FBI Profiler Says Linguistic Work Was Pivotal In Capture Of Unabomber

Aug 22, 2017
Originally published on August 25, 2017 3:15 pm

On May 25, 1978, a package exploded at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., injuring a security guard. It was the first of a series of 16 bombings that would occur over the next 17 years, killing three people and injuring many others. The suspect in the case, a shadowy figure who frequently used the U.S. mail to send his homemade explosives, became known as the "Unabomber."

FBI criminal profiler James R. Fitzgerald began working on the case in July 1995. He remembers the Unabomber as a "criminal mastermind" who went to extraordinary lengths to erase any trace of physical evidence within his explosives.

FBI labs revealed, for instance, that the bomber ripped the skins off batteries to make them untraceable. He also avoided commercial glue and instead made his own epoxy by melting down deer hooves. "And, of course, no fingerprints, no DNA — nothing like that," Fitzgerald says.

But Fitzgerald and his colleagues did have one important source of evidence: In the 1990s, the Unabomber began sending letters about his crimes to the media and some of his victims. In 1995, he sent a sprawling, 35,000-word "manifesto" to The New York Times and The Washington Post, in which he explained why he believed technology to be evil and how society should disband the technological system and live in agrarian tribes.

Fitzgerald says the Unabomber's writings were a "pivotal factor" in cracking the case. He and his colleagues used them to help pinpoint the age and geographic origin of their suspect — evidence that helped lead to the April 6, 1996, arrest of Ted Kaczynski, an ideologically motivated hermit living in a cabin in Montana.

Kaczynski pleaded guilty to the bombings in 1998 and is now serving a life sentence in prison. Fitzgerald, now retired, is the central character in a new scripted miniseries on The Discovery Channel called Manhunt: Unabomber, starring actors Sam Worthington and Paul Bettany. Fitzgerald's book, A Journey to the Center of the Mind, chronicles his experiences as a profiler in the FBI.

Interview Highlights

On the role of a criminal profiler

A profiler is an individual, in most cases already in the criminal justice system, in law enforcement, who essentially looks for behavioral clues at a crime scene. We all realize the value of other forensic clues, such as fingerprints, DNA, hairs and fibers — you name it. But a behaviorist, or a profiler, looks at what the criminal did based on the actions at the crime itself. ...

In most cases, a profiler is looking at a case of homicide, where there are no living witnesses or victims. So it's his or her job then to take as many facts related to the ingress to the crime scene, the egress to the crime scene, what happened in between, how the victim was selected, and try to piece together those puzzle pieces to, in fact, determine why the crime was committed and by what kind of person.

On developing a profile of the Unabomber

One of the most important parts of a profile is the age of the offender. ... It's never an exact number, but you'll at least want to put in a bracket of maybe five years or so. But because the first bombing took place on a college campus ... the early profilers somehow felt that the offender may be college age, 18 to 23, in that ballpark. So for years, the profile was always off by about 10 years. ...

The Unabomber offended from '78 to '87. ... But in 1987 is when a witness inside a computer store looked out the window as the Unabomber was putting down one of his devices, and that's where that iconic composite sketch comes from [with the aviator sunglasses and the hood] and that was about the only real lead that the FBI or any agency had up until 1987 — that's nine years into this bombing campaign.

On studying the language of the Unabomber's manifesto, which was titled "Industrial Society and its Future by FC"

I said, "I want to devote my time and energy to looking at the language in this case," and let's see just what the heck I can make out of it." ...

I'm looking at this thing and I'm reading it two times, three times, four times. It's a very dense document. ... But before too long I'm picking up on some unusual language characteristics, like some archaic terms like "broad" and "chick" to denote women. OK, what does he mean by that? He uses the word "negro" to refer to African-Americans. And this is 1995, and these words were almost like Frank Sinatra language, or something you'd hear from a '50s movie or something. And right away, that helped me age the author.

On how a linguistics professor, Roger Shuy, helped predict where the Unabomber was from

[Shuy] thought this writer of the manifesto had his roots in Chicago, Ill., because there was some terminology in there that was reflective of three or four newspapers in Chicago through the '30s, '40s and '50s. There was some reflection there of language uses, even regionalisms of the Chicago area. ...

And the first four bombings were either placed or mailed from Chicago, so it's always nice when you have a nexus that you can sort of compare here, and they match up.

On Kaczynski's sister-in-law seeing the published manifesto, recognizing the writing style, and, along with Kaczynski's brother, David, submitting another writing sample to the FBI for analysis

It was one 23-page document David [Kaczynski] provided to the FBI; my copy was probably the sixth generation of a fax, but I could read it. ... They send me this thing and not only did the format match, but it was actually written in the same chronological order as the manifesto, lots of the same terms, inserting electrodes into the brain, terminology like this, and it goes on and on and on and finally in the same exact order the manifesto is written, and I realized to myself, this is essentially an outline, a well-crafted outline of the manifesto. ...

