Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Ted Kaczynski: The Unabomber

Student of Destruction

It was May 25th 1978.

A carefully wrapped parcel lay on the ground of the engineering department parking lot at the University of Chicago. It bore red, white and blue stamps commemorating playwright Eugene O'Neill. It was addressed to engineering Professor E.J. Smith, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

It appeared to be an undelivered parcel returned to its sender — Professor Buckley Crist of Northwestern University in nearby Evanston Illinois. Without questioning how it had arrived at a different institution, the finder contacted Professor Crist.

Professor Crist claimed to have no knowledge of the parcel, but had it couriered to him anyway. But when he saw it the following day, he noticed it hadn't been addressed in his own handwriting. This made him suspicious enough to call in campus cop Terry Marker.

Ironically, there was some joking — "Maybe it's a bomb!" But the joke soon soured when Marker opened the parcel. It exploded in his hand and he became the first person to be scarred by the Unabomber's handiwork.

Fortunately, the injury was slight, mainly because the bomb was an amateurish piece of construction. Had it detonated with the full force its maker obviously intended, Terry Marker and those around him could well have sustained serious — if not fatal — injuries. As it was, the security officer's left hand was sufficiently damaged to send him to Evanston hospital.

The university called in the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and they immediately proclaimed the bomb the work of an amateur for several reasons.

The strange contraption was made of bits and pieces that could have come from a home workshop. It was based on a piece of metal pipe — about an inch in diameter by nine inches long. But the pipe was packed with something definitely not kept by the average home handyman — smokeless explosive powders. Its primitive trigger device — a nail tensioned by rubber bands — was designed to slam into six common match heads when the box was opened. Then, the matches would immediately burst into flame and ignite the explosive powders.

There were two other distinctions. The box was hand made of wood, as were the plugs that sealed the pipe ends. This was an unusual touch — pipe bombs usually use threaded metal ends that can be bought in any large hardware store — they make sure the pressure inside the pipe builds up enough to "bubble" the pipe until it swells enough to explode. Wooden ends simply don't have the tensile strength to cope with the pressure.

Fortunately for those who had watched Marker open the parcel, when the trigger hit the match heads only three ignited, so the bomb failed to pack its promised punch. Had the bomb been made in a more conventional way, its builder would have employed batteries and heat filament wire to ignite the explosives more effectively.

The other components could well have been scavenged from any junkyard. For now, the Unabomber was simply thought of as "the Junkyard Bomber."

Just why Professor Crist had been targeted was unclear. Theories ranged from a prank gone wrong to a disgruntled student paying the professor back for a poor grade.

The ATF agents routinely photographed the remains of the bomb, wrote up a report and went to interview the original addressee, Professor E.J. Smith at the Renasleer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Smith knew no reason for anyone to either attack or implicate him.

The whole scenario was a strange "double- play" designed to confuse. The bomber had made it appear that Crist sent the package to Smith, and, undelivered, it had been returned to an institution neither one belonged to.

The ATF filed their photos and findings and embarked on a series of wild goose chases. As yet, there was no reason to suspect a serial bomber had made his first appearance.

And, in those early days, the significance of the unusual use of wooden components was a mystery. It was destined to unravel in deadly detail.

Cigar, Anyone?

On May 9th, 1979, John G. Harris — a civil engineering graduate student — decided to examine a cigar-shaped box — reportedly to keep personal belongings in. The box, made of wood-veneered cardboard, had been lying around room 2424 at Northwestern University for a few days. It bore a "Phillies" cigar logo, and was fastened with tape.

When he opened the box, it exploded with a force much greater than the first one had. Nonetheless, it created more noise and mess than damage. Although it sent fragments of wooden debris and match heads flying, Harris fortunately got away with just minor cuts and burns.

But the bomber was clearly learning his craft. The rubber band and nail trigger mechanism had been replaced with a battery operated filament wire that quickly ignited the chemicals and match heads enclosed in a paper container.

Interestingly, the common flashlight batteries that powered the device had all identifying material removed — presumably to make tracing their source impossible.

Other identifiable remains included wires, lamp cord, fishing line, wooden dowels and friction tape. Again, the bomber's wired together junk collection was underpowered enough to spare lives. The next was set to make headlines.

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