Chasing The Unabomer

It has all the elements of a summer box-office smash-a campy thriller about a crazed criminal mastermind who holds the great city in fear. But this was Los Angeles, not Hollywood. The reality last week was that LAX, the nation's third busiest airport, was tied up in knots at the onset of the summer travel season while a team of frustrated FBI agents vainly chased the phantom who has eluded them for 17 years. Batman didn't show, nor did Bruce Willis--and finally, the murderer known as Unabomer revealed his little joke. "Since the public has a short memory, we decided to play one last prank to remind them who we are," Unabomer announced in a typically coy letter to The New York Times. "But no, we haven't tried to plant a bomb on an airliner recently."

Great-just what America needs, a serial killer with a macabre sense of humor. Worse, this murderer (three dead and 23 injured since 1978) appears to have an insatiable appetite for recognition and enough brains to give OKBomb suspect Tim McVeigh a run for his money in the alleged-bomber-of-the-year competition. That, in all probability, is what last week's caper was about. It was a publicity plOy designed to wrest the spotlight of national-news attention away from McVeigh and bring it back to the humble craftsman who, as he told us in April, spends "all [his] evenings and weekends preparing dangerous mixtures, filing trigger mechanisms out of scraps of metal [and] searching the sierras for a place isolated enough to test a bomb." Make no mistake: though he denies it, the Unabomer now has an epic case of envy that began with Oklahoma City.

He still has a long way to go, for with 168 victims, the OKBomb perps still easily hold the U.S. record for slaughtering innocents with homemade devices. Still, the Unabomer is putting on a rare show for psychologists and other behavioral scientists, some of whom are clearly impressed by his combination of intellect, malice and showmanship. He has arguably raised murder by mail to the level of performance art. And as he promised in April, the bomber has now produced a grandiose message that seems intended to explain his homicidal career. This personal and political manifesto, 35,000 words long, was mailed last week to The New York Times, The Washington Post and Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine. (It was not sent to NEWSWEEK, as the Unabomer announced in April.) The document was accompanied by a demand for publication in exchange for the bomber's solemn vow not to kill anyone else. But there were a few caveats. The killer refused to give up bombing property, and he demanded that the papers publish three annual follow-up statements he intends to write. He also reserved the fight, if that is the word, to kill one more person if his proclamation appeared in Penthouse instead of one of the "respectable" publications. The 85,000-word statement, not yet released by its recipients,gives the FBI its best look so far at the inner workings of the Unabomer's mind, and may provide the clue that brings him down.

As described in the Times, the manifesto was mostly about technology--like computers and genetic engineering--and the social and environmental change they are bringing to the world. Unabomer doesn't like science and technology--he says they are "permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine." He advocates "revolution against the industrial system" and a return to "wild nature."

The newspapers and Guccione must now decide whether to accede to Unabomer's demand in the hope of saving lives, or whether negotiating with a madman might do more harm than good (page 46). In the meantime, however, the Unabomer has achieved precisely what he wanted, which was to "meet" some of the most powerful publishing figures in the country on roughly equal terms.

His disdain for lawful authority needs no demonstration. In April, after the bombing death of Gilbert Murray, chief lobbyist for the California Forestry Association, Unabomer called the FBI "a joke." He has tempered his language a bit, but his contempt still runs strong. "For an organization that pretends to be the world's greatest law-enforcement," he wrote the Times, "the FBI seems surprisingly incompetent." There was another bit of sly humor in the letter announcing his bomb threat. This missive, sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, listed "Frederick Benjamin Isaac Wood" as the return addressee. Wood is one of Unabomer's trademarks: he uses it as a bomb component and frequently invents woody-sounding names and addresses for his lethal packages. So "F.B.I. Wood" was another little joke.

What is one to make of a man who is an anonymous egomaniac, a self-taught machinist who hates all technology, and a killer whose professed goal is to live in harmony with nature? Obviously, the Unabomer is no ordinary bad guy, which is why the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies have had so much trouble tracking him down (page 44). Criminals--even career criminals--are typically none too smart, and many are eventually tripped up by their own M.O.s. But Unabomer has continually changed and improved both his bombs and his tactics-which suggests that, educated or not, he is very intelligent. He is also not insane in the usual sense of the word. He is clearly in touch with everyday reality, and he has been able to maintain his cover for an extremely long time. So while Unabomer probably fits the "quiet loner" stereotype, and while some experts think he may have problems with women, he does not appear to be a serial killer in the mold of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer. He is not, from the available evidence, a sexually driven psychopath.

His mainspring--the apparent reason for it all--is vanity or narcissism. Consider the power trip inherent in watching the FBI chase its taft, or watching authorities at LAX (and other California airports) get the shakes. Consider the ego rush in seeing prestige publications like the Times and the Post, which owns NEWSWEEK, forced to take his views seriously. "He's enjoying it to the max--trying to jack us around, taunting and teasing the media and the public," says San Francisco State University criminologist Michael Rustigan. "The guy's not getting tired, he's in his prime. He was a fledgling author, now he's in the big leagues. He's not small fry, cutting his wood and perfecting the layers of metal in his basement in northern California. He's Serial Bomber No. 1, he's stopped the nation, he's graduated."

