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Chapter One: The Face of a Madman
A tap on my shoulder snapped me out of my daydream.
"FBI. We have a witness in the Unabom case. I need you to come with me."
My heart took a free fall inside my chest, pressing against my lungs, shortening my breath to a few jagged gulps. The Unabom case? But how had they tracked me down? I was merely trying to change planes on my way home after a long and exhausting case. I hadn't even noticed the clean-cut man in the dark blue suit. I must have passed right by him, searching for the gate number written in grease pencil on the face of my airline ticket.
Where would he take me? And why now? My mind raced for some legitimate form of resistance, some explanation.
"But, I can't go with you, I've got luggage!"
"We've got your luggage."
That change of planes in San Francisco in July 1994 represented a rare and needed break from my usual crazed rush through airports. The pressure from my latest case was finally behind me: my sketches were finished, and the presses were cranking out wanted posters for mass distribution. Finally I was headed home, just four hours and ten minutes to go.
As I dodged other harried passengers through the airport corridor, my mind drifted to my country home in Bend, Oregon. I imagined my yellow Labrador pup, Dillon, spilling out the front door of our log house, skidding sideways in the gravel driveway as he rounded the curve in his rush to greet me.
I could almost smell the welcomed aroma of the hot, dry air, a mixture of juniper and pine, tinged even in the high-desert summer with the faint scent of pine-fueled stoves. That pitchy smell always seeps into the airplane cabin the moment the flight attendant pops open the door, as if to provide confirmation that I'm really home. The locals around Bend say that if you inhale the rugged fragrance long enough, you start to take it for granted. I wouldn't know. My work steals me away too often.
I've spent most of my adult life probing the minds of crime victims and eyewitnesses to capture memories, exorcise fears, to draw out detailed recollections of the violators' faces so they can be apprehended before striking again.
I once read that some people study faces in a crowd in hope of finding their predestined lover. I used to flirt with such intentions too, but that was long before I started searching instead, for faces that steal dreams.
Faces haunt me: every nuance, every angle, every shadow, every line. I slip through the world sizing up their shapes and colors and textures. At a glance I notice if eyes are wet or iced, if they're squinty or withholding, if scars are new or smooth, if skin is oiled or abused.
On my way to an investigation, every minute matters. A suspect is at large and might soon leave his mark again. I'm brought in to bring to life the detailed face of the kidnapper or the bomber, the killer or the rapist.
My home town of Bend, Oregon, rests in the shadow of the Three Sisters Mountains, just east of the Cascades. If I hadn't been detoured by an FBI agent, I'd have arrived just in time to catch the last streams of evening sunlight sifting through the towering ponderosa pines and the tall blades of high-desert grass.
As I'd migrated through the San Francisco airport on my way to my connecting gate, the aroma of fresh-baked pizza had stirred my hunger -- a lousy trick played on famished commuters like me, used to living on giant Snickers bars and lukewarm Snapple from pricey hotel minibars. To have something hot and edible seemed like a dream. But a lineup of newspaper front pages had diverted my attention from my empty stomach.
The word murder topped the local headline, and for a moment I nearly forgot which city I was in. The story drew me back to Albuquerque and Flagstaff, two Southwest cities on opposite ends of a stretch of old highway where a car-jacking had ended in the gruesome murder of sixteen-year-old Jonathan Francia. I'd just spent the past five days doing interviews and suspect drawings in an attempt to identify his killer. It was still too soon for any news on the case, yet I was hoping there might be an early breakthrough as I walked toward the concourse security checkpoint, but the sudden tap on my shoulder by the FBI agent interrupted my thoughts.
At first I thought I must have dropped something, maybe a receipt. The word thanks began to form on the edge of my lips. When I turned and looked into the eyes of the intruder, I immediately knew better. I recognized the look: the regulation haircut and the generic dark suit -- all that was missing was the usual mustache, trimmed to the corners and above the lip line. He had to be a cop.
A leather badge case sprang open in front of me. "FBI," he announced, then apologetically added, "Max Noel, ma'am." The airport crowd kept flowing around us, oblivious, as if he'd done nothing more than ask me for the time of day.
His presence meant only one thing: that once again I'd be turned away from my plans and back to the job that possessed me.
