Copyright 1995 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
June 29, 1995, Thursday, Home Edition
SECTION: Part A; Page 1; Metro Desk
LENGTH: 1603 words
HEADLINE: TERRORIST FRUSTRATES HIS PURSUERS
BYLINE: By JENIFER WARREN and DAN MORAIN, TIMES STAFF WRITERS
They have scoured junkyards for scraps matching parts he uses in his bombs. They have used computers to search almanacs for anniversaries that might explain the timing of his attacks.
They have looked for clues in the movements of the stars and the moon, and in the type of wood he uses to construct his devices of death. They have even posted a $1-million reward, hoping a greedy acquaintance will be tempted to talk.
They have done everything, it seems, but catch the criminal they call the Unabomber.
For 17 years, the terrorist who threatened to blow up a plane out of LAX has eluded authorities. Despite millions of dollars, endless man-hours and the most sophisticated investigative techniques available, the Unabomber's identity -- and motive -- remain unknown.
This week the bomber upped the ante, warning that another of his powerful, meticulously built creations would explode on a plane out of a major metropolitan airport. It is not the first time he has targeted airlines. One of his bombs exploded aboard a Boeing 727, and another was mailed to the president of United Airlines.
But this week's maneuver is bolder, and for investigators hunting the Unabomber, the escalation is frustrating indeed. Perhaps most maddening, the Unabomber followed his threat with a second message -- received by the New York Times late Wednesday -- that said he was not truly planning to blow up a plane, but only wanted to keep the world on its toes.
"Since the public has a short memory, we decided to play one last prank to remind them who we are," said the letter, which was authenticated by the FBI.
At a news conference in San Francisco earlier Wednesday, FBI Special Agent in Charge Jim R. Freeman refused to comment on specifics of the investigation. Freeman said that about 150 agents are working on a task force searching for the Unabomber and that the number may go up.
The New York Times letter adds a new dimension to the case, indicating that the bomber takes a certain delight in his lethal cat-and-mouse game with the law. So far, he is far ahead in the contest, stumping authorities at each turn.
"This is a very, very tough case -- the toughest in memory," said Herb Clough, former FBI special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office. "They've pulled out all the stops but still can't catch the guy. It's very frustrating."
Ed Gleba, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, agreed: "This guy shuts down the mail, creates havoc in the airports, scares everybody. And he's probably sitting at home, watching TV and saying, 'Success.' "
Despite the terrifying nature of the Unabomber's newest threat, experts said it will enhance what the FBI knows about the man. Behavioral scientists will study his warning notes, published Wednesday in the San Francisco Chronicle and today in the New York Times, for new clues in his language and syntax, and will ponder his timing to see how it might fit a possible pattern.
Extensive publicity about his threat may jog the memory of a potential witness. And the more he exposes himself, the greater the odds that he will slip up and be caught.
"The more we hear from him, the better the chances of catching him," said Steve Higgins, who worked on the Unabomber case for a decade as former director of the ATF. "We learn more every time he communicates with us."
Although FBI agents were not talking Wednesday, outside experts speculated that the latest threat may reflect the Unabomber's envy of attention received by perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Although the Unabomber's attacks have attracted increasing publicity, they have not matched the level of coverage directed at Oklahoma City suspect Timothy McVeigh and the carnage he allegedly wrought.
"He doesn't want to be pushed off the stage," said Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who has tracked the case closely. "He also may be bumping up against . . . his own mortality, realizing that he may not have much more time to achieve his grandiose goals."
James Allan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, speculated that the Unabomber is frustrated that his demands have not been met. Before he sent the last bomb, which killed timber industry lobbyist Gilbert Murray in April in Sacramento, the Unabomber mailed a letter to the New York Times, declaring that he would stop his violence if a national newspaper or magazine published a lengthy manifesto he has written.
"He hasn't received the response he sought to his publish-or-perish message, so he's turning up the heat," said Fox. "He figures by targeting an airplane, causing everyone to feel fearful and at risk, he can get our attention."
