Jack Epstein has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for over 20 years. He’s currently the foreign/national wire editor for the publication. However before (and during the time that) he became a journalist, he spent several years in Latin America after receiving a B.A. in Latin American Studies from UCLA.
In 1977, Epstein wrote a book called “Along The Gringo Trail.” Described as a budget travel guide to Latin American, you can still find it on Amazon (for not a budget price, LOL. 7 used copies are available, ranging from $50 to nearly $600. Go figure). Epstein said, “…the guidebook was written for travelers with little money but plenty of time. It included many places on roads less traveled…”
A few weeks ago, Epstein was in his attic, paring down boxes of letters he had received from readers over the years. Lo and behind, he found a letter, dated May 24, 1979, from T.J. Kaczynski.
Kaczynski and his brother were interested in obtaining a wilderness retreat for either permanent residence or at least a long-term stay. They wanted it to be far away from civilization (at least 5 miles from anyone else), where they could be as self-sufficient as possible.
Kaczynski continued that he and his brother had read “Along The Gringo Trail” and thought that South America might be a good spot for the type of place they were looking for. He explained that he was writing to Epstein to see if he agreed and, if so, where.
Kaczynski had a few places they didn’t want to go – tropical jungles were out because of the threat of malaria. But he also didn’t want to be in an Andean glacier since trees, shrubs or some other way to make fire would be needed.
You can see the letter here.
Of course, this was years before Kaczynski got the moniker of The Unabomber. For those of you who don’t remember his story:
“Theodore John (ETA: T.J., Ted) Kaczynski, is an American domestic terrorist and former mathematics professor. He was a mathematics prodigy, but abandoned his academic career in 1969 to pursue a primitive life.
“Between 1978 and 1995, he killed three people and injured 23 others in a nationwide bombing campaign against people he believed to be advancing modern technology and the destruction of the environment. He issued a social critique opposing industrialization and advocating a nature-centered form of anarchism.”
The rest of the Unabomber’s story, including the F.B.I.’s role in hunting him down, as written by the F.B.I., can be found here.
By the time Kaczynski wrote to Epstein in 1979, he had already sent two mail bombs, nearly a year apart, both to people at Northwestern University. However Kaczynski, who had been living in the wilderness of Montana since 1971, wasn’t attached to the crimes – and still wouldn’t for over a decade and a half.
Anyway, Epstein says he doesn’t remember the travel advice he gave him.
…given his aversion for jungles and Andean glaciers, I probably suggested Argentina’s sparsely populated Cholila Valley in Patagonia, where legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bought a 12,000-acre ranch with stolen bank money, settling there for six years after fleeing U.S. Pinkerton agents. Much of that northern half of Patagonia is similar to landscapes found in Montana’s Scapegoat Wilderness, with picturesque alpine meadows, rivers and forested hillsides.
Kaczynski wrote to Epstein one more time, thanking him for his “helpful and courteous reply to my recent inquiry.” He also apologized for his delay in replying, as he “was off in the hills for a considerable time, out of touch with everything, as a result of which I got your letter only a couple of days ago. Sincerely, T.J. Kaczynski.”
Fast forward to 1995. Thanks to a tip by David Kaczynski, who recognized his brother Ted’s writing style in his 35,000-word manifesto that was published in the Washington Post, Kaczynski was caught and arrested in 1996. He tried to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers because they wanted him to plead insanity to avoid the death penalty, and he didn’t want to be thought of as insane. In 1998, a plea bargain was reached under which he pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to eight consecutive life terms in prison, without the possibility of parole.
The Unabomber is currently being held at the federal ADX Florence prison in Colorado. Nicknamed “the Alcatraz of the Rockies,” it’s considered the most secure prison in the country. Kaczynski is said to live in the same cell block as other convicted terrorists such as shoe bomber Richard Reid and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph. Inside prison walls, it’s known as Bombers Row.
Epstein said he wrote to Kaczynski last month.
I hoped he might tell me more about why he wanted to relocate to South America and what it was about my advice that he found so helpful. Instead, I received an “unable to forward” response from the Colorado prison. His brother, David, did not return a phone call or emails.
I can only theorize that Kaczynski wrote me because he knew that one day he would need to flee U.S. law enforcement for a South American haven.
Feature Photo: F.B.I.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary