Unabomber Ted Kaczynski

Mailed Bombs to Unsuspecting Victims for 18 Years Before Being Caught

The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski
American domestic terrorist, luddite, and mathematics teacher Ted Kaczynski sits and poses during an interview in a visiting room at the Federal ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, August 30, 1999. (Photo by Stephen J. Dubner/Getty Images)

On April 3, 1996, the FBI arrested reclusive former college professor Theodore Kaczynski at his cabin in rural Montana for his role in a series of bombings that killed three and injured 23. Acting on a tip from Kaczynski's brother David, authorities had zeroed in on Kaczynski as the long-sought "Unabomber," responsible for 16 bombings over an 18-year period.

The arrest was the culmination of a years-long manhunt that involved the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Authorities had amassed thousands of pieces of evidence over the years, and spent nearly $50 million in their quest to find the bomber.

In the end, it was the publication of Kaczynski's 78-page "Unabomber Manifesto" that would lead to his arrest.

Kaczynski's Past

Theodore Kaczynski was born in Illinois on May 22, 1942. Extremely bright and gifted in mathematics, Kaczynski was accepted at Harvard at the age of 16. Yet even from an early age, he was socially awkward and had difficulty fitting in.

During his years at Harvard, Kaczynski—aloof and unsociable—became further isolated from others and more estranged from his family.

While at Harvard, Kaczynski also became part of a highly unethical study conducted by psychologist Henry Murray. Participants were subjected to harsh treatment by graduate students who belittled them and insulted them, hoping to provoke a reaction. Kaczynski's mother had given consent for her underage son to participate, under the mistaken assumption that he would benefit from psychological intervention.

After graduating in 1962, Kaczynski enrolled at the University of Michigan to pursue a graduate degree in mathematics.

A brilliant scholar, Kaczynski earned his PhD by the age of 25. He was hired as an assistant math professor at the University of California at Berkeley but resigned from the position after only two years. Unhappy in his work and incapable of developing any relationships, Kaczynski decided to build a cabin in a remote area and "live off the land."

In 1971, with the financial help of his brother David, Kaczynski purchased a plot of land just outside the small town of Lincoln, Montana. He built a small cabin that had neither plumbing nor electricity.

Kaczynski worked a variety of small jobs, making just enough money to get by on. During the harsh Montana winters, Kaczynski relied upon a small wood-burning stove for heat. His parents and brother, resigned to Kaczynski's reclusive lifestyle, sent him money at intervals.

All of those countless hours spent alone gave Kaczynski ample time to brood about people and things that angered him. He became convinced that technology was evil, and he must put a stop to it. Thus began one man's campaign to systematically rid the world of people who had a role in promoting or developing technology.

The Bombings at Northwestern University

The first bombing took place on May 25, 1978. An engineering professor at Northwestern University in Illinois received a returned package from the post office. But because he had not sent the package in the first place, the professor became suspicious and called campus security.

The security guard opened up the benign-looking package, only to have it explode in his hands. Luckily, his injuries were minor.

Constructed of simple materials such as rubber bands, match heads, and nails, the bomb appeared amateurish. Investigators found no clues as to who might have sent the bomb and eventually dismissed it as a prank.

A year later, on May 9, 1979, a second bomb went off at Northwestern when a graduate student opened a box that had been left in the Technological Institute. Fortunately, his injuries were not severe. That second bomb, a pipe bomb made of common materials such as batteries and matches, was slightly more sophisticated than the first.

Authorities did not connect the two bombings.

American Airlines Bombing Attempt

The next would-be bombing took place in an entirely new setting—on an airplane. On November 15, 1979, American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago to Washington DC was forced to land when a fire was detected in its cargo hold.

Investigators found that the fire had been caused by a crude pipe bomb placed in a mailbag. The bomb might have torn a hole in the plane and caused it to crash but fortunately, it had malfunctioned, resulting in only a small fire. Twelve people were treated for smoke inhalation.

The FBI was called in to investigate. Upon questioning police authorities in Chicago (where the plane had originated), FBI agents learned that a similar bomb had been used in one of the Northwestern bombings.

Examining remnants of the earlier bombs, investigators found similarities. They concluded that the same person who had made the airplane bomb had also made the two bombs from Northwestern.

Once the connection was established, investigators tried to find out what the victims or potential victims had in common. They could find no links, however. Victims appeared to be random.

Patterns Emerge

The bomb that went off on June 10, 1980, dispelled the notion that the bombings were random. United Airlines executive Percy Wood received a package in the mail addressed to him at his home. When he opened up the book he found inside, it exploded, injuring his hands, legs, and face.

Investigators reasoned that Wood was a target because he was part of the airline industry (in light of the airplane bomb from the previous year), although they could not determine why he specifically was chosen.

Based upon the bomber's apparent targets, the FBI came up with a code name for him: "Unabomber." "U-N" referred to universities and "A" to airlines.

Other patterns emerged as subsequent bombings occurred. As universities continued to be targets, authorities noticed that the bombs were sent to departments related to computers and technology. It appeared that the bomber must have had a reason to be targeting people involved in those particular areas of study.

More University Bombings

In October 1981, a bomb planted outside a computer classroom at the University of Utah was defused before it could go off.

In May 1982, the bomb's recipient was not so lucky. The secretary of a computer science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee was severely injured when she opened the package for her boss.

Whoever was making the bombs was clearly getting better at making them more effective.

Twice, bombs were sent to engineering professors at UC Berkeley, in 1982 and in 1985. In each instance, the man opening the package was severely injured. Also in 1985, a University of Michigan professor and his assistant were badly injured by a package bomb. None of the victims in any of these incidents could imagine who would want to harm or kill them.

