The Enigma of Zip Gun Bomber 😱

The postman just dropped off a parcel, and it now appears on the doorstep. It is wrapped in brown paper and has a block handwritten address to the home’s owner. The lady grabs the box and quickly opens it without giving it any thought. Inside is a book. Although there is nothing immediately concerning about the incident, it feels oddly light. But that rapidly alters when the lid is turned open. The book has been hollowed out, and the pages have been replaced with a homemade explosive that will go off when the cover is opened. A cloud of smoke and gunpowder is released when three rifle rounds are discharged, shredding everything in their path. Such a box was delivered to Joan Kipp in 1982, tragically taking her life.

Let’s find out how and why it happened.

When Joan Kipp passed away in May 1982, she was 54 years old. She resided in Brooklyn, New York, for the majority of her life, where she also met Howard, her future husband. Following their marriage, the two had two children: a son named Craig and a girl named Doreen. When her mother passed away, Doreen was in her thirties and living in Connecticut, whereas Craig was much younger and continued to reside in the Bay Ridge neighborhood close to his parents. Both had families of their own and were married. Craig worked for a while for the marine consulting company that was also owned by Howard Kipp. From the outside, the Kipps’ way of life seemed rich and content.

Outside of the family, Joan had spent fifteen years working as a guidance counselor at a nearby high school. She was in charge of managing counseling services in the neighborhoods of Borough Park, Bensonhurst, and Bay Ridge. Additionally, she served as the Bay Ridge Community Council’s treasurer while aspiring to compete for vice president, a post that was largely anticipated to be filled during an election period. But those goals were tragically and prematurely dashed when, in May 1982, she arrived home from a long day of work to discover a parcel on the porch.

The First Package

On Friday 7th May 1982, Joan Kipp returned home to her residence in Brooklyn. Mother’s Day was around the corner, and she was planning to leave the state later that evening for a weekend away in Connecticut with her husband, Howard. After arriving home, she promptly checked the mail and found that a package had been delivered with her name on the address label. As she began tearing off the brown wrapping paper, Howard returned home and greeted his wife. Beneath the paper was a cookbook, specifically a Sears title named The Quick and Delicious Gourmet Cookbook. Believing it to be an early mother’s day gift, Joan opened the cover expecting to see colourful depictions of what could be their next dinner offering. Instead, the pages had been removed and replaced with an improvised explosive. It instantly detonated, sending three bullets outwards in Joan’s direction. Two hit her in the abdomen and the third became embedded in a nearby wall. The explosion also caused burns to Joan’s chest and hands, and she fell to the floor amidst the smoke and carnage.

Upon hearing the calamity, Howard rushed to Joan’s side to find her bleeding and in shock. He called for an ambulance and later recalls how, as the pair were waiting for medical assistance, Joan spoke to him, saying “Look at what they did to me…there may be others”. Joan was rushed to the nearby Lutheran Hospital and entered surgery at approximately 7.45 PM that evening. Sadly, however, her injuries were too extensive and she passed away, kickstarting the investigation into her death.

The Police Investigation and Analysis of the Bomb

After launching an investigation into Joan Kipp’s murder, detectives quickly focused on the design of the explosive itself. A six-volt battery had been wired to several metal tubes that contained explosive gunpowder and .22 calibre rifle shells. When the cover was opened, the battery was activated, sending an electrical current into the makeshift gun barrel and releasing the shells. The bullets were fired upwards at an angle corresponding to where the victim’s chest would be. The device had clearly been manufactured with the intent of maximising the prospect of physical injury. The design was relatively simplistic and the parts needed were not difficult to obtain, but the maker still required knowledge of electrical wiring in order to fashion the device.

Additionally, detectives found that the package had been mailed out of Staten Island and had travelled through the postal service before arriving at the Kipp household around noon on the day Joan was killed. Remnants of a note were also found amongst the bomb shrapnel, which when reassembled read “Dear Joan, you’re dead” (note: some sources also say fragments of the book contained a warning that Howard and the two children would be targeted next). Had the bomb been a terrible prank that had gone awry? Detectives considered the prospect, believing that Joan herself may have believed such a notion; as she lay dying, she reportedly told her husband Howard to contact local school officials as other bombs may have been sent. Regardless of the motive, no other bombs were discovered nearby and the investigation began to grow difficult for detectives.

