Bomber from the backwoods?

The FBI thinks he is the mail-bomb killer. Tim Cornwell in Montana talks to locals about a man who dropped out of society
Click to follow
CHRIS WAITS - sometime logger, mechanic, concert pianist and preacher - is writing down his memories of the man named as the Unabomber. He could not begin to describe a 20-year relationship with the dignity it deserved, he said, without collecting his thoughts. He has three pages already, from their conversations in his pick-up truck and the times when Theodore John Kaczynski slipped shyly into his former repair shop, disappearing if company arrived.

The phone rings in the bare hall that Mr Waits is converting from a garage into the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, an ambitious project in a town whose inhabitants fill a scant four pages in the regional phone book. Tom Brokaw, anchorman for NBC television news, is on the line, the latest of the media bigshots to plead in person for an interview. It is the networks' standard technique when all else fails: put Mr Brokaw or Peter Jennings, his ABC counterpart, or Dan Rather (CBS) on the phone and bowl over some small-town hick with the glow of celebrity. In this case, it failed.

People in Lincoln knew the alleged mastermind of an 18-year trail of bombings simply as Ted, but they usually exchanged little more than a nod. Most knew him only by sight, as the unkempt man in the straw hat with a backpack who rode the four miles into town on a bike, often toiling along snowy roads in sub-freezing temperatures. He was a town character, part of the scenery, said Beverly Coleman, a part-time worker at the library where he borrowed voluminous classical works and always returned them on time. "I just got the impression he needed to be alone, and some people do. In this part of the country, if people want to do that, we let them."

The man who allegedly claimed to lead a group of revolutionaries committed to overthrowing industrial society carried a Montana driving licence but apparently never owned a car. Mr Waits gave him lifts, helped him fix his bike, and listened to him talk. The two men lived near each other, off the remote mountain road where Mr Kaczynski bought his small piece of the Big Sky state in 1971, and Mr Waits seemed the closest he had to a friend. "A Christian attribute is to reach out to a person who needs help," was all he would say, nursing his notes until "the dust has settled". "He hasn't been formally charged," he said. "In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty."

Montana has about 870,000 people, several smallish cities, 88,000 miles of highway with no speed limits, and 200 highway patrolmen. Its remoteness has made it a hideout for fugitives from the Hole in the Wall Gang, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to draft dodgers from the Vietnam war staying close to the Canadian border. The "nice-looking young men" from the FBI, as one resident called them, were not only in Lincoln last week; some 350 miles east, on the Montana plains, agents carefully dressed in non-threatening sweaters did their best to persuade a small colony of armed extremists called the Freemen to come quietly out of their barricaded ranch.

As tourist officials lamented Montana's new image as a haven for dangerous madmen, one local radio station ran a competition for a new state motto. Suggestions included "Welcome to Montana: it's where you're wanted", and "At Least Our Cows are Sane". The Independent, a weekly newspaper in the university town of Missoula, ran the famous black-and-white photofit of the bombing suspect and invited readers to design next week's cover in a "Unabomber colouring contest". "Hey, folks!" the paper declared. "One of the most colourful characters in law-enforcement history turns out to be a regular ol' backwoods Montana recluse."

The road to Lincoln weaves along the Blackfoot river through pine-filled valleys and still snowy ranch land. Tumbledown log ranchhouses alternate with that ubiquitous American eyesore, the mobile home strewn round with backyard junk. There are frequent fishing spots and taxidermy stores for hunters, along with a Wild West Trading Post, boarded up for lease or sale.

The town, elevation 4,300ft, uses Highway 200 as its main street. It starts with a dried-beef factory and ends with a snowmobile rental business, with a school, old people's centre, petrol station, a motley assortment of shops and five bars in between. Economically it has been at the mercy of boom and bust in the timber and mining industries, but a new open-cast gold mine promises several hundred new jobs. It has, according to locals, some of the coldest weather and highest rates of alcoholism and divorce in the US. Sometimes it snows in August, and last winter temperatures dropped to minus 40C outside Mr Kaczynski's board-and-plywood cabin, 12ft by 10ft, which he kept heated with a single stove.

Mr Kaczynski has not been charged in any of the 16 bombings, over 18 years, that killed three people, wounded 23 and led to the longest and costliest investigation in FBI history. He remained in a Helena, Montana, jail yesterday after waiving his right to a bail hearing, accused only of possession of bomb-making materials found in his hand-made cabin, including intricate designs, chemicals, and a partially assembled pipe bomb. He walked to the courthouse through a throng of reporters, making no attempt to cover his face, and seemed at ease when the charges were read. But with the expected match of the Unabomber's letters and writings to a typewriter found in his home, FBI agents were brashly confident that after many false trails they had found their man.

The suspect was born in working-class Chicago on 22 May 1942. Like his brother David, who helped to buy his Lincoln hermitage, he was spurred to early academic prowess by his parents. But while he completed high school in three rather than five years, and designed school rockets that shot thousands of feet in the air, he struggled to fit in socially, because of his youth. He graduated from Harvard at 20, and gained a PhD from the University of Chicago, but showed little interest in anything but maths.

