WHEN federal agents in Montana took custody this week of a bearded recluse whom they suspect is the Unabomber, they raised the tantalizing prospect of solving a murderous, 17-year bombing spree that has humiliated the FBI and unsettled America.
If this is the big break the Federal Bureau of Investigation has labored for, it will provide a much-needed boost to the agency. It may also dramatically illustrate the kind of payoffs available from a growing trend in law enforcement investigations: plumbing the public for leads.
While federal authorities have long turned to the public for tips - Wanted posters have been around since the days of the Old West - today's efforts are more sophisticated and tap a wider, crime-weary audience.
Since 1993, federal agents have fielded tens of thousands of tips from citizens calling the Unabomber hotline, persuaded The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish his 35,000-word anarchist "manifesto," and interviewed hundreds of scholars, machinists, and other professionals for clues to his identity.
Finally, two months ago, the FBI got its break when a suburban Chicago family cleaning out some old boxes at the Lombard, Ill., house where the suspect, Theodore Kaczynski, once lived, found writings that lead them to believe he is the Unabomber. Mr. Kaczynski's brother passed the documents to the FBI, which soon had Kaczynski under intense surveillance.
"It would appear that his relatives in Chicago would not have known had it not been for the publication of the manifesto," says Columbia University journalism professor Peter Herford, although he cautions that the Unabomber case could set a precedent for terrorists seeking to manipulate the media.
Law enforcement officials have also been "delighted" with the tips produced by media shows that describe real crimes such as "America's Most Wanted," Herford says.
As of press time, federal officials said Kaczynski would be charged on one count of making a bomb, but not specifically linked to the Unabomber's attacks. The charge is intended to enable authorities to continue to hold Kaczynski, in custody since Wednesday, while gathering evidence for a stronger case.
Crucial evidence may come from forensic tests and other advanced scientific investigatory tools, which could confirm a connection between the suspect and the Unabomber.
Reports have indicated that in addition to writing samples, physical evidence, and a psychological profile of Kaczynski, the FBI has obtained a DNA sample from the saliva used to lick stamps on the packages and letters sent by the bomber. In the World Trade Center bombing, a DNA sample taken from an envelope was introduced as evidence.
"DNA is the best friend that any innocent defendant could have and the worst enemy of anyone who's guilty," says Mark Stolorow at Cellmark Diagnostics, the largest nongovernmental forensics lab in the country.
There are contradictory about whether federal agents found bomb-making equipment in Kaczynski's remote cabin. Their search continued Thursday. Descriptions of the suspect and his past bear striking parallels to federal profiles of the Unabomber, described by the FBI as a white male in his 40s.
A 1962 graduate of Harvard University who briefly taught math at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967-68, Kaczynski has the scholarly pedigree worthy of the author of the Unabomber tract, an attack on industrial society and high technology published by the Times and Post last September.
Raised in the Chicago area followed by periods in California and Utah, Kaczynski's residences also trace to a degree the littered path of 16 bombings that the Unabomber committed since 1978, killing three people and wounding 23 others.
In the tiny town of Lincoln, Mont., near where Kaczynski lived in a mountain shack, a picture emerges of a solitary yet eloquent backwoodsman who shunned modern amenities as basic as electricity and plumbing.
"He is a recluse, totally a 'you leave me alone and I'll leave you alone' sort of person," says Karen Potter, who runs the Blackfoot grocery store where Kaczynski bought provisions. She says she last saw him about a month ago. "Out here, if you want to be left alone you will be."
Mrs. Potter and others say Kaczynski lived a hermetic life off the land and rarely traveled the five miles into town. When the lean, casually dressed man did venture out, it was either by hitching a ride during winter or riding his bicycle in summer. He apparently did not own a car, residents say.
But while Kaczynski was an enigma for Lincoln, residents say he was easy to talk to and not unfriendly. Some expressed doubt that the FBI had found the Unabomber.
"It could be a mistake," says Potter in a telephone interview. "For one thing, [Kaczynski] is more a rugged mountain type than a sweatshirt fellow." Some in Lincoln suspected he could have been turned in by a vengeful family. Others say he did not seem like a murderer. "I have probably threatened to kill more people than he has," Potter says.
r Staff writer Christina Nifong contributed to this report.
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