It’s late afternoon on May 25th, 1978 at Northwestern University in Illinois.
Campus security guard Terry Marker ambles through the halls of the university’s Technological Institute. When he reaches the door to the mailroom… he knocks and pushes inside. A cluster of faculty and administrative staff crowds around a central table. They fall silent as Terry enters looking a bit worried. Buckley Crist, an engineering professor, walks over and thanks Terry for coming. Then he shows the security guard the reason he called.
On the table in the middle of the room is a parcel. It’s about the size of a shoebox, wrapped in brown paper and plastered with ten one-dollar stamps. It’s addressed to an academic in New York, but the return label lists the sender as Professor Crist. Someone found the package in a parking lot across town and sent it back. But the professor knows nothing about the parcel. He insists it’s not his handwriting on the box and he doesn’t even know the person in New York it’s addressed to.
Somebody in the room jokes that it might be a bomb, and everyone laughs as Terry begins to peel away the brown paper wrapping…
Inside is a wooden box, seemingly carved by hand. Terry sets it down on the table and cautiously reaches for the lid. But as he opens it… a small burst of flame erupts from the box. Everyone in the mailroom lurches back as Terry gasps in pain, his left hand seared black. Professor Crist shouts for somebody to call 9-1-1, get an ambulance and tell them the university has been sent a bomb.
The device that exploded at Northwestern University was a crude one, made from common materials like matchsticks and rubber bands, old screws, and bent nails. The police investigate the strange attack. But other than the bomb itself, they can find no motive, no witnesses, and no clues.
This mail bomb marks the beginning of a nationwide campaign of terror by an unidentified culprit who will come to be known as the “Unabomber”. One year later, a second device will go off at Northwestern University, this time injuring a graduate student. And the frightening attacks will continue for almost two decades until the Unabomber is apprehended, and the terrorist’s identity is finally revealed, on April 3rd, 1996.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 3rd, 1996: The Arrest of the Unabomber.
Act One: The Campaign
It’s June 10th, 1980, sixteen years before the arrest of the Unabomber.
It’s a blistering hot summer’s day in a small town in Illinois, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Percy Wood, the President of United Airlines, saunters down the driveway of his home toward the road. A family rattles by on bicycles, heading for the nearby beach. Percy calls out “good morning” as he reaches his roadside mailbox. Inside, he finds a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
Percy turned 60 just a few days ago, so he assumes it’s a late birthday present and carries it back to the house. But when Percy opens the parcel in his kitchen, a powerful explosion goes off. A pipe bomb, hidden inside a book, flays Percy with shrapnel and burns him from head to toe. Soon, Percy is rushed to the hospital, and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation are left to figure out who is behind this attack.
Percy Wood is not the first member of the airline industry to be targeted by a mail bomb in recent months. Last November, an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington DC was arrowing through the skies over Virginia when a bomb exploded in its cargo hold. The cabin depressurized and filled with smoke, but the pilots completed an emergency landing and all 80 passengers and crew on board survived.
Now, the FBI agents on the case hope Percy will have similar luck. Back at the airline executive’s home, the FBI agents pick over the shattered remains of the bomb that maimed him. They find no fingerprints, clothing, or hair fibers that might help identify the perpetrator. But eventually, the agents make a connection between the Percy Wood attack, the American Airlines flight, and a third event - the bombings at Northwestern University.
Though the explosive device used against Percy Wood is more advanced, there are enough similarities in the handcrafted design and everyday materials to suggest that the same person was responsible for all three incidents. So, the FBI team comes up with a name for whoever is behind these attacks: the University and Airline bomber – or “Unabomber” for short.
The FBI offers a public reward of $5,000 for information about the bomber. And investigators look for more links between the university and the airlines, cross-referencing former employees, and searching for anyone who might bear a grudge. But they find nothing. And all the while, the mail bombs keep coming - each growing more sophisticated and powerful than the one before.
It’s five years later, in December 1985, in Sacramento, California.
Business owner Hugh Scrutton shivers in his winter coat as an icy wind cuts across the parking lot. The 38-year-old owns a small computer store in the strip mall behind him. He’s on his way to his car when he spots something on the ground behind a dumpster. It’s a block of wood, studded with sharp nails. Hugh worries that somebody could easily hurt themselves on it. So, he decides to move the block out of harm’s way.