I feigned a "professional" smile and followed him back up the concourse, leaving my homebound flight on the other side of the terminal.
As we walked through SFO, past the glassed-in exhibits of antique toys, Agent Noel strained from the weight of the three-ring binders under his arm. They were stuffed with case reports and photocopies of evidence right down to canceled postage stamps recovered from the suspect's deadly packages. Wasting no time, he launched into a rapid-paced Unabom introductory course, with emphasis on the national security implications.
I listened, but my mind wandered between his words. Some of it I didn't want to hear. Instead, I kept thinking about the phone call I had to make. Agent Noel was talking about the biggest case in FBI history, and I was worrying more about what my husband would say. Would he see this as an unavoidable occupational hazard or just another shattered pledge? I shook the thought aside and forced myself to pay attention.
To keep the boundary strong between my two worlds, when I had time at home I worked hard to avoid the news, so when Agent Noel flipped open his badge case, I didn't know that the Unabomber was America's most wanted killer. I didn't know that he'd been on a killing spree for fifteen years. Or that he'd left a string of junkyard bombs that reached back to 1978, when he'd taken his first aim at a professor at the Technological Institute of Northwestern University near Chicago. The FBI agent filled me in on the case background as he walked me to a seat near our departure gate.
In 1979, the phantom bomber hit an American Airlines flight, where one of his creations malfunctioned and caught fire, forcing an emergency landing and injuring a dozen people. Had the bomb exploded at cruising altitude as planned, the casualties would have been beyond comprehension.
Next he targeted the president of United Airlines, then the computer-science departments at Vanderbilt University and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1985 he mailed a bomb to the fabrication department of the Boeing Company near Seattle, but fast-thinking security agents discovered it before it wreaked its intended havoc.
Other targets weren't so lucky. By 1994, the Unabomber's work had seriously injured twenty-two victims and killed a Sacramento man who was ripped apart by a bomb disguised as an ordinary package.
The FBI, the United States Postal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concluded that the tragedies were all the work of a single entity. The FBI organized a task force with two primary units based in the San Francisco and Chicago FBI offices. They named the case "Unabom" -- un for university and a for airlines, the early targets of devastation and bom as an abbreviation for bomber.
Agent Noel knew every detail by heart. For an FBI agent, this case was no easy assignment. They still had no suspect, there was no demand for money, and each detonation left no traceable evidence. The Unabomber crafted his own explosives and carefully covered his tracks, leaving no fingerprints, no strands of hair, no fabric fibers. But almost as a taunt, he "signed" his works by using unique homemade components where simple store-bought materials would have worked as well.
His bombs were meticulously constructed, the parts numbered prior to assembly and, based on analysis of the fragments, built and rebuilt repeatedly. He incorporated an indestructible piece into each one -- etched with the initials FC -- as if to say, "I was here. I have power." Then he'd enclose a clue or two, often some reference to wood -- the material he used as a basis for his bombs and the topic for his cryptic comments -- before sending them off to do their damage.
In the mid eighties, he changed his tactic, personally placing rather than mailing his bombs. He dropped out of the news until 1993, when he resurfaced, first with a letter bomb to the California home of a world-famous geneticist, and two days later with a bomb mailed to a computer-science professor at Yale University.
Then, as if to be sure everyone knew he was still around and kicking, he sent a letter to the assistant managing editor of the New York Times, claiming to be the representative of an anarchist group called FC. By that time, Janet Reno was attorney general, and in her no-nonsense manner, she lifted the lid off funding of the FBI investigation, fueling the intensified search that led to my 1994 interception in the San Francisco airport.
Agent Noel filled me in on the assignment: I would be interviewing the only person known to have actually seen the Unabomber. Her identity had been carefully protected she and her family had relocated three times over the past seven years to escape detection by the media.
I took a close look at the seasoned agent in the dark suit, now in his late fifties. In other circumstances, I would have found his kind face and gentle manner endearing, maybe even charming. He'd done his career stint and could have traded his badge in for a comfortable pension and a golf club membership, but he refused to abandon his decade-long quest to capture the elusive murderer.
