Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 The Chronicle Publishing Co.

The San Francisco Chronicle



LENGTH: 1155 words

HEADLINE: Why Unabomber Is So Hard to Catch Random attacks, careful coverups perplex authorities

BYLINE: Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer


From Oklahoma, the militant, crew-cut visage of a suspect in chains was beamed out to the world only two days after the federal building was bombed to oblivion. But 17 years after the UNABOM killer began his deadly bombing spree, he is still at large, confounding the same federal agencies that so quickly pounced on an alleged Oklahoma bomber.

Why does the UNABOM terrorist, who struck again Monday in Sacramento, continue to elude authorities?

''We'd love to solve this one just like the one in Oklahoma City is being solved,'' FBI spokesman Rick Smith said. ''But this (UNABOM case) is a much different situation -- there are . . . just indiscriminate, periodic instances where he plants or sends a bomb.''

Yesterday, the FBI announced that the Unabomber recently mailed out three letters describing his motives -- a tantalizing break in the case that has made investigators much more optimistic.

Nevertheless, experienced private investigators say that if the case is solved, it will be through a combination of detailed forensic work, lucky breaks and infiltration into whatever group the UNABOM killer may be part of -- if the attacker belongs to a group at all.

In a letter to the New York Times in June 1993, the UNABOM suspect wrote, ''We are an anarchist group calling ourselves FC.'' But authorities have never been able to flesh out that hint, and they assume he still operates by himself.

Experts emphasize that a random killer who works alone and is tidy and careful about covering up his tracks is extremely difficult to catch.

''With Oklahoma and with the World Trade Center bombing, the agents were able to track them down by vehicle identification numbers,'' said Emeryville private investigator Nancy Pemberton, referring to bomb-damaged auto parts that led the FBI to the suspects. ''With the UNABOM case, they're between a rock and a hard place. Apparently, that person is much more sophisticated and is not leaving the kind of traces left in the other two cases.''

The UNABOM case has confounded federal agents since it began on May 25, 1978, when a package found in a university parking lot in Chicago exploded, injuring a security guard. Since then, there have been 15 incidents attributed to the UNABOM killer, including the latest, a package bomb that killed a timber industry lobbyist.

The UNABOM suspect has claimed two other victims along the way -- a computer store owner in Sacramento in December 1985 and an advertising executive in New Jersey almost exactly 10 years later. Still, no suspect has been identified.

In the Oklahoma City case, Timothy McVeigh was identified as a prime suspect after investigators traced pieces of the Ryder truck he apparently had rented and parked in front of the federal building shortly before the 9:04 a.m. blast last Wednesday. Less than two hours later, driving a ratty car with no license plate and carrying a concealed weapon, he was stopped by a suspicious Oklahoma state trooper.

Apart from a brief glimpse by a witness eight years ago, the UNABOM killer has never been identified, let alone apprehended.

''The UNABOM guy is playing a game with the authorities,'' said Michael Hershman, president of the Fairfax Group, a Virginia- based private investigation firm. ''He doesn't want to get caught, and he's challenging the authorities. The guy in Oklahoma didn't look at this as a challenge. You don't go speeding away from the scene in a car with no plates. That's like 'Come and catch me.' ''

McVeigh, it now appears, probably was not operating alone. The UNABOM suspect apparently is.

''If you've got two people involved in criminal activity, you have 10 times the chance of finding the guy than if you have one person,'' said Graham Desvernine, a San Francisco private investigator who spent 26 years as an FBI agent.

''The Oklahoma City bombing does not lend itself to having been done by a sole perpetrator,'' Desvernine said. ''It always takes a group to pull off something like this, and you're almost always going to solve a case like this.''

Indeed, in the swift-moving Oklahoma case, agents have already been able to link chemical elements on McVeigh's clothes and in his car to residue found at the blast site.

In the UNABOM case, investigators have managed over the years to put together a fairly extensive forensic profile -- they know the killer likes to handcraft his bombs out of fine hardwoods, fastened by homemade screws and assembled with finesse.

''This may well be a forensic case,'' said Chuck Morton, criminalistics laboratory director at Hayward's Institute of Forensic Sciences and a veteran of the Robert F. Kennedy assassination case and the Ted Bundy and Juan Corona mass murder investigations.

''But forensic science is not very helpful unless you have something to connect it to. It has to point to somebody first, make a connection to somebody suspicious.''


A 17-year run of package bombings is code-named UNABOM because early bombings targeted universities and airlines.

1 May 25, 1978: A bomb at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., injures a security guard.

2 May 9, 1979: A bomb injures one person at Northwestern's Technological Institute.

3 November 15, 1979: Twelve people suffered smoke inhalation when a bomb exploded in a plane's cargo hold during an American Airlines flight, forcing an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport near Washington.

4 June 10, 1980: United Airlines president injured at home near Chicago. area.

5 October 8, 1981: Bomb is placed in a business classroom at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. No one injured.

6 May 5, 1982: One person injured at Vanderbilt University in Nashville; package addressed to a professor.

7 July 2, 1982: Professor of electrical engineering and computer science injured in faculty lounge at the University of California at Berkeley.

8 May 15, 1985: One person injured by bomb found in computer room at UC Berkeley.

9 June 13, 1985: Police disarm bomb mailed to the Boeing Co. in Auburn, Wash.

10 November 15, 1985: Secretary injured by package mailed to professor at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

11 December 11, 1985: Man killed by bomb found near computer rental store in Sacramento.

12 February 20, 1987: Man injured by bomb left behind computer store in Salt Lake City.

13 June 22, 1993: Geneticist at University of California at San Francisco injured by bomb sent to his home.

14 June 24, 1993: Yale University computer scientist injured in office.

15 December 10, 1994: Advertising executive killed by bomb sent to his North Caldwell, N.J., home.

16 April 25, 1995: Timber industry lobbyist killed by bomb sent to his office at the California Forestry Association in Sacramento.