NEWSWEEK has obtained two new pieces of evidence about the Unabomer. One is a letter he claims to have sent to the San Francisco Examiner in 1985, after one of his devices crippled John Hauser, a graduate student of the University of California, Berkeley. This letter, a copy of which was sent to Guccione, is an early and much shorter version of the Unabomer manifesto. Although the FBI believes he has always worked alone, the bomber claims to be a terrorist group calling itself "the Freedom Club." That name appears to answer the question of why virtually all his bombs contain at least one metal part carefully stamped with the letters "FC--a "signature" designed to be retrieved after the bomb explodes. The letter attacks "the old revolutionary ideologies" and says the Freedom Club "is strictly anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-leftist." But the writer also says "this does not imply that we are in any sense a right-wing movement. We are apolitical. Politics only distracts attention from the real issue," which is science, technology, the complexity of modern society and the rule of elites.

The second piece of evidence is a letter sent to Scientific American magazine last week. The letter also claims to be a message from the terrorist group FC, and it is essentially a diatribe against the "arrogance" of modern science. "Scientists and engineers constantly gamble with human welfare," the writer says, "and we see today the effect of some of their lost gambles--ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, cancer-causing chemicals. . .overcrowding, noise and pollution [and the] massive extinction of species .... "Significantly, the letter also says "we strongly deplore the kind of indiscriminate slaughter that occurred in the Oklahoma City event," another indication that OKBomb has wounded his pride.

Taken as a group, the "FC" letters are alternately preachy, chatty, ironic and even subtly serf-mocking. They are surely the most remarkable letters any serial killer ever wrote, and they seem to indicate the bomber's need to justify his actions. Earth First!, a radical environmental group, recently denounced his form of terrorism, and some anarchists have similarly distanced themselves. Nevertheless, the Unabomer in his letter to The New York Times makes violence seem almost reasonable: how else, he says, could he get his Luddite views considered by major news organizations? He also admits error when he tried to bomb an American Airlines jet in 1979 (the device did not explode). "The idea was to kill a lot of business people," he wrote. "But of course some of the passengers likely would have been innocent people-maybe kids, or some working stiff going to see his sick grandmother. We're glad now that attempt failed."

He's all heart. The question now is whether the sudden flurry of communications signals some sort of inner crisis that could lead to a mistake--or whether the jokester, always sly, keeps right on killing.

Using the mail and choosing hard-to-connect targets, the Unabomer has struck 16 times in 17 years, killing three and maiming 23 in a campaign of terror directed at airlines and techno-industries.

1 May 25, 1978 Northwestern Univ. Evanston, III.

A package returned to the school explodes, injuring a guard

2 May 9, 1979 Northwestern Univ.

A bomb left in the university's Technological Institute injures a student

3. Nov. 15, 1979 American Airlines Flight 444, Chicago to Washington, D.C.

A bomb ignites in the hold of a 727. After the plane's emergency landing, 12 are treated for smoke inhalation

4 June 10, 1980 Lake Forest, III.

United Airlines president Percy Wood is wounded by a bomb mailed to his home.

5 Oct. 1981 Univ. of Utah, Salt Lake City

The police defuse a bomb found by a maintenance worker

6 May 5, 1982 Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, Tenn.

A wooden box explodes and injures secretary Janet Smith as she opens it

7 July 2, 1982 Univ. of California, Berkeley

Engineering professor Diogenes Angelakos picks up a cylinder thinking it is a student project, and is injured

8 May 15, 1985 Univ. of California, Berkeley

John Hauser is injured when a metal box on a lab counter explodes as he opens it

9 June 13, 1985 Boeing Co., Auburn, Wash.

A package mailed to the Boeing fabrication division on May 8 is safely disarmed

10 Nov. 15, 1985 Ann Arbor, Mich.

A package mailed to psychology professor James McConnell injures his assistant

11 Dec. 11, 1985 Sacramento, Calif.

A bomb hidden in a paper bag kills Hugh Scrutton behind his computer store

12 Feb. 20, 1987 Salt Lake City, Utah

A bomb disguised as two-by-fours explode when kicked by computer store owner

13 June 22, 1993 Tiburon, Calif.

A padded mailer injures Charles Epstein, a geneticist at UCSF

14 June 24, 1993 Yale Univ. New Haven, Conn.

Computer-science professor David Gelernter is disfigured by a bomb at his office

15 Dec. 10, 1994 North Caldwell, N.J.

Advertising executive Thomas Mosser is killed at his home

16 April 24, 1995 Sacramento, Calif.

Taimber-industry lobbyist Gilbert Murray is killed by a bomb at the California Forestry Association

17 June 20, 1995 Los Angeles, Calif.

A bomb threat slows traffic at Los Angeles International Airport