley. The blast blew off his fingers; his Air Force Academy ring was flung so hard it left an imprint, ACADEMY, on the wall (box, page 40). A few days later the Unabomer sent the San Francisco Examiner a letter in which he claimed to be working for a terrorist group called The Freedom Club, which he described as "strictly anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-leftist," but most of all, anti-science and -technology. From then on, investigators would find the initials FC engraved on virtually all his bombs. it was at about this point that the FBI dubbed the case Unabom, because most of the targets had been universities and airlines.
In December 1985, the Unabomer claimed his first fatality when a bomb hidden in a paper bag killed Hugh Scrutton behind his computer store in Sacramento. The stakes were rising, and the bureau was getting a little desperate to make an arrest. The leads continued to pour in, but most of them were useless. One doctor wrote that the Unabomer was part of a plot masterminded in Hong Kong. A psychic called to suggest that the Unabomer lived in Boston and drove a Volkswagen. A numerologist wrote that the Unabomer has a secret code buried in his writings that, if uncovered, could reveal his identity (in fact, the Unabomer did use a nine-digit code to establish his authenticity with the authorities, but it turned out to be the social-security number of a prison parolee with no connection to the case). Another person claimed that the Unabomer followed phases of the moon, while a woman wrote in to say that she had slept with the Unabomer. "They think that just because they don't like their ex-husbands he must be the Unabomer," said an investigator. The G-men sifted through the dreck, but frustration began to sink it. "By the time this is over," one investigator told NEWSWEEK a year ago, "I might be wearing a chicken suit."
The gumshoes may have come tantalizingly close in Salt Lake City in 1987. A woman looking out a window noticed a man, dressed in a hooded sweat shirt, carrying what appeared to be a laundry bag containing a jumble of wooden boards. He seemed to be leaving the bag in an empty parking space. The woman banged on the window, motioning the man away. He calmly picked up the bag and left. Less than an hour later, a computer-store owner was badly hurt when he went to pick up a bomb disguised to look like some two-by-fours. The Feds streamed into Salt Lake, searching bus stations and flophouses. They found no one, although they were able to draw the by-now familiar composite sketch of a hooded man in dark glasses and a mustache. Some agents believe they were only a few hours late, and may have even interviewed the man that day in Salt Lake without realizing it.
The close brush may have spooked the Unabomer, who was quiet for six years. The FBI-ATF Unabom team was largely disbanded--until its tormentor struck again in June 1993. He may have been inspired to keep up with the competition: Islamic fundamentalists had recently dynamited the World Trade Center, and cultists had self-immolated at Waco. The Unabomer answered by maiming a geneticist in Tiburon, Calif., and a scientist at Yale. Reassembled, the federal squad was as stymied as ever. "You're running down these terrible leads," recalled a former member of the task force. "You almost feel embarrassed knocking on the door." A letter sent by the Unabomer in 1993 carried the barely perceptible imprint of a handwritten message, "Call Nathan R Wed 7 pm." FBI agents canvassed license records and phone books to locate 10,000 Nathan R's around the United States. Dutifully, and fruitlessly, they set out to question many of them.
Meanwhile, the Unabomer was getting more deadly. A letter bomb instantly killed New Jersey ad executive Thomas Mosser in December 1994. When Gilbert Murray, an executive of the California Forestry Association, opened a package at 2:19 in the afternoon last April 24, he was "eviscerated," said Sacramento Coroner Bill Brown. "His arm was ripped off. His face was ripped off. There were parts of his body all over the room. " The blast was so strong that evidence arrived at the coroner's office in paint cans. "At first we couldn't figure out if he was trying to kill people or maim them, " said an FBI investigator at the time. "Now there's no doubt."
