MISSOULA – Twenty years after the arrest of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, some Lincoln residents remember him as an odd recluse who ate rabbits and lived without electricity, while others say he had a funny, personable side.
But all recall the media invasion that followed his capture and turned their small Montana town upside-down.
Kaczynski is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Florence, Colorado, for a series of bombings, most through the mail, that killed three people and injured 23 others over 17 years.
His April 3, 1996, arrest in a primitive cabin 75 miles east of Missoula captured the world’s attention and brought thousands of reporters and tourists to the sleepy mountain town.
Around Lincoln, the unkempt loner simply known as “Ted” ate rabbits, lived without power and rode his bike to the town’s library, the Missoulian reported. The FBI moved in after Kaczynski’s sister-in-law recognized his writing in a 35,000-word manifesto published in The New York Times and Washington Post.
Jerry Burns was a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer in the Lincoln area who was recruited by the FBI to help with the arrest. On that day, he walked up to the cabin with two FBI agents and a tactical team hiding in the woods.
“I started yelling up to Ted, ‘Ted, are you home?’ And we got up to the door and heard him scuffling around in there,” Burns said. “He was pretty scruffy-looking.”
Kaczynski tried unsuccessfully to duck back inside, where he had a loaded pistol, bomb-making equipment and his journals.
“Poor Ted had been eating snowshoe rabbits and didn’t weigh much, and the adrenaline was flowing in me so I had to grab at his wrist at the door, and out he came,” Burns said.
Wendy Gehring, who lived and operated a sawmill with her husband down the road from Kaczynski, said the FBI used her property as a staging area for the arrest.
“It took forever for the FBI to get into position. Finally, they gave the OK, they made the arrest, and our mill erupted with FBI agents,” Gehring said.
“We went from six people standing on the mill waiting to hear, and they yelled, ‘We got him, he’s in custody,’ and it went to 300 people. There were trucks and RVs and people walking out of the woods. It was insane. People were cheering,” she said.
That scene of elation was followed by swarms of reporters descending on their isolated mountainside property. Gehring recalled she was pregnant when she went outside with a shotgun to persuade a television crew’s helicopter to abandon an attempt to land in her driveway.
“I think they thought we were all kind of a dirty, punk, stupid hillbilly kind of deal,” she said.
Librarian Sherri Wood probably knew Kaczynski as well as anyone in town from his frequent visits to the library.
Wood liked Kaczynski. She said he had a great sense of humor and he befriended her son. She was shocked by his arrest and gave him the benefit of the doubt at first.
“I said, ‘Well, he’s not the first person to get arrested as the Unabomber, and they had to let the other ones go. So let’s wait and see,'” she said.
She also remembered the media swarm was followed by tourists who wanted to sit in the chair Kaczynski had sat in and take the books he donated to the library.
Two decades later, tourists still occasionally come to touch a shelf that the Unabomber touched.
“I really would like to put that to rest,” Wood said. “It was a crazy time in our lives. I don’t want to revisit it. And I’m glad they’ll never let him out again.”
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