Millions know Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber, a criminal mastermind who led the FBI on the infamous, and most expensive, 18-year manhunt for the person behind mail bombings, which killed three people and injured dozens of others.
But lesser known is former FBI agent James “Jim” Fitzgerald, of Sea Isle City, the man who helped crack the case and the subject of Discovery Channel’s new series, “Manhunt: Unabomber.”
Fitzgerald, nicknamed Fitz, is a Stockton University faculty member and was instrumental in the FBI capturing Kaczynski at his remote cabin in Lincoln, Montana 21 years ago. The television series takes people back to the bombings from 1978 to 1995, the inner workings of the FBI case and an introspective look at our interactions with technology today.
Fitzgerald and his early years with the FBI and the BAU
Fitzgerald, played on the small screen by Avatar’s Sam Worthington, worked for 11 years as a beat cop in Pennsylvania before becoming an FBI agent. He worked in New York City for seven years and then completed a 12-week training course on behavioral analysis and profiling, which was still in its early stages.
“There were a lot of people there with investigative gum-shoe backgrounds, which wasn’t a bad thing, that was me, too, but I also came out as a brand new profiler,” he said. “I had 18 years of investigative skills under my belt, 12 weeks of training as a profiler and the first case I get assigned to was the Unabomber.”
The series transports viewers back to when Fitzgerald joins the team in 1995 and quickly discovers that the profiles officials had been using, one of which painted the Unabomber as a laid-off airplane mechanic, were not getting investigators any closer to the identity of the mystery serial killer.
Fitzgerald said the television series is right on the money in terms of accuracy—dates, times, bomb construction, delivery of letters, victims and more.
Much of the tension, however, shown between Worthington’s “Fitz” and other FBI agents on the show was absent in real life. Fitzgerald said there were debates and arguments on how to tackle certain aspects of the case, but problems were always resolved by the time everyone walked out the door.
UNABOM, forensic linguists and Kaczynski’s manifesto
Federal investigators had been after the serial bomber for 17 years before Fitzgerald joined the Unabom Task Force.
Fitzgerald arrived just weeks after the New York Times turned over to the FBI the Unabomber's manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” a 35,000-word manuscript detailing the Unabomber’s motives and belief’s on the negative impacts of technology on society.
“Turns out why airlines were bombed was because, and we didn’t know at the time, of course, but Ted would come out of his cabin and look up twice a day and at 35,000 feet there was a jetliner flying over,” Fitzgerald said.
While investigators looked for DNA on the manuscripts, some like Fitzgerald became more interested in the content of the manifesto, he said. With help from Roger Shuy, a retired Georgetown University professor, the young FBI profiler got a crash course in linguistics.
Fitzgerald said Shuy had concluded that the language used in the manifesto was reflective of someone between 35 and 50-something years old who was born and raised in the Chicago area, as the writing format matched Chicago newspaper clips from the 40s, 50s and 60s.
It didn’t solve the mystery of the Unabomber, but it did narrow down the profile, Fitzgerald said. The manifesto revealed a lot more about the Unabomber, he said, which was why he supported the motion to publish the document. It printed in the Washington Post on Sept. 19, 1995.
“I was convinced we had to publish the manifesto to A, identify the Unabomber and B, to maybe stop him from killing more people, and both actually worked,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought, the answer to who this guy is lies in these 56 single-spaced pages. You cannot hide your personal philosophy and ideology within this many words.”
Kaczynski’s brother, David, eventually came forward to investigators with the suspicions that his brother may be the Unabomber. He provided letters Kaczynski had written to family members, the contents of which showed more than 600 similarities to the manifesto, reports show.
Investigators obtained a search warrant for the cabin by using language as probable cause, a first, after Fitzgerald presented his findings. It was the beginning of today’s widely accepted use of forensic linguistics in criminal cases.
Personal costs, memoirs and family support
The television series is told largely through the eyes of Worthington’s Fitzgerald, with tidbits from Kaczynski, played by Paul Bettany. Aside from the trademarks of a procedural drama, the series also delves into the personal toll of the case on Fitzgerald.
“It was a tenuous time for my family when I got sent out to Unabomb Task Force,” he said. “I wouldn’t use the word obsessed, but I was very uber determined to catch this guy. It led to an estrangement with my then wife and we ultimately did get divorced, but our kids were and are always the number one priority.”
While Fitzgerald and other agents worked for months and years to catch a dangerous killer, it came at a personal cost, show directors said in previous interviews, and they wanted to show that.
