Leo Burt, the Unabomber and me
As the 50th anniversary of the bombing of UW–Madison's Sterling Hall approaches, a man remains at large.
A former federal prosecutor’s new book on the notorious Unabomber case has me thinking, inevitably, of Leo Burt.
I’d been thinking about Burt anyway, as the 50th anniversary of the day that made him infamous fast approaches.
Burt was one of four young men who detonated a bomb in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 24, 1970, an explosion aimed (in protest of the Vietnam War) at the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus.
The bomb killed a young researcher, Robert Fassnacht, injured several others and caused millions of dollars of property damage.
It isn’t an anniversary that Madison will celebrate, but it’s a significant milestone, nonetheless. And it contains some unfinished business — one of this city’s most enduring mysteries.
Alone among the bombing’s four perpetrators, Leo Burt has never been apprehended.
Theories abound: He’s long dead; he was a government informant; he’s in Costa Rica or — you name a locale. A few months ago, I heard from a woman in Texas who said Burt was living across the street from her.
“I hear this all the time,” I said, as gently as possible.
“But this is really him,” she said.
Perhaps the most intriguing, albeit short-lived theory — for six months or so in 1995-96 — was that Leo Burt had resurfaced as the Unabomber, who, beginning in 1978, mailed or hand-delivered numerous bombs that killed three Americans and injured 24 others.
I reached out last week to Lis Wiehl, author of the new book “Hunting the Unabomber,” which details the FBI’s Unabomber investigation that resulted in the April 1996 arrest and conviction of Ted Kaczynski.
I wondered if she’d come across the theory — Leo Burt as the Unabomber — that so intrigued some of us 25 years ago.
Wiehl had not, but she added that Burt may have been on investigators’ radar at some point. She said she writes in the book about how many blind alleys the FBI went down following up what she called “bum leads.”
“There were so many,” she said, by phone from New York.
Wiehl was curious about Burt, as are most people who learn there is a fugitive from the Vietnam protest era still at large, half a century on.
I told her a bit about how the Burt/Unabomber theory gained traction.
The first splash — and perhaps this should have told us something — came in the National Examiner, a supermarket tabloid, which blared the news on its cover on Aug. 8, 1995: “WE NAME UNABOMBER: Mad killer’s true identity will shock and amaze you.” Inside, anonymous “sources close to the investigation” said it was Leo Burt.
I eventually shared a phone call with Dan Schwartz, editorial director of the Examiner’s parent company, Global Communications. I was surprised to learn he was a UW grad who knew Burt on the Madison campus.
“There’s an uncanny resemblance,” Schwartz told me, “between Burt’s wanted poster and the composite sketch of the Unabomber. We also uncovered the fact that Leo’s middle name, Frederick, was used in one of the communiques from the Unabomber.”
Then on September 25, 1995, in The Nation, the writer Kirkpatrick Sale, a technology skeptic, wrote a piece on the Unabomber in which he noted “the FBI has leaked the idea that the Unabomber is really Leo Frederick Burt.”
But it was Tom Bates, author of the 1992 book “Rads,” the definitive account of the Madison bombing, who made the most compelling case.
Bates in 1995 was a reporter for the Portland Oregonian. (He died four years later, age 55, of pancreatic cancer.)
After reading the Unabomber’s “manifesto” — 35,000 words published in September 1995 in the New York Times and Washington Post — Bates wrote stories comparing the prose in the manifesto with a lengthy article Leo Burt wrote for the leftist journal Liberation in 1972.
Bates found numerous similarities in the language and prose styles, important words capitalized, and, finally, kindred conclusions.
“We might possibly be wrong about this,” the Unabomber wrote.
“Who is right only time will tell,” Burt wrote.
I spoke with Bates by phone at the time.
“The coincidence,” he said, “that two documents written from the underground 23 years apart could have the same ending struck me as something that couldn’t be accounted for by chance.”
In our chat last week, author Lis Wiehl pointed out that it was the manifesto that eventually led to Kaczynski’s capture, when his brother and sister-in-law contacted authorities with concerns that the writing bore similarity to letters and documents written by Ted.
Back in 1995, I gathered the theories, did a little more digging, and wrote a Madison Magazine cover story (published in the February 1996 issue) speculating that Leo Burt was the Unabomber. In fairness to myself, the story was more a complete profile of Burt — but the possible Unabomber link was the hook.
Two months later, Kaczynski was arrested.
I felt a little sheepish, but it passed.
A year or so on, I was waiting tables at a benefit for United Cerebral Palsy when a diner stopped me and said, “Didn’t you write a long article on Leo Burt?”
“I know,” I said. “Leo Burt was not the Unabomber.”
“He wasn’t the Unabomber,” the man said. “But two years ago, I saw him in a coffeehouse in Eugene, Oregon.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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