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Why It Took 17 Years to Catch the Unabomber

October 25, 2018 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

After a 17-year-long hunt, it would be Ted Kaczynski’s own words that would lead to his capture.

Theodore Kaczynski after his capture in 1996.

By the time federal authorities arrested Theodore J. Kaczynski (aka the “Unabomber”) at his primitive log cabin in Montana in April 1996, he had managed to outwit the law for more than 17 years.

From 1978 to 1995, the former math professor with a genius-level IQ and a massive grudge against modern technology had mailed or hand-delivered 16 homemade explosive devices to universities, businesses, homes and public areas across the United States, killing three people and injuring nearly two dozen more.

The desperate search for the Unabomber stands as one of the longest-running manhunts in U.S. history, eventually involving than 150 full-time investigators, analysts and other agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and U.S. Postal Inspection Service. In the end, after an investigation lasting nearly two decades, it would be Kaczynski’s own words that led to his capture.

Unabomber Arrested (TV-PG; 1:28)

A shadowy villain strikes.

The Unabomber’s campaign of terror began on May 25, 1978, when a brown paper-wrapped package found on the campus of the University of Illinois in Chicago was returned to the supposed sender, a professor at nearby Northwestern University. As the professor had not mailed the package, he handed it over to campus security; it then exploded, injuring the security guard tasked with opening it.

By late 1979, two other bombs had exploded, including a second at Northwestern and one that exploded aboard an American Airlines flight bound from Chicago to Washington D.C. Another package bomb sent in early 1980 badly injured Percy Wood, the president of United Airlines. Aided by agents of the ATF and Postal Inspection Service, the bureau formed the UNABOM task force, named for the suspected serial bomber’s earliest chosen targets: universities and airlines.

The Unabomber’s explosives become increasingly sophisticated.

Though they conducted exhaustive forensic examinations of the bomb components and made efforts to link the victims in order to recover clues to who the bomber might be, investigators came up empty. The bomber made his explosives from common scrap materials—including wood, fishing wire, nails and tape—that were widely available, and had clearly taken great care to leave no identifying trace behind.

As FBI criminal profiler James R. Fitzgerald told NPR in 2017, lab …read more


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