The boss called me back and he said, "Fitz, what do you think?" And I said, "You have one of two things here. This is an elaborate plagiarism, someone got The Washington Post version of the manifesto, got an old typewriter, got some old paper, and sat down and just made their own little fun outline and gave it to David Kaczynski, whatever. Or ... you've got your man."

Ann Marie Baldonado and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Tanya Ballard Brown adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Not many criminal investigations last 17 years, but from 1978 to 1995, a man who came to be known as the Unabomber conducted a personal campaign of terror by sending bombs through the U.S. mail, killing three people and injuring many more. The bomber was careful not to leave clues to his identity or whereabouts, and the case was broken in part by careful analysis of the language he used in letters and polemics. He turned out to be an ideologically motivated hermit named Ted Kaczynski, who's now serving a life sentence in prison.

Our guest today, James R. Fitzgerald, is a retired FBI agent and criminal profiler who played a critical role in the case by extracting clues from the language in the Unabomber's writings. Fitz, as he was known, is the central character in a new scripted miniseries on the Discovery Channel called "Manhunt: The Unabomber" (ph). It airs Tuesday nights at 10. The series opens with a voiceover in which the Unabomber, played by Paul Bettany, reflects on the U.S. mail and how remarkable it is that he can get a package to anyone with just an address and some stamps.


PAUL BETTANY: (As Ted Kaczynski) And you see, it only works because every single person along the chain acts like a mindless automaton. I write an address, and they just obey. No question, no deviation, no pause to contemplate eternity or beauty or death. Even you, for all your protestations of free will, if a box comes with your name on it, you can't even imagine doing anything other than obey. Good morning.


BETTANY: (As Ted Kaczynski) Here you go. Thank you. Well, it's not your fault. Society made you this way. But you're sheep, and you're living in a world of sheep. And because you're all sheep, because all you can do is obey, I can reach out and touch anyone, anywhere. I can reach out and touch you right now.


DAVIES: And that is from the Discovery Channel series "Manhunt: Unabomber," which is based in large part on the work of our guest, James R. Fitzgerald, who was an FBI agent on the case, known as Fitz to everyone. Fitz, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JAMES R. FITZGERALD: Hi, Dave. It's great to be here.

DAVIES: Good to have you. So when you joined the Unabomber task force, it was years and years into this bombing campaign. How many bombs had the Unabomber planted or mailed by then? How many people had he harmed?

FITZGERALD: By the time I came on board in July of '95, the investigation was already 17 years long. There had been 16 bombings, sometimes two in the same year. And there had also been 14 letters written. And, of course, the granddaddy of them all was the article which the media came to know as the manifesto there. So we're dealing with the low-to-mid teens in these very pertinent numbers of the Unabomber case when I first got onboard.

DAVIES: Three people had been killed, many seriously injured.

FITZGERALD: And an airplane almost brought down if it wasn't for the valiant efforts of the pilots to do an emergency landing.

DAVIES: All right. Many FBI agents working on this for years. What did they have on the Unabomber?

FITZGERALD: Virtually nothing, to be honest with you. And it has nothing to do with the hard work that was put into it, not only by the FBI but other federal agencies, in the very beginning, some local agencies in the Chicago area and some other parts of the U.S. It's just that we knew early on - and I'm saying, we, I wasn't quite involved in the early days - but we knew that this individual was a criminal mastermind. We knew he was smarter than most other criminals we were going up against. And the one reason was because there was absolutely no evidence on the explosive devices themselves.

DAVIES: Which is remarkable. He's mailing things which blow up and leave pieces, batteries that might have serial numbers.

FITZGERALD: Nothing. In fact, he was so cautious, he would rip the skins off of the batteries themselves. So even the lot number that, you know, almost every product out there has some kind of a lot number, almost every one of those couldn't be traced to a region of the country. And he had to glue certain parts together. He didn't want to buy commercial glue, so he - the laboratory - the FBI laboratory determined he was melting deer hooves to, in fact, create this epoxy that he would then use to glue certain parts together. This is how hard he was working to make sure no evidence at all existed. And, of course, no fingerprints, no DNA, nothing like that.

DAVIES: Tell us just a little bit about his victims. Who were they, how many?

FITZGERALD: Well, that was obviously a big part of the UNABOM task force and me as a profiler coming in. We, in profiling, have a term known as victimology. The victims that a serial offender chooses - be it a serial rapist, serial killer, serial bank robber - conceivably tells us a lot about what is pushing this person to commit these type of crimes. So the problem with the Unabomber, though, is they seemed a relatively random and disparate. And you just couldn't really - there was no nexus between them. Of course, early on, the acronym UNABOM itself stands for University Airline Bombings. A now long-forgotten FBI bureaucrat came up with that acronym and it stuck from the early '80s on. But the earliest victims were involving airlines and universities, so we figured this person may have an issue with airlines.

