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Bringing down the Unabomber

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This photo of Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski and Sam Worthington as Jim Fitzgerald comes from Episode 102 of the Discovery Channel series "Manhunt: Unabomber." This photo of Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski and Sam Worthington as Jim Fitzgerald comes from Episode 102 of the Discovery Channel series "Manhunt: Unabomber." (photo courtesy Discovery Channel/Tina Rowden)

A conversation with FBI agent James Fitzgerald

A great irony of the legendary FBI case against the Unabomber is that it wasn’t necessarily technology which brought down the anti-tech serial-killing anarchist, but rather a simple human analysis of the killer’s own language, which led authorities to his remote Lincoln, Montana wilderness hideaway, according to the FBI agent who cracked the case.

The 1996 apprehension of serial-bomber Ted Kaczynski led to the conclusion of what was, at the time, the longest and most expensive investigation in FBI history.

The agent credited with discovering clues leading to Kaczynski’s capture and conviction is James “Fitz” Fitzgerald, portrayed in Discovery Channel’s current “Manhunt: Unabomber” miniseries by actor Sam Worthington.

The eight-episode series, scheduled to conclude on September 12, is based, in part, on Fitzgerald’s “A Journey to the Center of the Mind” – the third installment of which was released this summer.

Recruited by the FBI in 1987, Fitzgerald worked on a number of high-profile cases, including the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

After running down what he refers to as “basic leads” and putting that case together, Fitzgerald was promoted to supervisor at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and went through 12 weeks of training as an FBI profiler.

Suddenly, Fitzgerald was “asked” by his superiors to spend one month in San Francisco.

“I know in the FBI, that when you’re asked, it means you’re being told,” Fitzgerald said with a chuckle during a recent phone interview. “That 30 days turned into about a year. And after 17-years, as part of a team, we brought down this anti-technology-crazed serial bomber.”

Fitzgerald is quick to credit the work of his team members at the FBI for the countless hours they put into the UTF (UNABOM Task Force).

“I realized that after showing up at the UTF after 17-years, this guy was so careful, so cautious, so criminally sophisticated, he left no clues at all, either on his bombs or in the letters he was writing,” Fitzgerald said.

As a new profiler with 12 weeks of criminal behavior analysis under his belt, Fitzgerald recalls his eureka moment.

In 1995, Kaczynski wrote to several high-profile media outlets, insisting that if they agreed to publish his 35,000-word essay “Industrial Society and Its Future,” he would cease his terrorism campaign. Ultimately, The New York Times and The Washington Post released it in September of that year.

“I suddenly realized what a gift this guy gave us in sending a 35,000-word manifesto and 13 letters or so before that,” Fitzgerald remembered.

Fitzgerald asked his teammates on the UTF if any of them had seriously read the manifesto.

“They said ‘Yeah, we noted the books that it referenced, and we sent it to the lab for fingerprints and indented writings’ – all important stuff,” said Fitzgerald. “I asked if they would mind if I focused on the language contained therein. At first, they were a little reluctant. They said ‘Run with it and see what you can find.’”

When Fitzgerald discovered clues in the manifesto that had previously gone unnoticed, he was put in charge of the language analysis aspect of the killer’s writings.

“That is what eventually helped to solve the case,” he said.

In February 1996, five months after the publication of the manifesto, the FBI received a call from a lawyer representing David Kaczynski.

“Basically, he said ‘I think my brother might be The Unabomber,’” Fitzgerald said. “At that time, we had about 2,500 suspects – not all by name. Some were only descriptions of people, others were certain towns or whatever. We said ‘OK, we’ll add him to the list.’”

Fitzgerald says he compared the language and writing style of the 35,000-word manifesto to that of a document written by Ted Kaczynski in the early 1970s.

“That’s when I told my bosses in San Francisco, ‘You’ve got your man.’ They said ‘Let’s get back to work.’ And that’s what we did.”

“Manhunt: Unabomber” is scheduled to continue with the episode “Lincoln” on Sept. 5 at 10 p.m. on Discovery Channel.  

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