Unabomber's Criminal Collectibles Up For Auction

May 24, 2011

The federal government is holding an unusual auction. It's selling the possessions of criminal mastermind Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. He made bombs in a remote cabin in Montana and sent them across the country targeting scientists, computers and airplanes.

Kaczynski's bombs killed three people and injured dozens. Now officials are selling his property online.

The Unabomber eluded federal officers from 1978 — when he sent his first package bomb — until 1996 when a tip from his brother, David, led the FBI to a remote shack in Montana where Ted Kaczynski was arrested. The case was one of the longest and most expensive in FBI history.

"It was significant because it terrorized this country for 18 years," says Albert Najera, U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of California.

After Kaczynski pleaded guilty to setting 16 bombs and was sentenced to life in prison, the courts looked into disposing of his assets to pay $15 million in restitution.

"Now clearly we don't expect to make anywhere close to $15 million," Najera says. "But whatever it is that we get back will, in fact, go directly back to the victims."

The most popular items so far? The iconic hooded sweatshirt and aviator sunglasses depicted in the Unabomber police sketch for so many years, handwritten and typed copies of his 35,000 word manifesto, the Smith Corona typewriter he used and academic records from Harvard.


Najera says the Unabomber captivated people because he's one of the country's first modern-day domestic terrorists.

"It changed the way that we got on the airplanes. It changed the way that we dealt with mail coming into our institutions," he says. "It was very significant at the time and still is."

Some are glad the auction is moving forward. Others aren't happy Kaczynski is getting more notoriety. But it's clear regardless that these so-called "murderabilia" auctions generate a lot of attention.

"A lot of these people have found a place in pop culture," says John Hickey, a consignment director with Heritage Auctions. "They transcend quote 'criminals.'"

Heritage, based in Dallas, has sold Bonnie and Clyde "wanted" posters, John Dillinger's wooden gun and letters from Lee Harvey Oswald. Hickey says they're generally high-ticket items.

So Who's Buying?

"The collectors I suspect are going to be almost universally male — and guys certainly over 40 and maybe 50 and fairly affluent, I suspect," Hickey says. "And they're going to want to have something that they can pull out at a cocktail party or whatever and make conversation with."

A few crime memorabilia websites already exist, but these kinds of items are not generally available on eBay anymore.

David Schmid, a professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo, is the author of a book about serial killers in American culture. He says these auctions raise questions about whether they promote criminals — or whether they help the victims.

"So people who participate in it are basically having to sort of be honest with themselves and say, 'I'm interested in this material, not for any justifiable reason, just because I find it fascinating,'" he says. "And that's something a lot of people are not prepared to do. So that's the reason murderabilia and something like the sale of Kaczynski's possessions makes people nervous."

Schmid says he has no problem with the sale as a way for victims to get some compensation. The initial bidding on Kaczynski's personal items was slow, but it has picked up. The auction runs until June 2 — and experts say serious bidders aren't likely to get involved until the last couple of days. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.