At his small wilderness cabin near Lincoln, Montana, Theodore John Kaczynski is arrested by FBI agents and accused of being the Unabomber, the elusive terrorist blamed for 16 mail bombs that killed three people and injured 23 during an 18-year period.
Kaczynski, born in Chicago in 1942, won a scholarship to study mathematics at Harvard University at age 16. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Although celebrated as a brilliant mathematician, he suffered from persistent social and emotional problems, and in 1969 abruptly ended his promising career at Berkeley. Disillusioned with the world around him, he tried to buy land in the Canadian wilderness but in 1971 settled for a 1.4-acre plot near his brother’s home in Montana.
For the next 25 years, Kaczynski lived as a hermit, occasionally working odd jobs and traveling but mostly living off his land. He developed a philosophy of radical environmentalism and militant opposition to modern technology, and tried to get academic essays on the subjects published. It was the rejection of one of his papers by two Chicago-area universities in 1978 that may have prompted him to manufacture and deliver his first mail bomb.
The package was addressed to the University of Illinois from Northwestern University, but was returned to Northwestern, where a security guard was seriously wounded while opening the suspicious package. In 1979, Kaczynski struck again at Northwestern, injuring a student at the Technological Institute. Later that year, his third bomb exploded on an American Airlines flight, causing injuries from smoke inhalation. In 1980, a bomb mailed to the home of Percy Wood, the president of United Airlines, injured Wood when he tried to open it. As Kaczynski seemed to be targeting universities and airlines, federal investigators began calling their suspect the Unabomber, an acronym of sorts for university, airline, and bomber.
From 1981 to 1985, there were seven more bombs, four at universities, one at a professor’s home, one at the Boeing Company in Auburn, Wash., and one at a computer store in Sacramento. Six people were injured, and in 1985 the owner of the computer store was killed—the Unabomber’s first murder. In 1987, a woman saw a man wearing aviator glasses and a hooded sweatshirt placing what turned out to be a bomb outside a computer store in Salt Lake City. The sketch of the suspect that emerged became the first representation of the Unabomber, and Kaczynski, fearing capture, halted his terrorist campaign for six years.
In June 1993, a mail bomb severely injured a University of California geneticist at his home, and two days later a computer science professor at Yale was badly injured by a similar bomb. Various federal departments established the UNABOM Task Force, which launched an intensive search for a Unabomber suspect. In 1994, a mail bomb killed an advertising executive at his home in New Jersey. Kaczynski had mistakenly thought that the man worked for a firm that repaired the Exxon Company’s public relations after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In April 1995, a bomb killed the president of a timber-industry lobbying group. It was the Unabomber’s last attack.
Soon after, Kaczynski sent a manifesto to The New York Times and The Washington Post, saying he would stop the killing if it were published. In 1995, The Washington Post published the so-called “Unabomber’s Manifesto,” a 35,000-word thesis on what Kaczynski perceived to be the problems with America’s industrial and technological society. Kaczynski’s brother, David, read the essay and recognized his brother’s ideas and language; he informed the FBI in February 1996 that he suspected that his brother was the Unabomber. On April 3, Ted Kaczynski was arrested at his cabin in Montana, and extensive evidence—including a live bomb and an original copy of the manifesto—was discovered at the site.
Indicted on more than a dozen federal charges, he appeared briefly in court in 1996 to plead not guilty to all charges. During the next year and a half, Kaczynski wrangled with his defense attorneys, who wanted to issue an insanity plea against his wishes. Kaczynski wanted to defend what he saw as legitimate political motives in carrying out the attacks, but at the start of the Unabomber trial in January 1998 the judge rejected his requests to acquire a new defense team and represent himself. On January 22, Kaczynski pleaded guilty on all counts and was spared the death penalty. He showed no remorse for his crimes and in May was sentenced to four life sentences plus 30 years. He died in his cell at age 81 on June 10, 2023.