Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Ted Kaczynski: The Unabomber

Come Fly With Me

American Airlines flight 444 originated in Chicago. Its passengers, en route to Washington, D.C. suddenly heard a loud "thud" from the baggage area of the Boeing 727.

There, in a parcel, a household barometer had been rigged to function as an altimeter. When the plane reached 35,500 feet, the device completed an electrical circuit that ignited a mass of gunpowder. The makeshift bomb began to smolder in the hold. Passengers gasped for breath as smoke poured into the main cabin. Oxygen masks dropped as the crew prepared for an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport, Virginia.

Passengers and crew evacuated via the escape slide, and twelve were rushed to hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation. When the source of the explosion was examined, it was a homemade bomb —again in a wooden box — that had been air mailed from Chicago. Clearly, the bomber could not know which flight would carry his parcel, so authorities concluded it was not a specific attack on American Airlines.

Immediately, another two agencies became involved. Because a bomb had been sent through the mail, US Postal Service Inspectors were added to the investigation mix. And, because the crime had crossed state lines, FBI personnel were immediately assigned to the case.

In many ways, this duplication of authority hampered — many say delayed — the Unabomber's arrest. Certainly, information was not always exchanged immediately, and many investigators doggedly insisted their suspects were the only ones worth pursuing. Territorial issues began to surface — each group wanted full credit for the crime's ultimate solution. In time, over 50,000 would be added to the suspect database.

One man who received little notice in the print media, but was accorded star status in another way was veteran Postal Inspector Tony Muljat. In the 1996 Docudrama Unabomber: The True Story, Dean Stockwell plays Muljat (called Ben Jeffries in the filmscript.) A man who spent 11 years trying to find the Unabomber, Muljat reportedly was first to make the connection between the criminal and his use of wood, observing, "It's his signature."

Muljat also observed that had the bomb been constructed efficiently, it would have blown the 727 out of the skies. As it was, most of the explosive powder didn't explode — it simply smoldered.

He found the use of barium nitrate in the bomb puzzling, and explained it had no explosive value — it was "...fireworks powder, just used to color the smoke green". Its significance would gradually be understood.

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In early June 1980, United Airlines president Percy Wood received a letter — allegedly from a Mr. Enoch Fischer of Lake Forest, Ill. Fischer wrote:

United Airlines president, Percy Wood (AP)
United Airlines president,
Percy Wood (AP)

Dear Mr. Wood, I am sending copies of "Ice Brothers" by Sloan Wilson to a number of prominent people in the Chicago area, because I believe [this book] ... should be read by all who make important decisions affecting the public welfare."

On June 10th, Wood had just celebrated his 60th birthday when he received the parcel at his home in Lake Forest, Ill.

When he opened the book, a device concealed in its hollowed out pages exploded. Bits of metal and wood fragments flashed through the air piercing the first things they hit. Wood sustained damage to his hands, face and thigh, where a large chunk of metal had lodged.

Later, Postal Inspector Tony Muljat noted that the parcel had been addressed in green ink, and that the "wood" signature occurred four times in this bombing: It was addressed to a Mr. Wood, it contained wood pieces to act as shrapnel, and its publisher was Arbor House, whose logo was a leaf.

Moreover, the phony return address read Ravenswood Street.

Muljat saw the connection, but the message as yet was unclear.

And there was something new. The bomber was signing his work in no uncertain terms. Part of the metal bomb had the initials FC punched into it. The signature was destined to be repeated. But in June 1980, only the sender knew what the letters stood for — Freedom Club.

Following Percy Wood's accident, the FBI identified the case as UnAbom — an acronym for targets to date — UNiversities and Airlines BOMbings.

But the Chicago area bombings stopped, and the bomber lay silent for 16 months. Law enforcement agencies had started to relax, and speculated their man may have died, been jailed for another crime or committed suicide. Others only hoped he'd blown himself up!

No such luck — on October 8th 1981 a bomb bearing the FC signature was discovered at the University of Utah but was neutralized before it did any harm.

Seven months of silence followed.

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