But when he bends down to pick it up, Hugh sets off a large explosion. The block of wood is a booby trap - a powerful bomb packed with nails and sharp pieces of metal. Instantly, the bomb slices into Hugh’s body, blowing off his hand and shattering his right leg. He collapses to the ground as employees from other nearby stores rush out to the parking lot to help.
But it’s too late. There’s nothing anyone can do. By the time paramedics arrive on the scene, Hugh is already dead.
Since the Unabomber’s attack on Percy Wood in June 1980, six more mail bombs have targeted universities across America. The victims seem entirely random. A secretary in Tennessee. A Professor at Berkeley. A research assistant in Michigan. Some have been seriously injured. Several, like Percy Wood, suffered burns and shrapnel wounds. But more recently the Unabomber has started using more powerful explosives in his bombs. And that led to one victim losing several fingers, as well as most of the sight in his left eye. Now, the Unabomber’s latest cruel device has resulted in a fatality.
But the murder of Hugh Scrutton does little to change the course of the investigation. After seven years and eleven attacks, the FBI is no closer to finding the culprit. The parking lot in Sacramento offers investigators just as few clues as the previous crime scenes. And the FBI is so obsessed with secrecy that the bureau hasn’t even warned the public that a serial bomber is on the loose. There’s one more attack, in February 1987, on another computer store owner, this time in Salt Lake City. But the victim survives that bombing and there are no further attacks for the rest of the decade.
By 1993, the case has gone cold. Many FBI investigators cling to the hope that whoever’s responsible for these bombings has now died. But the Unabomber is still alive. And soon he will emerge once again to continue his campaign of violence with more deadly devices than ever before. The re-emergence of the Unabomber will finally force the FBI to break its silence and warn the public about the dangerous terrorist at large in America.
Act Two: The Manifesto
It’s the evening of June 25th, 1993 at an FBI press conference in San Francisco, California.
The bureau’s Director, William S. Sessions, takes the stage. The podium is bristling with microphones from local and national news stations. The Director has a big announcement to make. Clearing his throat, he begins to tell the gathered journalists what the Bureau knows about the terrorist known as the Unabomber.
It’s been six years since the Salt Lake City bombing, but this week the mysterious bomber broke his silence with two new attacks in quick succession. On June 22nd, 1993, a researcher at the University of California in San Francisco was injured by a bomb he received in the mail. Forty-eight hours later, another academic at Yale was almost killed in a second attack. That same day, a letter was delivered to the New York Times. It claimed to be from an anarchist group calling itself ‘FC’. The initials meant nothing to the journalists, but what they didn’t know was that those initials had been stamped on almost every device sent by the Unabomber.
It’s one of the many facts about the case that the FBI has kept secret - until now. Finally, decades after the bombing campaign began, the Bureau is going public with what they know. At the press conference in San Francisco, FBI Director Sessions asks for the nation’s help in tracking the Unabomber down. As a result of their public overture, the FBI task force investigating the matter soon receives hundreds of new tips. But the terrorist remains elusive. And two more fatal attacks follow in December 1994 and April 1995. And it’s then that the Unabomber decides to send out a different kind of parcel in the mail.
In late June 1995, in the mailroom of the Washington Post, a clerk sorts through bags of incoming letters. He pauses as he lifts a large, heavy parcel out of a sack addressed to one of the senior editors at the Post. The clerk files it away in the relevant mailbox and continues his work.
The parcel is from the Unabomber. But this time, it doesn’t contain a bomb but a manifesto. Its 35,000 words are a critique of technology and the modern world entitled ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’. The Unabomber claims that humankind has become enslaved to machines and that governments, big businesses, and scientists alike are destroying the natural world.
Alongside the manifesto is a letter. In it, the Unabomber promises to suspend his bombing campaign if his long dissertation is published in the newspaper, in full, and unedited.
As soon as the manifesto is discovered, The Washington Post turns the material over to the FBI. But the Unabomber’s request presents an ethical dilemma for the newspaper’s editors. Opinion is divided over whether it is right to reward a violent terrorist with space in a national publication. So for three months, the editors debate what to do.
