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Unabomber Research

A bizarre psychological experiment and the events leading to his capture.

by John Phillips, October 09, 2017

I binge-watched Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix recently. It’s a dramatic retelling of the FBI’s hunt for the Unabomber. I enjoyed the show, but it was obvious that they took some liberties with the facts. Which made me curious about the actual events. So I did some research. Much of what I’m covering here comes from the search warrant that the FBI obtained to search Ted Kaczynski’s cabin.

Early Life, Education and Academics

Ted Kaczynski was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1942. The family later moved to the nearby suburb of Evergreen Park. Ted had an IQ of 167 and skipped the fifth and eleventh grades. He was a shy, geeky kid. He felt isolated from his peers because he was smaller, younger and smarter. He felt pressured by his parents to excel at school. He felt like his achievement became kind of a ‘trophy’ for the family.

Ted entered Harvard in 1958 at the age of sixteen, on a scholarship. After graduating with a BA in Mathematics, he attended the University of Michigan, where he earned both his Masters and PhD in Mathematics. His doctoral dissertation won an award and was well received. He had articles published in mathematical journals while he pursued his Masters, which is unusual.

In 1967, at the age of 25, he became an assistant professor of Mathematics at UC Berkeley, the youngest person to ever hold such a position. But he taught and published at Berkeley for just two years before he abruptly quit at the end of June in 1969.

The Cabin in the Woods

In 1970, he and his brother David bought a 1.4 acre plot of land outside Lincoln, Montana. Each of the brothers put up $1,050 to buy the property. Shortly thereafter, Ted built a small one-room cabin on the land. It measured ten by twelve feet and had no electricity or running water. He would live in this cabin alone, off an on, for nearly 26 years. We know he periodically travelled via Greyhound bus to Chicago, to Salt Lake City, as well as Oakland and Sacramento California. We know this because he placed bombs in these cities, or mailed bombs from them. Imagine Ted Kaczynski riding a Greyhound bus from Montana to Oakland with a homemade bomb in his pack.

In 1972 or 73, he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked for a general contractor there for about six months, before returning to the cabin in Montana.

Ted Kaczynski also lived in Chicago for parts of 1978 and 79. He moved in with his parents, and worked for a company called Foam Cutting Engineers. His father worked there and his brother, David, was a supervisor. He went on a couple of dates with a woman who worked there. After she broke it off, Ted was heartbroken. He wrote an insulting limerick about her and posted copies around the factory. Reports differ as to whether David fired him, or merely delivered the news, but after this incident Ted no longer worked there.

He also worked briefly for a restaurant equipment company, from August or September of 1978 thru the summer of 1979.

He started bombing while he lived and worked in Chicago in 1978 and 1979. His first bomb was left in the parking lot of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois in May of 1978. His next was left at Northwestern University in May of 1979. His third was mailed from Chicago in November of 1979. According to this article by the New York Times, these first bombs were likely made in shed behind his parent’s home in Lombard, Illinois.

The Murray Experiments at Harvard

While at Harvard, Ted was recruited into a psychological experiment run by Henry A. Murray, a psychologist who worked with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. (The OSS was a predecessor to the CIA. )

Participants in the study were told to write an essay about their philosophy of life. They were encouraged to explore their innermost thoughts and desires in the essay. Nothing was off limits, not even sexual fantasies. They were told they would meet with another undergraduate student to debate the essay after it was written, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, the subjects were taken into a dark room with bright lights shining in their eyes. Each was strapped into a chair and had electrodes attached, to record their vital signs. They were facing a one-way mirror. Each was interrogated by a “law school student who had been prepped to tear into the student and to mock and ridicule their ideas and their values,” according to Chase. Again according to Chase, Murray himself described these sessions as “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive.”

The sessions were filmed thru the mirror, and the students had to come back a review these films weekly for three years. Imagine having to relive such an experience, over and over. And Ted Kaczynski was the youngest subject, just seventeen at the start of the experiment.

The details of the experiment are covered in this CBS News article and this Radiolab episode. Alton Chase is the primary source quoted by both.

What was the point of this immoral experiment? It’s not entirely clear. Probably it was about understanding the extreme stress people go thru during interrogations and how to resist it. The experiment was likely a continuation of the work on stress that Murray did with the OSS during the war.

How much did this contribute to Ted Kaczynski becoming the Unabomber? It’s hard to say.

