Unabomber News History

Copyright 1995 The Times Mirror Company  

Los Angeles Times

July 30, 1995, Sunday, Home Edition Correction Appended

SECTION: Part A; Page 1; Metro Desk

LENGTH: 1784 words





Each day the tips flow in, a hundred of them, sometimes more. They come from Sacramento, San Francisco and places far beyond -- from people who believe they know the crafty serial bomber who has killed three people and wounded 23 more.

Despite the extraordinary outpouring, authorities said last week that there is no prime suspect in the 17-year-old Unabom case. But with the promise of a $1.1-million reward for the killer's capture, there have been possibilities galore.

For a time, federal agents zeroed in on a suspicious sailor, only to learn he was at sea during one of the bombings. On another occasion, a handyman in Salt Lake City became a tantalizing target, but he too had an alibi. Authorities also scrutinized a career criminal in Northern California, because his Social Security number matches a code the bomber uses to identify himself in letters.

One "potential suspect" on the FBI's list is James William Kilgore, 48, a fugitive from justice who went underground on a bomb-related charge in 1976 and has not been seen since. Kilgore is best known for his connections to the Symbionese Liberation Army -- the terrorist group that kidnaped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst more than two decades ago.

Some of those familiar with the Kilgore case see parallels with the Unabomber. The height and general appearance are about right. So is the timing: the bomber started mailing his deadly packages in 1978, not long after Kilgore disappeared, vowing to attack the U.S. government.

But the FBI has not pressed hard to find him, much to the frustration of some critics of the Unabom probe: "He is the only fugitive wanted for bombing and hiding for 18 years -- and they can't find him?" said one law enforcement source. "At least if they find him, they can find out whether he is the guy."

Officially, Kilgore remains "a potential suspect, as much as anybody else who hasn't been fully cleared, since he is still a fugitive," said the FBI's Sacramento spokesman, Tom Griffin.

The theory that Kilgore might be the Unabomber was "looked at with a fine-toothed comb," said one federal source. "Although he hasn't been totally eliminated, it doesn't strike any of (the investigators) as a juicy thing."

Those who knew Kilgore before he turned fugitive say he is an unlikely serial killer. He is a nice guy among hard-edged radicals, they say, an idealist to the core.

Since the Unabomber surfaced in the Midwest nearly two decades ago, investigators have checked out hundreds of suspects. Because of his targets, which have included airline executives and college professors, agents have focused much of their energy on employees of airlines and universities, as well as failed graduate students disgruntled because of thwarted ambitions.

This year, when the bomber killed a Sacramento timber lobbyist and threatened to blow up a plane at Los Angeles International Airport, agents received a flurry of tips to a special, 24-hour hot line. Many calls have been wildly improbable, fingering ex-husbands delinquent on child support payments and a variety of apparently harmless eccentrics, including a hermit living in the northern Sierra.

Other calls have sparked visits by the FBI. Last month, two agents showed up at the home of a former editor of the Berkeley Barb newspaper, saying they had a tip that he was the Unabomber. And the operator of a low-power, pirate radio station called Free Radio Berkeley was visited by an agent with a similar accusation. Both men say the tips were unfounded and that they know of other Bay Area activists who also have been questioned.

In 1993, agents surmised that a seven-digit code used by the Unabomber as an identifier in his letters to newspapers and others might be a Social Security number. It was, belonging to a small-time career criminal who once lived in Sacramento -- where agents believe the Unabomber may live.

Investigators became more intrigued when they discovered that the convict bears a tattoo reading "Purewoods" on his arm. Wood is a strong theme in the Unabomber's attacks, both in the components of his devices and the names and addresses of his targets.

But the criminal, whose record is dominated by theft and other property crimes, was ruled out as a suspect because he was in prison at the time of two bombings in 1993.

Unlike many other potential suspects, Kilgore presents special problems for investigators. He has been underground so long that even onetime friends cannot describe his current appearance or political beliefs.

As with the Unabomber, his whereabouts are a mystery, which means that agents cannot rule out his participation in the 16 attacks. And as with the Unabomber, his occupation, lifestyle and habits are all unknown.

Kilgore first surfaced in connection with the case in April, when KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, citing unnamed federal sources, called him a "prime suspect" in the Unabom attacks. FBI officials have repudiated the report, but concede that Kilgore is one of many people they would like to interview.

Some law enforcement officials believe that Kilgore's background, coupled with other factors, make him worth a careful look.

"I think he's interesting, and you certainly can't eliminate him," said Lt. Joe Enloe, a Sacramento homicide detective involved in the investigation. "The Unabomber has been virtually invisible . . . all these years, and you can say the same about Kilgore."

Herbert Clough, the former agent-in-charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, said: "He meets a lot of the qualifications, in my view. He's real interesting because of a number of . . . similarities."

