Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 Southam Inc.

The Ottawa Citizen

May 27, 1995, Saturday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 2084 words

HEADLINE: Tracking the Unabomber; Investigators turn computers against murderous enemy of technology




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 one 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 through the United States. TV stations, still covering the six-day-old Oklahoma tragedy, broadcast the pictures from California.

Almost as soon as he heard the details of the Sacramento explosion, FBI special agent Jim Freeman knew it had nothing to do with Oklahoma City.

The explosion bore the stamp of an ingenious serial killer who has eluded one of the most intensive FBI manhunts for almost 17 years. Freeman knew 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 crafts his lethal contraptions with the loving care of a master.

He harbors a grudge against technology and particularly hates computers. He picks his targets carefully because of their association with ideas or developments he despises. He has struck 16 times, leaving a trail of mangled hands and three corpses.

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 man in his late 20s with reddish hair under a hooded sweatshirt.

Privately, agents admitted they had little to go on. One conceded the sketch was "pretty poor." Rick Smith, a special agent in the San Francisco office, described the frustration felt by many: "We don't understand his motivation. We don't know what his demands are. It's so damned difficult."

Within hours, the 17-year investigation had been turned on its head. A secretary at the New York Times had become suspicious of an envelope that 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 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 note, the bomber referred to himself as we, 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 technique over the years and boasted he could now make small, lighter bombs 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 New York Times, or any other "widely read, national 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 serialized. 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, Time or Newsweek would be obliged to print a 3,000 word piece by the bomber "clarifying our material or rebutting criticisms of it."

The team hunting the bomber were quietly elated.

In the Times letter, the bomber noted that he had posted three other letters, one to a Yale computer scientist 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.

The Unabomber's first attack happened 17 years ago. 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 it bore a return address at Northwestern University, 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 police officer.

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 realized they faced a serial bomber.

When bomb experts sent photographs of its remains to Chicago, the origin of the flight, police there recognized similarities to another device that had exploded on the Northwestern campus a few months earlier, injuring a student.

They then 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 once, spotted fleetingly by a clerk as he planted a bomb that 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 U.S. authorities revealed recently that the bomber had written to two leading geneticists, security was being stepped up at universities across the country.

Agents confirmed the Unabomber had sent letters to Richard Roberts, who runs a Boston biotechnology laboratory, and Phillip Sharp, a Massachusetts 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 warned his victims.

What little investigators know about their quarry has been gleaned from the remnants of his bombs, 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 work."

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 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 thread in 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 aluminum 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 too"

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 examined airline records for people who had been bumped from flights operated by the carriers he appeared to be targeting. They speculated he may have lost his job to a computer, leaving him with a violent antipathy toward 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 Prof. Michael Rustigan, an expert in serial killers at San Francisco 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."

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.

At its headquarters in 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."

GRAPHIC: THE SUSPECT: Mystery man is known only by the initials FC -- C for computers, F for an expletive