Most people assume that Kaczynski was crazy because he looked crazy when he was arrested. With that wild mane of unkept hair and shaggy beard, he looked every inch the mad bomber. But he wasn’t that kind of crazy. He was a careful, meticulous planner. He was organized and his writing, particularly the manifesto, is scholarly and reasoned, pretty much the opposite of a rant. Many of his bombs were left in public places where they would be discovered. Most of these were disguised to look like everyday objects, or wooden debris. That’s the kind of crazy Ted was: diabolical.

Retired FBI agent Kathleen Puckett, one of the few people to read nearly all of Kaczynski’s writings, thinks skipping grades had more to do with it. She says, “Kaczynski wrote that he was a social cripple, that his parents had destroyed his life by moving him two grades, how lonely he felt and how angry he was that he couldn’t relate to people…” Ted never had serious relationship with a woman.

Ted shares this opinion. He was bitter about being forced to skip graded and spend much of his time studying. In his “manifesto”, Kaczynski wrote:

“It isn’t natural for an adolescent human being to spend the bulk of his time sitting at a desk absorbed in study. A normal adolescent wants to spend his time in active contact with the real world.”

This is one of several references to young men being forced to study. The passages stand out because they seem rather out of place in what is an otherwise scholarly critique of society after the industrial revolution. The manifesto is formatted like a dissertation, and it reads like one.

David Kaczynski says that while Ted never told the family about the experiments, that he became more isolated, withdrawn and defensive while at Harvard.

The targets of his bombs are also telling. His first two bombs were left on college campuses in Chicago and Evanston. He would later target the Mathematics building at UC Berkeley, leaving two bombs in different rooms there. And he mailed a bomb to Dr. James McConnell at the University of Michigan. He targeted two universities in his home town, and every university he attended or worked at except Harvard. He targeted nine universities and professors. If he were a lunatic, angered and warped by the experiment, wouldn’t he target Harvard?

It’s probably impossible to know how much of an effect the experiment had on Ted Kaczynski and how much it affected him. It certainly did not help him feel less isolated.

The Unabomber

Between May 26, 1978 and April 24, 1995, over a period of seventeen years, Ted Kaczynski built sixteen bombs. Some were mailed, others were placed in locations where they would be easily discovered. They killed three people and injured 23 others.

Kaczynski was meticulous. He went to great lengths to avoid leaving any clues to his identity. His bombs were essentially made out of junk: bits of pipe, batteries, wire, rubber bands, nails, screws, staples and various kinds of tape. Many of the devices were packed in hand-built wooden boxes that were assembled using glue made from melted deer hooves. No way to trace any those components. He pulled the plastic covers off the batteries to remove any lot numbers or other identifying information. He cut the manufacturers name off the mailing labels affixed to the packages. No finger prints were discovered on any of the explosive devices, nor any of the letters he mailed as “FC”, the alias he used.

The Manifesto & Other Writings

On June 24, 1993, fifteen years after his first bombing, Kaczynski sent a letter to Warren Hoge, Assistant Managing Editor of The New York Times. It was mailed from Sacramento on the same day as his thirteenth and fourteenth bombs. The letter claimed to be from an anarchist group calling themselves “FC”. It was the first letter to use this alias. It contained “an identifying number that will ensure the authenticity of any future communication from us…,” 553-25-4394. Subsequent letters reference this number. He appears to be opening a new front in his war. He begins to use the media to reach the public. He is trying to persuade as well as kill.

The letter said that the FBI was aware of “the group’s” identity. The initials “FC” were found stamped on bomb components in many of his bombs. He was conducting experiments back in Montana. He knew these components would survive the explosions and that FBI had likely found the initials “FC” in the remains of at least some of his bombs.

By 1995 he was more of letter writer than bomber. Many of the letters sent as “FC” lay the groundwork for publishing his manifesto. After being so careful not to leave any clues that could be traced back to him, the Unabomber starts a letter writing campaign to get his manifesto published. Ultimately, this led to his arrest.

The so-called manifesto is a 35,000 word essay entitled “Industrial Society and Its Future” that runs to approximately 65 single-spaced, typed pages. It was eventually published by the Washington Post. It is a dense, readable, scholarly critique of society and the perils of technology.

According to the search warrant, envelopes containing the manifesto were postmarked June 24, 1995 and had been mailed from San Francisco, California. They arrived at The Washington Post on June 27 and at The New York Times on June 28.

In addition to the manifesto, each envelope contained a letter outlining a bargain. If the manuscript were published according to the conditions specified, all terrorist activities would cease. The letter distinguishes between terrorism (violence directed at people) from sabotage (violence against property). The former would stop, but the latter would continue. The details of this bargain come from a second letter sent to Warren Hoge at The New York Times in April of 1995.

Kaczynski also sent a copy of his manifesto to Penthouse Magazine. It was mailed at the same time as the copies sent to the Post and the Times, and had the same San Francisco postmark. Why send it to Penthouse? According to the search warrant, the magazine had earlier offered “to publish a manuscript from FC” in exchange for the group’s promise to “desist from terrorism”.

There are a couple of odd things here. Apparently Penthouse Magazine came up with the idea to publish something in exchange for a stop to the bombings. Also, the Unabomber read Penthouse? How else would he know about the offer? Maybe the search warrant has this wrong, but it’s still odd.

And the conditions of the bargain were different if Penthouse was the only outlet to publish the manuscript. In this case, “the group” would send one additional bomb, “intended to kill, AFTER our manuscript has been published.” This was framed as incentive to get the manifesto published in the Times or the Post.

Altogether “FC” sent 11 letters, beginning with the one sent to the Times on June 24, 1993 and ending with a set of six letters mailed on June 24, 1995. This last set included the various copies of the manifesto, as well as a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, one to the Scientific American and another sent to Dr. Tom Tyler of the Social Psychology Group at University of California, Berkeley. This letter to Dr. Tyler also contained a copy of the manifesto. The letter to the the San Francisco Chronicle contained a threat to blow up an airplane out of LAX in the next six days. This threat was dubbed a “prank” in the letter that was sent to the Times. Both letters were mailed on the same day, and arrived on successive days to the Chronicle and then to the Times.

Kaczynski sent three other letters to individuals, all sent on April 20, 1995. Nearly identical letters were sent to Dr. Phillip A. Sharp and Dr. Richard J. Roberts, warning that “It would be beneficial to your health to stop your research in genetics.” Dr Sharp was in the Biology Department at M.I.T. and Dr. Roberts worked at New England Biolabs in Beverly, Massachusetts. This is a pretty pure form or terrorism, a letter from a known bomber with a mob-style veiled threat: “Be a shame if something happened to you.”

The last letter, sent to Dr. David Gelernter, may be the most disturbing. Dr. Gelernter was the victim of one of Kaczynski’s last bombs, and the letter basically mocks him for opening a package from an unknown source. The bomb nearly killed him. It damaged his right eye and cost him the use of his right hand. It appears that Kaczynski was trying to get the Dr. Gelernter to retire. It did not work.

Recognition & Capture

In the TV show, Manhunt: Unabomber, FBI special agent James R. Fitzgerald, has to convince David Kaczynski to turn his brother in. Agent Fitzgerald also has to convince his superiors to publish the manifesto. Lastly he does much of the linguistic work comparing the Unabomber’s letters to those of Ted Kaczynski, which is a major focus of the search warrant.

In reality, things were pretty different. The first person to strongly suspect that Ted was the Unabomber was Linda Patrik, David Kaczynski’s wife.

Linda never met Ted, she knew him only from the letters he wrote and from David’s stories. But she began to suspect that Ted might be the Unabomber in the summer of 1995, when the FBI began to release information to the public, in response to the flurry of letter sent by the Unabomber. This was before the manifesto was published in September of 1995.

In an article published on the Union College website, she says that when she read the manifesto, “I knew as soon as I saw it that it was Ted who had written it.” David, however, was not yet convinced.

After reading the manifesto, David started looking at letters Ted had written. In one, the phrase “cool-headed logician” appears. This phase also appears in the manifesto. Additionally, he found a letter written in approximately 1971 that had substantially the same anti-technology message as the manifesto. Together, they spent about a month comparing Ted’s letter to the manifesto. David was distraught. To say nothing might endanger innocent lives. But if he told the authorities about his concerns, he was afraid Ted would be killed either during his arrest or by the government seeking the death penalty.

They contacted a Susan Swanson, a close childhood friend of Linda’s, who now worked as a private investigator. Without mentioning the Unabomber, they asked her how to analyze someone’s writing. Susan put them in touch with Clint Van Zandt, a retired FBI agent and criminal profiler who specialized in document comparisons.

They gave Van Zandt the 1971 letter and the manifesto. He concluded that there was a 40 to 60% chance that the same person had written both. They had agreed that anything over 25% would be enough to convince them. They contacted the FBI thru a lawyer and shared their belief that Ted Kaczynski was the Unabomber.