And that's where the whole, you know, laid off United Airlines mechanic theory came in. It couldn't be dismissed right away, and I never did, but I said, we may have something else. We want to expand our horizons here. And certainly university - all right, what's this guy's problem with universities? Was he kicked out of his school, never admitted to the school he wanted to get into? We didn't dream in the early days he actually held a Ph.D. and was a college professor for two years at Berkeley. Then, he expanded a little bit to his victim selection. And it was a computer-type stores or related-type professors to computer science. And then it became a marketing executive, Thomas Mosser, in northern New Jersey. And then Gil Murray was his very last victim, the third death on his 16th the bombing. And that was a forestry lobbyist in Sacramento, Calif.

And it turns out the last two were chosen because Mosser's firm represented the Exxon Valdez oil spill - or Exxon, I should say, about the Valdez spill in Alaska five or 10 years before. And the forestry lobbyist was selected because a saw mill opened up down the road from Kaczynski, and he didn't like hearing the buzzsaw in the morning so he attacked them. I should go back real quick. The airline part was because a plane flew over his head twice a day at 35,000 feet, and he saw the contrails. And that bothered him. That took away from his tranquility living on the mountainside in Montana. And he said, darn it, I'm going to start bombing airlines. We actually read that in his own journal.

So you never know how a serial offender is choosing his victims. He was getting the information out of "Who's Who," a book that can be found in every library, now probably online. So that's the tangled web that he wove in terms of choosing his various victims. And it really was hard to put any dotted lines at all among them.

DAVIES: OK. So after all these years, the FBI had really no physical evidence on - because he'd been smart about that. Did they have a profile? Did they have a clue of who he might be?

FITZGERALD: One of the most important parts of a profile is, you know, the age of the offender. And it's never an exact number, but you least want to put it in a bracket of maybe five years or so. But because the first bombing took place on a college campus, even if it was slightly askew - it didn't go in the mailbox as it was supposed to - the early profiles somehow felt that the offender may be college age, you know, 18 to 23, in that ballpark. So for years, the profiler was always off by about 10 years. And finally, more or less maybe a year or so before I got involved and with the manifesto coming out and other letters before that to The New York Times, they finally sort of added five to 10 years onto the profile. And that brought things a little tighter together.

But there was debate back and forth. Is he an isolated person living on his own? Does he have some level of family? We were pretty sure he was, in fact, not all that communicative. He wasn't working in a place that had constant interaction with the public or even other people. But it doesn't mean he didn't have a wife or even a couple kids, but he kind of shut them out from this part of his life. So the early profiles, you know, weren't off completely, but we were fortunate enough when the writings came in, and by the time I got on board, we could tighten them up.

DAVIES: The UNABOM task force was located in San Francisco because that was the area where most of the packages had been mailed from, right?

FITZGERALD: Certainly. And let's go back a little bit in time, Dave. But the Unabomber offended from '78 to '87. He - I think it was about maybe 13 - 12 to 13 bombings. But in 1987 is when a witness inside a computer store looked out the window as the Unabomber was putting down one of his devices. And that's where that iconic composite sketch comes from.

DAVIES: This is the one with the aviator sunglasses and the hood?

FITZGERALD: Absolutely. And that was about the only real lead that the FBI or any agency had up until 1987. That's nine years into this bombing campaign. Then the Unabomber goes dormant for six entire years. And I wasn't involved in the case at all at this point, but we're hearing rumors, you know, he killed himself practicing his bomb-making techniques. He got arrested for something else.

Or, as in some case we know with serial offenders, sometimes they get married. They have kids. They move on to other jobs, whatever, and they lose interest in what they're doing. But all of a sudden, in 1993, the Unabomber comes back with a vengeance. And that's when the bombs were more lethal, and he decided to tell people about his organization, FC. And that's when the whole case started coming together even more so.

DAVIES: Right. He would sign things FC, standing for Freedom Club.

FITZGERALD: That's what he claimed. Freedom Club. We were never sure exactly if he meant that or not. But in one of his letters to The New York Times, he described what FC stood for. Some people early on thought maybe it was his initials or maybe he was being clever and his initials were actually CF. And we did, you know, a bunch of research in that regard, but we were all pretty sure this guy is too clever to actually list his real initials on his devices and on these letters.

DAVIES: James R. Fitzgerald is a retired FBI agent, an active criminal profiler. His work on the Unabomber case is featured in the Discovery Channel scripted miniseries "Manhunt: Unabomber." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with James R. Fitzgerald. He is a retired FBI agent and is still an active criminal profiler. His work on the Unabomber case is the basis of the scripted miniseries on the Discovery Channel "Manhunt: Unabomber" It airs Tuesday nights at 10. Fitzgerald has also written a memoir called "A Journey To The Center Of The Mind." So when you're assigned to this case in 1995 - is that right?

FITZGERALD: That is correct.

