Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 The Times-Picayune Publishing Co.

The Times-Picayune

May 28, 1995 Sunday, THIRD


LENGTH: 1937 words


BYLINE: By Linda Goldston Knight-Ridder Newspapers



Somewhere in Northern California - in Oakland or San Francisco, Berkeley or Sacramento, perhaps even San Jose or Silicon Valley - the "Unabomber" is feeling pretty proud of himself right now.

He's outsmarted hundreds of the finest investigators that federal and local law enforcement agencies have assigned to him. They have set up a special task force of 30 agents in San Francisco to work on his case full time: agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, top inspectors from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, homicide detectives from California to New Jersey. Fifty more FBI agents have been called in to help the task force for two months.

He's terrorized thousands of people for nearly two decades.

He's manipulated the New York Times into publishing his taunts - "The FBI is a joke" - and he's even managed to blast his way back into the headlines in the wake of the nation's worst mass killing, the truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Behavioral scientists with the FBI have described him as quiet and patient, probably as finicky about his yard as he is about his bomb-making; a man who would drive an older, well-maintained car rather than choose something flashy; an ideal neighbor who could be mixing up explosives in his garage next door and no one would know.

More important, he is the most dangerous kind of criminal: a man with a mission, a killer who will take or maim life to further his cause, a self-described anarchist who single-handedly wants to stop the technological revolution - and destroy "the worldwide industrial system" in his spare time.

The Unabomber even complained in a letter to the New York Times about "having to spend all your evenings and weekends preparing dangerous mixtures . . . or searching the sierras for a place isolated enough to test a bomb."

"A lot of these guys have never distinguished themselves through their careers or even their home lives, but they get a tremendous boost to their egos by their ability to succeed through killing or bombing," said James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston and co-author of "Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed."

"Not only by advancing their cause, not only by outsmarting the police but also by controlling the lives of thousands of people and ultimately dominating the press."

*** Sending oblique messages ***

After 17 years of trying to spell out his message obliquely through such symbols as wood and literary figures - a message he decided the FBI didn't get - the mysterious Unabomber apparently has grown tired of merely killing and maiming people to make his point. In four letters he mailed April 20, the same day as his most recent bomb, he revealed more information about himself and his motives than ever.

Suddenly, some of the thousands of clues and tips the Unabomb task force has been poring over are starting to make sense. The question is: Can they catch him in time?

The man the FBI dubbed the Unabomber - because his early targets appeared to be universities and airlines - said he will stop his reign of terror if the New York Times, Time or Newsweek will publish his 29,000- to 37,000-word manifesto.

Since he's already killed three people and injured 22 others, no one has any doubt he'll strike again if they don't.

"I know a lot about publish or perish here in the academic world, but we never meant it to be literal," Fox said. "He's feeling a lot bolder, a lot more invincible. He's saying, 'You can't catch me.' "

The bomber even managed to add his trademark twist in what the FBI has called a "snide sense of humor." The cover of Gelernter's book on parallel programming reads, "Mirror Worlds Or: The Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox." The bomb that killed Gilbert Murray was sent in a shoebox-sized package. Murray, who was killed April 24, was president of the California Forestry Association, a lobbyist for the timber industry in California.

*** It's just a hobby ***

"I think it's like a hobby with him, when he gets going on it," said Chris Ronay, former head of the FBI's forensics lab who worked on the Unabomb case for nearly 16 years before retiring to head the Institute of Makers of Explosives.

"I think he enjoys it almost to the point where he really gets his kicks on this thing. If he's got a job, I think it's something he does when he comes home at night and he plays with it, just like somebody would go to the basement and tie flies."

The Unabomber first started dropping clues in 1978: 10 $1 Eugene O'Neill stamps placed on his first bomb, a package bomb left in a parking lot at Northwestern University in Illinois.

On the second, he glued short pieces of unfinished wood the size of a finger on the outside of a bomb left in the commons of the Technology Institute at Northwestern.

By the time he mailed a book bomb to Percy Wood, then-president of United Airlines, he was starting to lay out his battle plan. Investigators didn't grasp it then, but the man now known as the Unabomber was announcing his one-man war of anarchy against technology and the industrialized world.

*** A fondness for wood ***

They knew he had a fondness for wood; it's the one common theme throughout all of his bombings. Wooden boxes, wooden dowels, wooden initiators for the bombs. Names or addresses with wood in them, such as Percy Wood in Lake Forest. That was the easy part.

Only now, with the help of his own letters, is some of the other symbolism starting to make sense.

For instance, when he mailed a book bomb to Percy Wood in 1980, the bomber enclosed this note: "You will find it of great social significance."

