Cracking the case

Former Bensalem police officer James Fitzgerald will discuss how he solved the infamous Unabomber investigation

By Samantha Bambino

One of Bensalem’s most widely known former police officers is coming home. On Dec. 10, Congregation Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County will host a special morning with James Fitzgerald, the FBI special agent, criminal profiler and forensic linguist who solved the infamous Unabomber case of the ’90s. The event will include a breakfast, presentation on how he cracked the investigation and a signing of his three books.

Since retiring from the FBI almost 10 years ago, Fitzgerald has traveled around the world, sharing the many notable experiences of his vast career. As a native of the Olney section of Philadelphia, he’s excited to speak in his own backyard about everything from high-profile investigations to memories from his childhood.

Fitzgerald’s career kicked off in August 1976 when he was hired by the Bensalem Police Department, where he remained for 11 years. Starting as a uniform patrol officer, he dealt with burglars and car thieves. It was during this time he found his local “claim to fame.” Many cars were being stolen from the Cornwells Heights Train Station, but it was impossible to have a complete view of the area to catch them … until “Fitz” came along.

Equipped with his police radio, lunch and some newspapers, he climbed on top of a billboard by I-95. For days, he surveyed the area from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and was able to catch a number of robbers. To date, he believes he’s the only Bensalem cop to ever use this technique. In ’83, Fitzgerald was promoted to sergeant, but it was a bittersweet victory. Despite his years of experience and new title, he was put in charge of township vandalism. According to him, the police department had become corrupt. Politics were changing, causing it to be a completely different environment than when he first joined. Though he said the department has since become a great place to work again, it was time for a change. By this point, Fitzgerald was about 33 years old.

After a lengthy application and interview process, Fitzgerald found his calling with the FBI, which hired him in November 1987 and where he happily stayed for 20 years. Throughout the first seven, Fitzgerald commuted every day from Bensalem to New York City, where he was assigned to an array of cases dealing with the mafia and serial killers.

“It wasn’t easy, but it worked,” he said.

In 1993, shortly after the first World Trade Center bombing, Fitzgerald was promoted to supervisor and was sent to the FBI Academy in Quantico to specialize in criminal profiling. That same year while on vacation in Sea Isle City, he received a call from his manager asking if he’d like to go to San Francisco for 30 days to help with the Unabomber case. Before he knew it, 30 days turned into a year and a half, but it was worth it.

Within nine months of him being there, the 17-year investigation was closed. Using his investigation skills and newly-learned profiling and language analysis knowledge, he brought a fresh approach to the case. The Unabomber, or “University Airline Bomber,” had written a manifesto and a number of letters to be published in the New York Times. After studying the writing style of the manifesto, Fitzgerald noticed many unusual punctuation uses and spelling errors he had never encountered before.

Throughout 1995, there was a debate among publications whether to publish the manifesto or not. Should they meet the demands of a terrorist? For Fitzgerald, the answer was “yes.”

“Someone is going to recognize his writing style,” he said.

The manifesto was published in the Washington Post that September, as well as online at fbi.gov, the first criminal case to have clues posted on the internet. Soon after, one woman recognized the writing style as her reclusive brother-in-law’s, Ted Kaczynski’s, based on letters he had written to her husband David.

Within six weeks, he was arrested with the phrase “You can’t eat your cake and have it too” serving as the final nail in his coffin. According to Fitzgerald, this was the first time language evidence was used in federal court. Kaczynski is now in his mid-70s, living out his days at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado.

Despite the Unabomber case being more than 20 years old, it remains one of the FBI’s longest-running cases and still holds interest for many Americans today. That’s why Discovery Channel produced the eight-episode series Manhunt: Unabomber this past August, which starred Sam Worthington as Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany as Kaczynski. Fitzgerald served as the show’s consulting producer.

As Fitzgerald celebrates 10 years of retirement this month, he has no plans to slow down anytime soon. Residing in Sea Isle, he continues to work as a forensic linguist consultant to numerous government and law enforcement agencies. He also makes frequent trips to Hollywood to serve as a technical adviser for Criminal Minds.

Lastly, Fitzgerald is an author of three books, which chronicle his Olney upbringing, time with the Bensalem Police Department and years with the FBI. His latest, A Journey To The Center Of The Mind: Book III — The (First Ten) FBI Years, will be signed and available for $34 at the event. The program will take place on Sunday, Dec. 10, from 9 a.m. to noon at Congregation Tifereth Israel, 2909 Bristol Road in Bensalem. It will start with a patron’s breakfast followed by a special presentation about the Unabomber case and other high profile investigations. Tickets for the patrons’ breakfast are $36 per person. Reserved seating is $25 per person and general admission is $18 per person. For information, call 215–752–7727. ••