It is still not clear why, in 1969, he resigned as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley - like Harvard and Chicago, one of the leading US educational institutions. But he was described in a letter from a senior faculty member as "pathologically shy", and was said to be disgusted at widespread drug use and liberal politics. Colleagues recalled that he skipped the almost obligatory beer parties after seminars.

Mr Kaczynski reached Lincoln by way of Utah, where he worked in a series of menial odd jobs, though a Harvard alumni magazine also listed an unconfirmed address in Afghanistan. He bought 1.2 acres from a local rancher. With no running water or electricity, he grew carrots, potatoes and parsnips, but complained to neighbours of the struggle to protect his organic vegetable garden from rabbits, deer and frost through the truncated three-month growing season. A game warden checking on his property once found corpses of coyotes he had apparently been eating, said Ms Coleman.

On 25 May 1978, seven years after Ted Kaczynski disappeared into the wilderness, a package found at the University of Illinois was returned to its apparent sender, an academic at Chicago's Northwestern University. He did not recognise it. The security guard who opened it became the Unabomber's first victim, though he was not seriously injured.

The geography of the bombings that followed appear to tally closely with places where Mr Kaczynski had lived or worked. At least four were posted or delivered in the Chicago area, four in northern California and two in Salt Lake City. Most were aimed at university professors and airline companies - hence the tag "Unabomber" - but the last two killed a New York advertising executive and a California forestry official.

While deeply relieved at his apparent capture, the Unabomber's targets were still largely mystified as to why they were chosen. Last Friday, FBI agents visited a Utah academic, Leroy Wood Bearnson, with dossiers on eight men, including Mr Kaczynski. Professor Bearnson's return address was on a package that exploded in a Nashville university in 1982, seriously injuring a secretary, but the suspect's name rang no bell. "I don't know the fellow," he said.

The FBI's serial crimes unit created a profile of the bomber which mirrored Mr Kaczynski and his movements with uncanny accuracy. Agents studied Chicago high-school rosters and questioned California and Utah academics as they searched for a highly educated white male loner. The apparent breakthrough came after the Unabomber showed a desire for publicity. When the Kaczynskis' family home in Chicago was sold earlier this year, family members found anarchist tracts strikingly similar to the bomber's 35,000-word manifesto printed by the Washington Post and New York Times after he offered to stop the bombings in return.

The suspicion that his older brother was the Unabomber was agonising for David Kaczynski, described as a hugely shy intellectual with a passion for art and poetry who himself lived in a small cabin for five years in remote western Texas with his wife, Linda. First he contacted the FBI through an intermediary. Eventually he met agents in person and handed over the papers. David, who now lives in Schenectady, New York state, has been under siege by the press since his role was leaked by FBI agents, but has spoken to no one. On Friday the morning paper - with his brother's face on the front page - lay on the porch, and groceries delivered by neighbours stood by the back door. The curtains remained drawn.

One neighbour described David and Linda Kaczynski as "people of great integrity, caring and compassionate" but also "private" - several other people in the street did not know their names. The same description was attached to Ted Kaczynski by his neighbours in Lincoln; but there are other, scarier people who live eccentric, hermit-like lives around the Montana town. George Youdarian, one of the few people to visit Ted's cabin, cheerfully described a one-eyed recluse living in an old trailer and nicknamed "Spider" for his long limbs and habit of creeping silently up behind unsuspecting fishermen. A young threesome from Pennsylvania in their twenties and known as the Cabbage Patch Kids have set up camp behind a snowy ridge accessible only by four-wheel drive, and locals complain they are living off the state.

While he looked shabby, and said little, Mr Kaczynski waved and smiled at people he knew. "I miss you at the library," he told Ms Coleman, after she left her job there. People assumed he was a Vietnam veteran, burying himself in the woods perhaps to escape some war-time horror and living off his pension. But they also remembered his frequent visits to the post office, and mysterious trips to the state capital at Helena, an hour and a half's drive away.

Freedom, the Unabomber wrote in his manifesto, is being in control of one's existence rather than at the whim of rules imposed by the technological society. "Primitive individuals and small groups actually had considerable power over nature," the document read. "When primitive man needed food he knew how to find and prepare edible roots, how to track game and take it with home-made weapons. He knew how to protect himself from heat, cold, rain, dangerous animals etc."

But recently there were signs that Ted Kaczynski was beginning to lose his self-reliance, possibly as a result of pneumonia two years ago. For the first time, he was late in paying his $200 annual property tax this spring. Six weeks ago he applied for a job at the Blackfoot Market as a sales assistant.

Soon afterwards, about 25 FBI agents filtered into Lincoln, telling the local sheriff they were on a training mission. On Wednesday morning they arrested Mr Kaczynski after a brief scuffle. "Ted, we'd like to have a talk," said the agent who arrived on his doorstep.

Until that moment, for most people in Lincoln, the Unabomber was a distant threat. Many are still reluctant to believe that the eccentric down the road was a multiple killer who sent finely constructed, deadly little packages through the mail. "Where we live, that's another world," said Ms Coleman. "It's somewhere else. It doesn't affect our lives. This happens elsewhere, it doesn't happen here."