Fitzgerald, who has three grown sons and a new granddaughter, said his family knew upfront how they would be portrayed on the show and he insisted that they be shown in a positive light.
Even his fiancé, Natalie Schilling, is portrayed in the show as the linguist professor who helps Fitzgerald’s character find the key to Kaczynski’s writing. Schilling was never actually involved in the Unabomber case.
The show's character, played by Lynn Collins, is based on Shuy and his part in the manifesto, Fitzgerald said. Schilling was also not Fitzgerald’s love interest during the case.
Fitzgerald goes into more detail about the impact of his career on his personal relationships in three memoirs, available online and in local stores.
Meeting Kaczynski, TV series impact and looking ahead
The biggest showdown in the crime thriller series, of course, is when Fitzgerald meets Kaczynski for the first time in 1997 while the bomber awaits trial in prison. The FBI calls in the profiler to convince Kaczynski to plead guilty to his crimes, while Kaczynski plants seeds of doubt into Fitzgerald’s mind about the investigation.
While it makes for great television drama, none of that actually happened.
Fitzgerald has never met Kaczynski. All he knows about the unabomber has been learned from the manifesto, Kaczynski's journals and letters and facts from the investigation.
The only time Fitzgerald was in close proximity to the Unabomber was at court during his trial sentencing in the 1990s.
“My colleague yells, ‘Hey, Fitz,’ from across the room and I see Ted in the corner of my eye as he turns around and looks at me. That’s when our eyes first met,” he said. “It was the dirtiest, most ornery look anyone has ever given me. I didn’t smile, smirk, wink or do anything impolite or unprofessional. After about 30 seconds, I nodded my head in saying, ‘You know who I am, I know who you are. Let’s leave it at that.’”
But Hollywood is as Hollywood does, and the show’s creators were adamant about the two meeting face-to-face on screen.
To do that, Fitzgerald said the writers drew from an experience he had back in 2007. It was his last year with the FBI and he was scheduled to teach a class at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs that April.
Because it was so close to where Kaczynski is serving four life-sentences in Florence, Colorado, Fitzgerald reached out asking if he could talk and interview him. It was arranged, Kaczynski agreed, and months later, Fitzgerald taught his class and began the hour drive to the prison.
“About half way there, the corrections officer calls me and says, ‘Agent Fitzgerald?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘The interview is not going to work today. Mr. Kaczynski wanted me to tell you that he’s busy today,’” Fitzgerald recalls. “Now here’s a guy who is locked up 23/7 for the rest of his life and he’s busy.”
Show writers took 50 questions Fitzgerald had prepared to ask Kaczynski at an almost-meet up in 2007, crafted the Unabomber’s responses based on his writings and created the tension-filled scenes between the two highly intelligent characters at opposite ends of the case.
Fitzgerald said if the opportunity ever came up again to talk to Kaczynski, he’d take it. While he in no way condoned Kaczynski’s actions in killing people, Fitzgerald said he has never denied that the Unabomber is one of the most intelligent people ever sought in FBI history.
"There’s a lot in the manifesto that, and I knew back then and certainly know today, makes sense," he said. "Maybe we are too dependent on technology and devices. We're having conversations with people, but on a box the size of a cigarette pack."
Kaczynski purportedly has an IQ in the 160s, well above the genius threshold. He skipped grades in primary school, attended Harvard University at 16, studied and contributed to advanced mathematical research and became a math professor at the University of California at Berkeley at only 25.
John A. Berchtold, of Mays Landing and an Oakcrest High School graduate, plays 16-year-old Kaczynski in the series, which shows the teen suffering through mind experiments allegedly conducted on young adults at Harvard in the 1950 and 60s for research purposes.
Investigations later revealed Kaczynski struggled with social situations and maintaining relationships, and with exposure to some type of psychological experiments while at Harvard, experts say that all likely contributed to his decision to engage in domestic terrorist activity.
“What I hear most from people who come up to me, they all say the same thing: ‘I never knew the Unabomb case was this complicated. I thought the brother called, turned him in and that was it,’” Fitzgerald said. “And I say, no, it was much more complex than that.”
“Manhunt: Unabomber” concludes Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on Discovery Channel. Fitzgerald's third book in his memoir series, “A Journey to the Center of the Mind: The ‘First Ten’ FBI Years,” was released in July. People can meet the former FBI agent Oct. 18 at the Sea Isle City library at a book signing event. Visit cmclibrary.org for more details.