Falling in love with the Unabomber

Holly Bailey
·National Correspondent
(Photo Illustration: Yahoo News, photos: AP, Smith College yearbook photo)
(Photo Illustration: Yahoo News, photos: AP, Smith College yearbook photo)

From his prison cell, Ted Kaczynski — the “Unabomber,” who terrified the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s — has carried on a remarkable correspondence with thousands of people all over the world. As the 20th anniversary of his arrest approaches, Yahoo News is publishing a series of articles based on his letters and other writings, housed in an archive at the University of Michigan. They shed unprecedented light on the mind of Kaczynski — genius, madman and murderer.

Joy Richards had something she needed to confess.

Sitting in her pastor’s office at Grace Lutheran Church in Upland, Calif., in early 2006, Richards, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, wanted to make things right with God. And to her, that meant being honest about a secret she’d been keeping from those closest to her out of fear they might reject her, as others had, including her own family.

But as she sat there with the pastor and her closest friend, Richards didn’t seem to know where to begin. Finally, with tears in her eyes, she just blurted it out. “I’m in love with Ted Kaczynski,” she said.

It is a chapter in the Unabomber saga that is virtually unknown but captured, in part, in letters in Kaczynski’s archive of personal papers at the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan Library. Arrested in 1996 and charged in a deadly string of mail and package bombs over nearly two decades, Kaczynski at some point began to correspond with Richards, a woman he had never met but eventually fell in love with and wanted to marry.

She was a mystery even among those who came to know her, and exactly how and when their relationship began is unclear. Richards, who died in late 2006, donated her correspondence with Kaczynski to a library at Smith College, her alma mater, where a representative said it is not available to the public.

But Kaczynski mentioned Richards in countless letters to others. He wrote about how much he loved her, how lucky he was to have met her and, later, the extreme anguish he felt over her illness and death, at 53. “My friend has suffered more than anyone deserves to suffer, and I can do nothing to help her,” Kaczynski wrote in June 2006, expressing the kind of empathy he has never shown for the dozens of victims of his bombs.

At first, according to Kaczynski’s letters, Richards was simply his closest friend and confidant, someone he trusted enough to allow to speak regularly to his lawyers, negotiate possible interviews with the media and help form the network of pen pals who shared his aversion to the technological society he feared.

“She started out as someone who acted as kind of like a researcher for him,” said Quin Denvir, a former federal public defender who, along with attorney Judy Clarke, led Kaczynski’s Unabomber defense. “She got him books and sent him articles and was a friend to him.”

But soon she became much more than that to Kaczynski, who began to refer to her in letters as his “angel” and “Lady Love,” a title he sometimes accentuated with a tiny hand-drawn heart. He drew her cards using colored pencils from the prison commissary and wrote her original pieces of classical music. With help from other pen pals, he sent her books he thought she might like.

“[Joy] is an angel. I mean a real one. I’m sure she could fly if she wanted to,” Kaczynski wrote to a pen pal in April 2002. “You don’t see her halo because she’s too modest to wear it. She keeps it hung up in her closet. But really she is an honest-to-goodness angel. Absolutely perfect.”

Wanda Kaczynski, right, mother of convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, wipes tears from her eyes as Kaczynski's brother, David Kaczynski, talks to the press outside the U.S. Courthouse in the Fred E. Moss Federal Building, Jan. 22, 1998. (Photo: Reuters)
Wanda Kaczynski, right, mother of convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, wipes tears from her eyes as Kaczynski's brother, David Kaczynski, talks to the press outside the U.S. Courthouse in the Fred E. Moss Federal Building, Jan. 22, 1998. (Photo: Reuters)

At one point, Richards even began speaking regularly to Kaczynski’s family — his mother, Wanda, and brother, David, whom the bomber had cut off after learning his sibling had given the FBI the tip that led to his arrest. Her overtures weren’t a secret. His mother and brother wrote him letters mentioning Richards, and Kaczynski, who was quick to cut off anyone he didn’t trust, apparently had no objection.