They were supposed to remain confidential, but news that David had turned in his brother leaked in early April of 1996, when Ted was arrested and the cabin searched.

The search warrant for Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana is pretty fascinating. It outlines a chronology of events, listing all the bombs and the letters sent by “FC”. It argues that the typewriter used to address the mailing labels on several bombs is the same typewriter used to type the letters and the manifesto. The next section of the warrant establishes how David Kaczynski came to believe that his brother was the Unabomber. David makes geographic connections between the bombs and places Ted lived. It also provides a detailed look at the similarities between the 1971 letter and the manifesto, the same evidence that convinced David of his brother’s guilt.

A mountain of evidence against Ted Kaczynski was found in the the cabin: bomb components, hand-written journals detailing bomb-making experiments, a live bomb and the original typed manuscript of the manifesto.

Chronology of Bombs

#1 May 26, 1978 - Chicago, Illinois
This bomb was hand delivered. It was left at the Chicago Campus of the University of Illinois in the Engineering Building parking lot. It had a return address of Professor Buckley Crist at Northwestern University (NWU) in Evanston, Illinois. It was returned to the Professor Crist, who was suspicious because he hadn’t sent it. He gave it to NWU Public Safety and an officer was slightly injured when opening the package. The officer was lucky to escape serious injury.

#2 May 9, 1979 - Evanston, Illinois
This bomb was also hand delivered. It was left in room 2424 of the Technical Building of NWU in Evanston. John Harris, a member of the Civil Engineering Department, opened the cigar box containing the bomb. It exploded inflicting numerous lacerations and burns to Harris, altho Wikipedia describes the injuries as minor.

#3 November 15. 1979 - Chicago, Illinois
Mailed from Chicago, this device had a crude altimeter as a trigger. It exploded on board an American Airlines Boeing 727, carrying both mail and passengers. Eighteen people were treated for smoke inhalation, but there were no serious injuries.

#4 June 10, 1980 - Lake Forrest, Illinois
This bomb was mailed to the President of United Airlines, Percy Wood. This one is a bit diabolical. A letter was sent a letter to Mr Wood, purportedly from one Enoch Fischer. The fictional Mr Fisher said he would be sending a book shortly, “Ice Brothers” by Sloan Wilson, because the book had “great social significance.” A few days later, on June 10, the bomb arrived in a hollowed out copy of the book. Mr Wood was seriously injured, with lacerations to his face and leg, when he opened it. The device contained a small metal tag stamped with the initials “FC”. It was the first bomb to contain these initials.

#5 October 8, 1981 - Salt Lake City, Utah
The bomb was left in the Bennion Hall Business Building on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. A student discovered the package and alerted the campus police. The campus police, worried it might be bomb, brought in the Salt Lake City Police. Their bomb squad x-rayed the package, confirmed it was a bomb, and disabled it with a small explosive charge. The bomb also contained a metal tag stamped with the initials “FC”.

#6 May 5, 1982 - Nashville, Tennessee
This bomb was mailed from the BYU campus post office in Provo, Utah. It was addressed to Professor Patrick C. Fischer at Pennsylvania State University. It was forwarded by a secretary there to Vanderbilt University, where Fisher then worked. He had been the chair of the Computer Science department since 1980. The professor was out of the country and it was opened by his secretary, Janet Smith. The device exploded inflicting serious injuries to her face and arms. It contained a metal tag stamped with the initials “FC”.

#7 July 2, 1982 - Berkeley, California
The bomb was left in Room 411 of the Cory Hall Mathematics Building on the campus of University of California at Berkeley. Professor Diogenes Angelakos discovered the device which exploded when he attempted to pick it up. He suffered serious injuries to his right hand, arm, and face. This bomb contained a note with the typed message, “Wu— It works! I told you it would. —RV”. This was apparently a false clue, a red herring, left to confuse investigators.

The first seven bombs used smokeless powder, a type of gun powder, as the explosive. All but the first two had nails, screws or staples added to cause addition damage when the bomb exploded.

Beginning with the eighth bomb, Kaczynski switches to using more powerful explosive compounds. The bombs are also designed to produce more shrapnel.

#8 May 15, 1985 - Berkeley, California
Another diabolical one, this bomb was left in Room 264 of the Cory Hall Computer Science Building on the Berkeley Campus. This device looked like a three ring binder resting on a plastic file box. It was discovered by Air Force Captain John Hauser and it exploded when he opened the binder to look inside. Captain Hauser lost four fingers from his right hand and some vision in his left eye. The bomb had the initials “FC” stamped into one of the end plugs sealing a pipe containing the explosives.