Notably, the 1985 bombings came after a quiet three-year period during which no bombs were known to have been sent.

The bomber sent a package bomb to the Boeing Company in Washington State in June 1985. The bomb was discovered in the mail room and disarmed by authorities before it detonated. Boeing was targeted presumably because the company produced airliners and other high-tech items.

The First Death

In December 1985, the inevitable first death occurred. Sacramento computer store owner Hugh Scrutton found what he thought to be a block of wood in his store parking lot. When he picked it up, it triggered a powerful explosion, killing him almost instantly. The Unabomber had obviously become more skilled at his craft, making more sophisticated—and deadly—bombs.

In February 1987, a bomb was sent to another computer-related target. Gary Wright, the owner of a computer store in Salt Lake City, Utah, was badly injured by a bomb blast from what appeared at first to be a bag full of boards and nails.

On the morning of the Utah bombing, a secretary working at Wright's company had spotted a suspicious man in the parking lot. She described to police a tall, Caucasian man wearing sunglasses and a gray hooded sweatshirt. The sketch made from her description became the iconic wanted poster for the Unabomber.

Following the Salt Lake City bombing, the Unabomber took a long hiatus from his project for some reason. No further bombings were attributed to him for another six years.

Two More Fatalities

It became obvious that the Unabomber was back in business by June 1993. In that month, two academics were targeted by the bomber: a professor of genetics at the University of California at San Francisco, and a computer scientist at Yale University. Luckily, both survived their injuries.

The Unabomber's next victim would not be as fortunate as the previous two. On December 10, 1994, advertising executive Thomas Mosser was killed at his New Jersey home by a powerful bomb that contained nails and razor blades. Investigators could not figure out why Mosser was targeted, but they were sure that the bomb was the work of the Unabomber.

Four months later, on April 24, 1995, the most powerful bomb to date killed Gilbert Murray, the president of the California Forestry Association (CFA), in Sacramento. The blast was so violent, it heavily damaged the office building where Murray was killed, even tearing doors off their hinges.

Examining the evidence, investigators again concluded that the bomb was the handiwork of the Unabomber.

Publication of the Unabomber's Manifesto

In the 1990s, the bomber began sending long, rambling letters out to various newspapers and to several scientists. In them, he claimed that the bombings were the work of his anarchist group, called "FC" for Freedom Club.

In April 1995, the bomber sent his most revealing letter yet to the New York Times, explaining why he had chosen his targets. They were all somehow connected to technical fields. His goal was to expose the evils of technology to the world.

The bomber then demanded that prominent newspapers publish his 35,000-word manifesto, threatening to continue his bombings if his wishes were not granted. After much discussion with the FBI, publishers of the New York Times and the Washington Post made the controversial decision to publish the manifesto.

On September 19, 1995, an eight-page insert was sent out by both newspapers. It was also published on the internet.

The article, titled "Industrial Society and its Future," was a lengthy, rambling condemnation of technology in modern society.

Linda Patrik, the wife of Kaczynski's brother David, was one of many who read the manifesto. Alarmed by the writing style and some of the familiar language used by the writer, she urged her husband to read it. Both agreed that it was very possible that David's brother Ted was the Unabomber.

After much soul-searching, David Kaczynski went to the authorities in January 1996.

Kaczynski Is Arrested

Investigators painstakingly researched Kaczynski's background. They found that he had ties to some of the universities involved in the bombings, and could even prove he had been in some of the cities at the time of the bombings.

Armed with sufficient evidence, the FBI took Kaczynski into custody without incident on April 3, 1996. Inside his small, dark cabin, they found plenty of hard evidence, including chemicals, metal pipes, and even a list of future victims. A completed bomb was found under his bed, all wrapped up and seemingly ready to be mailed.

An Insanity Defense

In view of the abundance of evidence against Kaczynski, his attorneys knew that he would likely be convicted for his crimes. They opted for an insanity defense and had Kaczynski evaluated by a psychiatrist. Kaczynski was found to be clearly delusional and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

The trial opened on January 5, 1998, in a Sacramento, California court. Kaczynski was uncooperative from the start, vehemently denying that he was mentally ill. He demanded that his attorneys be fired, but his request was denied.

Two days later, Kaczynski attempted to hang himself in his cell. He was not seriously injured, and the trial resumed the next day.

Kaczynski insisted that he wanted to defend himself, but the judge wouldn't allow that without a second psychiatric evaluation to determine competence. The second psychiatrist, while acknowledging that Kaczynski was schizophrenic, believed that he was competent to stand trial. She cautioned, however, that his illness would make it very difficult to make any progress in the trial.

This proved to be the case, as Kaczynski's demand to represent himself brought the trial to a halt on January 22, the first day it resumed.

Frustrated with their client, Kaczynski's attorneys begged him to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty.

A Guilty Plea

Eventually, Kaczynski's attorneys convinced him to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without any chance of parole. Prosecutors consulted families of the victims, who agreed this was fair.

On May 4, 1998, Kaczynski was sentenced to four life terms in prison and ordered to pay millions of dollars to the victims—money which he did not have. His brother David, who had turned him in and was therefore eligible for the reward money of one million dollars, gave half of that money to the victims and used the other half to pay Ted's legal fees.

Ted Kaczynski has been incarcerated since 1998 at a maximum-security federal prison in Florence, Colorado. He refuses to have any communication whatsoever with his brother David.

Although he appears to have adjusted to the daily routine in prison, Kaczynski has claimed that he would have preferred execution over life in prison.


  • The Unibomber Trial: The Manifesto. The Washington Post, WP Company.