Q&A with Lis Wiehl, Author of Hunting the Unabomber
By John ValeriApril 23, 2020
Lis Wiehl is a bestselling author who served as a federal prosecutor in the United State’s Attorney’s office and was a tenured professor of law at the University of Washington. She appears frequently on CNN as a legal analyst and is the former co-host of WOR radio’s “WOR Tonight with Joe Concha and Lis Wiehl.” Wiehl has also appeared on NBC News, NPR’s All Things Considered, Fox News, the O’Reilly Factor, Your World with Neil Cavuto, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and the Imus morning shows. In addition to novels, she writes the true-crime “Hunting” series—in collaboration with Lisa Pulitzer—that launched with 2018’s Hunting Charles Manson; April’s Hunting the Unabomber is the second entry.
Recently, Ms. Wiehl entertained questions pertaining to how her new book debunks Discovery’s Manhunter: Unabomber series, the ways in which her background lends itself to investigation and analysis, why the Unabomber case stymied authorities for many years, and how Ted Kaczynkski managed to evade capture for nearly two decades. She also discussed her collaborative process with Lisa Pulitzer and teased what comes next.
What inspired your interest in the Unabomber case—and how does the book rectify some of the misconceptions from the Discovery Channel’s recent docuseries?
When I was not much more than a toddler, my dad, an FBI agent stationed in Dallas, Texas, took me to FBI headquarters and showed me a wall containing photos of Most Wanted criminals, saying “These are dangerous men. It takes a team of the best agents to hunt them down.” I think I grew up wanting to hunt down the bad guys, whether by putting them in jail as I did when I was a federal prosecutor, or by writing about them in this series.
Ted Kaczynski’s case fascinated me. Here was this mathematics wunderkind, who went to Harvard at the age of 16. Then he holed up in a remote cabin in Montana where he made bombs, sending them out via regular U.S. postal services. He terrified a nation for nearly two decades, and he led the FBI on its longest manhunt ever.
And, unlike some serial killers whose influence quickly dwindles after sentencing, the Unabomber’s Manifesto—railing against the computerization of modern society—still resonates with some folks today. And even more people can still recognize that iconic photo of the man in the hoodie. The Unabomber had an undeniably significant impact on American culture, and it is, therefore, important to be sure the story of his hunt and capture is told accurately.
I was so fortunate to meet FBI Supervisory Agent Patrick Webb, who had led the Unabomber taskforce in San Francisco for many years. Agent Webb, long retired in New Hampshire, had seen the Discovery miniseries, and was distraught about the portrayal of the hunt for the Unabomber. The miniseries showed one agent almost singlehandedly solving the case, and meeting with Kaczynski. 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 not even 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.
With Agent Webb’s help, and the help of all the sources he led me to, we were able to tell a narrative that runs true to what really happened during the years of hunting for this elusive target.
How did your father’s career as an FBI agent inform your own vocational trajectory—and in what ways did this pedigree enhance your investigation into the Unabomber case, both in terms of access to individuals and analysis of information?
My dad was always on the hunt for ‘bad guys’, whether as an FBI agent under Hoover, or, following my grandfather’s path, as a federal prosecutor. I guess it’s not surprising that I became a federal prosecutor, having been inspired my dad’s passion for pursuing justice.
I had to conduct my own mini ‘hunt’ to find my main source for the book, Agent Webb, retired in New Hampshire. I used what I call the ‘federal family key’ to persuade agent Webb to initially speak with me about the case and how upset he was about the Discovery miniseries.
In writing this book, I wanted to tell the story behind the investigation. Having led and been a part of many federal investigations myself, I have some understanding of what the agents were up against in the Unabomber investigation.
Agent Webb also led me to several other key agents who had their own stories to tell. Being able to reconstruct the investigation with the help from those who lived it offered me a unique perspective.
Despite an abundance of manpower and other resources, authorities initially made little headway with the case. What internal (multijurisdictional) factors contributed to their struggles—and how did progress come with time and technology?
The investigation was extraordinarily complex involving literally hundreds of investigators working for a variety of large federal agencies and scattered across the U.S. To make matters worse, there was no national database for crimes at the time—and reports were hand-typed by investigators and then sent up through the agencies for consideration. In some bombings, the Federal Aviation Administration was taking the lead because there were airlines or airline executives involved. In others, the U.S. Postal Service took the lead because the improvised explosive devices had been sent through the postal system. Still others were under the purview of the FBI. The situation was further complicated because agencies had multiple offices working on the same investigation. To be sure investigators were working hard and tracking down leads as best they could. But the investigation was massive in scale, and for years there was no one office coordinating the efforts.
Agencies started making progress when a single task force was set up and all the reports started going there. Then, authorities created a national database, so they’d be able to keep track of, and search, the reports. But still, the scope of the project was monumental.
Consider, too, that Kaczynski was well-educated, and he wasn’t working against any calendar He’d spend months perfecting bomb-making techniques in his little cabin in the woods.
He never divulged his plans or strategies to anyone, and most folks just ignored him as an oddball who lived alone in the woods. There was nothing about his that suggested he was, or could be, dangerous to others.
