San Francisco Chronicle

Digging up letters in attic decades later — from Unabomber

- By Jack Epstein

Forty-two years ago, I gave the Unabomber travel advice.

I didn’t know back when Ted Kaczynski and I were exchanging letters that he would become one of America’s most infamous domestic terrorists.

He hadn’t yet written his manifesto, published 26 years ago Sunday, in the Washington Post, New York Times and The Chronicle, blaming technology for ruining the planet. In fact, these letters arrived 17 years before the FBI identified Kaczynski as the Unabomber, a name the agency gave him since he sent some of his makeshift bombs to universiti­es and airlines. By the time of his arrest in 1996, Kaczynski’s bombs had killed three people and injured 23 others. When I received his letters, his name wasn’t yet connected to these terrorist incidents.

I kept copies of the letters, along with those from other readers, in scores of files buried in boxes that crowded my attic until a couple of weeks ago, when my wife insisted that I pare them down. Only then did I realize their significan­ce.

When it hit me that my correspond­ent was the same Ted Kaczynski who’d killed three people he’d never met, I felt a shiver of recollecti­on of the fear that prevailed in the Bay Area in the 1970s, during the heyday of serial killers such as the Zodiac,

Zebra, Santa Rosa Hitchhiker and Golden State.

I was also, to be honest, thankful I hadn’t been rude to him.

Kaczynski wrote me because he’d read my book: “Along the Gringo Trail: A Budget Travel Guide to Latin America,” based on my 18 months backpackin­g between Mexico and Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego. The guidebook was written for travelers with little money but plenty of time. It included many places on roads less traveled, which is what probably piqued Kaczynski’s interest.

His letters, addressed to me via my now-defunct Berkeley publisher, And/ Or Press, were both formal and polite.

In the first missive — a single page, typed and double-spaced — Kaczynski wrote that he and his brother needed advice on finding “a small plot of land, in a location as remote from civilizati­on as possible, on which we would live as self-sufficient­ly as we are able. By ‘wilderness,’ I mean a place where the nearest neighbor is, say, five miles away and preferably further.”

The letter went on: “One of the regions that suggests itself to our attention is South America. We have read your excellent book … and your knowledge of South America seems extensive. I would therefore like to ask whether you think South America would provide any suitable locations for a wilderness retreat such as I have described. If so, what areas would you suggest we investigat­e?”

At that time, Kaczynski was no stranger to living remotely and being selfsuffic­ient. In 1971, he had moved into a 10-by-12-foot cabin without running water or electricit­y. He would spend nearly 25 years in that cabin, 5 miles south of the unincorpor­ated community of Lincoln, Mont., near the state capital of Helena. It was there that the FBI found bomb-making materials and the typewriter on which he had written the manifesto and, perhaps, one of my letters. As the federal investigat­ion would show, he handdelive­red his bombs or mailed them from post offices outside Lincoln.

Kaczynski moved to Montana two years after leaving a teaching position at UC Berkeley. He had attended Harvard at age 16 and by 25 had a doctorate in mathematic­s and the teaching position. Before buying the cabin, he returned to his parents’ home in Lombard, Ill., from which he sent me that first letter, dated May 24, 1979.

He had mailed his first bomb one year earlier, on May 25, 1978, to a Northweste­rn University engineerin­g professor named Buckley Crist, who found it suspicious and turned it over to campus police. The officer who opened it — Terry Marker — suffered minor injuries.

Just two weeks before writing me, he had left a mail bomb in a cigar box aimed once again at Northweste­rn University. It was opened by civil engineerin­g graduate student John Harris, who suffered cuts and burns but no serious injury.

In his 35,000-word anti-technology “manifesto” — published Sept. 19, 1995, while he was still on the lam — Kaczynski wrote that the answer to saving the planet was a return to life amid “WILD nature.” He wrote that “freedom means being in control (either as an individual or as a member of a SMALL group) of the life-and-death issues of one’s existence; food, clothing, shelter, and defense against whatever threats there may be in one’s environmen­t.”

The essay appeared after he threatened to send a bomb to an unspecifie­d destinatio­n “with intent to kill” unless the editors of the Post and Times agreed to publish it. The attorney general and the director of the FBI recommende­d publicatio­n, hoping it would lead to identifyin­g the Unabomber, which it did. Kaczynski’s younger brother, David — whom he had hoped to live with in South America — recognized his brother’s writing style and gave the FBI informatio­n that finally ended the bombing spree.