As we stood in line to board, I began to unload some of my own frustrations that went with being an in-the-wings resource in the investigative world. I was lamenting that by the time I got to an eyewitness, the by-the-book investigative composite process had usually managed to all but destroy the malleable impression of the suspect's face.
In a sentence, I was usually working against all odds to retrieve what was once an intact image of the assailant, one that had inadvertently been bungled by the very process of trying to create the face.
"It makes me crazy," I told Agent Noel. "The case I'm just returning from, the Jonathan Francia car-jack murder, is six months old. Can you believe that? The television program Unsolved Mysteries called to get my help. They'd planned a feature around the case six months after the fact. There were only contaminated eyewitness memories left to work with, witnesses had been shown so many other faces they couldn't remember what they'd actually seen, faulty police sketches had been broadcast for months, leaving the police and the FBI no credibility at all in the public's eyes." I shook my head. The early swell of public interest, crucial to the kind of break we needed, was all wasted on misinformation. The trail was stone cold, and the family devastated. It was another mess -- a six-month-old mess.
It actually felt good to vent. An investigator of Agent Noel's caliber -- used to the highest-profile cases -- would understand the frustration when something so seemingly simple went so needlessly wrong.
He listened, then screwed his face into a knot, hoisted his shoulders almost to his ears, and looked up through the thickness of his eyebrows in a "don't kill me now" pose while he slowly squeezed out the words, "Did, uh, I mention that, um, this Unabomber witness I'm taking you to see...saw the guy seven and a half years ago?"
My jaw dropped. My feet refused to move forward. I couldn't make a single word emerge from my mouth. He had to be kidding.
He pulled out the 1987 Unabom case composite of a pointy-chinned, ruddy-faced, redheaded, blue-eyed man with a mustache, wearing a hooded sweatshirt. "This is the image we want you to correct. It's the only thing we've had to go by, but from the day we first released it, we've had an unhappy witness. She's maintained that this is not the right face. We need you to reinterview her and find out what went wrong."
Noel could read the sentiment in my eyes. I looked away while he told me more. On February 20, 1987, a bomb had exploded in a parking lot in Salt Lake City. Three days later an initial attempt at a suspect sketch was prepared in haste by an FBI artist. But it was mechanical, flat, and according to the witness, "wrong." A second artist then entered the case, brought in through a social tie to a police lieutenant involved in the investigation of a potentially related 1985 event. That artist spent weeks toying with his version in a belabored effort to please the eyewitness but only took the image even further away from what she'd seen.
Out of desperation, though, his drawing was released on March 10, 1987, despite the witness's protest. To create more trouble, because of her complaints, the artist continued to tamper with it for yet another week. The artwork kept getting more refined, while the image grew even more unrelated to what the witness had actually seen. And worst of all, the sole witness's memory in the fifteen-year-old case was being contorted in the drawn-out process.
The misdirection of the case over the seven years had been costly, not just in departmental dollars and hours spent pursuing leads based on a wrong image, but in terms of public danger as the terrorist continued planning his rampage, unconcerned about being linked to the face then depicted on the wanted posters.
As much as I appreciated the Bureau's faith in my abilities, I was exasperated by the obstacles in my path. Every precaution should have been taken to protect the evidence. Yet even at the FBI level, investigators still seemed not to comprehend that a memory in an eyewitness's mind is evidence. And in this high-profile case, the primary evidence had been dragged through the mud -- more than once.
The analogy is simple. If a fingerprint is found on a gun, a knife, or perhaps a glass at a murder scene, detectives guard that evidence with their lives, carefully picking it up with an implement and placing it into an evidence bag, untouched and protected. They'd never let it be smudged, knowing that once it was, those prints would likely be irretrievable. Yet, an "imprint" in an eyewitness's memory is just as fragile and in fact even more smudgeable than a fingerprint on a murder weapon, yet rarely is it treated with equal care.
Instead, the delicate eyewitness image obtained during the crime is routinely smeared, distorted, and contaminated by police agencies as they attempt to create a composite drawing of the suspect.
In standard police practice, witnesses are bombarded with mug shots and catalogs of facial photos so that they can point out a multitude of features that look something like what they've seen -- like picking out your lost luggage by pointing to an airline baggage chart full of handles, fabrics, latches, and locks. If only the human psyche were so wonderfully simple -- but it's not.