FOR THE 80-ODD THWARTED investigators on the Unabom task force, the pressure was becoming unbearable. "The worst part is you have this sword of Damocles hanging over your head," an investigator said last summer. "Can we catch him before he strikes again?" At the time, retired FBI criminal profiler Richard Ault said the bureau's best hope was the Unabomer's hunger for publicity. By demanding that the press publish his manifesto, the Unabomer was succumbing to the "urge to purge" that catches up with most serial killers. "He's human and he has to talk to someone, and that could put him away," said Ault.
No one at the time predicted that Kaczynski's brother might be listening, though family members are often the best snitches. In the end, it may have been Kaczynski's mother's desire to be close to her children that caught up with the hermit in his remote Montana cabin. In January, Wanda Kaczynski, a widow, decided to move from Chicago to Schenectady to be with her youngest son, David. It was during the move that David came across the stash of old letters from his brother Ted that looked suspiciously like the screeds of the Unabomer.
So what if it was Kaczynski's lonely mother, and not the billion-byte computer base, that may have gotten him in the end? At the Unabom project headquarters in San Francisco last week, the FBI and ATF agents traded high-fives. One ATF agent who's been on the case for three years decided to slip out and walk the San Francisco streets by himself. He had seen the shattered office of the forestry-association official, splattered with body parts, and he had talked to more fortunate victims who had merely been injured. Now, as he walked along, he felt "a huge sense of relief. I thought to myself," he told NEWSWEEK, "this guy will never kill anyone again."
After swarming into Kaczynski's Montana cabin, federal agents found evidence of a brilliant, bomb-obsessed man. A sampling:
Ten three-ring binders full of "meticulous writings and diagrams" of explosive devices and sketches of boxes that could conceal the devices.
Handwritten notes in English and Spanish describing how chemical compounds can create explosive charges. Logs of experiments to determine the optimal design for pipe bombs in various weather conditions.
Books on electrical circuitry and chemistry.
Finished package bomb.
Copper, plastic and galvanized metal pipes, some with plates on one end-an early step in pipe-bomb construction.
Containers labeled aluminum, zinc, lead and potassium chlorate that could be used to create explosives.
Solid cast ingots.
Batteries and electrical wire that could be used to detonate the explosive devices.
Drills, drill bits, hacksaw blades and wire cutters.
From crude bombs left casually in public places to deadly sophisticated devices sent through the mail, the Unabomer has confounded investigators for 18 years. Now the Feds are trying to link Kaczynski to the long, scary spree.
Package returned to the school explodes, injuring a guard.
Bomb left in the university's Technological Institute injures a student.
American Airlines flight, Chicago to Washington, D.C. Parcel ignites in the hold. After an emergency landing, 12 suffer smoke inhalation.
Lake Forest, Ill. United Airlines president Percy Wood is wounded it his home.
Univ. of Utah, Salt Lake City Bomb found by maintenance worker is defused by police.
Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, Tenn. Wooden box explodes and injures secretary Janet Smith.
Pipe bomb injures engineering professor Diogenes Angelakos.
John Hauser is injured when a plastic box on a lab counter explodes.
Boeing Co., Auburn, Wash. Package at the Boeing Fabrication Division is safe disarmed.
Package injures psychology professor James McConnell's assistant.
Paper bag explodes, killing owner Hugh Scrutton behind his computer store.
Padded mailer explodes, injuring Charles Epstein, a geneticist at UCSF
Computer-science professor David Gelernter is disfigured.
Advertising executive Thomas Mosser is killed at his home.
Timber-industry lobbyist Gilbert Murray is killed at his office.
Bomb threat slows air traffic.
Kaczynski is born in a Chicago suburb in 1942; he spends time there in 1978 as the bombing begin.
Accepted at 16, graduates from Harvard in 1962.
Kaczynski attends the Univ. of Michigan from 1962-67, receiving his doctorate in math.
Kaczynski becomes an assistant professor at UC Berkeley in 1967 and resigns in 1969.
With his brother's help, Kaczynski buys a plot of land near Lincoln in 1971 and builds a one-room shack.
Kaczynski stays in or near Salt Lake City in the early 1980s--the time the Unabomer's activity begins there.