Copyright 1995 Guardian Newspapers Limited
The Guardian (London)
May 15, 1995
SECTION: THE GUARDIAN FEATURES PAGE; Pg. T2
LENGTH: 3547 words
HEADLINE: DEATH IN THE POST; Why are America's scientists afraid to open their mail? Because, writes Ian Katz, the Unabomber's lovingly crafted devices have been killing and maiming them for 17 years and federal investigators are nowhere near catching him
BYLINE: Ian Katz
IT IS A detail that now seems more grotesque than ironic but several staff members who passed through the reception of the California Forestry Association that afternoon joked that the shoe-box sized package looked like a bomb. It was wrapped in brown paper and addressed to William Dennison, who had retired as the association's president a year earlier. The receptionist had trouble removing the nylon tape so she took it through to her boss, Gilbert Murray. A few seconds later he was dead.
The blast in the association's Sacramento offices sent a shiver of panic through the country. The TV stations, still covering the six-day-old Oklahoma tragedy, broadcast the pictures from California as quickly as they could get them. Had the terrorists struck again, the anchors wondered aloud? Could it be that Oklahoma was just the beginning of a concerted terror campaign?
Almost as soon as he heard the details of the Sacramento explosion, FBI special agent Jim Freeman knew it had nothing to do with the Mid-Western attack. The explosion bore all the hallmarks of an ingenious serial killer who has eluded one of the most intensive FBI manhunts for almost 17 years. Freeman knew it long before the familiar report had come back from the FBI's explosives laboratory in Washington: the Unabomber had struck again.
At first sight, the Unabomber saga looks like a script custom written for Dennis Hopper. He is a twisted explosives expert who fashions his lethal contraptions with the loving care of a master craftsman. He harbours a grudge against technology and particularly hates computers. He picks his targets carefuly because of their association with ideas or developments he despises. He has struck 16 times, leaving a trail of mangled hands and three corpses. But there is a problem which will keep the Unabomber off cinema screens for some time. He hasn't been caught. Not even close.
Freeman grimly initiated the ritual he had already performed three times since taking over as head of the San Francisco-based Unabomber task force in 1993. He appealed to the public for help and circulated the agency's eight-year-old composite sketch showing a moustachioed man in his late 20's with reddish hair under a hooded sweatshirt.
Privately, however, agents admitted they had little to go on. One conceded the sketch was "pretty crappy". Rick Smith, a special agent in the San Francisco office, described the frustration felt by many: "We don't know what his motivation is. We don't know what his demands are. It's so damned difficult."
Within hours, however, the 17 year investigation had been turned on its head. A secretary at the New York Times had become suspicious of an envelope which arrived in the paper's newsroom the same afternoon as the Sacramento bombing. The paper handed it over to the FBI who tested it for explosives. Instead they found a letter from the Unabomber. To prove it was not a hoax, he had included a nine digit identification number used on his only other public communication, a brief note to the paper in 1993 warning of future attacks.
As he had in the earlier missive, the bomber referred to himself in the first person plural, even though the FBI has long been convinced that he operates alone. For the first time he outlined his motivation, describing himself as an anarchist who "would like, ideally, to break down all society into very small, completely autonomous units." Since that was an abstract and distant goal, he explained, he had a more modest short-term aim - "the destruction of the worldwide industrial system".
He described in detail how he had refined his bomb-making technique over the years and boasted that he could now make both small, lighter devices, and larger more deadly ones. "Clearly we are in a position to do a great deal of damage," he taunted. "And it doesn't appear the FBI is going to catch us any time soon. The FBI is a joke."
All of which was to set the stage for an extraordinary Faustian proposition. He was "getting tired of making bombs". It was "no fun having to spend all your evenings and weekends preparing dangerous mixtures, filing trigger mechanisms out of scraps of metal or searching the sierras for a place isolated enough to test a bomb." So if the Times, or another "widely read, nationally distributed periodical" would publish a lengthy article by him, he would "permanently desist from terrorist activities."
The article was between 29,000 and 37,000 words long, so he figured it might have to be serialised. Alternatively it could be published as a book, but it would have to be made widely available and moderately priced. The publisher could keep all profits but rights would revert to the public after six months. Each year for three years, the New York Times, Times or Newsweek would be obliged to print a 3,000 word piece by the bomber "clarifying our material or rebutting criticisms of it."
For the editor of the New York Times and the other publications named, the bomber's letter posed a prickly dilemma. Reject the offer outright and they risked having blood on their hands. Accept his bargain and they would flout one of the most fundamental precepts of journalistic ethics. But the team hunting the bomber were quietly elated. In the Times letter, the bomber noted that he had posted three other letters, one of them to a Yale computer scientist who was severely injured in one of his previous attacks. The letters didn't tell investigators his identity, but, for the first time, they offered a window on his soul.
It will be exactly 17 years, next Thursday, May 25, since the Unabomber's first attack. A woman spotted a parcel in a parking lot at the University of Illinois in Chicago. It was addressed to a professor at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but bore a return address at the nearby Northwestern Univesity, so she sent it there. The academic whose name appeared on the envelope said he hadn't mailed it, so it was passed to the campus security office where it exploded, slightly injuring a university policeman.
CAMPUS detectives conducted a routine investigation but it wasn't until November of the following year, when a bomb exploded in the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight bound for Washington, that federal authorities realised they were facing a serial bomber. When bomb experts sent photographs of its remains to Chicago, the origin of the flight, police there recognised similarities to another device which had exploded on the Northwestern campus a few months earlier, injuring a student. Then they linked it to the first attack in May 1978. When the bomber struck again the next summer, injuring the head of United Airlines with a device mailed to his home, they had a pattern. All the bomber's targets had been linked with either universities or airlines: they called him the Unabomber.