DAVIES: You were relatively new as a profiler. You had been recently trained. And you focused on the language in this manifesto that he wrote that he wanted published and other letters he had sent. Why language? Why you?

FITZGERALD: You know, all of us in our careers have strengths and weaknesses. I was a - just about a, you know, almost a 20-year veteran of law enforcement at that time, 11 years at the Bensalem Police Department in suburban Philadelphia and then seven years in New York at the FBI. So I was very confident in my investigative skills. However, I'm a brand-new profiler. I'm now a supervisory special agent, went through 12 weeks of training in profiling. And it was an eye-opening event for me. And I learned so much about how to, you know, additionally look at crimes, crime scenes, criminals, what have you. And I was very glad to have this extra training, but I really had very little practical experience in morphing from, you know, a solid investigator, gumshoe, if you will, into the profiling world.

So I read the earlier profiles of the Unabomber case. I just knew with his 3,5000-word manifesto having been freshly received by The New York Times and, of course, afterwards, the FBI, I said, you know what? This thing's been investigated for 17 years for fingerprints, DNA. They've re-interviewed victims. The profiling thing I'm not sure I'm 100 percent secure in exactly what I'm doing here because I was still deferring to my colleagues back at Quantico. I said, I want to devote my time and energy to looking at the language in this case. And let's see just what the heck I can make out of it. And as it turns out, that was a pivotal factor.

DAVIES: Right. You spoke to a linguistics professor early on who had taken a deep look at this manifesto that the Unabomber had sent. So when you looked at this text carefully, what are some of the things you discovered?

FITZGERALD: Well, again, and this - I spent two hours with his linguist. His name is Roger Shuy. He had just retired from the linguistics department at Georgetown University. And it was right at the tail-end of my profiling training and nothing to do with the actual training. We set this up separate. And for two hours, I just sat almost - not literally but almost - at his knees like he was my Yoda. And he sort of explained to me in layman's terms the science of linguistics, which, of course, is the scientific study of language.

Now, Dave, I already had a master's degree in organizational psychology, so I certainly was familiar with psychological factors, but really, I never studied all that much into the way of language. I've always been a good crossword puzzle-doer. My mother taught me that at an early age. I played Scrabble. I loved cryptograms. Language always fascinated me. And all of a sudden, now I'm looking at this thing, and I'm reading it two times, three times, four times. It's a very dense document, Dave. But before too long, I'm picking up on some unusual language characteristics, like some archaic terms like broad and chick to denote women. OK. What does he mean by that? He uses the word negro to refer to African-Americans. And this is 1995. And these words were - it's almost like, you know, Frank Sinatra language or something you'd hear from a '50s movie or something. That helped me sort of age the author to begin with.

DAVIES: So he's probably older and kind of has his language frozen in an earlier era. You know, let me just at this point - Fitz, you like to go by Fitz - the manifesto itself, what was its message? I mean, you looked at the language and clues he left without meaning to, but what was his message in this?

FITZGERALD: Essentially, technology is evil. And human nature, we've now evolved to a point where technology was controlling us instead of us controlling it. And his ultimate solution around the 150th chapter - or paragraph, excuse me - and conveniently, he numbered each paragraph, 212 of them total. And it came down to his solution to all of this is we should basically disband our technological system that we have created for ourselves and live in agrarian-based tribes of no more than 30 people. And until people listened to him and took him seriously. or at least published his article, he would continue bombing people to get his point across. So it really comes down to his dislike of technology and the world in which he lived and apparently in which he did not succeed very well.

DAVIES: So as you looked through this 35,000-word document, you were looking for clues that he didn't mean to leave but might tell you something about who he is. What else did you find?

FITZGERALD: Well, I actually read the whole manifesto on one of my flights out to San Francisco. And actually, the first time I missed it - what I'm about to tell you. And that is in paragraph 185. It's a short paragraph, only about three sentences or so. But he ends it with, well, you can't eat your cake and have it too. Now, the first time I didn't notice anything unusual about that, but the second - because I'm trying to grab so many other clues all around this.

But the second time I read it, well, you can't eat your cake and have it too, I caught myself and said, wait a minute. We don't say it that way. We say, we or you - whatever - can't have your cake and eat it too. He somehow transposed the verbs. And, Dave, I got to tell you, having read this now two solid times, this was one of the only mistakes - quote, unquote, "mistakes" that I found in the entire manifesto/article as he called it.

DAVIES: He was obsessively careful.

FITZGERALD: He was obsessively careful. And even in the - there was a cover page, Industrial Society And Its Future By FC. And then after the cover page but before the actual narrative started, he had three corrections pages. I mean, really? In a serial bomber's manifesto, do you need to put - and I think on those three pages, there were at least 50 different, you know, corrections that he offered for the reader. And they were all minor where the period was outside the quotation marks instead of inside. You know, perhaps, an exclamation point that should have been a question mark - something like that - also minor that had nothing to do with the message being, you know, transmitted here by our anonymous author. But these were important to him. So I realize, this guy, while I wasn't clinically diagnosing him, there was almost like a language OCD this person had. And that was helping me sort of put together who this person was.