Shockingly, compositry is an aspect of investigations that has never been given academic thought. Few investigators question how a drawing is produced, just so long as they end up with one in hand.
Common belief is that if the artwork is good, then the information it conveys must be good as well. But that belief is dangerously wrong. There is no correlation between the impressiveness of the artwork and the accuracy of its information. The answers to uncovering memory reside not in artistic ability, but in understanding the powerful inner workings of the human mind -- and more importantly, in the power of the human heart.
I started tallying up the odds against success as we taxied down the runway. Noel was describing the longest reign of terror in the country's history: multiple fatalities, overwhelming pressure from the media, and the highest imaginable scrutiny by the government. He was escorting me to interview the sole eyewitness from a seven-year-old sighting, and he was asking me to do -- what?
"So tell me about this process of yours," Agent Noel said as he loosened his necktie. Then he posed the one question that really mattered: "And do you think we even have a chance at this?"
Despite all the bad news, I did believe we had at least a shot. With a two-hour flight still ahead, I'd try to use the time to explain why.
"Under ordinary circumstances, a seven-and-a-half-year time lapse might be an overwhelming obstacle to recovering a memory," I began, "but in this case, we're not dealing with ordinary circumstances. We have a couple of factors in our favor. The first is the high degree of emotional upheaval the eyewitness experienced. The mind holds great power to encode or record detail into its memory if an event evokes emotion, and especially if it threatens a person's own sense of security." I knew he'd understand the concept more clearly if I used examples that he'd lived through himself.
"Remember hearing the news about the assassination of President Kennedy, or perhaps about the explosion of the space shuttle? Both events took place years ago, yet most people recall them with precision and can even cite with detail the exact moment as they lived it, down to the temperature of the air, the song on the radio, the color of a teacher's dress when she walked into the classroom bearing the news. It's all still there. But asked to describe the day before, or the day after, the memory has long since released all nonpertinent detail." He nodded in understanding.
"The same thing occurs when the mind experiences the trauma of being witness to or a victim of crime. That's the good news, but there's a catch," I explained.
"Because the crime victim experiences the traumatic event personally, the mind, as a survival measure, acts with determination to protect the victim from reexperiencing the event by repressing the image that induced the trauma. Emotions arise and act to buffer the harsh reality from the conscious mind. The mind then strives to alter the memory in any way it can, to make that image more emotionally palatable.
"A crime victim will go through a series of 'if only's.' If only I had taken a different route, if only I'd followed my intuition, if only...It's part of the mind's effort to rework the event in order to master the emotion. The mind tries hard to achieve distance from the trauma to allow the victim to move forward, to move on to safety and to regain function. This sets the stage for disaster when interviewing high-trauma witnesses and victims, who are highly susceptible to influence and suggestion. You see, they are trying on a conscious level to recall the images of those who brought the experience of terror into their lives -- while subconsciously their minds are trying to repress the same information. Their minds will willingly grasp at whatever information is presented, verbally or visually." Noel listened closely.
"The good news to investigators -- and to this case -- is that the subconscious mind often holds the true detail intact, though it's typically buried securely underneath what the conscious mind has allowed in as its new 'truth.' " Noel nodded in understanding and leaned in a little closer.
"Here's the irony. Without meaning to do so, investigators or police artists actually help to bury the image every time they present a victim with a photo of someone other than the actual suspect. Their hope is that the victim can simply point at something visual and say, 'The nose is just like that,' or 'The chin is like that,' based on the theory that recognition is easier than recall. The recognition method of 'identification' works sometimes, but more so in nontraumatic circumstances -- for instance to describe someone who cashed a bad check. There's no trauma involved in that kind of an encounter, so the mind has no reason to protect itself from the memory. But to this day, that single approach is the one used by police when creating a drawing, no matter the scenario involved in the case." The flight attendant handed us our drinks as I continued.
