SALT LAKE CITY — February 20, 1987 will forever remain a notorious date in Utah’s history, marking the time the Unabomber struck here and claimed one of his many victims.
The events of that day, though, couldn’t have come more out-of-the-blue for Gary Wright.
“I feel lucky to at least be telling the story,” said Wright.
Wright — the owner of the computer repair and maintenance company, CAAMS, Inc.— was returning to his storefront at 270 E. 900 South.
“Pulled into the back parking lot and I noticed a piece of debris, wood — looked like construction material, basically — with nails sticking out of it sitting in the parking lot next to where the cars were parked,” Wright recalled.
He moved in for a closer look and said the object appeared to be two, two-by-fours with nails protruding at the top. The nails shined like “chrome,” which struck him as unusual. One was slightly bent.
“I had intended to just go ahead and pick up this piece of wood and throw it away so nobody would step on it or a car wouldn’t run over it and pop a tire,” Wright said. “I picked it up then and immediately just felt this huge sense of pressure in my chest and heard a sound kind of like a fighter jet going over — so a screechy, high-pitched sound.”
Wright had picked up a bomb.
“The bomb exploded and basically knocked me back about 22 feet,” he said. “(I was) bouncing around as if I were on a pogo stick.”
Wright remembered noticing the telephone and electrical wires that connected to the building moving in a slow-motion sine wave as white flecks and other debris floated to the ground.
He could still hear a little, but it sounded like he was underwater, and he was badly injured.
“It threw, you know, thousands and thousands of slivers — like needles — everywhere,” Wright said as he began to point to his neck. “Up under here, it was impaled like a porcupine.”
Gary Wright’s journey over the past 3 decades has been nothing short of remarkable after he unexpectedly fell victim to the #Unabomber. Looking forward to sharing his story tonight at 10:00p @KSL5TV#KSLTV#Utahpic.twitter.com/jDMN5vyif4— Andrew Adams (@AndrewAdamsKSL) February 20, 2020
As Wright underwent the first of what would be a dozen surgeries, detectives were already making significant progress toward linking the bombing to an infamous killer.
The Unabomber had initially popped onto the radar of federal investigators in 1978 when a bomb exploded on a college campus in Chicago, Illinois.
Over 17 years, he placed and mailed 16 bombs, killing 3 and injuring close to two dozen people.
In 1987, though, it was all news to Wright.
“It was the Monday after the bombing,” Wright recalled. “The agencies all come over to the house and start asking me some questions, like, ‘have you ever heard of the Unabomber?’ ‘No, I’ve never heard of this.’ ‘Do you know what the initials, ‘FC,’ stand for?’”
Wright said he subsequently learned that "FC" had been found etched into a component of the bomb, which was a common characteristic shared across other Unabomber cases.
“They had said that this person was kind of anti-technology and so that was the tie,” Wright said. “My company’s name at the time was CAAMS, which was an acronym for Computer and Accounting Maintenance Service.”
Dealing with the aftermath
Wright lived for nine years, not knowing who the mysterious Unabomber was.
“The anxiety side was pretty big because there was this threat that he would come back, right?” Wright explained. “It was kind of like having eyes in the back of your head for a long time.”
He said it was three to four years before he took a deeper examination of how to deal with those emotions.
At about six years after the bombing, Wright said he came to a realization.
“I can remember I was driving down the road and I just kept thinking to myself, you know, ‘what am I going to do with this?’” Wright said. “I started to have this crazy conversation with this voice that I had heard when the bomb went off, and this voice when the bomb went off said, ‘you’ll be alright.’ Just a great big, giant booming voice. Not mine. I mean, maybe it’s mine echoing off the inside of my skull. I don’t know. Where does it come from? Who knows, but same voice I’m having this conversation with and it’s just like, ‘you’re a Christian,’ you know, 'you’ll have to just forgive and let this go.'”
Wright said over the next several months he had to determine what his own definition of forgiveness was and create it for himself.
“If you take the definition that’s in Webster’s or anywhere else, and it’s like, ‘acceptance,’ or this or that — I didn’t accept anything that happened to me,” Wright explained. “That was just bad. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but I learned a lot about myself and it probably made me a better person in the end. I created a definition on my own that just said ‘I love myself enough that I wasn’t going to let anybody see me as less than what I could be — not my kids, not my friends, nobody. I just wanted to be the best person I could be.”
Wright said owning that definition made it easier to process what happened and move forward in life.
“If you try to go back to the way it was before, you’ll fight that battle forever — it’s never going to be exactly the same,” Wright said. “It sounds funny, but I will say forgiveness is a selfish thing — only because it’s not about everybody else, it’s about you. So be selfish. That’s okay. Hopefully in the end it’s just a better view, right?”
On April 3, 1996, federal agents executed a search warrant for a cabin near Lincoln, Montana and arrested then 53-year-old Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski.
