Five years ago today Judge Robert S. Vance of the federal court of appeals for the 11th circuit opened a package that had just arrived in the mail at his suburban home in Birmingham, Alabama; the box contained a powerful bomb which killed Judge Vance instantly and gravely injured his wife.
Two days later Robbie S. Robinson, a black city councilman in Savannah, Georgia, opened a virtually identical package delivered by mail to his law office; both of his arms were blown off in the ensuing explosion, and he died three hours later under surgery.
Eighteen months later, Walter Leroy Moody Jr., a small-time con man who lived in obscurity in a quiet suburb of Atlanta, was convicted of the mail-bomb assassinations. He is now under life sentence by a federal court and awaits trial in Birmingham on state murder charges which could result in the death penalty.
Because that crime was strikingly similar to the one which took the life of a New York advertising executive last Saturday, the investigative authorities no doubt are now studying the background of ''Roy'' Moody intensely for clues that might lead to the capture of the so-called ''Unabomber,'' whose deadly handiwork has now claimed two lives and injured 23 others over 16 elusive years.
In the course of two years preparing a now-completed book on the Vance-Robinson murders, I have gathered a great deal of information on Roy Moody that may shed light on the mind and manner of individuals who commit this particular kind of random terrorism.
Roy Moody was born in 1934 in a small town in central Georgia. There was a history of insanity in the family, on his father's side, and a history of an uncommon propensity for violence on his mother's side.
Roy's father was an automobile mechanic who made a decent living during the Great Depression of the 1930s, so that the boy did not experience the desperate want of so many about him. But from all accounts Roy's father was a cold perfectionist, and his mother somewhat demanding. Early on Roy demonstrated that he was a bright child, but he lacked the personal discipline to achieve his full potential. When he was in the first grade, his mother would sit him on her lap for his reading lessons, but if he faltered over a word, she would slap him.
When he was 7 years old, his mother and father went to another state to work in a war-production plant, leaving Roy with his grandmother. The child felt a sense of abandonment, because he grew sickly that year and had to repeat the second grade.
After the war Roy's father opened his own garage, which prospered. Still, Roy nursed a resentment that he was excluded from social acceptance by the town's top families. As a high school student, he formed no close friendships with the boys of the town. Rather, his closest male friend seems to have been the high school science teacher, who doted on Roy.
During this time Roy developed an enduring pattern of manipulating and exploiting younger women. He relied on an especially bright girl, three years his junior, to read assigned books and brief him sufficiently that he could pass tests. He also impregnated a girl two years younger, and arranged for an illegal abortion.
He joined the Army at least in part to escape his father's entreaties that he work in the garage. It was during this time that he began to display a burning sense of victimization, a sense that his failures arose from devious acts by others.
He also manifested a tendency for grandiose dreams but an unwillingness to exert the effort to achieve his goals. When he returned to Georgia from the Army, he enrolled in a small college with the intention of becoming a neurosurgeon, but his academic performance was poor. This he blamed on the necessity of having to work because his father would not pay for his schooling.
He drifted from job to job, usually sponging off younger women. He married none of the four women who bore his children.
In 1972 Roy turned violent; he built a crude pipe-bomb which he intended to send to a used-car dealer who had repossessed his car. But before he could mail the device, his common-law wife opened the explosive and suffered permanent injuries.
At his trial Roy maintained that the bomb had been brought to his home by a mysterious young man he had met at college. His story was persuasive enough to win acquittal on a charge of making the bomb, but he was convicted on the lesser charge of possessing it, and sentenced to four years in prison. While there, he maintained, he was homosexually raped.