Kaczynski, who terrorized the country with package bombs for 17 years and was arrested near Lincoln in 1996, died at the age of 81 on June 10.
By Justin Franz MONTANA FREE PRESS
Dave Shors remembers April 3, 1996, beginning like any other day in the newsroom of Helena’s Independent Record. But not long after the work day began, a bit of news trickled in: agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation were staking out a cabin near Lincoln. Shors, then an associate editor at the newspaper, sent a reporter and a photographer an hour north to check it out.
As the day wore on, a rumor began to spread around town: The feds had the Unabomber in their sights.
“Unabomber” was the nickname given to a long-wanted domestic terrorist who, starting in 1978, committed 16 bombings across the United States, usually with package bombs sent in the mail. The bombings killed three people and injured 23 others. By 1996, the unidentified bomber had become the subject of one of the longest and most expensive manhunts in U.S. history.
As rumors that the FBI had their man began to spread, reporters from national outlets began calling, demanding to know what the locals knew, Shors recalled. But for much of the day, very little concrete information was available. But early that evening a student photojournalist from the University of Montana burst through the newsroom doors and announced he had just photographed the Unabomber suspect being taken into custody.
“One of our photographers took him into the dark room and helped him process the image and there he was, Ted Kaczynski, in all of his glory,” Shors said last week, 27 years after that fateful night. “It was wild.”
The newspaper struck a deal with the student journalist to publish the photo — as did many other media outlets in the country — and the next day it was on the front page of the Independent Record. In some ways, Kaczynski has stayed above the fold ever since.
Kaczynski was found dead on Saturday, June 10, in his jail cell at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, where he was serving multiple life sentences stemming from his decades-long terror spree. The Associated Press reported that Kaczynski had died by suicide. The inmate, who was 81 at the time of his death, had been transferred to the medical facility in 2021, after being diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Prior to that, he had been incarcerated in a super-maximum security prison in Colorado, where he had been held since he pleaded guilty to his crimes in 1998.
But despite having been behind bars for more than a quarter-century, Kaczynski has never been fully removed from the national consciousness. In the decades since his arrest, Kaczynski has been the subject of numerous books, movies, documentaries and podcasts that helped shape opinions not only about him, but about the place he called home for 25 years.
A reign of terror
Ted Kaczynski moved to a remote patch of forest near Lincoln in 1971 and built a primitive 10’x14’ cabin with his brother. He had been a mathematics prodigy who was accepted to Harvard University at the age of 15 and eventually became an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley. But Kaczynski, who was “pathologically shy” according to other instructors at Berkeley, struggled in academia and suddenly resigned from his position in 1969. He moved back home with his parents in Illinois for a few years before heading to Montana.
In the 1970s, Kaczynski mostly lived off the land and did not have electricity or running water. Locals recalled him being a “harmless hermit” who mostly kept to himself but occasionally accepted rides into town from neighbors. Among those neighbors was Jamie Gehring, whose parents lived not far from Kaczynski’s cabin. Information from Gehring’s father, Butch, helped lead to Kaczynski’s arrest in 1996.
Gehring, who wrote a book in 2022 titled “Madman in the Woods” about growing up near Kaczynski, said one of her earliest memories of Kaczynski was playing alone outside and him walking up and giving her two stones that he had painted. It would later be reported that Kaczynski was often warmer toward children than adults.
“I wasn’t afraid of Ted,” Gehring said. “At the time, he was just an odd and seemingly harmless neighbor. However, as the years went on, my meetings with him did conjure up fear.”
While some thought Kaczynski was harmless, he did have some tense exchanges with people, especially when it came to the subject of the environment. In one episode in the book, Gehring described how Kaczynski had screamed at her father for spraying weeds on his property. Kaczynski also hated it when people on snowmobiles or dirt bikes came near his property. Those incidents seemed to fuel Kaczynski’s frustrations with technology and its impacts, both on the environment and on society as a whole.
As the years wore on, Kaczynski developed more extremist views, and in 1978 he decided to act on them. On May 25, 1978, a security guard was injured after opening a package bomb that had been found on the Northwestern University campus. A year later, another package blew up on the same campus, injuring a graduate student. And on Nov. 15, 1979, American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago to Washington, D.C., made an emergency landing after a pipe bomb in the cargo hold exploded, filling the plane with smoke but not destroying it.
