Copyright 1994 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
December 18, 1994, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 49; Column 2; Metropolitan Desk; Second Front
LENGTH: 3219 words
HEADLINE: Death in the Mail -- Tracking a Killer: A special report.; Investigators Have Many Clues and Theories, but Still No Suspect in 15 Bombings
BYLINE: By RALPH BLUMENTHAL and N. R. KLEINFIELD
They have thought he might be a sullen student or teacher. They have thought he might be an enraged airline or computer worker. They have thought he might be someone at the post office or in a lumberyard. They have thought he might work at a factory that makes artificial limbs.
When he resurfaced last Saturday, mailing a package that killed an advertising executive named Thomas J. Mosser at his home in North Caldwell, N.J., investigators once again found themselves grimly sifting for clues to a bomber who has baffled them for 16 years and now seems to have escalated his rampage. The early returns, investigators said, have been achingly familiar -- no especially tantalizing leads to freshen a scent that remains faint at best -- but the searchers hint that they are exploring some new directions.
A $1 million reward, posted in 1993, still awaits anyone who helps find the wiliest mail bomber in modern history, one who has struck 15 times, killing 2 people and wounding 22. In further hopes of eliciting leads from the public, investigators have deliberately chosen to share an unusual amount of information in the case, which they call Unabom because of the early university and airline targets.
Extensive interviews last week with investigators, including officials of the Federal task force based in San Francisco assigned to the case, reveal a more detailed picture of a remarkably exhaustive manhunt -- thousands of leads, hundreds of suspects and endless computer searches into everything from the initials of someone's name to the phases of the moon. At one point last year, the trail led to an ex-convict who disappeared after he was questioned.
And yet, to the consternation of investigators, all the thousands of clues and theories have produced no solution. They do not know who the bomber is.
But some intriguing links have emerged. One of the more captivating ones is that the bomber is trying to say something through wood or trees. First, authorities noticed that all the bombs had various forms of wood in them, an illogical material rare in an explosive. The second device actually had tree twigs glued to it.
Then there are the names. One target was Percy Wood, who lived in Lake Forest, Ill. He got a bomb inside a novel, "Ice Brothers," published by Arbor House, whose symbol is a tree leaf. Moreover, some of the fake return addresses the bomber wrote on parcels referred to trees or wood. One listed Ravenswood, another Forest Glen Road. It may mean nothing, or it may mean a great deal, that Mr. Mosser lived on Aspen Drive.
To investigators who have spent years staring at this maddening puzzle, the recurring wood motif suggested its own swarm of possibilities. Was the bomber a crazed environmentalist? A demented lumberjack? Or, in an enigmatic case flush with blind alleys and an interminable web of theories, was it one more ploy in a macabre game?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Postal Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are all actively searching for the bomber. Jim R. Freeman, the special agent in charge of the San Francisco office of the F.B.I., is flying to Washington to personally brief Louis J. Freeh, the F.B.I. Director, on Monday. How close are they to catching him?
"How close?" asked Mr. Freeman. "One phone call away with the right tip. One computer run. Or years away."
A Pattern Emerges Computers, Planes And Lots of Wood
It was the third bomb, in November 1979, that first outlined the dimensions of the problem.
An explosive designed to go off at high altitude caught fire without exploding in a mailbag aboard an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington. Twelve passengers suffered smoke inhalation. The bomb, nearly intact in its juice-can container, was dissected by an F.B.I. bomb examiner in Washington named Christopher Ronay. The label was scorched but seemed to be addressed to a business ending in "lines" in northwest Washington. Since the bomb was mailed in Chicago, Mr. Ronay sent photos to the Chicago authorities.
The photos reminded the Chicago police of a device found in May 1979 at the Tech building of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. They sent the remains to Mr. Ronay.
"Both had two initiators, which is unusual, that were identical," he said. "Each was carved in a round dowel form with grooves cut into it on each side for the wire. There were identical wire leads, and so on. I had never seen the design before in the thousands of bombs I had examined. The chances of two different people making them were nil. We knew we had a serial bomber."
