The story of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, is one of the most notorious serial bomber and terrorist cases in history, and now a new Apple Original podcast “Project Unabom,” with original reporting from host Eric Benson, takes you inside the story of Ted Kaczynski like you’ve never heard before.
“He is someone who had a really defined ideology, and so defined that he coerced these newspapers into publishing his manifesto,” Benson told Yahoo Canada. “I thought, that's really interesting, what's the relationship between ideas and violence and terrorism and murder.”
“What really was going on? What was going on in those 18 years? How much of it was fuelled by these ideas? How much of it was fuelled by other things, other more personal grievances? That sort of set me off on a course to try to figure out who Ted Kaczynski was.”
It’s the Unabomber’s manifesto that largely continues to fascinate people, keying into fears and concerns around the accelerated progress of technological advancements.
"Ted's ideas, which is this really kind of angry attack on all technology dating back a long time, seemed to really resonate with people from the minute it was published," Benson said. "There aren't a lot of terrorist manifestos that would be considered in the opinion pages of newspapers and this one was from the start, and I think it's continued to kind of fascinate people."
[As] technology has continued to progress and accelerate, as it always does, there's a strain of people are really fascinated by all of this new technology, it makes our lives easier and richer in a lot of ways, but there's downsides that people notice. When they get really frustrated, I noticed friends of mine who would sort of say, 'I gotta give it all up.' This technology is leading us to bad things, it's making us feel alienated, it's dividing us, it's destroying our world, and those are a lot of ideas that the Unabomber expressed.Eric Benson, host of 'Project Unabom'
“Project Unabom” starts off with Benson explaining that he is at the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan, which has the collected written works of the Unabomber. Even though Benson did reach out to Kaczynski and did not hear back, the podcast host highlighted that after accessing the information at the archive, he realized he didn’t actually need that one-on-one conversation.
"It's his journals dating back to the early 1970s and you get some really intimate portraits of what his life was like,...the nice things about his life and then the kind of intense frustrations and anger that would come up," he said.
"He wrote two quite robust autobiographies at different points in his life that really go into a lot of detail about his development and his path to radicalization, and his path to violence. So having all that at my disposal, it just made me feel like I could tell this story with a lot more depth.”
Dungeons & Dragons suspects
A significant part of the information that Eric Benson reveals in “Project Unabom” is the story of a group of original suspects in the case, Dungeons & Dragons players from the Chicago area, who remained suspects, essentially, up until Ted Kaczynski was arrested in 1996.
“I didn't know if I was going to be able to penetrate it because most FBI agents will not really talk about the suspects that didn't pan out," Benson said. "We knew that Ted Kaczynski was suspect 2,416 for the FBI and so it was a question of, who were the 2,415 suspects there, and I knew the Dungeons & Dragons group was there.”
“I thought that story just needs to be told, it's a totally fascinating part of this case and the fact that they remained suspects for so long, just shows how hard it was to narrow in on Ted Kaczynski.”
The story of how this group became suspects started with quite a crazy coincidence in the summer of 1978. Greg (his last name not used in the podcast) was a student of engineering professor E.J, Smith at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, but took an incomplete in that class to get to his summer job, going back to his family home in a suburb of Chicago to work for the city’s forestry department.
A bomb had been placed in a mailing envelope, found at the University of Illinois, addressed to Professor Smith, and the return address was for a professor at Northwestern University named Buckley Crist. Crist happened to be one of the professors that Greg’s mother was a secretary for at the university.
That’s how Greg initially became a suspect in the Unabomber case, extending to a local group that Greg played Dungeons & Dragons with in Chicago. In “Project Unabomer,” we hear from Greg and two other members of this friend group, Jeff Ward, who became a main suspect, and Dave White.
“Jeff opened up all these parts of the story,...Jeff began to tell me that this wasn't just a story about the FBI pursuing these Dungeons & Dragons suspects, this was a story about this close knit friend group that ended up kind of turning against each other and breaking up under the pressure of this FBI investigation,” Benson said.
For White, he really thought, and actually still believes to this day, that Ward was involved in the early bombings.
But for Greg, being involved in this case was particularly difficult for him, indicating in the podcast that he is still traumatized by the years of FBI interrogations.
“He lost out on opportunities by being a suspect in a federal terrorism investigation,” Benson said. “He ended up moving away from Chicago, at least in part because of these suspicions, and he's really kind of moved on with his life.”
“It took a bunch of conversations, and of course offering him a bit of privacy and that we don't say his last name or some of the other details about his life, for him to agree to participate, but up to this point, I think he's been happy that his voice is in there, and I am too because it all starts with him.”
'David is the heart of the show'
On Monday, July 4, the fourth episode of “Project Unabom” will be released, an episode that Eric Benson is particularly proud of, which dives deeper into David and Ted Kaczynski as brothers. David Kaczynski actually initially declined to participate in the podcast, but ultimately agreed to share details about his relationship with his brother.
“David is the heart of the show,” Benson said. “We started making the show unsure if David was going to participate, but at this point, looking back, I have no idea what this show would have been like if David had stayed with his initial position and said no.”
You’ll likely recall the Unabomber's brother is credited with putting an end to the 18 year hunt for the infamous terrorist, after recognizing his brother’s writing when the manifesto was published by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and going to the FBI.
In the podcast, David talks about how his brother was his “role model” and “hero” growing up, embodying a level of education and intellect that he aspired towards, but “Project Unabom” also takes us inside the moments when those feelings started to shift for David.
“He, like Ted, I think has a real instinct towards privacy,” Benson said. “Both David and Ted lived for years in basically total solitude and isolation.”
“He's the most essential voice to this project and I think was able to help me do everything I wanted to do with the show.”