Over the next 15 years, Kaczynski would plant or send more than a dozen other bombs around the country, killing three people and injuring many more. Because many of the bombs were sent to college campuses, the FBI task force set up to investigate the explosions was dubbed “UNABOM,” taking letters from the words university, airline and bombing.
But the bombings were apparently not Kaczynski’s only crimes. Closer to home in Lincoln, Kaczynski allegedly sabotaged mining and logging equipment, booby-trapped dirt bike trails by stringing wires between trees, and trashed hunting cabins.
“He was waging a one-man jihad against industrialized society,” said Tony Stone, director, co-writer and co-producer of the 2021 film “Ted K.”
In 1995, Kaczynski submitted a 35,000-word manifesto under the byline “FC” to the Washington Post and New York Times, where he outlined his motives and misgivings about modern society, technology and environmental destruction. He said that he would stop killing people if the document was published. In September, the Washington Post did just that at the urging of the FBI and Attorney General Janet Reno.
The manifesto would lead to Kaczynski’s downfall. Not long after publication, Kaczynski’s brother told the FBI that the manifesto’s writing style was similar to his sibling’s prose. That plus biographical facts about Kaczynski were enough to get a search warrant, and not long afterward federal agents quietly descended on Lincoln. A few months later, the decades-old mystery had been solved and Kaczynski was in handcuffs.
Overnight, the town of Lincoln found itself at the center of one of the biggest news stories in the country. Residents were shocked that one of the most notorious criminals in American history had been living among them for years.
“I think many members of the community felt betrayed by Kaczynski,” Gehring said. “They looked out for him, trusted him, and would take care of him by offering car rides, help with employment, and various other favors. The shock of this criminal living among us definitely forced everyone to take a closer look at their neighbors.”
On June 23, 1996, Kaczynski left Montana for good when he was extradited to California to stand trial. But even after he left, Kaczynski remained connected to the state, aided by an endless catalog of content about the man and his bombing spree. One of the first was a book co-authored by Shors, the Helena editor, and Chris Waits, a Lincoln man who knew the terrorist. After it was published, Kaczynski wrote the authors a detailed letter rebutting parts of the book. Shors said he stands by the authors’ reporting.
One of the more recent retellings is the movie “Ted K,” starring actor Sharlto Copley, which focused less on the manhunt than on Kaczynski’s life in Montana. The movie was filmed on location in Lincoln, and the producers even rebuilt Kaczynski’s infamous cabin on the exact spot it stood for 25 years. Co-producer Matt Flanders grew up in Helena and remembers when the Unabomber was apprehended. He said the Kaczynski story was one that could have only happened in Montana.
“One of the great things about Montana was we sort of let people be,” he said. “If your neighbor needed help, you would help them. But if you wanted to be left alone, you were left alone. Because of that the people of Lincoln really gave him space.”
Colin Scott, another co-producer and a University of Montana alumni, said the Kaczynski story helped fuel America’s fascination with the West, and Montana in particular, as a place where a person could live almost undetected, regardless of their actions.
“He wanted to find a place where he could exist beholden to no one, and Lincoln in 1971 was that place,” Scott said. “Kaczynski helped build up the lore of Montana.”
In some ways, the Kaczynski story built up the lore of a different era in Montana, one that existed long before “Yellowstone” became a hit and so many second homes began to cover the countryside, back when the state was a little rougher around the edges. Scott said Kaczynski’s death helps mark the “end of that era.”
The movie’s producers said another reason they believed the Kaczynski story has continued to resonate for 27 years after his arrest — and why it has now outlived him — is that some of Kaczynski’s beliefs about technology and society don’t seem especially far-fetched through a contemporary lens.
“Had he not resorted to violence, I think a lot of his theories would be much more revered than they are now,” Flanders said. “Because his statements about the dangers of technology, of how it can be dehumanizing, about how it can pull us apart from each other, feel more relevant than ever.”
“It’s a complicated story,” Stone added, “Because you can agree with some of his thoughts but not his actions.”
It remains to be seen whether the Kaczynski story is one people will care about in the future. Whether the community of Lincoln will forever be associated with perhaps its most famous resident is also unknown. Flanders said Lincoln is “so much more than the Unabomber,” and that he hopes it will someday be better known for its outdoor recreation and community spirit than for the actions of one man.
Shors, the newspaper editor, said he hopes interest in the man will finally subside with Kaczynski’s death.
“Maybe we can finally bury this story with him, because he was a sordid and cruel criminal,” Shors said. “Maybe this can finally be the end of it.”