Mini-series about the Unabomber chronicles how forensic linguistics became legitimate form of crime-solving


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

You can’t tell the story of Ted Kaczynski, alias the Unabomber, without FBI profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald.

So says Greg Yaitanes, director of the eight-part mini-series, “Manhunt: Unabomber,” that debuted Aug. 1 on the Discovery Channel.

“Why haven’t there been more Unabomber adaptations over the last 20 years? That’s because nobody was really aware of Fitzgerald’s story,” said Yaitanes. “The only way to tell the story – the only way – is through Fitzgerald ... You have to tell Jim’s story because he was the link that put it altogether.”

From 1978-95, Kaczynski – a mathematical prodigy who graduated from Harvard University (where he earned his undergraduate degree) and the University of Michigan (where he earned his graduate and doctoral degrees) but later became a murderous recluse – killed three people, injured 23 others, and had an entire country on edge via his nationwide mail-bombing reign of terror.

With an IQ of nearly 170, Kaczynski believed he’d never get caught and was the target of the FBI’s longest-running investigation.

He mailed his 35,000-word manifesto “Industrial Society and Its Future” to The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which published it on September 19, 1995.

Enter Fitzgerald, portrayed in the mini-series by Sam Worthington of “Avatar” fame.

Fitzgerald was a former beat cop determined to make a name for himself upon joining the FBI. He was an expert in forensic linguistics – a branch of applied linguistics, which is the application of linguistic knowledge/insights to the forsenic context of law, language, and criminal investigation. However, his new approaches and maverick ideas were dismissed by his superiors.

“At the risk of making the FBI look ridiculous, we softened that to some extent,” Yaitanes explained.

“It was important to get the point across, but it was probably more extreme than it was portrayed. (Fitzgerald) was really shut down, he was even fired. Given the tough personalities he had to work with – that was apparent in the subtext of some of the conversations we had with Fitzgerald – you understand why nobody was very gracious with their credit. In fact, they just shamelessly and shamefully took the credit.”

Fitzgerald analyzed Kaczynski’s numerous letters and found patterns, recognizing various subtleties, various turns of phrase, et al. These same patterns were reflected in the manifesto. Due to Fitzgerald’s relentless efforts, the FBI arrested Kaczynski on April 3, 1996 at his cabin in a remote part of Montana.

“Jim invented it and gave it its moniker and it became a legitimate form of crime-solving,” said Yaitanes. “There was no legal precedent for forensic linguistics prior to the Unabomber case. Once that precedent was established ... it went on record as a legitimate way to identify somebody, which was essential to the case. Without that, there was no way they would’ve gotten into the cabin. The irony is that the Unabomber said comparative linguistics in (regards to) the manifesto is a useless form of science.”

However, the Unabomber case took a toll on Fitzgerald. His obsessive drive to bring him to justice cost him his marriage. In the mini-series, Bloomfield Hills native Elizabeth Reaser portrays Ellie Fitzgerald, his wife and mother of his three children.

“He gets stuck into this vortex of the Unabomber and it’s a compulsive relationship he has to the work and to the Unabomber himself,” said Reaser.

“You’d have to have the kind of obsession that Jim Fitzgerald had, that obsessive desire to catch that guy, and that’s going to pull you away from your family.

“He was also out of town a lot. It’s just really hard, I think, in general being married to someone in the FBI, who’s gone a lot, who can’t tell you what they’re doing, and they’re in dangerous situations – that’s challenging for any relationship.”

Fitzgerald consulted on this mini-series, working closely with Yaitanes and Worthington. Yaitanes spent three days with him in Washington, D.C.

While there, he went to the Newseum where Kaczynski’s actual cabin is now located and took more than 150 photos of it in order to portray it accurately in the mini-series.

That wasn’t the case for Reaser.

“(Ellie) was completely uninvolved, which was one of the things that was interesting to me about her – she wanted nothing to do with this, as far as I understood it, but not in a negative way,” Reaser said. “She’s a very private person. There’s no information anywhere about her on the Internet; you can’t find anything. I was able to find out she was a nurse, a mother, a sister – just a great person from all accounts – and she was private, which was interesting to me. I learned a lot about her husband through these books and by reading all the scripts, so that was informative. A lot of it was creating a relationship with (Worthington).”

Added Yaitanes: “She could’ve so easily been the over-the-shoulder wife. We were always nervous about that ... I always said with Ellie, I needed somebody to come in and take a snapshot of who Ellie really was – that’s what Elizabeth did. That’s really her gift.”

Yaitanes also praised Jane Lynch (“Glee”) for her portrayal of the late Janet Reno, the United States Attorney General from 1993 to 2001. The creators even wrote extra scenes for Lynch once she took the part.

“She inhabited Janet Reno, she inhabited her in a way how I imagined (Reno) would be. (Reno) made her share of mistakes, had her share of successes, owned her mistakes, and took accountability when she got it wrong – which I think is such a positive character trait. I think if she was still alive, she’d really be happy with what Jane created,” he said.

Today, Kaczynski is serving eight consecutive life sentences at a supermax prison in Colorado.

A brilliant student, Kaczynski skipped sixth grade and eventually attended Harvard at age 16. There, he wasn’t very social, according to his peers. He also met Dr. Henry Murray, the renowned psychologist and psychology professor. Murray reportedly subjected Kaczynski to numerous abusive, brutal psychological experiments, connecting him to electrodes, flashing bright lights in his face, constantly disparaging him, and undermining all his efforts. This is depicted in the sixth episode of the mini-series.

“Ted is a supporting player that continues to have more presence in the story as it continues. It was important to build our audience’s relationship with Fitzgerald because Ted has such a presence even when he’s not on screen,” said Yaitanes of Kaczynski. “(We) had the opportunity to create Ted Kaczynski’s origin story. If he’s a ‘super-villain,’ how does any super-villain come to be? He was a kid who was never given a shot. He had a bright future ahead of him until he got weaponized by our own government, which turned him into the Unabomber essentially. It’s a real tragic story. I felt the tragedy in what led to these awful consequences needed to be told.”

Yaitanes’s interest with the Unabomber case began in the mid-1990s when he was directing reenactments on “America’s Most Wanted.” At that time, there was a turning point in the case as Kaczynski’s manifesto was published.

“The case held a certain fascination for me. I also bought into what the media gave me: The manifesto was the rant of somebody unstable and mentally ill, when in fact, it was like a prophecy for our times and mental illness was a constructive narrative to save him from the death penalty. That was a lot of misinformation given to the public. There was an agenda put forth. It was uncertain times.

“ These are really resonant and real issues when it came to Ted,” he said.

Added Reaser: “It was a story that I didn’t know much about because I was young when this was going on and it took place over a long period of time. It was a really terrifying story. We now think of it as domestic terrorism. At the time, it wasn’t considered that; it was this really unknowable thing that was happening and it was really frightening for people. At the same time, many people were in agreement with what the Unabomber had to say about technology and otherwise.”

Yaitanes gave his insight on why adaptations of true crime stories –have become increasingly popular.

“It’s the ability to go behind the curtain,” said Yaitanes.

“So much of (the Unabomber) case is stranger than fiction and nobody knows it. It’s as relevant today as it was (more than) 20 years ago.”