Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 The Chronicle Publishing Co.

The San Francisco Chronicle



LENGTH: 722 words

HEADLINE: Bay Area Biotech Firms Try To Keep Ahead of Unabomber

BYLINE: Rob Haeseler, Chronicle Staff Writer


By targeting scientists prominent in the field of genetics, the Unabomber is forcing the Bay Area's big biotechnology industry to think the way he does to protect employees from bomb attacks.

Worried that the Unabomber picks his victims from press reports, companies are thinking twice about how they and their officers appear in print and how their achievements are publicized. Knowing that the killer sometimes mails his package bombs to a victim's home, the industry also is seeking ways to make addresses less available.

In the information age spawned by the computer industry -- another target of the anti-technology terrorist -- this is no easy task.

''We are concerned about our officers and families at their homes, particularly those who are most visible in the press,'' said a Bay Area biotech executive who requested anonymity for himself and his company. ''So what we've done is, in essence, find out just how easy it would be for that person to determine where they live. We've tried to think like the Unabomber.''

The revelation this week that the Unabomber sent threatening letters to Boston-area geneticists Richard J. Roberts and Phillip A. Sharp -- who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine -- sent a chill through some of the 429 biotech-related companies in the Bay Area, where the industry sprang to life in the 1970s.

The FBI's UNABOM Task Force in San Francisco confirmed Monday that Roberts, 51, received one of four letters mailed by the unabomber in the East Bay on April 20, the same day a package bomb was sent to a timber lobbying group in Sacramento, where it killed lobbyist Gilbert Murray.

The Boston Herald reported yesterday that Sharp, 50, also received a letter. The two scientists were warned to stop their research or face the consequences, according to the Herald's unnamed sources.

Citing privacy issues, the FBI would not confirm the Sharp letter yesterday, nor would it divulge the contents of the Roberts letter.

A third letter condemning industrial society was sent to the New York Times, which published it after deleting sections at the request of the FBI. The fourth went to Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter, the victim of a Unabomber package bomb in June 1993. The blast left Gelernter blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and tore off part of his right hand.

Another geneticist, Dr. Charles Epstein of the University of California at San Francisco, was seriously injured on June 22, 1993, when opening a package sent to his home in Tiburon by the bomber.

The Bay Area biotech executive said ''the issue of heightened security began after the Tiburon incident.''

These were startling new concerns for an industry whose employees often draw yawns when asked their occupations, according to a spokesman for the Bay Area Bioscience Center in Oakland.

''Up until now, people have primarily been concerned about theft of intellectual property,'' he said, also preferring not to be named. ''They had security so that people couldn't get into buildings and, like other companies, they worry about jealous boyfriends . . . and about protesters.''

But now, the computer age has generated data bases readily available to anyone that give phone numbers and addresses nationwide.

''This guy (the Unabomber) does not have to have a lot of smarts,'' said the spokesman for the center, ''and there is no reason he is going to be intellectually consistent in his opposition to computer technology and his use of it. He probably is very good technically.''

As for potential targets, he said, ''the likelihood is that some of these people never got approached by the press in their life, until they got the Nobel Prize. They can walk down the street and no one would recognize them.''

Roberts and Sharp won the prize for their independent discovery in 1977 of ''split genes,'' which helped scientists learn how some cancers and hereditary diseases develop.

Roberts received his letter at New England Biolabs in Beverly, Mass. Its address is listed in his biography in Who's Who in America. Like several of the other Unabomber targets, he lives on a street named after a tree.

Over the past 17 years, the bomber's devices have killed three people and injured 23 in 16 incidents.