In his letter to me, Kaczynski said he believed the survival skills he had gained in Montana would be useless in large portions of South America’s “wild nature.” He wrote that he and his brother “are not attracted to tropical jungles, because of the problem of malaria and other fevers and because the experience I have acquired of North American wilderness would probably be useless in a tropical jungle.”

He also nixed living near “the middle of an Andean glacier … since trees, shrubs, or some other source of fuel for fires would be minimum requiremen­t.”

I don’t recall the advice I gave him. But given his aversion for jungles and Andean glaciers, I probably suggested Argentina’s sparsely populated Cholila Valley in Patagonia, where legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bought a 12,000-acre ranch with stolen bank money, settling there for six years after fleeing U.S. Pinkerton agents. Much of that northern half of Patagonia is similar to landscapes found in Montana’s Scapegoat Wilderness, with picturesqu­e alpine meadows, rivers and forested hillsides.

The second and last letter — dated Aug. 27, 1979 — was a handwritte­n, six-line thank-you note.

Sent with a return address from Stemple Pass Road, Lincoln, Mont., his note thanked me “for your helpful and courteous reply to my recent inquiry.” He also apologized for the delay in writing back since he “was off in the hills for a considerab­le time, out of touch with everything, as a result of which I got your letter only a couple of days ago. Sincerely, T.J. Kaczynski.”

Three months later, he mailed a bomb from a post office in the Chicago area, which was routed to Washington, D.C., and placed in the cargo hold of an American Airlines plane flying from Chicago to Washington, D.C. The bomb exploded midair, filling the passenger cabin with smoke and forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing at Dulles Internatio­nal Airport.

In June 1995, Kaczynski sent The Chronicle a letter threatenin­g to bomb an airliner flying out of Los Angeles, causing federal officials to tighten security at the San Francisco and Los Angeles airports. He later wrote the New York Times that the threat was a prank.

In the years since his arrest 25 years ago, Kaczynski has become part of Americana. There are numerous books, a 2017 TV miniseries on the Discovery channel and several documentar­ies that can be found on Netflix.

Personal items such as his typewriter, journals and handwritte­n manifesto have been sold at auctions for thousands of dollars. T-shirts and coffee mugs are for sale online emblazoned with the iconic image of Kaczynski in a hooded sweatshirt and dark sunglasses that the police depicted in sketch renderings.

Some Americans still see him as the intellectu­al leader of an anti-technology revolution that advocates a return to a life of “wild nature.” Such Kaczynski-inspired websites as Deep Green Resistance call for the destructio­n of industrial civilizati­on.

Last month, I wrote to Kaczynski, who is now 79 and serving a life sentence without parole at the federal ADX Florence prison in Colorado. Nicknamed the Alcatraz of the Rockies, it is considered the most secure prison in the U.S. He is said to live in the same cell block as other convicted terrorists such as shoe bomber Richard Reid and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph. Inside prison walls, it’s known as Bombers Row.

I hoped he might tell me more about why he wanted to relocate to South America and what it was about my advice that he found so helpful. Instead, I received an “unable to forward” response from the Colorado prison. His brother, David, did not return a phone call or emails.

I can only theorize that Kaczynski wrote me because he knew that one day he would need to flee U.S. law enforcemen­t for a South American haven.

 ??  ?? Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, as seen in court in 1996.
Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, as seen in court in 1996.
 ?? Jack Epstein / The Chronicle ??
Jack Epstein / The Chronicle
 ?? Sygma via Getty Images 1968 ?? Clockwise from far left: Ted Kaczynski’s 10-by-12-foot cabin, as seen in Montana in 1996; UC Berkeley teacher Kaczynski in 1968; the iconic image of the Unabomber that the police depicted in sketch renderings.
Sygma via Getty Images 1968 Clockwise from far left: Ted Kaczynski’s 10-by-12-foot cabin, as seen in Montana in 1996; UC Berkeley teacher Kaczynski in 1968; the iconic image of the Unabomber that the police depicted in sketch renderings.
 ?? Michael Macor / The Chronicle 1996 ??
Michael Macor / The Chronicle 1996
 ?? AP 1995 ??
AP 1995

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