SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Patrick Webb cautiously entered Theodore J. Kaczynski's Montana shack, leading a team of bomb experts. In the gloom, he examined shelves crammed with baby food jars and baking soda cans that were carefully marked with the chemical names of explosives.
Then, in a Quaker Oats box, agents found what they had hoped for: 23 bomb igniters, each made from a piece of appliance cord pulled through a wooden plug. A Unabomber signature.
For Webb, who saw his first Unabomber crime scene in 1982, fresh out of bomb school, and his last in 1995, when he examined the shredded body of Gilbert B. Murray in a Sacramento office, it was the instant of realization that, after 17 years, the FBI's quest for the serial terrorist had ended.
Webb radioed the FBI's forward command post at a nearby sawmill. Jim R. Freeman, the top agent at the FBI's San Francisco office, and Terry D. Turchie, the agent in charge of the more than 100 agents on the Unabomber case, rushed to the cabin. Webb held evidence in his hands. Tears streamed down his face. "This is it," he said. "It's over. This is the guy."
Over the past week, nearly a dozen agents, prosecutors and retired FBI employees talked for the first time, recalling the details of their work on the 17-year series of terror bombings that killed three people and injured 22.
The investigation's missteps and dead-ends provided powerful reminders of the importance of old-fashioned persistence. For years, agents dreaded the endless assignment. Computer searches turned up little because agents focused on men 10 years younger than Kaczynski.
"We felt strongly that his origins were in Chicago and that he gradually moved West," Freeman said. "How could we know he went to Harvard when he was 16 years old?"
Experts prepared studies of victims in hopes of finding clues to the perpetrator.
Behavioral scientists theorized the bomber was a blue-collar loner with a metallurgical background, or a well-educated political militant with a grudge.
Agents crawled through junkyards to track down a 20-year-old Fiat Spyder in Utah because one was seen near the scene of a 1987 bombing.
In the end, the crucial lead came from Kaczynski's brother, David, a social worker in upstate New York. His wife, Linda Patrik, a professor, became suspicious after the FBI began concentrating on places where Theodore Kaczynski had lived. When they read the Unabomber's bitter anti-technology manifesto in late 1995, they decided to alert authorities.
The role of the Kaczynski family has led to a widespread impression that agents stumbled around in the dark for 16 years until David Kaczynski turned in his brother.
The agents on the case say that impression is wrong. They believe the Kaczynskis would have never come forward had the manifesto not been printed by the Washington Post.
"I believe we took advantage of his mistakes," Turchie said. "I believe we focused the public. I believe that David responded to that just as we would have hoped, and he called us and he did not say, 'My brother is the Unabomber.' He said, 'I saw this set of information, I have this to offer you. Here it is.' And from that point on we did what we're supposed to do."
Turchie was an unorthodox choice for the job of running the Unabomber investigation. He had started his career as a non-agent support employee, and soon became an agent working in places like New York on counter-espionage cases. He was known as smart, well organized, persistent and a good team player.
"He was a good thinker," Freeman said. "I didn't want a traditional door-kicking criminal agent."
Turchie took over as the case was heating up and the FBI was reorganizing the Unabomber team.
6-year hiatus ends
In June 1993, after a six-year hiatus, the Unabomber sent mail bombs to the home of Charles Epstein, a geneticist in California, and David Gelertner, a Yale computer science professor, at his office in New Haven.
In December 1994, the Unabomber struck again, mailing a lethal bomb to Thomas J. Mosser, an executive at a public relations firm in North Caldwell, N.J. It was the first fatality since the owner of a computer rental store in Sacramento was killed in 1985.
"It was sort of a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach," recalled agent Donald "Max" Noel, "a feeling of impotence."
The Mosser killing was followed five months later by another deadly attack in Sacramento, in April 1995, that killed Murray. It came five days after the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building.
bTC "Every time you'd think there can't be more pressure, it would go up again," said Joel A. Moss, the agent in charge of the team that evaluated suspects.
The renewed attacks coincided with the Unabomber's beginning to send agents written material, sometimes taunting them. In June 1995, the Unabomber sent his manifesto to newspapers and demanded publication.
"We were elated to get a demand," Freeman recalled. "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.' "
The Washington Post printed the manifesto Sept. 19, 1995. Agents staked out the two San Francisco newsstands that carried the paper. When an unkempt-looking man bought the paper, the agents trailed him, but they learned he was a writer who had been already investigated and eliminated.
Angry 1971 essay
David Kaczynski found an angry 23-page essay his brother had written in 1971 and turned it over to authorities. Molly Flynn, an agent in the Washington field office who had read the manifesto, pressed investigators in San Francisco to read the essay.
"She just didn't want to let it go," Moss said. "I said, 'Why don't you fax it to me, I'll read it?' It sat on my desk until the end of the day. When I finally did read it, a lot of things jumped out. It was the most significant document I had ever seen."
Within days, Freeman had dispatched Noel and four other agents to Montana, where they kept a low profile while gathering information about Kaczynski.
Debate continued about whether Kaczynski was the right man. Noel argued with Freeman. He doubted that anyone living without much money or transportation, in a remote cabin without electricity, could have built the bombs and traveled throughout the West to mail them. But Freeman was convinced. He telephoned FBI headquarters April 1. "I said, this is definitely the guy."
On April 2, nearly 100 agents flew in to back up an arrest team. The next morning, a SWAT team took more than an hour to encircle the shack. Shortly after noon, Noel led the arrest team, accompanied by Thomas McDaniel, the resident FBI agent in Montana, and Jerry Burns, a veteran Forest Service officer who knew Kaczynski.
As they reached the cabin, Burns hailed Kaczynski.
When Kaczynski appeared at the door, he looked disheveled in threadbare trousers with shoes that seemed to be falling apart.
Noel remembered thinking, "My God, that's what been eluding us all these years."
Pub Date: 5/05/98