On the Hunt with Lis Wiehl, Author of Hunting the Unabomber

Lis Wiehl worked as a federal prosecutor for five years, and more recently wrote Hunting the Unabomber, as part of her "Hunting" book series. Join Lis as she shares her background and insights from the investigation into one of the most complex killers.

It’s funny how simple childhood memories can be the genesis of a book series on the most notorious criminals this country has ever known.

One of my earliest memories is of a Dallas kitchen, with Marina Oswald cooking chicken for dinner with my mom. At the time, I didn’t know who the slim brunette was, or why my dad was asking her so many questions. I learned later that my FBI dad had been assigned to cover Marina after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He was on the hunt for the truth about who was behind the assassination, and Marina may have held clues.

While we were still stationed in Dallas, my dad took me to FBI headquarters and showed me the wall of the Most Wanted photos. “These are dangerous men,” he said. “It takes a team of the best to hunt them down.”

As I grew up, my dad continued to be on the hunt for other killers and “bad guys”, both as an agent and then a federal prosecutor, and his stories were fodder for many dinnertime conversations. I became fascinated by the process of the hunt, capture, and prosecution of bad guys.

I was honored to spend five years as a federal prosecutor. I prosecuted murder, rape, assault, human trafficking, and other violent offenses. And I loved every minute of it. I loved working with FBI, DEA, ICE, ATF, and other agencies to track down and put away the bad guys. I loved that the goal of the job was justice for all, pure and simple.

Over the years, I’ve yearned to go back to those days of getting behind the scenes of an investigation and hunt. I know from first-hand experience what happens in long investigations, from the camaraderie, to the infighting, to the tension or lack of communication between law enforcement agencies. I wondered if I could capture some of that in my writing.

I’m often asked about the “Hunting” series of books and why I decided to take on the Unabomber in the second book. The sad truth is there are lots of killers, serial killers, and horrible bad people to choose for a book about “hunting.” Frankly, if I’m going to spend two-plus years of my life invested in researching, writing, and marketing a book that I will live with for the rest of my life, I’m going to pick a subject that is interesting to me, and I think has social significance beyond the fact that the person killed a bunch of people.

Like Charles Manson, the Unabomber changed America and robbed us of our innocence. He was a mathematics wunderkind, who went to Harvard at the age of 16. Then he holed up in a remote cabin in Montana and started sending out homemade bombs and terrorized a nation for nearly two decades. He put the FBI through its longest manhunt ever. And he wrote a manifesto about the computerization of modern society that still resonates with some sectors of our population today. He’s been locked away since 1996, and yet even millennials recognize the sketch of the Unabomber Wanted poster.

*Sketch of the Unabomber – Courtesy of Missoulian.com.

The combination of a complex killer, a drawn-out hunt, and his iconic cultural significance made the Unabomber an intriguing subject for me.

And then I came in to contact with FBI Supervisory Agent Patrick Webb, who had led the Unabomber taskforce in San Francisco in the 60’s. He had long since been retired from the agency, and leading a cozy life with his wife in New Hampshire. But he was unhappy with the way a recent miniseries on TV had portrayed the hunt for the Unabomber—that one agent had almost singlehandedly solved the case after having met the Unabomber several times. He said that the miniseries had gotten it wrong, and that the hunt was a team effort. He said that the agent portrayed on the show, while on the team, had never met Kaczynski. Agent Webb said that the miniseries painted a false narrative of how the FBI really handled the case. He worried that if people believed that the TV series was the true story about the Unabomber, they would have been misled.

I told him I wanted to set the record straight, but I would need his help. This was a big ask because he knew he was dying of cancer.

But I knew that with Agent Webb’s help I would be able to tell the behind the scenes story of what really happened in the hunt for the Unabomber.

Most readers will be surprised to learn that the hunt for the Unabomber was almost called off. Agent Webb told me that at one point in 1960’s when there had been a several-year lull between bombings, the higher-ups in D.C. wanted to shut down the Unabomber task force. In a dramatic scene, Agent Webb had to fight for the very existence of his task force. And then the Unabomber struck again.

I’m already working on the next “Hunting” subject! I can’t tell you who it is yet but it’s another bad guy who is intrinsically intriguing and culturally-relevant today.

I’m on the hunt!

Further Reading: Q&A with Lis Wiehl on Hunting the Unabomber

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