His family, desperate to end their estrangement with him, viewed Richards’ outreach as surprising but hopeful. “I thought it was an opening, that maybe Joy could become the bridge by which I could reconcile with my brother,” David said in an interview.

In letters and phone calls, Richards mainly gave the family updates on Kaczynski’s life in prison — though occasionally she seemed to hint that she was passing the messages on at his request. “Once or twice, she even said something like, ‘He said to tell David this’ or something like that, which made me hopeful,” David recalled.

But one day, he had a phone conversation with Richards about his brother’s crimes in which she offered a view into her thinking on the Unabomber. “You know, they have never really proven that Ted killed people,” she told David, who was taken aback.

“Joy, if I thought he was innocent, I would be fighting a different cause right now,” he told her.

On the other end of the line, Richards was silent for a moment. “Well, even if he did it, I can still accept it,” she said. “I can understand it.”

Not long after that, David recalled, Richards stopped communicating. “The door was really shut,” he said. Several months later, the family learned why: Richards told Kaczynski’s mother that her son had forbidden her from talking to the family. He thought she was becoming too sympathetic to them and had started to question her loyalty.

Richards, intensely private all her life, left few clues about her background. She grew up near Cleveland. Her parents, like Kaczynski’s, were second-generation Polish-Americans, she told friends. She had a brother and a sister — though it’s unclear if they were older or younger. She told a friend she had been married briefly to a man who was in the military, but after a few years, they split amicably. (Using public records, Yahoo News was unable to locate any of Richards’ relatives, and friends had no information.)

Described by one friend as “incredibly intelligent in a superhuman way,” Richards apparently put off attending (or finishing) college for years, finally graduating at age 36 from prestigious Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Classmates remembered her in the obituary that ran in the alumni magazine as a “mysterious mix of solitary and gregarious.”

Unabomber Letters

It’s unclear how or when she ended up out West. Public records show she briefly lived in Idaho and then in Montana, which is where she was living in 1996 when Kaczynski was arrested, although they apparently never crossed paths. She later told friends that she had been intrigued by the Unabomber manifesto, which she said was “brilliant.” It appears she first wrote to Kaczynski not long after he was arrested, but their regular correspondence only began in 1998 after he was sentenced to life without parole and sent to the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colo.

In prison, Kaczynski’s life took a remarkable turn. Before his arrest he’d had almost no experience with women, as he confided repeatedly to his diary. The opposite sex confounded him: What did women want? How did you know when they liked you? Why was it so hard?

But as a notorious serial killer, he attracted the interest of women, dozens of them, who wrote him to say how handsome they thought he was. They called him “Teddy,” sent him provocative pictures, told him about their sex fantasies and begged to visit him. One woman, in a letter sent to Kaczynski’s attorneys, even proposed marriage.

Kaczynski was welcoming of the attention but also baffled by it. In his methodical way, he pursued the mysteries of life with his attorney, Clarke, who had become one of his first close female friends. “I think he assumed that there was a little booklet or something he could read that would tell him in exact factual terms about women,” said Denvir, Clarke’s co-counsel. “He was so intellectual, but there was also this naivete. Sometimes it felt like he was 12 years old.”

Shortly after he arrived in Colorado, Kaczynski began to receive letters from a woman who wrote him in explicit detail about her sexual fantasies about him. The letters shocked him so much that even though he rejected the mental health profession he wrote to a psychologist to ask if he thought the woman might be mentally unstable. “Can unresolved anger lead to sadomasochistic sexual impulses?” he wrote.

Though their correspondence continued, Kaczynski warned her not to become too attached to him. She wasn’t the only woman he was writing to — he was also exchanging letters with a woman he identified as “J.” “I like her, and I think she needs me as much as you do, though probably for different reasons.”

Richards and Kaczynski first met in person in late 1999. Though his visitors list at ADX was strictly limited to his lawyers or people he had known before his 1996 arrest, she was able to first visit him under the guise of being a journalist. (Later, though it’s unclear when or how, she was added to his approved visitors list permanently.) In her mid-40s then, she was 5-foot-7, slender with dark brown hair and brilliant blue eyes and most often dressed in practical khakis.