The book was "Ice Brothers" published by Arbor House, whose symbol is a tree leaf. The author, Sloan Wilson, also wrote "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," which, one 1959 biography said, "was the definitive epithet for the commuting suburbanite, the status-hungry conformist from Madison Avenue."

And he used more Eugene O'Neill stamps, first issued in 1967, to mail it, even though a different $1 stamp had replaced that one the year before. O'Neill, an ardent and vocal supporter of anarchists, is the only U.S. playwright to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

*** The arts, not the sciences ***

The Unabomber apparently considers literature a worthy category for a Nobel Prize, unlike biotechnology, which helped two Massachusetts scientists win the 1993 Nobel Prize for Medicine. In letters to them last month, he ordered them to stop their work or risk his wrath.

Home for the bomber is Northern California. He could be almost anyone, his bombs enclosed in almost anything. They arrive in such innocent-looking packages.

It's taken all this time for the bomber to explain that and other attacks. In his letter last month to the Times, he said he wanted to set the record straight.

"Some news reports have made the misleading statement that we have been attacking universities or scholars," the bomber wrote. "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.

"The people we are out to get are the scientists and the engineers."

When he first started killing, it was hard to tell who he was after.

Detective Bob Bell had been assigned to the homicide unit of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department for less than a year when he was dispatched to Rentech Computer Rental on Dec. 11, 1985.

The body already had been removed, but Bell could tell driving up this was "a new kind of murder scene." Like most homicide detectives, he was used to a confined murder scene, inside an apartment or a house, on a street corner or even a spot in a field.

Here, most of the evidence had been projected away from the victim, and a 20-mph wind that cold December morning had further strewn what bomb fragments were left. Bell's supervisor, Lt. Ray Biondi, shared what little information he had. Together, they would fill 17 loose-leaf binders with tips and clues, ruminations and projections.

Hugh Campbell Scrutton, 38, owner of the computer store, had been on his way to an appointment about noon when he stepped out the back door and saw a crumpled brown paper bag on the ground in front of him.

It was an ordinary grocery bag, just large enough to hold a half-gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs. A dumpster was immediately to his left, and Scrutton bent down to pick up the bag, probably to throw it away.

When he did, a pipe bomb hidden inside exploded into his chest, carving a gaping path. Most of his right hand, tiny pieces of tissue and bone, was embedded in a nearby wall.

*** An initial encounter ***

Two initials were engraved on a piece of shrapnel, part of the bomb designed to survive the explosion: FC. Those initials had appeared on his bombs before.

Until the Unabomber revealed in 1993 that he was the man behind FC, which he claimed was an anarchistic group of people, not just one lone bomber, those initials had been a little secret with the bomber and law enforcement.

Investigators always had assumed FC stood for "F-- Computers." Now, many other anarchistic meanings are being considered. Could it be "Fear Change"? "Fear Chaos"? Or - given how long the bomber took to reveal his motives - "Future Chaos"?

He changed his calling card anyway. After revealing he was FC, the Unabomber enclosed a nine-digit number authorities could use in the future to verify any bombs or letters from him.

When he disappeared for six years, the first task force formed to catch him was disbanded. Detectives believe he went into hiding after a witness spotted him leaving a device in the parking lot of a computer store in Salt Lake City in 1987. That has been the only known sighting of him.

The witness described him as white, about 5 feet 10 inches tall, with reddish-blond hair and a thin mustache. She thought he was in his mid-30s to early 40s.

No one saw him when he resurfaced in 1993. But after he struck twice in June of that year, a new, bigger task force was created. Its investigators have looked at thousands of suspects, loaded more than 12 million bits of information into high-powered computers and spent months tracking the vaguest of leads, often all they had to go on.

"Everybody wants to talk to this guy when we catch him," said Paul Snabel, special agent in charge of ATF's San Francisco office. "On one hand, we seem to have a lot of evidence. But on the other, we just seem to keep struggling. The permutations are endless."

At the moment, they're investigating dozens of potential suspects in the Bay area alone.

*** Waiting for a misstep ***

Even with the $1 million reward offered for information leading to his arrest, investigators know their best hope still lies with the bomber.

"If he makes a mistake and ends up hurting himself and getting in a hospital, or a neighbor says, 'Hey, I heard a bang' or 'This guy's suspicious,' that's what most likely is going to solve this kind of case," said Ronay, who worked at the FBI's lab for the majority of the Unabomber's career.

In the meantime, scientists in the high-tech world can't help but wonder who will be next. And everyone from computer hackers to computer executives has wondered why the Unabomber has not struck in Silicon Valley, birthplace of the personal computer.

"It's a reasonable question," said FBI Special Agent Rick Smith, spokesman for the task force.

"Nobody knows."