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updated: 7/2/2011 2:31 PM

Plumbing the conscience of the Unabomber's brother

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  • David Kaczynski enjoys a day out at a park near a family member's home in Wheaton.

      David Kaczynski enjoys a day out at a park near a family member's home in Wheaton.
    Associated Press/ June 10

 
By ADAM GELLER/Associated Press

MONTVILLE, N.J. -- The seventh graders find their seats quickly and quietly. They look up expectantly from rows of desks, studying the unfamiliar man with salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in a navy sport jacket, who steps to the front of Room 30 without any introduction.

"I'm ... going to tell you guys a story of something that happened in my life before you were born," the man says. He speaks gently, his tone warm but slightly tentative -- a voice that easily reaches the back of the room even as it appeals for careful listening.

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"It's kind of a tough story," David Kaczynski continues. "There are parts of this story that are painful for me to remember."

Kaczynski does not mention that he has recounted this story many times -- and, indeed, will repeat it at least twice more today. He does not tell the audience that this fragment of the past is central to who he is in the present. He does not explain that for all the times he's told it, he's still figuring out how to apply its lessons.

Better, perhaps, to let this story speak for itself.

"The story is about family. It's about ethics," David Kaczynski begins. "Does anybody know what ethics is?"

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For those old enough to remember, it usually takes just a moment or two for the last name to register. Kaczynski.

In 1996, federal agents descended on a tiny Montana cabin, arresting a brilliant but deeply disturbed recluse, Theodore J. Kaczynski, for a two-decade mail bombing campaign that killed three people and injured 23 others.

Investigators had pursued the anti-technology terrorist known as the Unabomber since the late 1970s. In the end, someone recognized Ted Kaczynski's idiosyncratic writing and turned him in.

The tipster asked the FBI to let him remain anonymous. But the name soon leaked out: David Kaczynski -- the bomber's devoted younger brother.

Until he became known as the brother of the Unabomber, David Kaczynski lived a content and rather anonymous life as the assistant director of a youth shelter in Albany, N.Y., married to a woman he'd known since seventh grade. Ever since, he has yearned for a day when the public and the media might forget the case and his role in it, when merely offering his last name to a stranger did not raise eyebrows.

Yet, in what he acknowledges as a self-inflicted paradox, David Kaczynski keeps the story out there, recounting it in classrooms and churches, to lawmakers and the families of murder victims.

"What would you have done?" he asks.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Marshal's Service auctioned Ted Kaczynski's personal effects to raise money for victims. David Kaczynski was sharing dinner with his wife in an Applebee's restaurant near the couple's home in Schenectady, N.Y., when he noticed a headline scrolling across a television overhead. "They're selling Ted's stuff," he told his wife, casting a pall over the remainder of the meal.

A few days later, after time to think, he wrote about it in his blog.

"The goal of the auction is entirely worthy," David Kaczynski wrote. "If there is no other way to compensate the victims of the Unabomber, then let the auction go forward. I will look away ... and I hope it raises a ton of money. But couldn't we, to the extent we really care about victims, find a better way?"

It's a provocative question, especially given who was asking it. But it's hardly the first time the question has surfaced.

It's one David has been asking himself ever since Ted's trial.

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In the lead up to the 1998 trial, David and wife, Linda Patrik sent letters of apology to as many of Ted's victims as they could locate. A few of the victims responded, including Gary Wright, the owner of a Salt Lake City computer store gravely injured in 1987 by one of Ted Kaczynski's bombs.

Later, on the telephone, the two men fumbled for words before realizing how much they had in common.

"I was very much struck at the end that he's really trying to comfort me," David Kaczynski recalls. "I was probably a bit feeling like a victim myself and I remember Gary saying, there really are victims out there. This is way more than just about you."

David Kaczynski is a devout Buddhist and his wife is a professor of philosophy, a combination that places a high household value on personal reflection. The experience of having their names leaked and the subsequent storm of media scrutiny had left them embittered. But after talking with Wright, Kaczynski found a new focus.

Soon after, a Connecticut man named Sam Rieger turned on the television in a hotel room while accompanying the family of a murder victim to trial. Rieger, of Waterbury, Conn., was president at the time of a support group called Survivors of Homicide; his own daughter, Melanie, was murdered in 1994. The experience convinced him the judicial system was ill equipped to work with victim's families and forgot them after trial.

"I turned on the `Today' show and there's Kaczynski talking about his brother. Then all of a sudden he started talking about his feelings toward his brother's victims and it was just so shocking because I've never seen that before," Rieger says.

Rieger called David Kaczynski, inviting him to speak to murder victims' families. Later, when the FBI awarded David $1 million for providing the information that led to Ted's arrest, he asked Rieger to be part of small panel that decided how to parcel out the money -- about $750,000 after attorney's fees -- to victims of the Unabomber. Rieger in turn, asked Kaczynski to speak to the annual victim's advocacy conference held in his daughter's memory -- and inviting him to his son's wedding.

"Of course you always find a few (victim's families) who say why do you want somebody like him to come to the conference," Rieger says.

Kaczynski says watching the government spend millions to prosecute his brother convinced him that the justice system should do far more for crime victims and families, by providing money and support to help them make their lives whole.

Since 2001, Kaczynski has headed a group that campaigned to end New York's use of capital punishment. Since that goal was realized, New Yorkers for Alternative to the Death Penalty has retooled, creating a group to offer support to the families of murder victims and pushing for community-based anti-violence programs, even as it struggles to find the money to continue operating.

And Kaczynski, who is 61, continues recounting his story.

On this Thursday, visiting classrooms at Robert R. Lazar Middle School as part of its annual "Living Lessons" program, the story's power to get people thinking is almost immediately clear -- even with an audience too young to remember the Unabomber case.

"Does he still live in a cabin?" one girl in the second-to-last row asks David about Ted, with obvious concern.

David Kaczynski nods and smiles.

"Oh," he answers gently, "you're getting ahead of the story."

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