Chasing the Unabomber
As life stories go, former FBI agent Max Noel’s is action packed.
Photograph by Jamie Kripke
Fifteen years ago this month, Max Noel found himself cautiously approaching a small cabin in rural Montana. He, another FBI agent, and a U.S. Forest Service police officer had been staying in the area for several months, pretending to be gold miners as they moved in closer on an investigation that Noel had reopened three years earlier.
Inside the cabin was Ted Kaczynski—aka the Unabomber—the prime suspect in a 17-year string of domestic terror attacks that killed three people and injured two dozen more. Noel had spent countless hours searching for the infamous outlaw: He assigned the famous black-and-white sketch of the hooded suspect, gave the go-ahead for the controversial publication of Kaczynski’s manifesto, and tracked him down in a snowy box canyon in middle-of-nowhere Montana. Now, he was about to go face-to-face with the most wanted domestic terrorist in the country.
“I knew when we were this close that we had to capture him,” says Noel. “If we let him slip away, he would have hidden in those mountains forever, and we’d never get another chance.”
Noel, now 69, recounts this thrilling crime tale while nursing a gin martini in the cocktail lounge at the Brass Door restaurant in San Ramon. A Nebraska native, Noel joined the FBI in 1968—he met J. Edgar Hoover in training school—and was assigned to the San Francisco office, after one year in the Sacramento office. Noel, his wife, Kit, and their three children settled in San Ramon in 1969, a time when the then unincorporated town consisted of the Brass Door, a lumber store, and a topless bar called the Wicked Eye. Noel says that 40 of the San Francisco agents lived in San Ramon because it was affordable. “I remember a billboard advertising ‘California classics starting at $19,900,’ ” he says.
Noel, who dresses his small stature neatly, recalls his 31 years of investigations in encyclopedic detail. What he doesn’t remember with mental notes, he has backed up in hard copy; Noel keeps his personal Unabomber files in boxes in a closet at home, tucked in with his wife’s winter jackets and his grandkids’ Beanie Babies.
Three hours after we’ve met, Noel has told enough tales to fill the best-ever season of CSI. In the early 1970s, he was on a team of FBI agents that discovered the Weather Underground’s West Coast bomb factory in a San Francisco apartment. He worked on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the 1976 Chowchilla school bus kidnapping, and “probably every major extortion case during that period.”
Noel and his partner also tapped the phone lines of a sitting federal judge and had him indicted on charges of racketeering and obstruction of justice. Another time, he and seven agents boarded a plane at San Francisco Airport that had been hijacked by Bulgarian terrorists. “We killed two of the terrorists,” says Noel, matter-of-factly. “Then, we evacuated the passengers.” (One passenger was killed and another wounded from terrorist crossfire.)
In 1993, just as he was contemplating retirement, Noel was assigned to the Unabomber task force formed at the request of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh. The task force was created after Kaczynski, whose first explosive package detonated at Northwestern University in 1978, started bombing again after a six-year hiatus. Between the time Noel started searching for the Unabomber and the arrest in Montana, Kaczynski struck two more times with deadly force: His bombs killed Thomas J. Mosser, a New Jersey advertising executive, and Gilbert P. Murray, a Sacramento-based lobbyist for the timber industry.
The bomb that killed Murray was addressed to his predecessor in the timber lobby, says Noel, who investigated the grisly scene at the California Forestry Association offices. “Murray took the package into his office and opened it. The bomb blew his clothes right off his body.”
For years, Noel and the team investigating the case searched exhaustively for clues that would lead to Kaczynski, who was living in his cabin off the $600 a year he received through birthday and Christmas presents from his mother.
Noel says his team collected 54,000 volumes of information on the Unabomber case and had 2,417 suspects. “The bombs were constructed with melted aluminum,” Noel says, “so I talked to a lot of aluminum experts who all told me that the Unabomber would need a kiln to heat the aluminum hot enough to melt. We started investigating every home kiln sold in North America, one by one.” Kaczynski eventually revealed in his journals that he melted the aluminum in his potbellied stove.
A huge break in the case came in 1995, when Kaczynski sent a 35,000-word manifesto to several publishers, asking for it to be printed. “Up until that time, the FBI would never have agreed to make that public because our policy was to never give in to the demands of terrorists,” says Noel. “However, the manifesto was typed with the same antique Smith Corona typewriter that was used for the bomb packages, and the document had so many odd turns of phrase that we thought publishing it might lead someone to come forward.”
After the manifesto was published, Kaczynski’s brother, David, notified the FBI that letters Ted Kaczynski sent to David in the 1970s contained similar ramblings about “abuses of technology.” Noel led a small team of investigators to search for Kaczynski, tracking him down to the now-famous cabin outside Lincoln, Montana.
“There was a team of about 40 people working on this case, and everyone did an incredible job,” says Noel. “But we could not take a huge team into rural Montana without tipping him off. I made the call to go in with a small [five-person] team.”
While Noel and his team resided in lodgings near the property, Kaczynski stayed inside his cabin from December until April, eating homegrown root vegetables and the meat of small game that he hunted.
On April 3, 1996, Noel, fellow agent Tom McDaniel, and U.S. Forest Service police officer Jerry Burns approached Kaczynski and lured him out of the cabin by telling him they needed to find the fence posts marking the edge of his property. “Kaczynski started to step outside, then tried to jump back inside to get his coat—and probably, the loaded .25 Automatic he had just inside the door,” says Noel. “Jerry grabbed him, and then McDaniel jumped on top. Kaczynski was struggling and fighting like wild. I drew my firearm and ensured he would not move while Jerry handcuffed him.”
Noel and U. S. Postal Inspector Paul Wilhelmus detained Kaczynski while investigators searched the 10-by-12-foot cabin. Investigators eventually found the antique typewriter that Kaczynski used in almost every mailing—“the 1925–1930 Smith Corona with pica-style type and 2.54-inch spacing,” Noel rattles off. It was the smoking gun that connected Kaczynski to all the bombings.
The search team also found prolific bomb-making equipment. “Kaczynski was working on a much more sophisticated bomb than any he had sent,” says Noel. “It would have been devastating if it had gone off.” ■