DAVIES: And we should just note that one reason he would make a correction about where the period should have been was that he didn't have a word processor. This was an old typewriter.

FITZGERALD: Yes. And even though 1995, you know, we weren't that far into the computer age yet as a society, certainly, most people at that point were using word processors and cut and paste and delete. But no, he's using a 1932 era Smith-Corona typewriter to do all these things.

DAVIES: Now, what was potentially at work here was maybe a cutting edge thing in criminal investigation - the notion that careful analysis of the way someone speaks or writes might tell you who they are. And one of the things that comes up in the film - and I can't remember if this is in your book or not. One of the things that comes up is the way you as a Philadelphian would pronounce H2O, water. Explain.

FITZGERALD: Yeah. And that - the miniseries captured that accurately. And I mentioned this, of course, in my book. But although - you know, I've been to Europe a few times at that point. And even though I was living in the Philly suburbs, I was driving to New York every day. So my - the dialect regions would actually change for me. I learned more about this when I started my linguistics studies at Georgetown. But all of a sudden, I'm thrust into San Francisco. And I'm really surrounded by mostly people from the West Coast in that regard.

And probably the third or fourth day there, I said, oh, is there a water fountain around? And I pronounced it W-O-O-D-E-R. And a few people laughed, no, water. You're from New York. And I said, actually, no, I'm from Philly. But then it hit me, darn. I think we do say wooder (ph) in Philly, where the rest of the country tends to pronounce it as water. I learned later, as a linguist, there is no right or wrong about dialects. It doesn't mean you're stupid or you're dumb. It's just how you grow up using and pronouncing certain words. Well, it's not only in spoken language, I found, Dave. It also manifests itself in written language.

DAVIES: Right. If you have enough data and if you look carefully enough, we reveal something about where we come from.

FITZGERALD: Absolutely. And the - Professor Shuy, the just recently retired Georgetown professor, he did a nice little write up for us - basically, a linguistic profile. Now, I've done many of those since then. But he made it very clear that he thought this writer of the manifesto had his roots in Chicago, Ill., because there was some terminology in there that were reflective of newspapers - I think three or four newspapers - in Chicago through the '30s, '40s and '50s. There were some reflection there of language uses, even regionalisms, of the Chicago area. And he thought the writer had roots there.

Now, of course, wherever a serial killer usually first strikes - not always, Dave, but sometimes - that's usually his area of familiarity, his comfort zone. So now we had a linguist telling us based on the language, this guy had Chicago roots. And the first four bombings were either placed or mailed from Chicago. So it's always nice when you can have a nexus that you can sort of compare here, and they match up.

DAVIES: James R. Fitzgerald is a retired FBI agent and criminal profiler. His work is the basis for the Discovery Channel scripted miniseries "Manhunt: Unabomber." We will hear more of his story after a break. And John Powers tells us about a new addition of Dorothy Hughes' 1947 noir novel "In A Lonely Place." I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with James R. Fitzgerald, a retired FBI agent and criminal profiler whose work is the basis for a new scripted miniseries called "Manhunt: Unabomber" on the Discovery Channel. Fitzgerald looked for clues to the Unabomber's identity in his writings, including a 35,000-word treatise that came to be known as the manifesto. So the Unabomber had mailed this lengthy manifesto about his political views, which you were studying for clues. But he mailed it with an offer of sorts. What was his deal?

FITZGERALD: His bargain - I think is the word he actually used - was he wanted The New York Times or The Washington Post to publish it. And if they - one or both of them - published it, he would then permanently desist from bombing for purposes of killing. However, as an interesting caveat after that, he reserved the right to bomb for purposes of sabotage. So - I was never - no one was ever quite clear of how you can bomb not to kill, only to sabotage. Maybe bring down a radio tower or something? But that was the right he reserved. So, of course, the debate began right away within FBI quarters, within the media, within, you know, other political circles. Do we accede to the demands of a terrorist? And it was almost a 50-50 split. How do we handle this? What do we do? And at this point, you know, I'm a supervisor in the FBI. I'm being invited into the daily supervisory meetings of the UTF management.

DAVIES: Unabomber task force.

FITZGERALD: Unabomber task force management. And I was invited there. And I sat quiet through some of it. I'm the new guy on the block. I'm just kind of feeling my way around the task force. And then all of a sudden, you know, we started talking about the manifesto. And there's a few people - absolutely, do not publish this thing. Every nut will come out of the woodwork and want to get their own, you know, paragraph or 20-page document published. And who's going to read this thing anyway? And I said, people are going to read this thing. He has a lot to say here. And I was even saying back then, there are some things in here he kind of has right. He's on the money. Now, we all agreed - and to this day - you don't kill or bomb people to make your point. But even back then, I was saying, you know, people are going to find this to be very interesting. And they are going to read it.

