April 3, 1996 | Catching the Unabomber

 UNABOM Taskforce Reward Poster, 1995-1996, National Law Enforcement Museum, 2007.110.1
 

“We were elated to get a demand. At that point we were thinking, 'We're going to catch this guy’ because he was acting like an extortionist and we almost always catch extortionists.”

—Jim R. Freeman (ret.), FBI Special Agent in Charge of the UNABOM Taskforce

It had been 17 years since the first package exploded. As FBI agents hid in the snowy woods outside of Lincoln, Montana, many were skeptical that the Unabomber’s gruesome attacks might finally be coming to an end. Disguised as lumberjacks, miners, and postmen, they staked out a remote cabin for weeks, watching a disheveled recluse. The agents formed a plan to safely serve a search warrant. On April 3, two agents dressed as miners casually strolled up to the cabin with a "quick question" about property lines. After answering the door, the man reluctantly agreed to help. When he was distracted turning for his jacket, the agents restrained him. It was a surprisingly smooth capture after such an extended reign of domestic terrorism. It did not take long for bomb experts searching the cabin to confirm that this man, Ted Kaczynski, was the Unabomber.

The explosions first started in May 1978 when a security guard in Chicago opened a suspicious package containing a homemade pipe bomb. Luckily, he walked away with minor scrapes and burns, but over time, the attacks became more destructive—even deadly. In 1979, the FBI formed a joint task force to investigate the case. It was code-named UNABOM after the earliest attacks: UNiversity and Airline BOMbings. In total, the Unabomber delivered 16 bombs, leaving 23 people injured or maimed, and three dead.

In the 1990s, the UNABOM task force’s manhunt was the largest and most intensive ever yet conducted by the FBI. Agents used cutting edge technology to narrow down the massive list of potential suspects. But, the Unabomber was smart. He left false clues and stripped bombs of identifying evidence.

In 1995, he mailed in his first demand: publish his manifesto about the evils of technology in a major newspaper, and the murders would stop. Months later, a man named David Kaczynski read the Unabomber’s manifesto and thought that it sounded like his brother, Ted. With David’s help and more investigating, agents learned Ted Kaczynski— a neo-luddite and mathematical genius turned recluse—was the author of the manifesto. At long last, the Unabomber was done making bombs.

 

*Learn more about the UNABOM case and the agent who led the investigation in Jim Freeman’s oral history.