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Despite their lack of leads, detectives continued their investigation. Their focus gradually began to concentrate on Joan’s immediate family, namely her husband and their two children. Howard later recalled how he fully complied with their requests; he provided them with Joan’s personal diary and a key to his shop so officers could look for evidence. He did not ask for a search warrant. Doreen was also brought in for questioning on the same day as her mother’s funeral. It is because of this timing that she reportedly grew combative towards the investigation, urging her father and brother to do the same. Detectives could not locate any evidence to link either Howard or Doreen to Joan’s murder. However, their focus narrowed on Craig Kipp, and he eventually became their prime suspect.

Craig Kipp was twenty-eight at the time of his mother’s death and lived just a few blocks away from his parents in Brooklyn. He had also spent some time working in his father’s business, where he worked on boats and ships and had experience with electrical wiring. However, he was eventually dismissed from this position, and detectives believed this may have caused him to become resentful of his parents. As such, he became their primary focus.

With a suspect now in mind, detectives began attempts to connect Craig Kipp to his mother’s murder. A scent-tracking dog alerted to Craig’s scent on the packaging the bomb had been sent in, although this was not considered damning in the absence of other, more concrete, evidence. Also, a handwriting analyst suggested that the writing on the note found with the bomb was similar to Craig’s. It should be noted, however, that subsequent analyses conducted over a year later came to an alternate conclusion: that the handwriting was not similar, and that analysing block lettering is exceptionally difficult. This finding, therefore, is contentious. Finally, when officers requested Craig Kipp take a polygraph test, he declined, which of course was his right to do. After several weeks of investigation, detectives felt confident in Craig’s guilt and he was arrested on 9th August, having been charged with ‘mailing injurious articles’—a charge with a possible life sentence attached in the event of a guilty verdict. Had the police found the man they had been searching for after all?

Craig Kipp’s arrest caused significant unrest within his family. Prosecutors at Craig’s trial stated that they believed Craig and his mother had a turbulent relationship full of ‘hatred and bitterness’. Howard Kipp, however, disputed these claims, stating that the pair occasionally had arguments but nothing unusual. Additionally, Howard claimed that Craig’s dismissal from the marine business was amicable and that his son had only been fired because he was unsuited for the position and struggled with the electrical engineering work required. The prosecutors also claimed that Craig may have had a drug problem that could have explained his actions. Both Howard and Doreen, however, also disputed these claims. Craig sometimes smoked weed, they said, but he did not have a dependency problem. In the absence of any solid evidentiary links between Craig Kipp and the bomb that killed his mother, the charges against him were ultimately dropped in June 1983 and he was released from custody. The identity of Joan Kipp’s killer remained unknown.

With no further evidence or suspects, Joan Kipp’s murder case began to grow cold. No further bombs were found in the subsequent years, leading many to believe the brutal slaying had been an unfortunate isolated incident. Both Craig and Doreen Kipp returned to their families, and Howard Kipp left the house he shared with his wife and moved to Massachusetts, where he later remarried. The two children would also move out of state in the proceeding years. The family held hope that Joan’s murderer would be found, resolute in their belief that nobody in the family was responsible, but the years went by with no explanation for what happened that fateful day. Eleven years passed with no further incidents. But then, in October 1993, the Zip Gun Bomber made their return.

The Bomber Returns Eleven Years Later

On 15th October 1993, 68-year-old retired sanitation worker Anthony Lenza went on holiday to Pennsylvania with his wife, Connie. The pair were joined in Pennsylvania by their various children and grandchildren, who had also collected their mail from back home and brought it to them. Amongst the letters and bills was a curious package enveloped in brown paper. The package was addressed to Anthony Lenza and so he began tearing off the paper. There was a blue velvet coin box inside, which he later recalled opening upside down. It is perhaps this fact that ultimately saved his life—the coin box had been filled with an explosive that detonated and fired three bullets outwards. Both Anthony and his wife were hit with the projectiles, as was their 11-year-old granddaughter, Liza. Their injuries, thankfully, were treatable.

Investigators examined the explosive device and found a similar mechanism: a pair of 6-volt batteries wired to metal pipes that had been taken from brake lines and used to form a crude gun-barrel device. When the cover was opened, it triggered a ballpoint pen spring that had been fashioned into a detonator. Also, the address on the label had been written in a similar way to the one used in Joan Kipp’s murder. The similarity between the devices was noted, but investigators could find no connection between the two families to explain why they had been targeted and why such an extensive period of time had elapsed between the first and second bombs being delivered.

