Copyright 1994 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
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December 13, 1994, Tuesday, Final Edition
SECTION: FIRST SECTION; PAGE A3
LENGTH: 1337 words
HEADLINE: Fatal Bomb Bore Trademarks of Elusive Sender; Probe Is Stymied
BYLINE: Pierre Thomas, Washington Post Staff Writer
The bomb that killed a New York City advertising executive last weekend bore at least three of the characteristics typical of what law enforcement officials call the most dangerous and elusive mail bomber in modern history.
Frighteningly, none of them was anything that the victim would easily notice, which is a fourth trademark of the man, code-named UNABOM, who has killed one other man and wounded 23 in the last 16 years.
The videotape-size package that exploded in the face of Thomas J. Mosser, 50, was postmarked -- with a phony return address indicating a university professor had sent it -- from San Francisco, the same general origin of the last two mail bombs from the serial bomber. It was a pipe bomb, and it came in a handcrafted wooden box, which the bomber is apparently fond of.
Mosser had little chance to recognize that he was touching death when he opened what appeared to be routine mail in the kitchen of his New Jersey home. The package, which had been delivered a day earlier by a postal worker, looked harmless, so much so that members of Mosser's family had handled it. But inside were contents with the bomber's deadly signature, characteristics so clear that investigators arriving at Mosser's home immediately knew the handiwork.
The scene was vintage UNABOM, named for his penchant for bombing people associated with universities and airlines. While each attack has differed slightly, the bombs are always designed to blend in with their environment, to appear perfectly unremarkable for the setting.
Still, with all that is known about UNABOM's techniques and expertise, federal authorities say the bomber is clever enough never to leave any specific evidence that would identify him or how to trace him. Nearly two decades after he first surfaced, the hunt is in full tilt and authorities are fearful that another attack may come soon.
"The [bombing] devices are sophisticated, and the components have been difficult to trace," said Ralph Ostrowski, chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' arson and explosive division. "It's an investigation involving a lot of work, but at the same time, one of frustration."
A major problem for the task force, which also includes the FBI and the Postal Service, is that UNABOM picks his targets randomly, often from afar. "One of the biggest problems is that there is no interaction" between UNABOM and the victims prior to the bombing, said Rick Smith, FBI special agent in the San Francisco office. "There are no conversations or meetings that can be traced. The lack of contact complicates the investigation."
Members of the task force, based in Northern California, arrived in New Jersey over the weekend to begin an intensive investigation of the latest incident. Authorities were unsure why the bomber chose to attack an advertising executive. In the past, he has typically targeted people in the technological fields, researchers at universities and others related to the computer and airline industries. Investigators have determined that Mosser's brother is a scientist and are studying whether that may have been a motivation in the bombing.
Investigators are also evaluating whether the fatal attack on Mosser, an executive vice president with the advertising giant Young & Rubicam Inc. Worldwide, was somehow linked to his recent appearance in a New York Times article announcing his promotion. Yesterday officials were checking to see which accounts Mosser oversaw and all of his business relationships. Company officials said yesterday that Mosser worked with major clients but declined to identify specific corporations. The last two bombing victims, professors at Yale University and the University of California at San Francisco, had also appeared in the newspaper prior to the attacks.
Last year, in a letter sent to the newspaper postmarked Sacramento, Calif., the bomber threatened to remain active and identified himself as part of an anarchist group dubbed "FC." The initials "FC" have been engraved in some of the metal fixtures of some of the past bombs, a law enforcement source said yesterday. Authorities plan to use a microscope to determine whether those letters were found on pieces of the bomb recovered from the Mosser home. They will try to reconstruct the bomb from pieces strewn about the site.
From 1978 to 1982, the bomber planted or mailed one or two bombs each year. Then there was a three-year lull before four more bombings were linked to the mysterious suspect. After another break of two years, the bomber attacked again in 1987, this time spotted by a passerby and described as a white male in his late thirties or early forties, about 6 feet tall with reddish, blond hair and a ruddy complexion.
The suspect vanished for six years until the summer of 1993. On June 22, 1993, Charles Epstein, a well-known geneticist, had his fingers blown off when he opened a package in the kitchen of his home near San Francisco. Two days later, David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, opened a package in his fifth-floor office and was wounded in the head, torso and hands.
Gelernter yesterday expressed his pain at Mosser's death in a computer message in response to a query from The Washington Post. "Jane [his wife] and I are saddened and outraged by this ugly, despicable crime, & our hearts go out to the family," he wrote. "But anyone else would feel the same."
The FBI's profile of the bomber, who has attacked victims in nine states, describes him as a loner who reads prolifically on law enforcement, scientific subjects, psychology and history. He typically constructs bombs in painstaking fashion, designing them to look like innocent packages, sometimes mailing them in padded envelopes. The bomb that killed computer rental store owner Hugh C. Scranton almost nine years ago to the day on Dec. 11, 1985, was neatly concealed in what appeared to be a piece of scrap wood behind his business.
Some of the devices took hundreds of hours to complete, according to the FBI. Most of the parts are handcrafted. The bomber often puts nearly as much effort into tricking his suspects to believe that the packages are totally innocent as he does in making the bomb. He also may go to some lengths to find out where his potential victims live.
About a week before he became a victim, Percy Wood, former president of United Airlines, received a letter telling him to expect a book he needed to read. On June 10, 1980, the bomb came in a package that appeared to contain a book. It exploded and Wood was injured.
The bombs have often targeted academics, and in other cases, the bomber, who law enforcement officialsbelieve may have deep hatred for technological advancement, targets a certain profession -- such as computer science.
After last year's bombing, federal authorities offered a $ 1 million reward and revamped a 25- to 30-member task force and based it in San Francisco and Sacramento. They also created a task force hot line -- 1-800-701-BOMB. Initially, there were more than 1,000 calls, yielding hundreds of leads, but the numbers have recently fallen to a trickle.
Despite the trail of explosions and injuries, authorities have picked up few meaningful leads. Although it is widely believed that one person is responsible for the bombings, law enforcement officials cannot definitively say others have not helped. Authorities have repeated calls for public help, noting that the only way the bomber may be arrested is if someone who knows him steps forward with information.
Law enforcement officials have sought to use even the most insignificant information. In October 1993, officials released a handwritten note believed to be from UNABOM with the words "Call Nathan R -- Wed 7 p.m."
More than a year later, the investigation continues.
The bomber always "paints pretty much the same portrait," said one federal investigator. "But are we any closer [to solving the case] with the new evidence from the latest case? Probably not."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO, THOMAS J. MOSSER16 YEARS, 15 BOMBS; CHART, AP; ILLUSTRATION