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Unabomber Tips Pour In; Security at LAX Still Tight : Manhunt: High-tech firms listed in letters' return addresses heighten focus on N. California. Scrap metal dealers scrutinized as possible sources of bomb materials.

July 01, 1995|PAUL JACOBS and RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In the search for the elusive terrorist known as the Unabomber, federal authorities are being deluged with calls from tipsters--as many as 500 leads a day--but there was no indication Friday that they were any closer to finding their quarry.

While more than 100 agents from the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies hunkered down sorting through potential leads, airport security remained tight as thousands of passengers headed to Los Angeles International Airport for the long holiday weekend, despite initial threats by the Unabomber in a letter to a San Francisco newspaper to blow up an airplane by July 4.

"We think things are going well here, even with the heightened security," Airport Executive Director Jack Driscoll said Friday afternoon. "There [have] been no delays, in terms of traffic." He said about 130,000 people a day are expected at the airport over the long weekend, up from the usual 100,000 to 110,000.

The scare was dissipated somewhat by a letter to the New York Times in which the serial bomber announced that his LAX threat was just a prank to remind the nation of his presence and his message.

But because the letters were sent on the same day, law enforcement officials were struggling to deal with their contradictory messages and were not canceling their security measures yet.

"We know he lied in one of the letters," said one law enforcement source. "The question is: which one?"

The bomber's threat originally had specified a six-day period in which the attack might occur. And though officials were not clear when the six-day countdown began, the clock is clearly running out and plans are in place to begin curtailing some of the law enforcement presence at the airport over the next few days.

Authorities continue to focus their search in Northern California in a broad area that includes San Francisco, where the investigation is headquartered, and this Central Valley city, known as home to contentious politicians but not violent extremists.

The bomber's last victim was a Sacramento timber industry executive, and several of the Unabomber's recent flurry of letters used Northern California return addresses or carried San Francisco postmarks. Suspected of mailing 16 bombs that killed three people and injured 23 others, he was code-named the Unabomber by law enforcement officials after early attacks on universities and airlines.

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Even before the latest airplane bomb threat, FBI agents were questioning owners and managers of scrap yards, asking a wide range of questions about their customers, employees and sales of small amounts of scrap lead and other metals.

Several scrap dealers said that investigators were asking about employees who may have come from Chicago or Salt Lake City, sites of bombings that have taken place during the Unabomber's 17-year reign of terror.

The agents carried the widely distributed composite picture of a suspect, which was based on an eyewitness report in the 1987 bombing of a Salt Lake City computer company.

One San Leandro scrap metal dealer said that FBI agents showed him a second picture as well. The grainy black-and-white picture, showing a somewhat heavier man in an Army-type jacket, might have been a blow-up of a surveillance camera photo or a computer-generated image, said Elton J. Kantor, owner of Alco Iron and Metals Co.

Kantor said that the FBI agents would not allow him to make a copy of the second photo. "They did not want it out," he said.

One federal law enforcement source confirmed that in addition to the now-familiar composite picture, which is outdated, agents now have more detailed sketches as well.

The source, who asked not to be identified, would not say why the newer drawings have not been released or how they were made. In the past, agents have cautioned that the Unabomber probably looks older than the 1987 composite.

"This guy is about as professional as anybody I've ever seen in my career," the law enforcement source said. "He covers his tracks. He knows how to do it. He's not the run-of-the-mill bomber. He has Timothy McVeigh [a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing] so far outclassed, it's not funny."

At a number of scrap yards, FBI agents were seeking information about purchases of even small amounts of lead, zinc and magnesium as well as lead-coated wires--all potential components in the handcrafted package bombs that are the signature work of the Unabomber.

"They were going to yards that handled large quantities of scrap. They asked us if we had any employees from the Chicago area and also from Salt Lake City," said Niles Rawls, manager of A-1 Metals in the town of Rio Linda, near Sacramento. Like the other dealers interviewed, Rawls said he could not help the agents.

Mark Logan, special agent in charge of the San Francisco office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and part of the federal Unabomber task force, explained that agents have pounded the pavement trying to match components of past bombs with supply sources.

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