Some time later, the F.B.I. learned of an earlier bomb found in an unmailed package in May 1978 in the engineering department's parking lot at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. Mr. Ronay concluded that it, too, came from the same hands. Presumably, it was the bomber's debut.
For tactical reasons, the authorities did not yet announce the presence of a serial bomber. And, given the evidence they had, they treated it as a Chicago matter.
In June 1980, he struck anew, mailing the bomb-in-a-novel to the home of Percy Wood, the president of United Airlines, in Lake Forest, a Chicago suburb. Now the investigation intensified, especially into anyone vindictive against the airlines. United itself had recently laid off thousands of workers; they came under suspicion. Investigators again pondered the American Airlines bomb. The bomber could not have known what flight would carry a mailed package, but 70 percent of the mail out of Chicago at the time went on United. Was he playing those odds?
A curious clue emerged. The initials FC were inscribed in a piece of metal on the bomb received by Mr. Wood. They showed up either on a metal tag or tapped into the metal on seven of the next eight bombs.
What did they signify? Who knew? Investigators pursued many people, as well as companies, with those initials. They speculated it might be an obscene phrase directed at computers. Thought was given to the fact that the identifying letters on the license plates of foreign diplomats were FC. To this day, the initials remain one more mystery.
Three more strikes occurred over the next two years, over broader territory. A bomb was dismantled in a business classroom at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Another, mailed from Utah, exploded at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. A third exploded after being placed at the University of California at Berkeley.
Authorities homed in on the seeming likelihood that the bomber had lived around Chicago, then moved to Utah and on to California. They devised lists of people who had done that. There were many.
No strong suspect emerged. But there were several new clues. A note was left with the Berkeley bomb: "Wu -- it works! I told you it would -- R.V." Investigators looked into countless Asians named Wu as well as people and groups with the initials R.V. And a janitor described a thin stranger with a mustache who was in the building at the time, but it was never clear if he was the bomber.
By now, investigators had noticed the unusual presence of wood in the bombs -- including birch, walnut, mahogany and cottonwood -- as well as the wood connections to some victims. One bomb had four varieties of wood.
"I think the wood is some sort of calling card," said Mr. Ronay, who worked on the case until his recent retirement from the F.B.I. "Maybe he's a woodsman or wants to save the trees. Wood is a significant part of the case."
Investigators began looking into environmental groups and into lumberyard workers.
Growing Deadlier New Technology Creates a Murderer
For nearly three years, the bomber was silent. Some investigators thought he was dead. Other suspected he was in prison or a mental hospital, or out of the country. It was conjectured that he had multiple personalities, and that for three years he was the other person. Some agents supposed that for three years, he simply wasn't angry at anybody.
His fury returned. Between May and December 1985, he struck four times -- a bomb placed in a computer room at the University of California at Berkeley, a bomb mailed to a fabrication division of the Boeing Company in Auburn, Wash., a bomb mailed to a psychology professor's home and one left behind a computer rental store in Sacramento, Calif.
The bombs had the telltale signs -- with one important difference. Instead of smokeless powder, they now contained a chemical combination that burned longer and hotter. The new bombs were far more lethal. And the Sacramento one killed Hugh Campbell Scrutton, the computer store's owner. The bomber was now a murderer.
Every incident implied new possibilities. The Boeing bomb, only the second not to explode, was enclosed in a wooden box with various cutouts and niches. An investigator noticing it said, "That's how prostheses are shipped." He consulted a doctor specializing in prosthetics, who agreed. Investigators began checking factories and doctors dealing in artificial body parts.
"That's how things can get away from you," said Mr. Ronay, who never thought much of that lead. "Someone makes a quantum leap -- wooden box; it's got to be prostheses. Some delicate aircraft parts are shipped in wooden boxes. That was looked at. Could he work at an aircraft parts maker? They really worked at the university and aircraft angles. They still are."
Eleven bombings now, the first death. No hot lead. In meetings between investigators, the frustration resulted in a decision: Go public. Shortly after the Scrutton death, the F.B.I. announced that it was pursuing a serial bomber.
Many more leads poured in. The mail bomber always used stamps, not metered postage, presumably to avoid having to deal with a post office clerk. Investigators noticed that the postage was either the precise amount or slightly more than necessary. They looked into whether the bomber might work at a post office. Nothing.
