The Lone Stranger

updated 04/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WANDA KACZYNSKI HAD FINALLY decided to put the family home in Lombard, Ill., up for sale. Her husband had died in 1990, and she wanted to move from the Chicago suburb to Schenectady, N.Y., to live with the younger of her two grown sons, David, 45, and his wife, Linda Patrik. But when she and David began to clean out the house where the family had lived for 25 years, they found boxes containing writings belonging to her elder son, Ted. Their contents were disturbing—so much so, in fact, that David phoned an attorney friend in Washington, who, in turn, contacted the FBI.

Two months later, on April 3, several dozen agents, acting on evidence gleaned from those forgotten documents, surrounded a rundown 16-by-20-foot shack outside the isolated western Montana town of Lincoln, not far from the Continental Divide, and knocked on the door. When a man appeared dressed in torn black jeans and a black shirt, one agent reportedly said, "Ted, we'd like to have a talk."

With those words the FBI may have ended the longest manhunt in its history. The agents took Theodore John Kaczynski, 53, into custody, and within hours news organizations were reporting that he would be charged as the Unabomber, the terrorist whose homemade bombs have killed three people and maimed 23 others in a series of 16 attacks dating back to 1978. "We like the looks of this guy as the Unabomber," said a federal law enforcement official.

Kaczynski struggled briefly as the agents prepared to search his house but otherwise apparently showed little emotion. The search turned up explosive chemicals and bomb-making materials. Investigators were also looking for a vintage 1960s manual typewriter like the one the Unabomber has used to type letters to numerous media outlets, including a 35,000-word treatise condemning the inhumanity of industrial society that appeared last September in The Washington Post.

Kaczynski's scruffy clothes and tangled hair belied a background decidedly different from those of his neighbors in Lewis and Clark County. A gifted mathematician with impressive academic credentials, he was a National Merit scholarship finalist in high school and a member of the German, math and coin clubs. Dartmouth professor Dale Eickelman, a childhood friend, recalled that Kaczynski had another hobby: explosives. "I remember Ted had the know-how of putting together things like batteries, wire leads, potassium nitrate and whatever, and creating explosions," Eickelman told a reporter. He won a scholarship to Harvard, where he lived in Eliot House.

Barely 20 when he graduated, Kaczynski went on to earn a master's and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1964 and 1967. At the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s, he briefly taught such courses as "The Theory of Sets" and published papers on such subjects as the "curvilinear convergence of a continuous function defined in the interior of a cube." George Piranian, 81, a Michigan professor who taught Kaczynski, said his former pupil was able to solve problems that stymied the professor and his colleagues. "This happens every so often, that you find a student in your class who runs circles around you," he said.

Patrick McIntosh, from Boulder, Colo., one of Kaczynski's college roommates from Harvard, offers another view. "We hardly knew him," he says. "He would go into his room, sit in his chair and rock." But sometime in the late 1960s, Kaczynski changed his thinking about his career. Resigning from the Berkeley faculty in 1969, at the height of campus radicalism, he lived in Utah, then moved sometime in the early 1980s to Lincoln, a sleepy town of 530 astride the Big Blackfoot River, made famous by author Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It.

Townspeople expressed equal degrees of shock over the arrest and dismay at the hordes of journalists following swiftly behind. Many described Kaczynski as a taciturn loner who came to town riding his bicycle pulling a trailer, or hitching a ride with the postman, to stock up on supplies for his house, which lacks both electricity and running water. "He wears jeans, old clothes, and he's not real well-kept," says Teresa Brown, 21, a clerk at Garland's Country Store. "I don't think he had any kind of job. I guess he wanted to be left alone. As far as I know, nobody has ever seen his place." Bob Orr, manager of the Lincoln Telephone Co., adds, "He never washed much."

The Unabomber—so named by the FBI because he originally targeted universities and airlines—began his deadly campaign in 1978, when a package left at Northwestern University exploded, injuring one person. The attacks continued until one year ago, when a timber industry executive was killed by a bomb in Sacramento. He also threw domestic air travel into chaos for four days last June when he announced that a bomb would be placed on a plane at Los Angeles International Airport. He later revealed it was just a hoax. "Since the public has a short memory," the Unabomber smirked in a letter to The New York Times, "we decided to play one last prank to remind them who we are."

In fact, Kaczynski chillingly fits the Unabomber profile that investigators have drawn over the years by piecing together events, evidence and letters: a recluse, a white man in his late 30s or 40s with at least a high school education, who has moved from the Chicago area to the West Coast and is familiar with university life. Though the Unabomber often uses the plural "we" in his communications and claims to be a member of the Freedom Club (he painstakingly placed a metal tag with an FC signature in his bombs), he was long thought to work alone. Recording his exploits, he sends only carbon copies of letters, presumably keeping the originals for himself. Law enforcement officials also had speculated that the Unabomber lived somewhere in Northern California, where some of the bombings took place. Kaczynski's brother David, a social worker, has reportedly told investigators that he bought airline tickets for Ted in periods that coincided with bombings.

The Unabomber was seen only once, in 1987, when a woman witnessed a man in aviator sunglasses and a hooded jersey placing a device that turned out to be a bomb behind a computer store in Salt Lake City, Utah. But John Douglas, a retired FBI agent who wrote Mind-hunter, a book on the Unabomber, is convinced that the killer is so taken with his own works of devastation that he often stayed nearby to admire the results. "He would have been standing there." he says, "and he would have tried to inject himself into the investigation,"

The FBI was equally fastidious in planning his capture. After meeting with Kaczynski's mother and brother, investigators set up a stakeout near Lincoln, watching his every move for six weeks with the help of high-tech gear that included satellite pictures. The night before the search, some 50 agents set up a command post at Lincoln's Seven-Up Ranch Supper Club, and on the day he was apprehended they even restricted travel in airspace over the valley. In the end, it seemed, what led to the capture of Theodore John Kaczynski were some of the technological marvels that the Unabomber so hated.

DAN BURKHART in Lincoln, CATHY FREE in Salt Lake City, LORNA GRISBY in Chicago, JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington and JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles

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