This story originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of Popular Science.
It was the case of a lifetime, and it had taken nearly a generation to unfold. Federal authorities finally arrested Theodore J. Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, in a one-room cabin deep in the Montana wilderness, after receiving a tip from his brother. For 17 years, Kaczynski, a math whiz and former college professor, had outwitted the law, waging a war against what he perceived to be the evils of technology. His battle had claimed three lives and injured 22. Many of his bombings had victimized individuals associated with universities or airlines, hence the Un-a-bomber moniker given him by the FBI.
With Kaczynski's arrest, however, another battle of wits began, one that matched scientific genius gone astray against a three-man team of bomb disposal specialists armed with the latest in technological gadgetry. Although Kaczynski was arrested in April 1996, the role of this special
bomb squad was merely hinted at when President Clinton officially thanked them for their work this past February. Only now, following the May sentencing of Kaczynski to life imprisonment, can their story be told.
The war of wits began when FBI agents peered inside Kaczynski's tiny cabin and discovered a live bomb, packaged and ready for mailing but unaddressed. Normally, this wouldn't be cause for too much excitement. A bomb disposal squad would remove the device and explode it harmlessly.
This time was different. The FBI needed the bomb defused but also intact for forensic evidence. The Unabomber had built his devices so they couldn't be linked to him, and FBI analysis of debris fragments had yielded few clues. The only common threads were the initials "FC," for Freedom Club, inscribed on eight of the 16 bombs ultimately attributed to the Unabomber, letters from FC to newspapers, and a lengthy manifesto published by The Washington Post and The New York Times in September 1995.
To its credit, the FBI had already realized that defusing a bomb intact was beyond its capabilities. In August 1995, FBI agents turned for help to Chris Cherry, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories, a federal weapons research facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cherry, a Department of Defense veteran of classified operations, is considered by those in the secretive bomb technician community to be the dean of bomb disposal experts. For the next nine months, Cherry would be on standby in case a Unabomber device was intercepted before it exploded. Cherry's team would include veteran Sandia assistant Rod Owenby and Vic Poisson, a long-time friend and associate with the Riverside, California, police department.
Shortly after Kaczynski's arrest, Cherry and Poisson were on the phone discussing the case when Cherry's other line buzzed. It was 6:30 p.m. on Good Friday, and Cherry was looking forward to Easter with his wife. Cherry put Poisson on hold and picked up the other line. It was the FBI.
"We have a device," said the agent on the other end of line. "It's under the bed [in Kaczynski's cabin]."
Cherry quickly switched the line back to Poisson. "Don't hang up."