The bomber remained a ghost. Was it a man or a woman? A teen-ager or a retiree? A giant or a dwarf?
Some Answers A Witness And a Rash of Tips
The next attack gave some answers.
In February 1987, the bomber left a bag containing a bomb in the parking lot of a computer company in Salt Lake City. As he did, a woman sitting inside an office looked directly into his face.
She described to police a white man, 25 to 30 years old, about 6 feet, weighing about 165 pounds, with a small mustache, reddish-blond hair and a ruddy complexion. She said he was wearing sunglasses with smoked lenses and had a sweatshirt hood over his head. The police prepared a sketch from her description and made it public.
The sketch eliminated innumerable possibilities. And it brought a rash of tips, many from former wives.
Behavorial experts began drafting theoretical profiles of the bomber, drawn from his methodology and interviews with serial bombers. He was described as a loner of high intelligence who was quiet, meticulous, a maker of lists, an ideal neighbor. He was likely to drive an old car but keep it in good condition. He probably had difficulty dealing with other people, especially women. Or he could be nothing like that.
The bomber either makes his parts or uses common household items with identifying marks scraped off. He has even made screws himself, though he mostly uses commercial ones. Investigators gathered scrap metal from junkyards and trash bins in areas where bombs had been mailed and tested them to see if they might be the same batches from which he drew his materials.
No possibility was readily discounted. In pursuit of patterns, investigators studied academic calendars, phases of the moon, the positions of stars. They did computer searches of almanac information to see whether the bombings coincided with historical anniversaries.
The sketch remained the biggest breakthrough. But it also may have frightened the bomber. For more than six years, nothing was heard from him. The investigation wound down. Maybe this time he was dead.
A Public Dare And a Rare Lapse
He was not. Within the space of two days in June 1993, he sent bombs to a geneticist at the University of California at San Francisco and to a computer scientist at Yale University.
For the first time, he also spoke to the world. The New York Times received a letter from Sacramento, postmarked before the bombings, in which the bomber claimed to be part of an anarchist group calling itself FC. The letter included a nine-digit number, written in the form of a Social Security number, to be used to authenticate future communications.
Because of his methods, investigators say they do not believe that the bomber is working in concert with others; and if he were, they think a $1 million reward would have impelled someone to inform.
After much internal debate, the F.B.I. decided to announce that the bomber left FC on many of the bombs.
Other theories arose. One of the June targets worked in the field of massively parallel computing and the other in gene therapy. Both of those technologies figure prominently in the movie "Jurassic Park." The bombs were mailed the week the movie opened.
The nine-digit number in the letter was seized on. Investigators looked into whether it might be a real Social Security number and found that it matched the number of a small-time career criminal from Northern California who had, at one point, also lived in Sacramento. It turned out he was in prison during the bombings last year, and the authorities did not feel he could be the culprit. They said they might want to talk to him again. But he recently violated parole and vanished.
Another promising clue emerged from the letter, possibly the bomber's only mistake since apparently being seen in 1987. From the letter, investigators were able to discern an impression of a message the bomber may have written on another slip of paper: "Call Nathan R Wed 7 pm."
Authorities laboriously pursued that lead. Driver's license records and phone books were scrutinized throughout the country to identify anyone named Nathan with a middle or last name beginning with R. Ten thousand Nathan R's poured forth. Agents interviewed them all. Nothing.
Given the bomber's success, investigators feel he must have tested some of his devices outdoors. People are unlikely to blow up bombs in their bathrooms. The authorities prowled into rock quarries and deserts, and sought out forest rangers who may have seen people testing explosives.
A few months ago, investigators talked again with the Salt Lake City witness. She had never been entirely happy with the police sketch, and investigators brought in a new artist who redid it, notably filling out the hair style. The artist also added aging to the face. The new sketch was shown to the public after the Dec. 10 bombing.