He had granted her an interview that would run more than a year later in the Blackfoot Valley Dispatch, a regional publication in Montana. Initially, Kaczynski had shopped the interview to other publications, including Rolling Stone, Penthouse and Playboy, but under the strict rules he presented, including his choice of Richards as the writer and his final approval of the text, there were no takers.

Richards wrote under the pen name J. Alienus Rychalski — a mix of a nickname she’d had as a kid and her family’s original Polish last name. Conducted while Kaczynski was still appealing for a new trial, the interview focused mainly on his daily life in Montana, what had made him want to live in an “uninhabited place” and whether he believed in “fate” and God. (“No,” he replied. “Do you?”)

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Richards returned to Montana. An unidentified acquaintance of Kaczynski’s wrote him to say she had run into Richards, who had gushed about the “thrill” of finally meeting him in person. Kaczynski said he was excited to meet her too. At some point, Richards relocated to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., where she began working as a fourth-grade teacher. By that time, her relationship with the Unabomber had turned romantic — or as romantic as it could be under the strict rules of the supermax, where prisoners are not allowed physical contact with visitors. Every meeting is to be conducted in a sterile, concrete room equipped with security cameras where visitors are separated by a thick pane of security glass. They could never touch, never kiss.

But Kaczynski tried to be the best boyfriend he could be to the first girlfriend he’d ever had. According to his letters, he shared with Richards copies of all correspondence he sent and received to prove his openness and loyalty — which meant he was copying letters by hand at least twice, once for her and another for his archive in Michigan, since he didn’t have access to a copy machine.

Though he continued to correspond with other female pen pals, he cut them off when they showed any hint of romantic interest in him. But sometimes it wasn’t easy. In 2002, a woman who was a librarian began writing to him — a key acquaintance for a man behind bars who had a desire to read obscure articles and books that other pen pals couldn’t find. But when she sent a flirtatious letter, Kaczynski told her he already had a “Lady Love” in his life.

“Could I be your second lady love?” the woman asked.

“I’ve put that question to Lady Love #1, and she says ‘no,’” he replied. Though he welcomed a “friendship,” he cut off all contact with the librarian when she later addressed him as “sweetheart.” “Lady Love No. 1 would not be comfortable with the tone your letters are taking,” he wrote. “You will not hear from me again.”

He couldn’t stop gushing to people about Richards. “She’s beyond my wildest dreams!” he wrote to a former member of his legal team. There’s evidence he considered marrying her, which would have had one practical benefit: As his next of kin, if she survived him — he was 11 years older — she, rather than his estranged family, would have had control over his remains. Whether he actually sought permission or whether it would have been granted is uncertain.

The following year, Kaczynski sold his half of the land he owned in Montana (about 1.4 acres) to Richards at the bargain price of $7,500 to help fulfill her dream of having a wilderness escape. (His brother, David, owned the other half.) The sale brought Richards unwelcome attention from the media. “I am a very private person,” she told the Sacramento Bee in what would be her only interview about Kaczynski. “I wish I could become invisible right now. This is the moment I dreaded the most.”

Though the media’s curiosity about her dealings with Kaczynski faded as quickly as it had flared up, it took only one headline to stir up drama in Richards’ life. She later told friends that her family, with whom she already had a tenuous relationship, learned of her friendship with the Unabomber around that time. Upset that she was corresponding with a serial murderer, her family stopped speaking to her, she said, leading to an estrangement that lasted until shortly before she died.

Richards told the Sacramento Bee that she had become “fond” of the Unabomber, but it was more than that. By then, she was regularly writing to him and visiting him in prison. That Christmas, she made a three-day trip to Colorado, where she spent hours talking to him through security glass. But while there, Richards began to cough up blood. The diagnosis was lung cancer. Surgeons removed part of her right lung but warned her the cancer would likely return.

Breaking the news to another pen pal, Kaczynski wrote, “If she dies, it will break my heart because I love this woman.”

Joy Richards poses with James Pike, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, after her baptism in spring 2006. (Photo: Courtesy of James Pike)
Joy Richards poses with James Pike, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, after her baptism in spring 2006. (Photo: Courtesy of James Pike)

Over the next year and a half Richards’ health briefly improved, but her outlook soon turned bleak again. She underwent chemotherapy and was forced to give up her job as a teacher. She kept writing to Kaczynski and visiting him, but with no contact with her family and few friends, she began to worry about the prospect of dying alone.

Though she had never known him in the outside world, Kaczynski was as present in her life as anything. In her tiny apartment she had his books — including a bound copy of the Unabomber manifesto — and some of his belongings that had been left behind in his Montana cabin. On the walls was art he had drawn for her, while scattered around the apartment were copies of musical compositions he had written for her — though it’s not clear she knew how to read music.

“It was like she was living with a ghost,” a friend, who declined to be named so as not to be associated with Kaczynski, said. “It was like [Kaczynski] was there, but he wasn’t.”

In late 2005 doctors told Richards that her cancer had returned. By chance, she met and became friends with a couple — devout Christians — to whom she began to confess her fears about her health and her fate in life. She mentioned her relationship with Kaczynski to no one — until the day she summoned her friend and the church’s pastor, James Pike, to confess that she was in love with him.

Both Pike and the friend were stunned. “Wait, the Unabomber?” Pike recalled saying.

Richards tearfully nodded. By that time, she was undergoing a spiritual epiphany and was considering being baptized in the church. But she told them she couldn’t go forward with the symbolic spiritual rebirth if she wasn’t fully honest about her life. She had been too scared to tell them out of fear that she might lose them as she had lost her family. “If this is a deal breaker,” she told them, “you can tell me.”

“You can’t help who love sometimes,” the woman told her. “And it doesn’t change how we feel about you.”

The following spring, Richards was baptized in the church. Finally free to speak of her secret relationship, she confessed her increasingly conflicted feelings about loving a man who had committed such terrible crimes. At the same time, she openly worried about what Kaczynski would think of her becoming more spiritual when he didn’t believe in God.

In prison, Kaczynski had noticed the changes in Richards. He wrote to others about her growing involvement with the church and how she, in her sickness, had started to rely heavily on her faith. She was in constant pain, physically and emotionally, and Kaczynski struggled with his own emotions over his inability to help the woman he loved so desperately.

In July 2006, doctors told Richards she had only months to live. By then, she was consumed with getting her affairs in order, and because of her conflicted feelings about Kaczynski, she was writing less often. He felt her fading from him. “I love this woman truly, even though her love for me has cooled,” he wrote to a friend that month.

Out of work and with her benefits drained, Richards soon began to run out of money. When Kaczynski spoke of her plight to another pen pal, the man sent her $2,400 and promised more if she needed it. But her health only worsened. She entered the hospital in November and Kaczynski went frantic trying to reach her. He wrote letters to the manager of her apartment complex and to members of her family. He didn’t know if she was alive or dead, and he enlisted some of his other pen pals in his desperate attempt to find out.

In late December, Richards went to stay with the couple who had befriended her, and she lived out her final days there. While she made peace with her family, who came to visit her, friends say her relatives did not offer to help with any of her final arrangements, including her will or her funeral. They were left up to the couple and the church.

She was too sick to speak to Kaczynski, though she made those around her promise they would let him know she had passed. “She came to reject the killing and the things that he had done, but she loved him,” a friend said. “She had a deep connection with him until the end.”

The day she died, one of Kaczynski’s pen pals from Los Angeles drove out to visit her at the bomber’s behest. When he arrived, Richards was in pain and barely conscious, but the pen pal had one final message from Kaczynski for his Lady Love. The man, a musician, put headphones on Richards and played a piece of music — “a trombone duet” — that Kaczynski had written for her and the man had performed on his synthesizer.

Richards died on New Year’s Eve 2006, but though Pike and others left messages with the prison, Kaczynski didn’t learn of her death until more than a week later, through a letter from Richards’ brother. In a letter thanking him for letting him know of his Lady Love’s fate, Kaczynski’s usually neat handwriting is barely legible. He wrote that he was glad Richards knew he was thinking of her until the end.

“I wouldn’t have wanted her to die thinking I had let her down,” he said.

 

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