Bill Babbitt and David Kaczynski share a special bond and burden born of tragedy. They both took the wrenching step of turning in a brother for committing murder.
In giving the FBI the break in the Unabomber case, Mr. Kaczynski and his family were caught in the unwelcome glare of the global spotlight. Mr. Babbitt's anguish was more private, but ultimately more devastating. He watched his brother, Manny, a Vietnam vet, be executed by the state of California, despite his mental illness.
The families have become close, finding healing in their relationship and in ties to Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, where Babbitt is a board member. MVFR recognizes that the pain of violence touches families on both sides of homicide.
"This is a tragedy of my mom's hopes and dreams," Kaczynski says. "My parents had a dream, as many immigrants did, of creating a better life for their children, and they saw their calling in life first as being good parents."
Theodore Kaczynski's campaign of letter bombs sent from a rustic cabin in Montana killed three people and injured 28 others. It went on for almost 20 years, until his brother recognized phrasings in an Unabomer manifesto published in The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Babbitt's brother went to Vietnam as a young 17-year-old, where he served two tours and was wounded three times, including a shrapnel wound in the head. He was never able to adjust afterwards, and ended up at Bridgewater State Mental Hospital, where he used drugs and attempted suicide several times.
Despite doctors' advice, he was later released, and moved west to live with his brother. Unable to hold a job, he started smoking marijuana laced with PCP. One day, Babbitt's wife, Linda, noticed thatManny was buying gifts for the kids; they also found rolls of nickels in the house and a lighter with the initials "L.S."
That night, Bill says, "it hit me." He remembered a newspaper article about an older woman named Leah Shendel who had been beaten and died of a heart attack. She had just returned from Reno.
"I woke up my wife and we got down on our knees and prayed," Babbitt says. The next day he turned Manny in. His brother never confessed or denied the killing; he just didn't remember it. Police found that Shendel had been watching a war movie, Babbitt says, and Manny apparently had a flashback.
Both men felt a responsibility to society to prevent further violence, yet they also wanted help for their brothers. Their families felt betrayed when the death penalty was pursued.
"The astonishing thing for our family was that we had a very clear sense that there was an understanding on the part of the FBI and Justice Department that Ted was severely mentally ill," Kaczynski says. Both men say they had been encouraged to think their brothers would get help if they turned them in.
It's particularly difficult for Babbitt, who says, "My brother went off to war for this country and came back the way he was - they never gave him any help."
Ted Kaczynski eventually won life without parole in exchange for pleading guilty, which he did because he didn't want his lawyer to use mental illness as a defense.
Manny Babbitt, black and poor, didn't have that option. There were no blacks on the jury that convicted him, and his lawyer was later disbarred. Pleas for clemency fell on deaf ears.
Yet Manny forgave his brother immediately. Ted still refuses to communicate in any way with his family.
The two friends now put their energies into abolishing the death penalty and doing what they can for victims of murder.
"The two things nearest to my heart are getting people to rethink the death penalty ... and pursuing a vision of a nonviolent society," says Kaczynski, who also runs a runaway-youth services program in Albany, N.Y. The Kaczynskis received a $1 million reward for turning Ted in, which, after taxes and attorney fees, left $680,000 which they distributed to the families of the victims.
"When you have a terrible act of violence, the need is to heal the wounds, both on a communal and individual level," Kaczynski says. "The adversarial setup of the justice system - the way there is a clear effort to keep the family members of both sides from communicating for fear of compromising that supposedly impartial process - is counterproductive to the healing process. We need a new paradigm."
"It's like they set the families against each other," Babbitt says. Politicians promise closure by killing the person that killed your loved one, he adds, but it doesn't happen that way.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor