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Unabomber 'Murderabilia' for Sale

The Nation

A court orders his belongings marketed to aid victims, but some are appalled at the idea.

July 26, 2005|Rong-Gong Lin II and Wendy Lee | Times Staff Writers

Who would buy the Unabomber's shoes, dishes, typewriter, rambling letters -- or even his copy of Strunk & White's "Elements of Style"?

A lot of people, apparently.

When a federal appeals court last week ordered the government to sell thousands of pages of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski's papers and other personal property to the highest bidders, it created an immediate stir in the shadowy collectibles world of "murderabilia."

"I know collectors in Florida, New York, California, Ohio -- they would probably love to get anything from him," said Tod Bohannon, owner of www.murderauction.com, an auction website for murder memorabilia.

Bohannon's site, created earlier this year after EBay banned the sale of murder-related items amid protests from victims' rights groups, features dozens of items from killers, including John Wayne Gacy's framed Illinois license plate and letters written by Dennis Rader, the BTK killer in Wichita, Kan.

Dealers believe the Unabomber's journals could fetch more than $1,000 apiece, noting that some of the paintings Gacy created in prison purportedly have sold for as much as $10,000.

But it is just this kind of fascination with the macabre that the federal government cited in opposing the release of Kaczynski's property, which has been in the government's possession since the FBI raided his cabin in 1996.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that the property should be sold to help pay the $15 million in restitution that Kaczynski was ordered to pay his victims.

Federal prosecutors said the ruling will open up for sale not only thousands of pages of Kaczynski's writing but also personal effects, including empty peanut butter jars, oatmeal containers, a rock, a plastic container with white clumpy powder and a brown envelope marked "autobiography."

Some victims said they were appalled at the thought of the Unabomber's letters going to the highest bidders, even if victims are the financial beneficiaries.

Gary Wright of Salt Lake City, who set off an explosive from the Unabomber in 1987 that sent a nail through his chin and left him with 200 shrapnel wounds all over his body, said he is most bothered at the possibility that bomb-making schematics and victims' personal information would be among the items sold.

To "put it out there on [auction] or something, that's a pretty big deal because they are releasing things that are impinging on others' privacy," said Wright, who took three years to recover from his wounds. "I don't think there's ever enough money to pay for damage to your body, or your mind, or your psyche. I don't think [the money] will play a part in making me feel any sort of reconciliation with the event."

David Kaczynski, the Unabomber's brother, also criticized the release of the papers, saying it made him feel "heartsick" that there would be some "commercial value placed by some fascination of crime and violence."

In 1995, after the Unabomber's 35,000-word manifesto was jointly published by the New York Times and the Washington Post, David Kaczynski called the FBI because he thought the writing was similar to his brother's. The tip led federal authorities to Theodore Kaczynski's Montana cabin and to his arrest.

"Victims were horrified at the thought that we would be selling Kaczynski's property like a celebrity," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Ana Maria Martel. "Selling this as if he was John Kennedy instead of Ted Kaczynski, it was very offensive to them."

Kaczynski, who once taught at UC Berkeley and has an advanced degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan, pleaded guilty in 1998 to sending bombs to victims across the country. The bombing spree from 1978 to 1995 killed three people and injured 23 others.

In his writings, Kaczynski warned that modern technology was destroying human freedom. He wrote in his manifesto that he had to kill people to get his message before the public and make a lasting impression. In pleading guilty, he avoided the death penalty and is serving four consecutive life sentences in prison.

The 13-by-13-foot cabin where Kaczynski lived and wrote his manifesto was painstakingly moved from the Montana woods to a former Air Force base in Sacramento, where attorneys preparing for the trial pored through its contents. But since he pleaded guilty, his property has been in limbo.

Kaczynski has been seeking the return of his property from the cabin so that he could donate his papers to the University of Michigan, which has a collection of materials documenting the history of radical thought.

On Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal prosecutors must come up with a plan for selling Kaczynski's belongings "in a commercially reasonable manner calculated to maximize the monetary return to Kaczynski's victims and their families."

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