Finally, on grounds of public safety, they decide to do as the terrorist demands and publish the manifesto.
It’s mid-October in 1995, at the library of Union College in Schenectady, upstate New York.
David, a 45-year-old social worker, sits at one of the library computers beside his wife, Linda, who teaches philosophy at the college. Together, they click through the pages of the Unabomber’s manifesto. It was published in the Washington Post the previous month, but David and Linda have only just been able to track down a copy on the internet.
David’s frown deepens as he reads the screen. The style of writing in the manifesto seems familiar to him. Its paranoid hatred for technology and the modern world, and its calls for a revolution all remind David of someone he knows well: his older brother Ted.
From a young age, it was clear that Ted Kaczynski was exceptionally smart. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics in 1962, he continued his studies and eventually became an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His colleagues there regarded him as a loner, but Ted still seemed on track for a bright career in academia. Then in 1969, he abruptly resigned. He moved to a remote one-room cabin in Montana, where he lived ‘off-the-grid’, without electricity, running water, or any other comforts of the modern day.
His younger brother, David, has only seen Ted rarely since then but they’ve often exchanged letters. And it’s that writing that David now recognizes as he reads through the Unabomber’s manifesto.
For the next two months, David and his wife Linda repeatedly read and re-read the manifesto. They compare it line by line with the letters they’ve received from Ted. Linda was the first to raise concerns that David’s brother could be the Unabomber. But it’s a horrifying thought for David and he wants to be sure before they go to the authorities. So, the couple decides to hire a private investigator to look into Ted’s activities more closely. The results will confirm their worst fears. In February 1996, an anguished David and Linda will take their suspicions to the FBI and the manhunt for the Unabomber, which has lasted almost twenty years, will finally come to an end.
Act Three: The Arrest
It’s April 3rd, 1996, in the wilderness of Western Montana.
Three FBI agents, disguised as Park Service employees, march uphill through the forest. It’s a cold morning and their breath fogs the air as their boots crunch on the snow-covered ground. Ahead of them is a shack, half hidden among the trees, with a lonely trail of wood smoke rising from its chimney.
Ted Kaczynski’s cabin has been under surveillance for weeks by FBI sniper teams hidden in the forest. The Bureau didn’t want to rush anything as it gathered evidence and made preparations for an arrest. But then the press somehow found out that Ted was the FBI’s new suspect. CBS News was preparing to break the story, so the FBI rushed to a Montana federal judge to get a search warrant for the cabin. With the warrant now secured, the agents move in, hoping to apprehend their suspect before CBS News can blow their cover.
The three FBI men pass a trash pit filled with discarded cans and stop by a heap of chopped firewood just outside the cabin. The lead agent calls out: “Hey Ted!”. And a few moments later, the door swings open and an unkempt man in his mid-fifties emerges from the gloom of the shack’s interior.
The disguised FBI agent holds up a map and asks Ted for help. He tells him he’s looking for a property boundary line marked on the map, but he can’t seem to find it. Ted hesitates for a moment, before stepping out further. The agent then smiles and comes closer with the map. As soon as Ted is within reach, the agent grabs his arms and pulls him away from the cabin. The other two agents then dive forward, and they all wrestle Ted to the ground and cuff him.
The FBI agents lead a handcuffed Ted away for questioning as other teams begin a search of the soot-covered shack where Ted has lived as a hermit for almost two decades. Inside, they find bomb-making equipment, a copy of the Unabomber’s manifesto, and, under the bed, a pipe bomb, ready to be sent in the mail.
The FBI’s longest-running and most expensive investigation yet is over at last. At his trial in 1998, Ted Kaczynski will plead guilty to all charges and be sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole. The Unabomber’s campaign targeted the scientists and businessmen Ted judged responsible for the ills of the modern world. It began in 1978 with an attack on Northwestern University and it ended eighteen years, sixteen bombings and three fatalities later, with a raid on a wooden cabin in Montana on April 3rd, 1996.
Next on History Daily.April 4th, 1975. Bill Gates and Paul Allen formalize their partnership with the creation of Microsoft, ushering in the personal computer revolution.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.