Witness to History: Investigating the Unabomber
On Saturday, September 20th, 140 people attended the National Law Enforcement Museum’s Witness to History: Investigating the Unabomber program, held in partnership with the Newseum in their Knight Studio in Washington, DC and generously sponsored by Target. The program was the tenth in the Witness to History series. Panelists included Jim Freeman, Donald Max Noel, and Terry Turchie, three principal members of the Task force credited with apprehending the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Their experiences are documented in a new book, Unabomber: How the FBI Broke Its own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted Kaczynski. The event kicked off with opening remarks from Memorial Fund Chairman and CEO Craig Floyd. Floyd was followed by discussion moderator, John Maynard from the Newseum, who prompted panelists to recount their experiences while serving on the Unabomber task force. Topics included how the task force changed their policies in order to find and capture the Unabomber, and the importance of the 35,000 word manifesto that the Kaczynski sent to major newspapers.
Kaczynski sent homemade bombs that targeted universities, airlines and computer stores, killing three people and injuring 23 others. The search for the Unabomber became one of the largest and most expensive cases in FBI history, spanning almost 17 years, involving a file consisting of 59,000 volumes of information, and thousands of viable suspects.
Turchie, assistant Special Agent in charge of the task force, discussed how the FBI changed their strategies in order to apprehend the Unabomber. Turchie and Freeman came onto the task force towards the end of the investigation, when morale was low and not much progress was occurring. “They’d worked really hard, they’d been there a long time, and they were just tired,” Turchie said. Each member of the task force was encouraged to choose a partner in the hopes that if one was having a down day, the other could bring spirits up and help promote creativity.
Regarding the importance of the manifesto Freeman, Special Agent in charge of the task force, said that it is difficult to find a criminal when they are not communicating. However, “once [a criminal] starts communicating, you have an opportunity for lead material to develop. And the Unabomber had been quiet for about seven years up until he started bombing again in 1993 … and he started writing letters.”
The manifesto allowed the task force to get an idea of who the Unabomber was. Turchie described how the manifesto became a major clue in the case saying, “We spent months really reading and trying to understand the manifesto. And by the time we had someone step forward that could help us bring it together, we were already on those trails and we were able to go back and pull those pieces together.” The manifesto, which was published in media outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times at the urging of the FBI, brought forward the most crucial tip from the Unabomber’s own brother. David Kaczynski recognized the language and ideas of his brother, Ted, and had his attorney contact the FBI with the tip.
The discussion then moved on to the identification and capture of the Unabomber. Noel was sent to investigate in Montana, where the Unabomber was hiding. He described seeing Ted Kaczynski for the first time: “I saw him a month before we actually took him into custody … I walked, along with his neighbor, up a skid road. And when we were about 40 yards away from his cabin, in a clearing, he opened up the door of his cabin and stuck his head out. And my first response was, ‘My God is that what we’ve been looking for all these years?’ He was a wild looking person; he had on an orange knit cap. You know, you conjure up an image of who you think you’re looking for over the years … and he’s this guy living in this little dinky cabin … that just amazed me.” Noel then went on to describe Kaczynski’s arrest. “It went like we planned it,” he said. There was no struggle.
The National Law Enforcement Museum would like to, again, thank Target® for sponsoring our Witness to History programs and the Newseum for partnering on this event.
This program was originally hosted by the Newseum and broadcasted by C-SPAN.
Watch on C-SPAN’s website, here.
- Jim Freeman, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent, Retired
- Terry Turchie, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent, Retired
- Donald Max Noel, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent, Retired