Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Ted Kaczynski: The Unabomber

Programming Death

On June 15th 1985, University of Michigan psychology Professor James McConnell received a package at his Ann Arbor, Michigan home. The sender was a Ralph Kloppenburg at the University of Utah. An attached letter told McConnell, "I'd like you to read this book. Everyone in your position should read this book."

A celebrity author, McConnell had appeared in the media frequently. He was popular with interviewers because he made his work in behavioral science both understandable and entertaining. "Kloppenburg" had also claimed to be a student of behavior patterns and their influence on humanity.

To an academic, requests to read unsolicited material were not unusual. But when McConnell's assistant — Nick Suino — opened the package, an explosion rocked the room. Shrapnel ripped into his arm and midsection, and he required urgent medical attention. Following his recovery, he said, "I was relatively lucky. Others have lost fingers, limbs or even lives... I have since healed. Because of the loud sound of the explosion inside the house, I lost my hearing almost totally that day. I had some degree of difficultly hearing for about three months." His hearing eventually returned to normal.

But McConnell, who was nearby, also suffered partial loss of hearing that day. Sadly, for a man who loved music, that damage was permanent.

Hugh Scrutton (AP)
Hugh Scrutton (AP)

A block of wood with nails protruding from it was lying in a parking lot behind the Rentech Computer Store in Sacramento, California. Owner Hugh Scrutton noticed it — the kind of thing that could damage tires — as he left his premises.

Scrutton went to move it — he likely meant to toss it in a nearby dumpster.

But the minute he disturbed the chunk of wood, an enormous blast echoed throughout the strip mall. Its force was so great it blew off most of his hand. The bomb blasted metal fragments into his organs and impaled his heart.

The Unabomber had reached a malicious milestone — he had now taken a human life.

The bomb itself was a study in cruelty. To make sure it killed or injured as viciously as possible, it was loaded with sharp-edged chunks of metal, nails and splinters. It was the bomber's most powerful bomb to date, comprising three 10-inch pipes filled with a super-explosive mix of four chemicals — potassium sulfate, potassium chloride, ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder.

Even the mechanism that triggered the explosion was backed up in a new way. As usual, the use of wood and the FC ID were evident.

The next crime provided the Unabomb investigators with their first real hope of identifying the true killer.

On February 20th, 1987 a stranger was observed outside CAAMS, Inc. — a Salt Lake City computer firm. A secretary observed a man in a hooded sweatshirt placing something — she wasn't sure what — on the ground.

The man, she recalled was nearly six feet tall, around 165 pounds and wore aviator sunglasses. Her description was later used in the now famous Unabomber sketch. The man looked at her and walked away.

The Unabomber Sketch (AP)
The Unabomber Sketch (AP)

Later, CAAMS' vice-president Gary Wright drove his truck into the parking lot.

"...I noticed there was a piece of wood (that) had nails sticking out of it..."

When Wright went to kick the tire hazard out of the way, it exploded with just as much force as the previous bomb.

Wright later described the blast: "At first I thought I'd been shot...I started to bounce around quite a bit, and I could see my pants were missing from about my knee down on my left leg. My shoes had been burned...there were quite a few holes in my body..."

Gary Wright described the aftermath of the attack at the sentencing phase of the trial;

"I required three separate surgeries to try and reconstruct nerves and to move tendons in my left arm and hand. I had extensive plastic surgery to my face. And hundreds of metal and wood fragments were removed from areas throughout my body. To this day, (11 years later) I still remove pieces of shrapnel that continue to rise from below the surface of the skin."

The bomb that hospitalized Wright was a slight improvement on the previous computer store bomb. The retaining system for the end plugs had been refined, and a more sensitive trigger mechanism employed.

Mercifully, the bombings stopped for more than six years. Some investigators speculated Kaczynski had been scared off after he'd been seen, and a sketch of the Unabomber had circulated. Others came up with any number of theories — including one that the Unabomber had discovered religion.

Not quite.

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