And I said someone out there - and I wish I was the first one to say, you know, a family member will notice it. But I basically focused on a professor, a teacher, a colleague, maybe some newspaper editor who takes the letters from somebody. And I said it could be a family member, a lover or somebody is going to recognize this writing style and this - first of all, the theme and the topic about, you know, anti-industrial technology and revolution. And so we published it. Eventually, The New York Times agreed to publish it. But we then picked The Washington Post because there were only two locations in San Francisco that sold The Washington Post. And my profiling training told me he would want a souvenir. So we did put surveillances on everybody that morning who in fact bought a Washington Post.

DAVIES: So when you argue that there are some interesting ideas here that will get read. It wasn't like you felt like you wanted to propagate these ideas. Your point was people will read this. They will share it with others, and somebody will recognize them. It was really an investigative move.

FITZGERALD: It absolutely was. And I wasn't there to, you know, propagandize for the sake of the Unabomber. You know, he hated big government. He hated big entertainment. He hated leftist. He hated, basically, anything to do with modern technology - computers, psychology. There wasn't too much he didn't hate except farmers and, you know, some of the sciences like entomology - you know, studying bugs and insects. These are OK to him. But psychology and all these other wasted fields were just no good to him.

DAVIES: So this paid off, right? Big break came. What happened?

FITZGERALD: Well, like the episode the other night aired, it didn't happen right away. And we knew this was a long-term prospect. We knew it wouldn't just be somebody buying The Washington Post that morning, and we'd solved our case then. We knew it would go on for a few weeks, a few months. And we did get leads. And Dave, I have to remind you, this was - at this given time, we had about 2,500 different suspects who could be the Unabomber. Some were named. Some were unnamed. Some were just descriptions of someone that people called in - their ex-husbands, their lawyers, their postman, you name it - that were the Unabomber.

So we've got a lot of these calls coming in. And I'm, for the first time, getting known writings of people. And do - I don't even know what it was called what I was doing. I now know it's a term linguist use, authorial attribution analysis. And what I was basically doing was looking at known writings of suspects comparing them to the writings of the Unabomber and attempting to determine if we have common linguistic features within. And almost everyone I ruled out right away. And I would even say things like, well, you can still surveil this guy. Check on his mail - you know, all legal things we could do. But I don't think he's our guy, not yet.

DAVIES: So eventually Ted Kaczynski's sister-in-law, who recognizes the ideas and the writing - and she tells her husband, Ted Kaczynski's brother, David Kaczynski. Gosh, they get a lawyer. They contact the FBI. Then what's your role?

FITZGERALD: Yeah. Just going back a little bit, it's really the first time the Internet was ever used to solve a crime. The early days of fbi.gov - and I love how the Chris Noth character had to look down while he's giving his little speech to the media. Yeah, and if you check www - and he's turning his head like he's just not (unintelligible) - you know, dot FBI dot - and because the Internet was so new then. But she was actually in Paris at a conference, checked the computer, started going through it. And here she never even met her brother-in-law, Ted Kaczynski. But she read lots of the letters and documents he sent to her husband, David. And she comes home and basically says, you should look at this thing. And he's like, yeah, right. My brother, the Unabomber? He wouldn't hurt a fly.

But the term that finally convinced him that - the topics and themes similar in some ways, the things they talked about. But the term that convinced David was, quote, "cool-headed logician," end quote. Ted was referring to somebody in the past as a cool-headed logician. And there that word is in the manifesto. That's when David realized. So like you said, lawyers are involved. They call the FBI. And then I'm now back in Quantico. My boss has wanted me back to work some cases in Quantico. I was only on temporary assignment to San Francisco. And that's when I was contacted again by the bosses at the UTF - UNABOMB Task Force.

DAVIES: And they sent you material that the family had provided saying these are writings from decades before of this guy, Ted Kaczynski, who might be the Unabomber. And they asked you to look at those writings, compare them to the writings that, you know, were mailed by the Unabomber, and you told them what?

FITZGERALD: Actually, it was one 23-page document David provided to the FBI. My copy was probably the sixth generation of a fax, but I could read it. I was just called and said, Jim, we're going to fax you something, check it out and let me know what you think. And I've been faxed other documents before and said, no, I don't see the Unabomber's writing style in here. They send me this thing and not only did the format match, but it was actually written in the same chronological order as the manifesto and lots of the same terms - inserting electrodes into the brain - you know, terminology like this. And it goes on and on and on and finally - in the same exact order the manifesto is written. And I realize to myself, this is essentially an outline - a well-crafted outline of the manifesto.

DAVIES: Written decades before?

FITZGERALD: Well, that's what I was told. And - but to make sure, when the boss called me back, and I - he said, Jim, what do you think? Actually, it was, Fitz, what do you think? And I said, you have one of two things here. This is an elaborate plagiarism. Someone got the Washington Post version of the manifesto, got an old typewriter, got some old paper and sat down and just made their own little fun outline and then gave it to David Kaczynski, whatever. Or it's just a few simple words - or you've got your man. They said, Fitz, thank you. You're coming back out to San Francisco.

