To help get you into the spirit of the season, this week we’re presenting MEL’s 2021 Holiday Toy Catalog! But instead of trying to sell you stuff like the department-store catalogs of yore, we’re offering up the little-known backstories to some of the greatest toys ever made. So take a break from your holiday shopping, grab some cocoa and be a kid again for a few minutes.
Twenty-five years ago, during the 1996 Christmas season, stores were overrun with chaos over the hottest toy of the year: Tickle Me Elmo. Rumors of fistfights in toy aisles spread all over the country, and in Canada, a Walmart employee was trampled by the deluge of shoppers, suffering a broken rib and a concussion in the process. In classified ads, people were selling $30 Elmo dolls for up to $1,000.
Despite all of the fervor, the holiday season was relatively calm for Tickle Me Elmo co-creator Mark Williams. The doll had been released back in July, and his Elmo obligations had long concluded. On top of that, a rather surprising headline took an enormous weight off of his shoulders: On April 3, 1996, Ted Kaczynski had been apprehended as the infamous Unabomber. Beginning in 1978, the Unabomber’s reign of terror involved mailing 16 homemade bombs to various universities across the U.S., resulting in three deaths and another 23 people injured.
The news of Kaczynski’s arrest wasn’t only a relief to Williams because the violence had come to an end, but on a more personal note, he could finally be taken off of the FBI’s long list of Unabomber suspects. He’s still not sure when or why he got on the Fed’s radar, but for more than six months, he received numerous phone calls and visits from the FBI, who questioned him about his whereabouts during various Unabomber crimes.
Below, Williams recounts the startling number of coincidences between him and Kaczynski — from possessing the blueprints to a type of aircraft Kaczynski attempted to blow up, to how he lived just 22 miles from Kaczynski’s parents — as well as how the FBI applied pressure to his family and employers in hopes of getting him to crack. (I attempted to get the FBI’s side of the story, but they denied my Freedom of Information Act request.)
‘What have you done now? The FBI wants to talk to you.’
I started in the toy industry in 1980. I have a background in nuclear physics and spent time working at the defense contractor McDonnell Douglas creating talking computer chips for airplanes. After the success of the Speak & Spell from Texas Instruments, Milton Bradley was looking for people who could build talking computer chips, and they tracked me down. I went on to work for them, and later, for Sega, Fisher-Price and Mattel.
In 1994, I was involved with the founding of LeapFrog. At this time, I had some wacky friends who would make prank calls and things like that, which my wife didn’t always appreciate because she was home taking care of three kids. But she gets a call one day in the fall of 1995 from someone saying, “This is the FBI, we’re looking for Mark.” She, of course, thinks it’s one of my friends, so she hangs up. They called right back, and she hung up again. This went on for like 10 calls until she finally heard them out. She then called me on my car phone and told me, “What have you done now? The FBI wants to talk to you.”
‘Do you know anyone named Nathan?’
I called them from my phone and told them I was on the way to the LeapFrog offices in Berkeley. They said, “We’ll meet you there in 10 minutes.” They had leather jackets and blue jeans to blend in at the LeapFrog offices, but they both had military-style haircuts so it blew their cover. They told me they “had some questions for me,” and we went inside the big, open offices at LeapFrog. Everyone was popping up from their cubicles like groundhogs to see what was going on.
They brought me into an office, and one of the first questions they asked was, “Do you know anyone named Nathan?” I then opened up my wallet and pulled out a photo of my oldest son, Nathan. I found this out later, but at the time, the FBI was in the process of talking to every Nathan in the United States because they’d found that name on a letter the Unabomber wrote.
After showing them the picture of my son, they asked about him and the different places I’d been. One of the agents then began poking the other one and pointing to my hat. It was a baseball cap of the baseball team my brother was coaching in our hometown, Forest City, Iowa. On it were the initials “FC,” which was another Unabomber clue.
After mailing his 16th bomb in April 1995, Kaczynski mailed a letter to the New York Times and the Washington Post, where he referred to himself as “FC” and laid out his manifesto. While it wasn’t part of the letter, the FBI was able to detect an impression of a note that said “Call Nathan R Wed 7 pm,” which sent them on an effort to contact thousands of Nathans throughout the country.
‘Have you ever been to Provo, Utah?’