Several months passed before the Zip Gun Bomber sent another horrific package. On April 5th 1994, 75-year-old Alice Caswell lived in her small home in Brooklyn—a home she once shared with her husband Norman, who sadly died six years beforehand. At approximately 1.20 PM that afternoon, Alice received a package that had been delivered by her usual postman, Richard. The box, however, was not addressed to her. Instead, it had been sent to Richard MacGarrell, her brother. He was a retired customs agent who had worked at Newark Airport and had briefly lived with Alice before moving into a retirement facility. He had left over a decade ago but Alice still occasionally received her brother’s mail and brought it to him at the facility.

On this day, Alice decided to open her brother’s mail as she regularly did before taking it to him. When she did, the package exploded in her hands, sending shrapnel soaring into her abdomen. In a daze, she made her way outside and to a neighbour’s house where an ambulance was hastily called. She was rushed to the hospital in a critical state but she thankfully survived after medical intervention. Alice Caswell was the only victim of the Zip Gun Bomber who opened a package not directly addressed to her. At this time, the media also latched onto the case and dubbed the culprit the Zip Gun Bomber.

Only weeks passed by before the next package was delivered. In April 1994, Harold Ormsby discovered a curious package laying on the doorstep that had been addressed to him. At the time, however, he had been carefully following recent news stories about the bombings, as well as another spate of attacks that had been occurring in upstate New York. His caution led to him refusing to open the package and forbidding anyone else in the family to do so. The police took custody of the box and confirmed that it was indeed an explosive device. Nothing else was declared about the event, however, perhaps in an effort to make the details private and prevent false confessions. Thankfully Harold Ormsby’s caution saved his life that day.

The next bomb was delivered over twelve months later. On June 27th 1995, Stephanie Gaffney was 8-months pregnant and living at her grandparents’ home in the Queens area of New York. Whilst she was talking on the phone, she discovered a package that had been delivered in the mail. It was addressed to ‘Gilmore or occupant’, which was her grandfather’s surname, who previously worked as a police officer, as well as her uncle’s surname, who actively worked in the NYPD. Stephanie opened the package and found a book. Its pages had been removed and replaced with an explosive device that detonated when she opened the cover. Stephanie was rushed to the hospital with burns to her abdomen, chest, and legs, but both she and the baby survived, although doctors had to induce labour the following day. Stephanie Gaffney credits her survival to the fact she opened the book at an angle and faced in another direction, meaning she avoided the bullets entirely.

One year later, the Zip Gun Bomber’s final package was sent. On June 20th 1996, Richard Basile and his wife, Marietta, who were both retired real-estate agents in their late seventies, were at home in their Brooklyn residence. A package came in the mail addressed to Marietta Basile. Richard, however, was the one who opened the package in her stead. It appeared to have been sent by the March of Dimes in New York and felt like an advertisement containing a videotape. When Richard opened it, it was indeed a videotape. However, it quickly exploded, shattering a nearby kitchen window and causing damage to the wall. The mail carrier who had delivered the package only moments earlier heard the blast and rushed into the home. Both occupants had mercifully evaded the bullets. Upon examining the debris, they could see what looked like two barrels laying side by side inside the tape. Unbeknownst to them, they had been the next—and final—the target of the Zip Gun Bomber.

Over a three-year period, the Zip Gun Bomber had sent five explosive devices to five separate residences across New York. But in 1996, the spree came to an unexplained and sudden end. The identity of the elusive bomber remained unknown, but the police furiously hunted for the culprit. And eventually, they would land on a plausible suspect.

The Hunt for the Zip Gun Bomber Resumes

After the second bomb had been sent to Anthony Lenza in 1993, investigators were able to link the design of the device to that of the one used to kill Joan Kipp in 1982. The subsequent devices also shared similar characteristics: all involved bullets fired simultaneously towards the target’s chest; the designs were rudimentary but required knowledge of electrical wiring; and all had been mailed in brown bags with legitimate-looking return addresses labelled on the paper. Greg Rhatigan, an investigator for the US Postal Service, described how all of the packages had been designed to look like they were offering a gift and had eye-catching prints on the front to capture the target’s attention. The bombs were most likely created by the same person, but they could not determine why the recipients had been targeted. The bombings seemed random, which caused a problem in determining the identity of the sender.