The Latest Attack
Promising Clues, Too Many of Them
Last Saturday's bombing that killed Mr. Mosser has not yet introduced any clearly important clues, the authorities said, though there is much still to be studied. The FC initials were not found in the debris, the third consecutive bomb missing them. There was, however, wood. Moreover, the bomb contained a chemical mixture he had never used before that was more powerful, suggesting an escalation. The package it came in bore a fictitious name and address, H. C. Wickel of the Department of Economics of San Francisco State University, and was mailed from San Francisco.
In the last week, something like 5,000 tips or theories have poured into the "800" number of the task force, as well as numerous E-mail messages. Last week, the task force appealed for help to computer users over the Internet, the vast computer communications network.
Still, investigators have yet to find a common thread among the victims -- scholars, computer people, airline people, high-technology people -- and no one seemed to share anything with an advertising executive. It has been pointed out that some of the clients of Mr. Mosser's company, Young & Rubicam, are computer companies. It has been pointed out that his brother is an immunologist. It has been pointed out that he lived on a street named after a tree.
Investigators continue to sniff into the prevalence of wood, though Mr. Freeman of the F.B.I. said that several other lines of inquiries that he would not discuss were "more interesting."
Some bombs went to places, some to specific people. Of the 15 bombs, seven went to or were sent from California. Nine involved universities. Investigators say they believe there is something in those frequencies, and are especially keen on the possibility that he lives in California. Several times, the bomber sent innocent-sounding messages to victims ahead of his bombs, diabolical enticements to open the packages personally.
They are reconstructing the Mosser package and plan to show it to mail carriers in San Francisco in the hopes that it will be recognized. They are also asking if anyone in San Francisco knows of someone who recently relocated to the city or if anyone had a house guest in early December who asked that they mail a package, allowing the possibility that the bomber did not mail the bomb himself.
They are now looking into advertising, a previously unexplored field. Some agents, however, say they think the bomber has gravitated from sending bombs with a purpose to simply playing a devilish game with law enforcement. Agents said that the bomber's sending a letter to a newspaper suggests that he craves notoriety. That he mailed the latest bomb from San Francisco, right under the noses of the task force, may imply he is mocking his pursuers.
"We don't know the motive," Mr. Freeman said. "Is it revenge? Is it publicity? We see a consistent span of targets. If you were to try to ascribe a motive, it's only a theory, a theory that he hates computers, hates airlines, hates universities, hates professors. But we don't know if he hates at all."
Or, as Mr. Ronay put it: "Even something outlandish is possible. Maybe he got cut off by these guys in traffic."
Suspects do keep cropping up. A handful, investigators said, were compelling enough to be put under surveillance for a while. A few years ago, a university worker was scrutinized. He was outspokenly contemptuous of computers and technology. His initials were F. C.
"The guys went nuts over that," Mr. Ronay said. "They ran it to the ground. He sure looked good. But he was out of the country at some points and there were other things that made it clear he couldn't possibly have done it."
By now, given all the people they have spoken to, investigators think it is entirely possible that they have interviewed the bomber himself.
"He may well be in our files," one agent said.
"The problem is not that there are no leads; there are too many," said James Cavanaugh, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who has worked on the case. "And Unabomber hasn't told us enough. I feel he wants to tell us more."
No one is giving up. They remain hopeful that at some point, if he has not already, the bomber will brag of his deeds to someone who will turn him in. Or that he will slip up. "Unabomber is human," said Mr. Cavanaugh. "He has a flaw. When we find it, we'll catch him."
GRAPHIC: Photos: A letter sent to The New York Times in June 1993, shortly before two bombings, warned of "a newsworthy event." The authorities said the author was behind a string of bombings in the 1970's and 80's. David Gelernter, a Yale professor, was injured by a letter bomb last year when he opened a package mailed to his office. He held his two sons, Joshua, 3, and Daniel, 6, at their home in Woodbridge, Conn. (Carl David Labianca); The phone room at the San Francisco office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is heading the case of 15 serial bombings. Agents have have talked to forest rangers and 10,000 people named Nathan R. (George Olson for The New York Times)(pg. 52); A lack of clues is not the problem in the hunt for a serial bomber. The leads on the desk of an agent at the San Francisco office of the F.B.I. are marked "Best," "Medium" and "Worst." The "Best" pile is empty; those leads go out immediately. (George Olson for The New York Times)(pg. 49)