From there, the coincidences only grew. The FBI also asked if I knew anyone in the airline industry, and not only did I know people in the industry, but I owned blueprints to the type of plane Kaczynski tried to blow up [a Boeing 727, in 1979]. I had them because I’d worked on a talking warning system for McDonnell Douglas that Boeing planes were equipped with at the time. I also travel a lot — back then, I was spending three-quarters of my life in China — and I ended up being at two different California airports on a day where the Unabomber had threatened those two airports.
They also asked me, “Have you ever been to Provo, Utah?” Strangely, I had. I’d worked on a product called Casey the Cassette Player — it was a robot toy — and I’d gone to a commercial shoot there in the mid-1980s at Osmond Studios. The Unabomber had also mailed a bomb from there.
They pulled up my cell phone records as well, which my company kept, and they were able to determine that I’d been in the same place as the Unabomber several times. We also had similar degrees from similar places. I later found out that, at three different times in my life, I lived within 20 miles of this guy, including Iowa City, Massachusetts and Berkeley.
While not exactly “20 miles,” Williams did share numerous striking geographical similarities to Kaczynski. Kaczynski attended Harvard from 1958 to 1962 and got a degree in mathematics. Williams, after getting his degree in physics from Iowa State University, attended Amherst College — two hours from Harvard — in the 1980s. Much more ominously, Williams lived in Iowa City while Kaczynski’s parents lived in nearby Lisbon, just 22 miles away. Kaczynski himself never resided there, but would visit for a few weeks a year.
Then there was the Berkeley connection. Kaczynski was an assistant professor in the late 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley, and he later mailed two bombs to the university in the 1980s. Williams worked at LeapFrog in Emeryville — which neighbors Berkeley — in the 1990s. As for Provo, Kaczynski did mail a bomb from there in 1982, less than 20 minutes from Osmond Studios, where Williams filmed the Casey the Cassette Player commercial, likely in 1984 or 1985.
‘Quit appearing on our lists!’
After that initial questioning, I’d get a phone call from the FBI about every two weeks. The way I think it worked was that I wasn’t really a suspect — suspect is too strong a word — but I was on a list of thousands of potential names, and I’m sure each agent had a list of a hundred or so names they had to check in on every so often. On one hand, I wasn’t really nervous because I knew I didn’t do anything, and they were trying to catch the bad guy, so I understood it. In some ways it was even kind of fun, because it was interesting to see how the FBI operates. On the other hand, there were some really difficult things about it.
On occasion, they’d try to “poke the bear,” which is what they do to someone to try to rattle them. For example, they began to park outside my house some days and follow my wife around while I was at work. I also got audited out of nowhere, and I got calls from old employers telling me, “The FBI just called about you.” I was questioned two more times in person, too.
They do all this to try to get someone to make a mistake, but I hadn’t done anything, so there was nothing to hide. I’m a toy guy; everything I was doing was way out in the open, which is what had landed me on their radar to begin with! After a while, one of the local FBI agents got to know me a little, and jokingly told me, “Quit appearing on our lists!” But so much of my work looked suspicious to them.
For one thing, can you imagine what my lab looks like? It’s full of headless electronic dolls hung on hooks on the wall. I also worked for a company named Estes Rockets that made these toy rockets that flew up hundreds of feet into the air. These things used black powder and a fuse, and because I was working for them, I had all kinds of fuses and black powder being sent to and from my office. I’d get thousands of fuses, and they’re the same fuses used in pipe bombs.
Finally, they caught the guy [in April 1996], and I thought it was all over. But two weeks later, I got a visit from the Secret Service on a different case. I guess once you’re on their list, it’s hard to get off. Eventually, though, the calls stopped and things returned to normal. In that kind of situation, the FBI doesn’t call you and tell you, “You’ve been released.” They just stop calling.
The year got better after that. Elmo was released in the summer, and in October, Rosie O’Donnell had the doll on her show, which really got the ball rolling. At Christmas time, when everyone was going crazy for it, I got call after call about it, and my answering machine would get filled up every day with people wanting to talk about Tickle Me Elmo.
I did one interview where I happened to mention that I had been a Unabomber suspect and, of course, that’s all the reporter ended up writing about, so that story was in newspapers all over the country. It was a crazy time, but fortunately, the FBI wasn’t calling anymore. I guess by that time, they’d finally figured out that I was exactly who I said I was — just a toymaker.