Whether the LAX threat marks a diversion from the Unabomber's script is impossible to know -- because only the bomber himself knows what that script is. But before he sent the bomb that took Murray's life, the Unabomber sent letters warning of new attacks.
This time, he has been far more specific, suggesting that he is becoming ever bolder, said terrorism expert Brian M. Jenkins of Kroll Associates in Los Angeles. He is adding a sick new twist -- attempting to play with his pursuers' minds by suggesting that the whole affair is a prank.
"He is providing advance notice of when and where," Jenkins said. "It is consistent with a longer-term evolution. . . . He has become godlike in his own mind. He can take life, he can choose not to take life."
Jenkins said this shows that the Unabomber is fitting the pattern of other serial bombers, noting that they increasingly interact with the media and "acquire a sense of omnipotence." Their campaign of violence becomes increasingly lethal, he said, and lasts until they are caught.
According to American criminologists, there has never been a manhunt quite like the search for the Unabomber, who has killed three and injured 23. Some liken its intensity and scope to the search for the kidnaper of baby Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. in 1932.
The most similar string of bombings occurred in the 1950s, when a man named George Metesky terrorized New York City with homemade bombs left at crowded locations. Fifteen people were injured during his reign of terror, but he was caught after seven years of attacks.
One reason the Unabomber has been so difficult to catch, terrorism experts say, is that despite his written claims to the contrary, he probably acts alone and is not part of a larger group. That means there are no conspirators who might slip up or grow disgruntled and talk.
"This is a lone individual who can cover his tracks and not leave much information," said Jeffrey D. Simon, a Los Angeles author and editor of a journal that tracks terrorism, called TVI Report.
What is remarkable about the Unabomber, in part, is his stamina, and the fact that he resumed bombings after long silences that led agents to suspect he had died or been imprisoned.
His methods are also extraordinary. He spends hours lovingly polishing the parts in his bombs, and often uses wood and common household items that cannot be easily traced.
The Unabomber's first bomb was contained in a package sent to the University of Illinois in May, 1978. By his third bombing, a pattern emerged. In that attack -- an explosion on American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago to Washington on Nov. 15, 1979 -- a small fire forced an emergency landing and sent 12 passengers to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. When the remains of the device were compared to an earlier bomb, it was clear they were built by the same hands.
One clue has befuddled the FBI more than almost any -- the use of the initials FC, both on the bombs and in correspondence from the attacker. For a time, agents theorized it stood for "f--- computers," as many of his targets had a link to technology.
In 1993, the Unabomber spoke to the world for the first time. In a letter to the New York Times, he claimed to be part of an anarchist group calling itself FC. The message included a nine-digit number, a portion of which accompanied the letter to the Chronicle this week.
Theorizing that it might be a Social Security number, investigators traced it to a small-time career criminal from Northern California. They discounted him as a suspect when it turned out he was in prison during several bombings in 1993.
The New York Times letter also provided another clue -- the impression of a message the bomber may have penned to himself on another piece of paper. The message said: "Call Nathan R Wed 7 p.m." Investigators painstakingly pursued the lead, prowling phone books, driver's license records and other files to identify people named Nathan with last or middle names beginning with R. Ten thousand Nathan Rs were turned up and are being interviewed, so far to no avail.
After the April bomb that killed Murray, the FBI assigned 60 more agents to temporary duty on the Unabomber task force. By Wednesday, more agents were working the case.
Many of them are assigned to chase tips from the FBI's toll-free hot line (1-800-701-BOMB), which has been swamped with calls. This spring, agents searched metalworking shops in the Bay Area in an attempt to connect the custom-crafted bombs with machine work.
More recently, investigators prowled the Sierra for clues. In his rambling April letter, the Unabomber said he used the mountain range to test his devices.
"Eventually," Clough said, "they'll get a break and this guy will be caught. Either that or he'll get too careless and blow himself up with one of his bombs."
Times staff writer Richard C. Paddock in San Francisco contributed to this story.
GRAPHIC: Photo, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena speaks to media at LAX. LARRY DAVIS / Los Angeles Times