The investigation into the bombings encompassed multiple agencies and was spearheaded by the Postal Inspector’s Office. They were able to determine that all of the people the packages had been addressed to had links to either civil or military service. Whether this was coincidental or not is unknown. Furthermore, they could find no real evidence linking the victims. Their selection seemed random and devoid of motive. Greg Rhatigan, the aforementioned US Postal Service inspector, believed that the bomber was from out-of-town and had recently moved to New York and began causing havoc. Criminologist Harvey Kushner agreed with this position, adding that he believed the bomber was a loner who had few social connections and would not be likely to brag about his deeds to others. Evidence was lacking, but the police did come up with one working theory. They posited that the bombings may have been part of an extortion campaign, with the bomber delivering the devices to remind their victims of their mortality if they refused to comply with their demands. Officers highlighted how many family members of those targeted were hesitant to speak with investigators, sometimes not communicating at all. But no proof for this theory could be found and it was eventually abandoned.

The investigation into the Zip Gun Bomber came to a standstill. The evidence was lacking, and no suspects could be identified. Investigating officers did confirm that they wanted to speak to Craig Kipp again, but this did not happen. Because, as it turned out, there was another plausible suspect about to emerge—one with a curious connection to Joan Kipp.

The Curious Case of Steven Wavra

In 1983, a year after the murder of Joan Kipp, police officers working on an unrelated case were examining a property occupied by their unnamed target and his roommate, Steven Wavra. Inside, they found bomb-making equipment on a kitchen table, along with a hollowed-out book. Wavra, their target’s roommate, claimed ownership of the equipment, adding that his roommate knew nothing of his intentions with the items. He claimed he was intent on using the equipment to create a device to use on a US military base. But officers began to entertain another prospect: that Wavra may have been the man who created the bomb that killed Joan Kipp a year earlier.

So who was Steven Wavra? He served in the US navy from 1972 to 1973—a time during which he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After leaving the navy, his life took an untoward turn and his criminal record began to expand. At one point he was convicted of possessing caustic liquids, making bomb threats against postal facilities, and attacking a military police officer. On two other occasions, he had been caught making devices similar to those used by the Zip Gun Bomber. There was a logical reason for officers to suggest he may have been the Zip Gun Bomber himself, heightened by an interesting fact that soon emerged: Joan Kipp had been Steven Wavra’s guidance counsellor at Dyker Heights Junior High School. He had been held back twice during his time there, leading officers to believe he may have held resentment towards the school and its staff. Could this have indeed been the case?

Steven Wavra appeared to be the perfect suspect. But there was one major problem: he was incarcerated at the time of Joan Kipp’s death. He had spent time in and out of jail in the years since he left the navy, and officers confirmed Wavra was in prison in 1982. As a result, Wavra became less of a suspect as time went by, although some believed it was possible he may have had outside help who created and/or delivered the bomb on his behalf. But with no evidence, his connection to the murder could not be established.

In 1995, Steven Wavra came back onto the scene as a suspect. He mailed a 250-page raving anti-government manifesto to several federal courthouses. When he was arrested, he was found in possession of a hollowed-out book that contained several knives. He was also found carrying four .22 calibre rifle shells, in breach of his parole conditions. Wavra was re-arrested as a result and sent back to jail. The task force investigating the bombings once again focused on Wavra and tried to connect him to the bombing spree that had terrorised residents of New York. They found nothing. However, officers did find a connection between Wavra’s roommate and the bombing targets. When they looked at written records from the pharmacies the targets had visited, they found the roommate’s name in all of them. This seemed to be the only linking factor investigators could find, but it was insufficient to determine direct involvement. Investigators were convinced the two were either involved or knew more information than they had divulged, but they were unable to formally name either as a suspect. Could they have indeed been involved after all?

Closing

With no further suspects identified and the bombing spree seemingly at an end, the investigation into the identity of the Zip Gun Bomber gradually drew to an unofficial close. The bomber never made contact with either the police or the media, and their spree came to a sudden end in 1996 for unknown reasons. Investigators could also never determine what the true motivation behind the bombings was. As it stands today, a $100,000 reward is on offer for any information leading to the identification and capture of the Zip Gun Bomber. Despite this, new leads are non-existent and the elusive killer’s identity remains unknown. Just who was the bomber, and what led them to terrorise New York residents for so many years? Perhaps one day we will be able to know the answer to this question.

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