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Austin bombings and the explosive echoes of the Unabomber

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 3/14/2018 Cleve Wootson

Ted Kaczynski smiling for the camera: Ted J. Kaczynski, in his April 3, 1996, booking photo. (Associated Press)

Ted J. Kaczynski, in his April 3, 1996, booking photo. (Associated Press)
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It’s been 22 years since FBI agents crept up to a cabin in secluded Montana woods and pulled out a thin man with graying blond hair, pages from a handwritten journal denouncing technology and a completed bomb ready to be mailed.

Neighbors called him “the hermit on the hill,” but history would forever remember his real name: Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whose 17-year rampage of mailed letter bombs killed three, wounded 23 and consumed the nation.

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Kaczynski is locked away at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., but the memory of his attacks was dredged up after a string of packages exploded at homes in Austin this week, killing two people and seriously wounding two more. No one has been arrested in the Texas bombings, and investigators haven’t identified a suspect, or a motive.

But a parcel exploding in the face of an unsuspecting recipient was a regular, terrifying occurrence during the 17 years between the Unabomber’s first package at the University of Chicago and the moment authorities announced his arrest.

Kaczynski was a child math prodigy who enrolled at Harvard in 1958 at age 16 and dropped out of society 11 years later, The Washington Post wrote after his arrest in 1996.

In between, he had studied math and physics, getting a doctorate in math from the University of Michigan in 1967 after writing his dissertation on a form of complex geometry known as boundary functions.

But he was also nursing an intense hatred of modern technology, which he claimed contributed to the growing alienation of people in society.

The Unabomber’s targets were people on the cutting edge of technological advances: a geneticist at the University of California at San Francisco, a professor of engineering and computer science at University of California at Berkeley, computer stores in Sacramento and Salt Lake City, the cargo hold of an airplane.

The targets became the basis for the acronym authorities used to identify him: UNABOM (UNiversity and Airline BOMber).

But the acronym, like almost every other investigative technique the bureau employed for more than a decade, did little to help unmask the Unabomber. The investigation became the most expensive the agency has ever undertaken.

As The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote: A long FBI manhunt had produced little more than a few bomb fragments, a sketch of a shadowy character in a hoodie and a clutch of theories about his identity, motives and whereabouts.

The break in the case came after the Unabomber got his manifesto published.

In 1995, he wrote a letter to The Washington Post and the New York Times demanding that they print the 35,000-word manifesto. If they did, the letter said, he would stop sending exploding packages to people and “desist from terrorism.” If they refused, he said, the killings would continue.

After meeting with law enforcement officials including Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, The Post published the document and the Times split the cost. The Post did so in a special section, and said the move was “for public safety reasons,” not journalistic ones.

It was a rambling essay that expounded on Kaczynski’s motives and what he saw as the ills of modern society.

“[M]odern man,” he wrote in the manifesto, “has the sense (largely justified) that change is IMPOSED upon him whereas the 19th century frontiersman had the sense (also largely justified) that he created change by himself.

“ … Modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations (explicit or implicit) that frustrate many of his impulses and thus interfere with the power process. Most of these regulations cannot be dispensed with, because they are necessary for the functioning of industrial society.”

Among the people who read the essay was David Kaczynski, the Unabomber’s younger brother. He recognized similarities between the Unabomber’s words and letters his older brother had sent to various newspapers. The younger brother hired a lawyer and contacted authorities.

Investigators surveilled the cabin in Montana.

Ted Kaczynski built it in 1970 or 1971, shortly after he dropped off the grid. It had no electricity or plumbing. He relieved himself in a cut-out section of the floor. He chopped wood to heat the home with a potbelly stove and ate deer he caught himself.

After his arrest, he accepted a plea deal and has been in prison ever since, though he has not completely dropped out of the society he once eschewed.

He’s published a book in which he says he’s not insane. The government and the U.S. Marshals Service has made money auctioning off his land and his belongings, including the gray hooded sweatshirt that was the basis for an eyewitness sketch.

And although he was unable to attend a recent Harvard reunion, he contributed an update to the registry, according to the New York Times.

In it, he lists his occupation as “prisoner” and his home address as “No. 04475-046, US Penitentiary — Max, P.O. Box 8500, Florence, CO 8126-8500.”

His old home, the cabin where he was captured, was set to be demolished shortly after he was captured.

It was instead purchased by the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., which put it on display — in a building just a few blocks from the FBI’s headquarters.

Ted Kaczynski objected to the display, according to the New York Daily News. He had seen an article about Newseum’s exhibit in The Washington Post and decided to mail a letter.

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