DAVIES: Because they knew it was authentic because David Kaczynski had received it.

FITZGERALD: Yes. And they confirmed the date of it and all that. And the typewriter didn't even match up. It didn't even have that kind of clue. It was basically my early linguistic analysis of that particular document that brought this investigation to its ultimate conclusion.

DAVIES: We're speaking with James R. Fitzgerald, a retired FBI agent. His work on the Unabomber case is featured in the Discovery Channel scripted miniseries "Manhunt: Unabomber." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with James R. Fitzgerald. He's a retired FBI agent and still an active criminal profiler. His work on the Unabomber case is the basis of the scripted miniseries on the Discovery Channel "Manhunt: Unabomber." It airs Tuesday nights at 10. Fitzgerald has also written a memoir called "A Journey To The Center Of The Mind."

The investigation is at an interesting point here because Kaczynski's family know where his cabin is, and so the FBI knows where Ted Kaczynski's cabin is. But do they have a legal right to search it based upon an analysis of language? And I want to play a scene from the series in which this issue is played out.

And this is a scene in which your character, Fitz, played by Sam Worthington, is interviewing Ted Kaczynski after he's been arrested, and he is in prison. He's played by Paul Bettany. You've just explained to him that there is overwhelming evidence from his cabin of his guilt - bomb-making parts, writings, et cetera. And then he comes back and says, not so fast. Let's listen.


BETTANY: (As Ted Kaczynski) The only evidence connecting me to the UNABOM attacks was found inside my cabin. The only reason the FBI was legally allowed to search my cabin was because of your search warrant. But if that search warrant was issued on false pretenses or based on arguments that fail to meet the burden of proof, well, then all the evidence found at that location is deemed fruit of the poisonous tree. It's tainted. It's inadmissible. It's got to be thrown out.

So if the search warrant goes, then all their mountains of evidence simply disappear. Do you follow? The whole case depends on the evidence from the cabin. The evidence from the cabin depends on the search warrant. But the search warrant depends on this thing called forensic linguistics, which is a field that you just invented, James R. Fitzgerald. There is no precedent in all legal history for a search warrant based on linguistic analysis.

So the question I then place before the court becomes, do we trust this man is so expert that we trust his invention? Where did you get your formal training in linguistics, your Ph.D., your master's? As I hear it, the majority of your law enforcement career was spent on the graffiti squad at the small-town police department. Is that right?

DAVIES: Ouch. That's the Unabomber depicted - played by Paul Bettany, who does a terrific job there kind of telling your character, Fitz, that this search warrant is based on a linguistic analysis. Now, the meeting in this thing never actually happened. You didn't talk to the Unabomber in prison. But this issue was really important, wasn't it?

FITZGERALD: Yeah, and everything in this actual fictitious meeting - everything that's being said was actually a real and present concern of the prosecution team subsequent to the arrest of Kaczynski. And I was brought back out to San Francisco to the UNABOM Task Force to now prepare for the prosecution in this matter.

DAVIES: You actually worked in the preparation of the search warrant - right? - because the fact is, the FBI knew where Ted was. They truly believed he was the Unabomber, but until they got the evidence, they couldn't prove it. They can't get the evidence until they get the right to enter his cabin. So you have to have a prosecutor go to a judge and say, this is why we believe he's the Unabomber. And it comes down to your linguistic analysis.

FITZGERALD: Yeah, and there was some tangential evidence that was slowly being put together in Montana. It was about some bus trips and, you know, dates and places, things like that, but nothing linking him to the bombs. It really came down to an affidavit that I was slowly building from late February of '96 through late March of '96 - basically, about four and a half weeks. And it came down to about 600 separate blocks of individual phraseology, sentences, short paragraphs in which we had virtually identically written sentences from Ted Kaczynski and the Unabomber. They weren't exact, not necessarily word-for-word.

But I mentioned earlier about the - in paragraph 185 - well, you can't eat your cake and have it too. Well, the big bonus day for me was when I'm sitting back, and I'm the first one that looked at all the documents - copies of documents - and I'm going through them, and I would then assign them to my team. I'm looking at document T 137 - I'll never forget - and it's an early '70s letter to the editor to the old Saturday Evening magazine, and lo and behold, it's something about the evils of the environment being polluted, technology, all these type of things. At the very end, it says, you can't eat your cake and have it too, signed, Theodore J. Kaczynski.

I called my bosses together, got the prosecutor upstairs from his separate office - look what I just found, guys. And it's one of those holy you-know-what moments, Dave. And the prosecutor, finally, who was the little bit doubtful of what I was doing - I said, I think we just made our case, certainly for a search warrant. And before long, I put the 600-block, 50-page document together, attached it to the search warrant affidavit, and they took it to a judge in Montana. He signed off on it.