"There are now decades of research proving that when emotion is introduced, every single dynamic of how memory functions changes. By showing eyewitnesses books of facial photos from which to choose look-alike images, the well-meaning police or police artists are literally handing to the eyewitness -- at the very height of that person's vulnerability to suggestion and influence -- the visual tools to effectively discard, distort or further entomb the actual image that created the trauma. They are, in effect, not producing but rather unknowingly aiding in destroying evidence. The academic world understands this, but the police system hasn't caught up. They still assume that this work is all about art."
His eyes lit up. "It makes so much sense! It's so simple, yet..."
I finished his thought for him while he began to realize the magnitude of the errors already made. "Think about this: What happens if you hold film still in a camera and repeatedly open the shutter? What happens to your original imprint on the film with each exposure? It is so simple, you're right yet through lack of awareness, those who are trying wholeheartedly to help are potentially disabling the witness from ever having the ability to identify a suspect when one is apprehended.
"We might still have hope," I told him. "You see, if we can coach the conscious mind to move aside, sometimes we can still access the original untainted image -- if there is reason enough for it to have been retained in memory. The higher the degree of personal trauma, the harder the mind works to discard or bury the image, but, also, the more likely it will have been encoded into memory in the first place, even if it's housed at a much deeper level of recall." Noel sighed as he listened.
"To put the concept into more tangible terms," I explained, "think of it like this: Searching for the encoded image in the eyewitness's mind is comparable to retrieving a fifty-cent piece that's been tossed into eight feet of water. The fifty-cent piece rests at the bottom of the pool, just as it originally existed, but the image of it is distorted through the eight feet of water -- or, through the emotional aftermath that follows a traumatic event. Then to make it even more difficult to see, that same water gets muddied and rippled, as does the image of the suspect by the bombardment of visual contaminants offered by police artists and investigators.
"My job is to try to get through that muddied and rippled water and to bring that coin back to the surface of the pool -- or, in real terms, to bring back into the eyewitness's conscious memory that original image, in its original condition.
"In the case of the Unabomber witness, the magnitude of the trauma she experienced was likely sufficient for her mind to encode the vision of the suspect into her short-term recall and -- more important -- to transfer it into her long-term memory. But the big question now is, Under how many feet of muddy water does that coin lie?
"The reason for optimism is, ironically, the eyewitness's aggravation over the last sketch. That frustration might have helped lock in her original memory at a subliminal level no matter how much contamination the image has since been exposed to."
Seat backs went up as we began our descent.
"We've blown it in this case without ever even realizing it, haven't we?" Agent Noel asked. "All those years, all those wrong leads..."
"Maybe not," I answered. "It will all depend on the emotional investment of your witness. We won't know until we try. But despite the odds, it's always worth trying."
The summer sun was just starting to sink over the Great Salt Lake as our flight landed. The Wasatch Mountains actually reminded me a little of the Oregon Cascades back home -- except that they were on the wrong side of town.
I sighed, and the exhale made room for reality to invade. I was landing in the wrong state and still hadn't broken the news to my husband. For once I was grateful he'd never gotten into the romantic habit of seeing me off or picking me up at airports.
City traffic was sparse as we drove from Salt Lake City International to the downtown FBI office to pick up the witness's address from the local agents.
In February 1987, this crucial eyewitness was simply an unsuspecting secretary sitting at a desk shuffling papers for a small, independent Salt Lake City computer company when out of the corner of her eye she absentmindedly noticed a man walking outside the bank of windows that fronted her office. She registered the image as it passed from one windowpane to the next, but then realized that he'd not passed by the third. Thinking he might have fallen, she stood up and looked.
What she saw was a figure hunched down by the front driver's side of her own car, placing what appeared to be a wooden device beneath the wheel. As she yelled out to the business owner's mother to take a look, the stranger turned and stole a fleeting glance over his shoulder at her from just over twenty feet away. Sunglasses concealed his eyes. He looked immediately back toward the package, then stood up and casually walked off, leaving the device tucked underneath her front wheel.
By then, both women were at the window, though all they could see was his back, his face hidden entirely by the hood of the gray sweatshirt he wore on the sunny Salt Lake City winter day.
Odd, she thought. I'll just move whatever that is when I get off work. The two women laughed at the strangeness of his actions and commented on his "cute ass" as he walked away. A ringing phone drew away their attention and they returned to work.
