How Four Undergrads Got the Scoop on the Unabomber
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you need to answer when opportunity knocks.
By Jed Gottlieb
The national media spent much of early 1996 focused on radicals in rural Montana. First, news crews flocked to the state’s eastern plains as the FBI engaged in an 81-day spring standoff with the Montana Freemen. Then, on April 3, they turned west to Lincoln when news broke that federal agents had arrested the Unabomber, the anarchist who had killed three people and injured 23 others in a 17-year nationwide letter-bombing campaign.
Dozens of reporters, photographers and camera crews descended on the tiny town 60 miles northwest of Helena, the state capital, trying to get the scoop on the mystery man known solely by an iconic police sketch of a hooded figure in dark glasses. But four lucky and talented University of Montana undergraduates beat the pros and snapped the only images of Ted Kaczynski in his original wild state immediately after his arrest.
This was a wild mountain man with crazy hair and clothes in tatters — it really was him.
Earlier that day, frantic outlets phoned the university’s journalism school, desperate to line up anyone with skills and a quality camera to photograph the target of the most expensive investigation in FBI history. Bruce Ely, Greg Rec, Derek Pruitt and Steve Adams answered the call. Rec contracted with The Denver Post; Pruitt and Adams with The New York Times. Ely already had a gig as an intern on the Missoulian, the daily paper of Missoula. By midday, the four gathered with the scrum of reporters outside the FBI perimeter in Lincoln.
“Cars had been coming and going all day, but nobody knew anything,” Rec tells OZY. “But when a white Ford Bronco came out, a couple of high school kids said, ‘That’s him!’ and jumped in their car. The Bronco had tinted windows, so I don’t know what they think they saw, but for some reason we decided to follow too.”
Rec got behind the wheel of his barely running Subaru, a 1987 GL wagon with about 160,000 miles on it, and Ely climbed in with him. “I almost immediately regretted it,” Ely recalls. “It was a hunk of junk.”
With Pruitt and Adams in another car, the college students and high school kids made a strange caravan following the Bronco as it headed out Lincoln and up Flesher Pass on a few miles of dangerously tight switchbacks. “I had to keep the car in first gear so it wouldn’t overheat, and Bruce was beside himself,” Rec says. “On the way down the pass, I said, ‘Make sure you’re buckled in,’ and I did exactly what you are not supposed to do: I threw it in neutral and flew down.”
The pair caught up to the Bronco at the bottom of pass, but as the caravan rolled into Helena the high schoolers abandoned the chase. “They came all the way to Helena and turned around,” Ely says. “We needed to make a decision fast. We thought, ‘We came this far, we might as well see it through.’”
As twilight descended, the college students continued tailing the Bronco, which the agents parked downtown near the Arcade Building on a street called Last Chance Gulch. Unable to find a spot, Rec parked his car in the street close to where Adams and Pruitt had stopped. Scrambling to load film and attach flashes to their cameras, the group ran toward the Bronco as agents pulled a handcuffed Kaczynski from the vehicle. “We had no doubt,” Rec says. “This was a wild mountain man with crazy hair and clothes in tatters — it really was him.”
The undergrads squeezed off as many frames as they could as fast as they could while the agents and their suspect hurried into the building. The students assumed it was all over. But when a janitor emerged from the building, the group scooted in and found a small FBI office. The door was locked, and no one answered the students’ knocks. Again, they seemed stymied.
After the long chase, Adams needed to use the bathroom, but when Rec checked the men’s room door, he found it locked, which struck him as odd. Then he heard voices. “I told the others, ‘I think they’re in there,’” Ely says. “We couldn’t believe our luck.”
A moment later, when the agents emerged with Kaczynski, the undergrads unleashed a barrage of flashes. The FBI pushed through the quartet and into the office, ignoring the students’ requests for comments and laughing off the suggestion they be allowed inside. But the group already knew they had made history. “We were in the only media there, no other reporters, no other photographers, we were the only ones recording this moment,” Rec says.
The foursome rushed to the nearby Helena Independent Record and brokered a deal: use of the paper’s photo lab in exchange for pictures. It wasn’t the only deal they’d make. From the Record offices, the students fielded calls from half a dozen news agencies that wanted the first photos of the soon-to-be-world-famous captured fugitive.
“We didn’t know what we had, but we agreed to band together and share whatever our photos got,” Rec says. “People thought we were trying to drive up the price, but we weren’t that sophisticated. We had almost no freelancing experience and just wanted to stick together.”
The photos have earned more than $40,000 over the years, and were used on the cover of Newsweek and in a spread in a Life magazine feature. They also helped all four land jobs in journalism — each member of the quartet spent at least a decade working as a photographer for a daily paper.
The next day a cleaned-up Kaczynski appeared for his arraignment. The killer, who is serving eight life sentences in a supermax prison in Colorado, no longer looked like the madman from the deep woods. Photos of him spread around the world, but none had the energy and urgency of the shots taken by the four undergrads who beat the pros at their own game.
- Jed Gottlieb, OZY Author Contact Jed Gottlieb