As it turned out, investigators’ way to the Unabomber also revealed an expected path for Wright to heal and forgive.
Kaczynski’s brother, David, turned in Ted after his wife, Linda, recognized familiar themes in the writings that made up the Unabomber’s 35,000 word manifesto, which was published in The Washington Post and The New York Times in 1995.
“(David) and his mom always started out apologizing to the victims once they knew it was Ted Kaczynski and they had gone through the whole process of turning him in,” Wright recalled. “He reached out and wrote letters to people, to anyone who had been a victim — the surviving family members, the (victims) themselves.”
Because Wright’s information was being protected by authorities, David Kaczynski ended up making contact through a private investigator who had found Wright's new workplace in Provo.
Wright couldn’t say no to a conversation.
“He just said, ‘I’m calling, I’m David Kaczynski, I want to apologize on behalf of my family for what happened to you.' And I listened for a second and I said, 'you know, David, that’s really great. I really appreciate it. I’ve seen you on television. I think you and your mom have been really amazing people, but, you know, you don’t have to carry this one.'”
Wright offered to be a listening ear for Kaczynski whenever he needed one, 24-7.
Kaczynski took him up on the offer when it appeared for a time that his brother may potentially face the death penalty.
“David was kind of upset because he’s turned him in and his brother may be executed and that wasn’t really on the table when he did that,” Wright said. “We chatted through a lot of different personal dynamics of the case and, kind of, I wouldn’t even say we were on the course of a relationship. It was just two guys chatting a little bit on different sides of the fence.”
In 1998, Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty to the 3 murder charges and other federal charges leveled against him. In exchange, he received 8 life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Shortly afterward, Wright agreed to meet with David Kaczynski in Salt Lake City on his way back east from California.
“(We) sat down and probably chatted for about 3 hours, had a little bit to eat, some coffee, and just kind of got to know one another from the perspective of what it was a little bit like on both sides,” Wright said.
The men met again in Sacramento after Ted Kaczynski’s sentencing and a friendship slowly began to bloom. Eventually, they would appear before groups to share their story.
“You don’t know when you’re going to find people that you can be friends with,” Wright said. “We’ve spent thousands of miles behind a windshield together and chatted about probably anything and everything you could think of.”
In 2008, David Kaczynski told CNN he saw Wright as his brother and a “psychological lifeline through this terrible ordeal.”
“Over the course of the years, you know, we’ve stayed close,” Wright said. “It’s been a good relationship for both of us, I think.”
Moving forward after trauma
33 years after the bombing that changed his life forever, the healing continues — as does Wright’s attempts to deconstruct what happened that day as well as the man responsible.
“I don’t view it that I accept anything that he did, certainly not his methodologies, and the way he went about it — I mean, he’s a murderer,” Wright said. “At the same time, I guess my mind is broad enough to say in the bigger picture of things it’s not all mine to judge. I can only take facts and process them and the facts I see say we have a lot of different dynamics and tragedies in all of these events. I guess I look at it and say I feel badly that he’s in prison in a way because the only thing I think that ever brought that guy solace was nature. So, now he has to pay the piper and I’m good with that, but at the same time it sure would have been great if it had not happened to a really intelligent person because that way nobody would have been affected in the end. It would have been a non-issue, a non-story.”
Wright said the psychological effects and chemistry changes associated with post-traumatic stress were trying.
“When I came through the physical side of it, I had been on so many codeine-based drugs,” Wright said. “I started not to be able to sleep — at all. I mean, I went a long time without sleep and we had to find a way around that.”
He started to examine natural means to help him cope, including through cycling.
“I got back into cycling when I could and started doing some repetitive motion stuff,” Wright said. “I started to observe a lot of things that would happen while I was on a bike or walking or anything repetitive — even working out, you know, it’s repetitive — where your mind can’t stay focused on the bad stuff when you’re in the middle of that. It starts to go away.”
Wright said he realized his mind started to feel like it was healing in conjunction with his body.
“I kind of stayed on that path of repetitive motion, go out and do endurance stuff and try and get to a point where, number one, I could say, ‘I guess I’m about as normal as I’m going to be because I’ll never be a normal person,’” Wright said. “I was able to go out and compete or move at a high level. I was able to raise money for charities because I loved the Huntsman 140, I loved all the (multiple sclerosis) stuff, and I’d go out and race with people and do things like that, and it made a huge impact on me.”
Today, Wright hopes to help others when life changes in a “millisecond” to see the value in life and in those around them. He shares his experience as a “life architect,” consulting on topics such as navigating the unexpected, communicating during crisis, and the impacts of terrorism.
“If I can change one person, I’ll always do this,” Wright said. “It’s one of those things that I feel that every life is valuable and sometimes people don’t know who to talk to. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to somebody who has had something bad happen because you had something bad happen — not necessarily a doctor, yeah, but hey maybe there’s a piece of advice in there somewhere that triggers somebody to feel better.”