"I would also like to recognize two New Mexicans who work at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque who have not been properly recognized. Chris Cherry and Rod Owenby in 1996 assisted FBI and ATF agents during the search of Theodore Kaczynski’s residence in Montana. They, at considerable risk to themselves, helped to lead to the capture and conviction of Mr. Kaczynski and put an end to his deadly attacks. They live among you, and they have never gotten credit for what they did, and I think we ought to express our thanks to them tonight."
President Bill Clinton, speaking in Albuquerque, NM 2/3/98
One night in April 1996 Sandia bomb-disablement expert Chris Cherry got an urgent call at home in Albuquerque. It was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI, investigating Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana, had found a bomb. The investigators said they could not continue on into the cabin.
UNABOMBER FOES – Framed by the PAN Disrupter, Sandians Rod Owenby, left, and Chris Cherry answer news media questions at Sandia on Feb. 4. PAN was among the tools they used to disable a bomb found in Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana, preserving it intact for evidence that helped lead to Kaczynski’s guilty plea and sentencing last month. President Clinton praised the work last week. (Photo by Randy Montoya)
"They asked how soon we could get up there," Chris, of Engineering Projects and Explosives Applications Dept. 9333, recalled last week. "I replied, ‘More or less the next day, on a commercial airliner.’ They said, ‘That’s not soon enough.’ So they flew a special plane down in the night and picked us up."
Thus began the tense week at the remote cabin site that led to the disablement of the Unabomber’s next, sophisticated, ready-to-go letter bomb, all the while keeping it totally intact so that all evidence could be retained.
It was a crucial step in the government’s case against Kaczynski. And it was an episode that had to remain secret until the Unabomber case was resolved in the courts, as it now has been with Kaczynski’s recent guilty plea and life sentence without possibility of parole. The Unabomber’s bombs had killed three people and injured 23 others since 1978.
Last week in Albuquerque, President Clinton publicly revealed for the first time the role Chris and Sandia colleague Rod Owenby (also 9333) played in the Unabomber case (see "President Clinton: ‘I just love our national labs’ " on page one). Chris and Rod were in the audience at Albuquerque Civic Plaza when Clinton, nearly at the opening of his speech, said:
"I would also like to recognize two New Mexicans who work at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque who have not been properly recognized. Chris Cherry and Rod Owenby in 1996 assisted FBI and ATF agents during the search of Theodore Kaczynski’s residence in Montana. They, at considerable risk to themselves, helped to lead to the capture and conviction of Mr. Kaczynski and put an end to his deadly attacks. They live among you, and they have never gotten credit for what they did and I think we ought to express our thanks to them tonight."
"It was an honor to have President Clinton announce our names," Chris says. "We felt honored and proud. It was a good feeling. [We’re] kind of in awe."
Chris, Rod, and Sandia had, in 1996, received formal letters of praise (which also could not be revealed) from the FBI for their efforts, but that was nothing like presidential recognition.
Permission from the FBI to talk
In their secretive trade, Chris and Rod are not used to public attention. "We had to get permission from the FBI to talk," says Chris. Last week that permission came.
The government had been working on the Unabomber case for 17 years. Before the call that brought them to Montana, Chris says, they had a standing contract with the FBI to respond to and try to interdict and render safe one of the Unabomber’s bombs.
With a large pallet of multiple tools and explosives flown to Montana on another plane from Riverside, Calif. – Riverside police bomb squad officer Vic Poisson is a key member of their team – plus their own equipment, Chris, Rod, and the team of experts focused on the task of disabling the bomb and keeping it intact for evidence. They were at Kaczynski’s cabin for a week.
"It took approximately three days to totally render safe the bomb itself," Chris says. The details of how they did it cannot be told, but one of the tools used was the Sandia-developed PAN Disrupter, he says.
PAN, which stands for Percussion Actuated Nonelectric Disrupter, is foremost among a family of bomb disablers developed and licensed by Sandia since 1992. PAN has become a primary tool used by bomb squads nationwide to disable hand-made-type bombs. Chris says it has disabled probably 75 bombs around the US.
Three times since 1994, Chris has hosted Operation Albuquerque, a Sandia-sponsored hands-on bomb-disablement conference for the nation’s elite bomb squads (Lab News, Aug. 15, 1997).
Kaczynski’s hand-written notes
Chris says he had a chance to go through all of Kaczynski’s notes found in the cabin about all his devices and how they were assembled. The notes were written in Spanish and had to be translated. They were extremely detailed and revealed Kaczynski’s knowledge of heat transfer and mathematics, knowledge that Kaczynski, a one-time mathematics professor, incorporated into his precision-made bombs, Chris says.
"The cabin was a wealth of information," Chris says. "We were there with white gloves going through the evidence to try to ascertain what some of the chemicals were and some of the parts he may have used to construct the bombs.
"Our objective was not just to defuse the bomb but to surgically defuse it so that we would have all the evidence captured. We couldn’t just blow apart the bomb. We had to go into it to ensure that all the evidence was preserved and we understood the working functions of it.
"We were working for the FBI through Sandia. They allowed us to make the decisions on the device itself. There were a lot of high-level FBI agents up there, and when it was our turn to do the bomb work we were totally in charge. It was a unique working relationship. It was a total trust."
The bomb was a fragmentation device designed to kill people. It was all home-made. The detonators were home-made. It was designed to be rough-handled through the mail. The switch mechanisms Kaczynski used were hand-made switches that he would spend weeks building.
"He machined his own screws," Rod says, an indicator of the time and detail Kaczynski devoted to his grisly task.
The bomb was already wrapped and packaged and ready to address and send, Chris says. "The device was complicated in that it was guaranteed to work," Chris says. "It was not your basic pipe bomb. It was much more sophisticated than that. Every one of his devices functioned as designed."
Trusting in your technology and wits
At a Sandia news conference last week, Chris and Rod were asked if they’d had any trepidation about the task.
"Trepidation? No," said Rod. "But I think we were relying on the skills of each other. The good thing about the team is, we were throwing our ideas out there to figure this problem out. We had some of the world’s leading experts up there. We were there to do a job."
Chris says the group argued about what to do. "If you’re wrong, you are real wrong," says Chris. "I finally made the decision on what I thought we should do. The interpretation that we finally decided [on] was correct.
"We do explosives research," says Chris. "We actually use explosives to defeat explosives." So he says the more you understand about shock physics and thermodynamics and related matters, the better equipped you are.
"You have to trust in your technology and in your wits."
"It’s our way of giving back to the community," Rod says of his and Chris’ efforts to help train bomb squads in disablement techniques. "The better our police are trained on everyday situations, the better we can feel at night. The safer we feel."
Chris says he had expected he would have to testify – for anywhere from a couple days to a week or two – if the Kaczynski case went to trial.
Is he glad Kaczynski’s guilty plea and conviction obviated that need? "You better believe it. I would have, certainly. But I was not looking forward to testifying."