The packages arrived with depressing regularity for almost seven years. At the University of California in Berkeley, an electronics professor was seriously injured in the face and hands when he picked up what appeared to be a measuring instrument. A few years later a mathematics graduate student at the same university opened a box. The explosion blew off the fingers of his right hand. At the University of Michigan, a research assistant was hurt when she opened a package addressed for a professor.
Then in December 1986, a device hidden under wooden boards in a parking lot killed a computer store owner in Sacramento, California. The mad bomber had become a murderer. Mysteriously, he appeared to abandon his terror campaign for more than six years between February 1987 and May 1993. But then two bombs in 1993 seriously injured a University of California geneticist and a Yale computer expert. In December of last year Burson Marsteller executive Thomas Mosser was decapitated as he opened a package at his New Jersey home. Now Gilbert Murray, a genial, middle-aged father of two.
In all this time the bomber has been seen only once, spotted fleetingly by a clerk as he planted the bomb which maimed a Salt Lake City computer store owner in February 1987. The clerk told police enough to produce a composite sketch. But with his wide dark glasses and unremarkable features, the figure in the now familiar picture looks hopelessly generic.
And as federal authorities revealed last week that the bomber had written to two leading geneticists, security was being stepped up at universities across the country. Agents confirmed that the Unabomber had sent letters to Richard Roberts, who runs a Boston biotechnology laboratory, and Phillip Sharp, a Massachussetts Institute of Technology researcher. The two men shared a 1993 Nobel prize for their work on the nature of DNA. They were lucky, the FBI said; in the past the bomber hasn't extended his victims the courtesy of a warning.
What little federal investigators know about their quarry has been gleaned from the remnants of his handiwork, his choice of targets and, more recently, his letters. A glass cabinet at the explosives unit of the FBI headquarters in Washington contains replicas of most of his devices. The most revealing thing about them, say FBI and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) experts who have worked on the case, is that every component has been painstakingly handcrafted.
Even where household items such as pins and screws could be easily purchased, the bomber has gone to the trouble of making them from scratch. "These little devices are a reflection of himself and he is taking great pains to make them," said Christopher Ronay, who worked on the case for 14 years before retiring as the head of the FBI's explosives laboratory last year. "He takes pride in them because they're his handwork."
On several metal bomb parts, the bomber had inscribed the initials FC, the name he later used in his letters. Investigators speculate that the "C" stands for computers and the "F" for an expletive. More intriguingly, forensic experts found scratches on many components suggesting that the bomber marked pieces to allow him to dismantle and reassemble his devices.
"It gives you a picture of someone who is compulsive," says Ronay. "He's doing these things not because he has to but because he enjoys it or feels a compulsion to do it. I picture someone bent over a bench late at night tinkering with the things. I've talked to a lot of bombers, but the way he's doing this is a whole different approach. He may even be talking to himself while he makes them."
OVER the years, bomb experts noted another, unmistakable thread running through the devices. Every one contained hand-carved wooden components and most were placed in wooden boxes. The bomber has used a range of different hardwoods, even including a twig from a cherry tree. The wood theme carries over to some targets: the United Airlines chief injured back in 1980 was called Percy Wood; another victim lived on a road called Aspen Drive.
In the early days he used match heads and gun powder extracted from bullets for explosives and elastic bands as detonators. Now he uses electric triggers and a far deadlier mix of ammonium nitrate and alumnium powder. "He's done his own testing and development," said Warren Parker, an ATF explosives expert. "I'm sure he's read all the current literature, both underground and commercial. He's read the old stuff to."
Along with the remnants of his bombs, investigators have minutely analysed his choice of victims for any hint of his identity. They combed student records for anyone who might have born a personal grudge against the academics who received his packages. Then they trawled airline records for people who had been bumped from flights operated by the carriers he appeared to be targeting. They speculated that he may have lost his job to a computer, leaving him with a violent antipathy towards modern technology.
In his letter to the New York Times last month, the bomber was obligingly specific. Suggestions that he was attacking scholars and universities in general were "misleading", he complained. "We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature or harmless stuff like that."
According to Professor Michael Rustigan, an expert in serial killers at San Fransisco State University, the bomber closely fits the profile of the so-called "missionary" killer: "These are people who murder with a moral masquerade. He's on this personal mini-war against corporate capitalism." Like the FBI, Rustigan is convinced that the Unabomber is a loner (agents point out that his time-consuming hobby would leave little time for socialising) and highly intelligent.
Rustigan believes the Unabomber's latest attack and rare volubility may have been triggered by jealousy over the media attention paid to the Oklahoma bombing. "He probably felt that his reputation as the most sinister serial bomber was suddenly being upstaged by this amateur, Timothy McVeigh."
At its headquarters on the 12th floor of San Francisco's FBI building, Jim Freeman's task force, bolstered since the Murray killing by a further 100 agents, doesn't much care what made him start writing. They just hope he will carry on. They all know it was an exchange of correspondence with a newspaper that finally led police to George Metesky, America's most famous serial bomber.
In the meantime they are painstakingly feeding every scrap of information they have about the bomber into a giant new computer, the most powerful ever used in law enforcement. They hope it will tell them something, if only where he is likely to strike next. Rustigan relishes the irony in this approach: "Here's a guy who hates computers. And now it might well be a computer that busts him."