What of Ted Kaczynski’s methods and motivations allowed him to remain an enigma for so long—and how did his conduct evolve from the first bomb to the last?
Ted Kaczynski was using discarded pieces of wood, wire, and metal that he picked up along the edge of the road, in junkyards, dumpsters, and other places near his cabin. He never bought new materials to fashion his bomb components. There was never anything that investigators could trace back to a lumber yard, hardware store, or plumbing supply shop because he never frequented those establishments and never bought any of his bomb-making goods.
To further compound problems for investigators, Kaczynski had been careful to remove any serial numbers or other identifying marks from the components he used. For example, he scraped the labels off batteries to ensure that investigators couldn’t trace them back to a specific production batch at a specific plant. He was scrupulous in his work and continued to hone his bomb-making techniques over the years, keeping track of his progress in his notebooks. Kaczynski was also a loner; he had no connections to radical groups or individuals who wanted to bring the government down. He never divulged his plans or strategies to anyone, and most folks just ignored him as an oddball who lived alone in the woods. There was nothing about his that suggested he was, or could be, dangerous to others.
It’s important to remember, too, that these crimes also happened before the advent of closed-circuit TVs and video surveillance systems. There were no video tapes to review. Kaczynski was little more than a ghost, leaving no trail as he moved into and out of communities. It was years before authorities finally found a witness, allowing them to develop the first sketch of one of the most wanted men in the U.S.
Ironically, it was Kaczynski’s own words that would result in his downfall. Can you talk a bit about his manifesto, how it became a part of the public record, and why this resulted in his identification?
Having exhausted all investigative avenues, UNABOM taskforce members grappled with whether they should publish the Kaczynski Manifesto sent to The New York Times. Many were of the belief that you don’t ever give terrorists a platform and that publishing his writings was a bad idea. But there were those who felt that, with no other fresh leads and the possibility of more deaths and injuries, they had no choice but to consider it. The decision was made at the highest levels of the FBI during a meeting that included the director of the FBI, the head of the Justice Department, and publishers of The New York Times and Washington Post, as well as several senior members of the UNABOMB task force. One of those task force members was convinced that somebody reading the manifesto would recognize the author’s wording and phrasing—and hopefully come forward to authorities. This is exactly what happened when Ted Kaczynski’s sister-in-law recognized similarities between the Unabomber’s writings and some of the old letters he had sent to Ted’s brother, David.
Tell us about your collaborative process with Lisa Pulitzer. In what ways do you complement each other—and how did her efforts enhance the story you were able to tell?
Lisa shared my drive to tell this true story behind the investigation from an angle that had not already been told, and she brought her years of reporting and investigative talents to the task. She tracked down some of the primary sources for the book, and she had a great way of looking at the arch of the Unabomber story. Together, we took a massive amount of information and crafted a structure that made coherent sense of almost two decades of investigations and bombings.
Lisa and I took different pieces of the research and came back together to share collective notes. That process was extremely helpful, and I am very grateful to Lisa for her work, and for her gentle thoughtfulness along the way. Lisa, for example, was the one to suggest that we send Agent Webb fresh Florida grapefruits for Christmas. His wife, Florence, said that those grapefruits were one of the last things Agent Webb truly enjoyed eating before he died of cancer shortly after that Christmas.
Leave us with a teaser. What comes next?
Ah, you know I can’t tell you the target of my next “hunt”! I don’t want to ruin the surprise. But I can tell you it’s a bad guy who is both intrinsically interesting and culturally relevant today.
I’m bringing my law enforcement background to the ‘hunt’, aiming to give readers fresh insight, information, and new angles on a subject that may even continue to threaten our national security!
I’m on the hunt!
About Hunting the Unabomber by Lis Wiehl and Lisa Pulitzer:
On April 3, 1996, a team of FBI agents closed in on an isolated cabin in remote Montana, marking the end of the longest and most expensive investigation in FBI history. The cabin’s lone inhabitant was a former mathematics prodigy and professor who had abandoned society decades earlier. Few people knew his name, Theodore Kaczynski, but everyone knew the mayhem and death associated with his nickname: the Unabomber.
For two decades, Kaczynski had masterminded a campaign of random terror, killing and maiming innocent people through bombs sent in untraceable packages. The FBI task force charged with finding the perpetrator of these horrifying crimes grew to 150 people, yet his identity remained a maddening mystery. Then, in 1995, a “manifesto” from the Unabomber was published in the New York Times and Washington Post, resulting in a cascade of tips – including the one that cracked the case.
Hunting the Unabomber includes:
- Exclusive interviews with key law enforcement agents who attempted to track down Kaczynski, correcting the history distorted by earlier films and streaming series
- Never-before-told stories of inter-agency law enforcement conflicts that changed the course of the investigation
- An in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at why the hunt for the Unabomber was almost shut down by the FBI
New York Times best-selling author and former federal prosecutor Lis Wiehl meticulously reconstructs the white-knuckle, tension-filled hunt to identify and capture the mysterious killer. This is a can’t-miss, true crime thriller of the years-long battle of wits between the FBI and the brilliant-but-criminally insane Ted Kaczynski.