#9 June 13, 1985 - Auburn, Washington
This bomb was mailed from Oakland California to the Boeing Aircraft Company, Fabrication Division in Auburn Washington. The bomb was not addressed to anyone so it sat for a while in the mail room. It was eventually, “partially opened by mail room employees who discovered the enclosed device,” according to the search warrant. I’m not sure what “partially opened” means, but the bomb did not explode. The bomb had the initials “FC” stamped into both end plugs sealing a pipe containing the explosives.

#10 November 15, 1985 - Ann Arbor, Michigan
This bomb was mailed from Salt Lake City, Utah. It was addressed Dr. James V. McConnell at his home in Ann Arbor. Dr. McConnell was a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. The bomb was contained in a hollowed out ream of paper, and had an accompanying letter explaining that it was a manuscript for review. It was opened by Nick Suino, an assistant to Dr. McConnell. The bomb exploded injuring both Suino and McConnell. Suino suffered burns and shrapnel wounds to his arms and abdomen. McConnell suffered damage to his ear drum, resulting in temporary hearing loss. The bomb had the initials “FC” stamped into one of the end plugs sealing a pipe containing the explosives.

#11 December 11, 1985 - Sacramento, California
This bomb was left outside the back door of Rentech Computer Rental Company in Sacramento, California. It was disguised to look like a block of wood, with nails protruding from the ends. The bomb had the initials “FC” stamped into one of the end plugs sealing a pipe containing the explosives. The bomb exploded when the owner of the shop, Hugh Scrutton, attempted to move it. Mr Scrutton was killed by the explosion. He was the first person killed by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

#12 February 20, 1987 - Salt Lake City, Utah
This bomb was left in the parking lot of CAAMS, Inc, a computer store in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was disguised to look like two two-by-fours nailed together, with nails protruding from them. Gary Wright, the owner of the business, noticed the device in the parking lot. Afraid someone would run over it, he got out to move the device. It exploded, lacerating his arms, face and legs. The bomb had the initials “FC” stamped into one of the end plugs sealing a pipe containing the explosive.

A woman who worked for the company saw a man pull the device out of bag and leave it in the parking lot. As he left, the man saw her in the window. She became distracted by a telephone call or a conversation with a coworker and forgot about the man and the strange object until the explosion. She was able to give a police a description and is the source of the infamous Unabomber police sketch with the hoodie and the aviator sunglasses.

Perhaps spooked by being seen, the Unabomber took a six year break. His next bomb wasn’t mailed until 1993.

#13 June 22, 1993 - Tiburon, California
This bomb was mailed to Dr. Charles Epstein at his home in Tiburon, California. He was a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School. The bomb was mailed from Sacramento, California. It was sent in a padded envelope which contained a small box made of redwood. It exploded when the envelope was opened and Dr. Epstein was seriously injured. He had damage to both eardrums and lost three fingers.

#14 June 24, 1993 - New Haven, Connecticut
This bomb was identical to bomb #13. Both bombs were mailed from Sacramento, California on June 18, 1993. This one was addressed to Dr. David Gelernter at his office in the Computer Science Department of Yale University. It exploded when he opened the package on the morning of June 24, 1993. He sustained serious burns, shrapnel wounds, damage to his right eye and lost the use of his right hand.

#15 December 10. 1994 - North Caldwell, New Jersey
This bomb was mailed to Thomas Mosser at his home in North Caldwell, New Jersey, from San Francisco, California. Mosser was killed when he opened the package. His wife and infant daughter were in a nearby room and escaped injury because they were protected from the blast by a large stone fireplace.

The search warrant describes the bomb this way: “Double edged razor blades and numerous paneling nails, approximately 1” in length, were placed in the explosive device for additional shrapnel. It was designed to function as an anti-personnel device.”

The Unabomber explained in a letter sent to the New York Times, that Mosser was targeted because he handled PR for the Exxon Valdez incident. This is incorrect. Mosser and his company did not have any connection with Exxon Valdez.

#16 April 24, 1995 - Sacramento. California
This bomb was mailed from Oakland, California to William Dennison, at the offices of the Timber Association of California, in Sacramento. The trade group had changed its name to the California Forestry Association several years earlier, but was still at the same address. William Dennison was president and CEO of the association until 1994, when he was replaced by Gilbert B. Murray. Murray opened the package and was killed in the blast that knocked doors off their hinges and shattered glass partitions in the office.

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