And for the first time in criminal justice history, as far as I ever knew, language as evidence - this wasn't handwriting analysis, now, but language assessment as evidence was used to obtain a search warrant. And it really created legal precedence at that time.

DAVIES: Right. And just to underscore that point, when you went to the assistant U.S. attorney who was preparing the search warrant, he said, look, Fitz, this is interesting, but I can't find anywhere where anybody's ever gotten a search warrant on the basis of language analysis.

FITZGERALD: You're right, and he's a good lawyer. And his name was Steve Freccero, and he was an assistant U.S. attorney. He still does private practice in San Francisco. And - but he was being very cautious. He didn't want this being thrown out or jeopardized later on in court, just like the Unabomber was telling the Fitz character in that scene you played, because that is really a very strong possibility. Every time there's a search warrant in a probably criminal or civil case, there's always going to be motions to throw it out, get it dismissed. And, of course, any evidence found therein, if it's dismissed, is then negated, and it can't be used in front of a jury or anything like that.

So legally, everything in that scene was accurate. And we were a little bit concerned about it. And the defense hired a linguist to come in and counter me. We brought in our own academic person to back us up. And the judge finally said at the time of the trial, not - we're not throwing this out. All this evidence from the cabin stays in - and ultimately, a conviction.

DAVIES: Ted Kaczynski lived as a hermit for years and years. You visited the cabin at some point. What was that like? What'd you see?

FITZGERALD: It was a very almost out-of-body experience to - and I've only been on the case, at this point, maybe eight months or so. And all of a sudden, here I am walking through - this man that's been hunted for 17 years - his cabin. We now know he's a genius. He's a mathematical savant. And, you know, he did all these things and kind of abandoned all that, and now it's all about anti-technology.

So as a early habit of mine - ever at a crime scene, hands in pockets. You don't want to touch anything you shouldn't touch. But I was - I did walk through. And the bosses even said, Fitz, you may want to walk through on your own. We know, you know, the profiling part of you wants to see how this guy lived. And what was ironic - the first three days after the arrest, it was actually a robot that was crawling through his cabin.

DAVIES: ...Because it could've been booby-trapped.

FITZGERALD: There could've been booby trap - looking for bomb pieces, devices, whatever. And we thought how ironic that would be if Kaczynski, Mr. Anti-technology, knew there was a state-of-the-art-for-1996 robot, you know, running through his cabin. But now robot's gone, the place is rendered safe. And there I am looking at the books on shelves, and various tool components, a harpsichord on the wall, .22 rifle, snowshoes, a wooden cot. It really had no mattress because he wrote to his brother, a mattress makes a man soft, so he slept on just a piece of plywood. He had covers on them, of course - and of course, just the wood-burning stove, no electricity, no running water.

And it was just amazing, taking all this in. And you asked me before about, you know, getting inside the mind of a criminal or the Unabomber. This is probably the closest I came because looking at his books - I was familiar with Oscar Wilde's quote, you are what you read. And there are about 200 books lined up on these various shelves of all different esoteric and - you know, a mix there. And I'm taking in these other various tools that he used to not only kill his animals, but eat them, but also how to make bombs.

So for the first time, all these profiles either I read or helped construct in the last eight months, and all the language I broke down - now I'm looking at the immediate environment of this person. And this was his environment. This 10 foot by 12 foot cabin was everything. This was his self-imposed cell before he was sentenced to a real cell at the Supermax in Florence, Colo. So it told us everything about this guy. And of course, the additional language we found in the additional documents told us even more.

DAVIES: He was a child prodigy, had moved through school two years ahead of his grade, entered Harvard at 16, and there, was involved in some psychological experiments with a guy - Henry Murray, if I have that name right - that involved breaking people's self-image down by humiliating them and berating them. It's been written that this contributed to his mental state.

FITZGERALD: Yeah, I didn't get too much involved in that. I mean, the defense was certainly looking into that for - if, in fact, it went to trial. I've read about it. I know the miniseries - there's a whole episode that's devoted to just that whole testing, if you will, or experimentation.

We hear about the Stanford, you know, prison experiment. Well, this was just as bad, if not worse, what was being done. And it seems Kaczynski had some involvement in that. And it certainly may have unleashed certain internal factors in him that only made him feel even worse about himself and led to that downward spiral that, you know, 10, 15 years later, he had to start killing people.

DAVIES: Well, James R. Fitzgerald, Fitz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FITZGERALD: You're welcome. Nice to be here, Dave.

DAVIES: James R. Fitzgerald is a retired FBI agent and criminal profiler. His work is the basis for the scripted miniseries "Manhunt: Unabomber." It airs Tuesday nights at 10 on the Discovery Channel. Coming up, John Powers tells us about a new edition of Dorothy Hughes' 1947 noir novel, "In A Lonely Place." This is FRESH AIR.

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