"Whatever that is" was shoved into a canvas bag and appeared to be two two-by-four-inch pieces of wood held together by long nails that protruded through the top board and into the crisp Utah air.
Within an hour, the company's owner, Gary Wright, pulled in and parked in his assigned place several spaces away. As he passed by his employee's car, which he knew by her customized license plates, he noticed the package wedged near the tire. Concerned that she would run over it, he bent over to lift it out of the way. Instead, it exploded in his hands. Gary Wright's mother watched from just inside the office window as the blast tore through her son's body.
Injuries from his moment of unsolicited heroism were substantial to Wright's arms, legs, throat, face, and left hand. Years would follow before his body would heal, and the emotional injury would be far, far slower to mend. The mad bomber had blighted another life and left another victim without hope of reclaiming a carefree spirit. But the bomber himself had lost something, too: his anonymity. He'd shown his face -- though only for a second -- to his first and, as it would turn out, his only eyewitness.
The FBI, deep into its Unabomber investigation by then, identified many of the telltale fragments in the explosion remains. Their questions had less to do with who placed the bomb than they did with why it was placed under the car of this woman. Her custom license plates bearing her name indicated that his selection might not be random. If they could determine a rationale for how the Unabomber targeted his victims, they might be able to avert the next disaster.
To find their answer, the FBI seized the witness's privacy in the name of national security. For years, agents monitored her every movement, her contacts, friends, relatives, acquaintances, her mail, even her phone calls. Early on, they posted lookouts around her house, all in an attempt to answer the question "Why her?" Nothing about her life fit the bomber's apparent antitechnology agenda. Yet, the debris from the blast left unmistakable evidence that this was the work of the Unabomber.
By the time Agent Noel and I got to her home in July 1994, she simply opened the door and walked away, mumbling to the two of us, "Come on in, coffee's on," as we stood in the open doorway. For the first order of business, I'd need to establish myself as a non-agent, almost the "anticop." Her irritation was with a system that hadn't listened to her. As amicable as her relationship was with the agency, and especially with Noel, I'd need to differentiate myself from "them" in her eyes, so she could feel assured that she wasn't just repeating her past experience.
"Heck, who am I? Just the witness," she asked and answered quietly in a single breath. "Never mind what I think I saw. They'll tell me what I saw, and when I tell them it's off base, they'll just tell me again. That drawing's never been right. I've tried to tell them." She smiled shyly after her words, but her frustration was justified, and her expectations understandably low.
Agent Noel knew exactly what she was talking about. He'd heard her loud and clear over the years, but he had lacked the budget and the nod of approval to start all over on a suspect depiction. That changed when Attorney General Janet Reno unleashed her resources to turn over every possible stone.
We started with two cups of coffee, while her three-year-old settled comfortably into Noel's lap on the sofa, oblivious to the weighty implications of the activity across the room.
I glanced around for references from her home which might lead me to topics that would elicit from her a positive emotional response: photographs on shelves, book titles -- I wanted to immerse her in conversations around themes with which she was familiar and felt a sense of mastery and control. If she focused on subjects with which she felt safe, she might relax sufficiently for us to tap into the more sublime reservoirs of her memory. I needed to keep her attention diverted from the task we both knew loomed. The less she focused directly on the ominous task of re-creating the face, the more easily the real detail would surface.
Conversely, if I were to ask direct questions about the event or even about the suspect, it could revive her emotion regarding the bombing, and that upset could serve as an invitation for the cognitive or conscious part of her mind -- where she now held what she thought she had seen -- to take over. Cognitive recall is the portion of memory that's most susceptible to influence and change, so what she now thought she had seen was most likely to be incorrect. I had no interest in what she thought she saw. We needed to reach what she had actually seen. By this late stage, the two were inevitably a world apart.
At her kitchen table we discussed movies, the excitement of travel, the joys of work, and the rearing of a three-year-old, anything that would divert her from the weight of remembering. More than anything else, I wanted to avoid direct mention of the bombing. If we focused on the problem, we'd fail to find the solution and could conceivably end up only with her recall of the
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Boylan, Jeanne, Police artists United States Biography, Criminals Portraits, Criminals Identification, Face Identification, Criminal investigation United States