Among the reasons that Kilgore has attracted the attention of some law enforcement officials:

* Photographs of Kilgore taken before he disappeared resemble a composite sketch of the Unabomber, drawn after a lone witness spotted someone leaving a bomb in a Salt Lake City parking lot in 1987. Like the bomber, Kilgore is a white male with reddish hair now in his 40s. His build -- 5 feet, 10 inches, 170 pounds -- matches the description of the Unabomber as a man 5 feet, 10 inches, 160 pounds.

* Kilgore is, in the words of one law enforcement source, "a man of many disguises," who easily obtained driver's licenses and other identification in other names.

* Born in Portland, Ore., he is the son of a former Marin County lumber broker, which may be significant because of the wood theme running through the Unabomber's attacks.

Some of the bomber's explosive devices have arrived in wooden boxes, while others have had handcrafted wood parts. One of his targets was Percy Wood of Lake Forest, Ill.; another lived on Aspen Drive. And his latest victim, Sacramento lobbyist Gilbert Murray, worked for the California Forestry Assn. until he was killed by a mail bomb in April.

* Raised in Marin County, Kilgore knew the Bay Area intimately and also spent time in Sacramento. Several of the Unabomber's packages and letters have been mailed from Sacramento, and investigators believe he lives there or in the Bay Area.

* There are similarities between bombs planted by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s and devices mailed by the Unabomber. Larry Baggett, a former bomb squad expert for the Los Angeles Police Department, said parallels include the use of wood components, the presence of nails as shrapnel, the nature of the trigger mechanism, the use of batteries for ignition, and the meticulous care used in the assembly of the devices.

"I'm not saying it's him, but there are definite similarities," said Baggett, who dismantled two SLA bombs planted beneath LAPD vehicles in the mid-1970s.

* Kilgore is wanted on a charge of possessing an unregistered explosive device, and FBI documents show that his fingerprints were found on a piece of electrician's tape on a pipe bomb transported from an SLA hide-out. The indictment alleges that Kilgore hired a man to move the bomb to another location. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted.

"For many years, one of the individuals involved with the SLA . . . was reputed to be the bomb expert for the SLA," said a source who is familiar with the SLA prosecutions. "That was Kilgore."

However, those who know him from the turbulent days of rebellion, arrest warrants and eventual flight from the law say Kilgore does not fit the stereotype of an anarchist bomber and is an improbable Unabom suspect.

Patricia Hearst, an SLA kidnap victim who later helped rob a bank, described him in her book as a source of calm amid egocentric hotheads who made up the terrorist clan. She called Kilgore, a onetime graduate student in economics at UC Santa Barbara, "the model of reason."

Michael Bortin, once a close friend and house painting partner of Kilgore, agreed. Among all those involved with the SLA, he said, "Jim Kilgore probably was the most levelheaded."

Bortin, who says he and Kilgore were SLA supporters but not members, described his old friend as an idealist, who once considered becoming a priest. Bortin, now a floor refinisher in Portland, said he has not been in touch with Kilgore since the 1970s, but has heard from friends that he now has a family.

In 1990, Sacramento sheriff's detectives questioned Bortin in connection with an April 21, 1975, bank robbery in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, in which Myrna Opshal, a mother of four, was killed while making a deposit for her church. According to FBI records, Hearst has alleged that Kilgore was in the bank when another SLA member shot Opshal.

"I personally find it very offensive that this fine lady, Mrs. Opshal, was killed and no one was ever tried for murder," said Sacramento Police Lt. Harry Machen, who reopened the investigation in 1990 and presented his evidence to a grand jury. "I'm still hopeful. I'd like to talk to Kilgore or anyone else who could help us make a case."

In addition to finding a Kilgore fingerprint on a pipe bomb, federal authorities searching an SLA hide-out found several of his prints on a copy of "The Anarchist Cookbook," which describes how to construct pipe bombs, time bombs and booby traps. It has sold 2 million copies since first published in 1971.

Stuck between two pages of the book, FBI agents found a three-page, typewritten document on building explosives and detonating devices.

Just before going underground, Kilgore and three other SLA associates issued a "communique" vowing to continue the terrorist group's struggle:

"We are proud to be among those fighting against the U.S. empire. We are proud to have uncompromisingly supported people who have taken up arms against the enemy. We will continue the struggle no matter what the personal consequence may be."

CORRECTION-DATE: August 3, 1995, Thursday, Home Edition; August 6, 1995, Sunday, Home Edition CORRECTION: FOR THE RECORD

Unabom investigation -- A story in The Times on Sunday incorrectly reported that KCBS-TV called fugitive James William Kilgore a "prime suspect" in the Unabom case. In a report last April, the station described Kilgore as the "the first possible Unabom suspect ever named," and the FBI responded, saying Kilgore was not a "prime suspect."FOR THE RECORD

Unabom probe: A photo caption accompanying a July 30 story misidentified a driver's license photo of Michael Alexander Bortin as James Kilgore, who authorities say is a potential Unabom suspect.

GRAPHIC: Photo, These driver's license photos are believed to be one and the same person -- James William Kilgore, a potential suspect in the Unabom case, according to law enforcement officials.