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Mild-Mannered Manhunters

How two East Bay FBI agents captured the most-wanted domestic terrorist in U.S. history.


FBI agent Donald Max NoelMeet Donald Max Noel and Terry Turchie at a local coffee shop, and you’re likely to hear Noel talk about his grandson’s baseball game, while Turchie proclaims his love of sweet rolls. You’d never guess these friendly fellows headed one of the biggest manhunts in U.S. history.

Noel, a longtime San Ramon resident, and Turchie, a Danville resident, are retired FBI agents who helped catch Ted Kaczynski—aka the Unabomber—who killed three people and injured 23 with bombs sent through the mail. Kaczynski’s campaign terrified citizens and frustrated law enforcement from 1978 until April 3, 1996, when Noel slapped the cuffs on Kaczynski outside a remote cabin in Montana.

Noel and Turchie, along with retired agent Jim Freeman, have just released their account of how they broke the case—and rewrote the rules for solving domestic terror cases. Diablo met with Noel and Turchie to talk about their new book, and the lessons learned in Unabomber: How the FBI Broke Its Own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted Kaczynski.

Author head shots courtesy of History Publishing Company

FBI agent Terry Turchie

Q: Why is the Unabomber case relevant today?

Terry Turchie: The way we solved the case was that we brought the public into the fight. And the vast majority of post–9/11 cases have been solved because people saw something, and said something. Law enforcement has an obligation to focus the public on what [the police] need to make [these arrests] happen.

The biggest myth today is that the U.S. government needs to listen to all our phone calls. No amount of NSA funding would have caught the Unabomber.

Q: What did you do that was new?

TT: Much of the analytical work—the way we brought terrorism analysts together with counterintelligence analysts to share information with the Unabomber task force—had never been done before. And, when Kaczynski sent his manifesto to the New York Times, we knew that someone would recognize the writing in that 37,000-word document of his lifelong beliefs—so we decided to have the media publish the manuscript. That was unheard of. You did not “give in” to terrorists’ demands.

Courtesy of Donald Max NoelQ: And that worked. Kaczynski’s brother, David, came forward.

TT: Yes. David had a 23-page essay he found in a steamer trunk of Ted’s stuff. He was worried because the essay had some of the same stuff that was in the manifesto. He gave it to us, and we found more than 250 points of similarity.

Now, that still was not enough for an arrest warrant: There had never been a warrant ordered because of similarities to someone’s writing style. But I remembered back to Larry Lawson, a creative writing teacher I had at DeAnza High, who always warned students against plagiarizing, because no two people write exactly alike. And Kaczynski’s essay and the manifesto were too similar for it to be a coincidence.

Donald Max Noel: Even though David Kaczynski did come forward, we got a total of 55,000 calls to the Unabomb hotline as well: people calling to turn in their girlfriends and all kinds of other false leads.

Q: The media helped you by publishing the manifesto, but it also could have compromised the investigation.

TT: Yes, someone leaked some information to CBS News, and we got a message that Dan Rather was ready to go on the air with the story that the FBI had a suspect in Montana. We were able to convince them to stall, which they agreed to do, as long as one of their competitors was not going to run the story.

Courtesy of Donald Max Noel

Q: How did you proceed after you determined that Ted Kaczynski might be in Montana?

DMN: Another rule we broke was the FBI’s tendency to throw a lot of manpower at an investigation. I’m from a small town in Nebraska, and I knew that Lincoln, Montana, was going to be like that. If we showed up with a couple hundred agents, everybody would have been talking about us, and Kaczynski was going to be long gone.

I also made sure to check our team into a small bed-and-breakfast instead of a regular hotel. We set up a cover story that we were photographers for a mining company, there to do a photo shoot about gold-mining history.

Q: So you moved fast, detained Kaczynski, and searched his cabin. What was he like?

DMN: At one point, I tried to ask him about teaching math at UC Berkeley. He squinted at me and asked how much math I had taken in school. I told him, and he said, “Oh, it wouldn’t do any good to tell you, you wouldn’t understand anyway.” At which point I leaned over and asked, “Are your handcuffs comfortable, Mr. Kaczynski?”

It took nine days to search that tiny cabin. The last thing they found was the Smith Corona typewriter we had spent years searching for. We found coded notes, which he had written in self-taught Spanish, in which he confessed to all 16 bombings. And we found the next bomb devices he was working on, which were, by far, his most sophisticated up to that point.

Q: Do you know who Kaczynski’s next target would have been?

TT: We think so. The next target is the one thing we’ve never discussed about this case. But we have informed that person.

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