Unsolved NYC: The Bizarre & Baffling Case of the Zip Gun Bombings.
Five mail bomb packages delivered to five different recipients who did not know each other. Five packages, each rigged with three live .22 caliber bullets, each with double the gun powder; one death, scores more injured.
Despite a plethora of the country’s top authorities on crime, bombs, and bomb-making, studying the problem, the cases would ultimately grow cold. So, what became of the ZIP GUN BOMBER?
He was toiling away in his yard when Howard Kipps’ eardrums exploded like a flock of birds unwittingly finding the thrust over a running jet engine on an airfield.
His adrenaline pumping full-speed, Howard ran into his well-kept middle-class house in a quiet area of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. What he saw shocked him to his core.
There on the kitchen floor clutching her chest was his wife, 54-year old guidance counselor Joan Kipp. Billows of blood poured onto the linoleum floor usually kept busy by the flurry of her activity as she cooked for family and friends.
His mind reeling, Howard picked his wife up and rushed her to the living room couch before calling 911.
Joan Kipp had no idea just how many unanswered questions her final words uttered in the family home would birth, as a faceless psychopath terrorized the five boroughs of New York City for over a decade and left investigators without a clue almost 40 years after this murderous odyssey is set in motion that May day.
I. The Kipps: The Investigation Begins.
This is how the Zip Gun Bomber’s unsolved, 14-year-long reign of terror in the boroughs of New York City began: as an investigation into this one mail bomb which was not yet a serial case. The investigation is still active today with federal authorities and the NYPD’s Arson and Explosives Squad, thus the facts the general public knows are by definition more limited than usual. Understandably, investigators want to preserve the secrecy of some information to use as leverage if a promising suspect does ever pop up. What is known about the Bombings is dizzying in the amount of twists and unanswered questions, as we shall see below.
On May 7, 1982 Joan Kipp opened what she thought was an innocuous, Staten Island-postmarked package in her mail. It was the Friday before Mother’s Day. So, naturally she thought it was a present sent from one of her two children — Doreen, aged 31, who lived in Connecticut, and Craig, aged 27, who lived just around the corner from his parents there in Bay Ridge.
Joan was very active in the Bay Ridge community. She volunteered at the South Beach Psychiatric Center to help care for the mentally ill population it served. She was also instrumental as treasurer of the Bay Ridge Community Council, an alliance of local non-profits. She was running for vice president in the board’s next election and was projected to win because of her kind nature and diligent work as treasurer.
Joan had come home early that day from her work as a supervisory guidance counselor with the local board of education which encompassed schools in Bay Ridge, and nearby Bensonhurst and Borough Park. Joan and Howard were preparing for a weekend at their summer home in Connecticut at Lake Hayward.
Joan Kipp would die on a local hospital’s operating room table that balmy Friday before Mother’s Day. Her murderer has never been brought to justice; the case (like all attributed to the Zip Gun Bomber) is still open and justifiably-referred to as “one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of [New York] city crime.”
II. The Device.
The actual package sent to Joan Kipp was not a bomb but a “zip gun”, or crudely-made firearm that can take many forms. Zip guns (along with shanks) are often the preferred weapon behind prison walls and for small time crimes. See some examples of zip guns below.
This form was a hollowed-out cookbook, slightly smaller than a phonebook: “The Quick and Delicious Gourmet Cookbook”, from Sears. Inside was a sophisticated mechanism, rigged to fire three .22 caliber bullets when the book was opened. Two hit Joan in the chest and the third lodged in the kitchen wall. Bomb technicians would later say they were amazed all three bullets fired at all.
The device was composed of two six volt D batteries wired directly (using light bulb filaments) into three steel tubes which functioned as gun barrels (later determined to be sections of brake line) packed with double the usual gunpowder charge of a .22 caliber long round (about 64–80 grains of gunpowder or 0.146 ounces to 0.183 ounces), and a .22 caliber bullet itself, presumably sans the shell and firing pin (which would not be needed because of the device’s architecture).. Two of the steel brake line sections were aimed in one direction (at chest level and higher so vital organs would be hit in whoever opened the book) and the other in the exact opposite direction. When the hollowed-out cookbook was opened, the electrical circuit was completed: igniting the gunpowder and theoretically firing the bullets.
This first package was a mere foreshadowing of the deviousness and sadistic, Macgyver-esque brilliance of whoever sent it.
I. The Suspects: Howard and Craig Kipp.
At this juncture there was no reason to see Joan Kipp’s murder as anything beyond an isolated tragedy. There would not be a second rigged package for almost a dozen years. This in itself is a curious fact which we must nonetheless table for now, as hypotheses explaining it will become clearer with this story’s progression.
As is the case with most any domestic-type murder, immediate suspicions fall on the spouse. Howard Kipp, for his part, was very open with the investigators (according to local newspaper The Home Reporter): turning over his wife’s diary and even the keys to his marine consultancy business. That cooperation stopped abruptly when investigators thought it appropriate to question Doreen for 3 hours literally right before her mother’s funeral. After that, Doreen said she felt “harassed” and the Kipps retained legal counsel with the express purpose of keeping a distance between the family and investigators.
When investigators found nothing tying Howard to his wife’s murder, they turned their attention to 28-year-old Craig Kipp. They seemingly had more arrows in their quiver of evidence against him than they did with elder Kipp.
First, the United States Postal Service retained a hand writing analyst who was prepared to testify that the “threatening note” (written in big, block letters in the cookbook’s cover) matched exemplars taken from Craig Kipp. The note read: “Dear Joan, your [sic] dead. Howard, Craig and Doreen will be next.”
Second, a bomb-sniffing K9 detected scents from the explosives on a sock belonging to Craig Kipp. Investigators set up what amounted to a random battery of mocked-up parts from the Kipp package, along with a real package, to avoid any charges of this just looking scientific but lacking true substance.
Investigators thought they had a compelling motive in Craig’s departure from his dad’s company. Investigators said he was fired. Meanwhile, Howard said Craig quit because he just wasn’t good at the job. The heavy traveling it entailed sucked a lot of life out of him too.
Investigators thought Craig was nursing an animus against his parents after his dad fired him from the family business. They also thought Craig’s job doing electrical work on the boilers of ships would have given him the necessary skills to build the device that killed his mother. Yet, like a postal inspector who joined the investigation after it became part of a serial case said, “all mail bombs are sophisticated”. In an interview with The Home Reporter, Howard Kipp took great issue with the “family troubles” motive; he also said his son just didn’t have the technical savvy to build one, saying his son “hadn’t even taken high school physics”.
The state’s case against Craig Kipp disintegrated by June of 1983. Three other hand writing experts were brought in to evaluate the threatening note. Each one said that the handwriting does not match Craig’s because it is nearly impossible to match block letters to an individual person’s hand. So, that piece of evidence was thrown out.
The bomb-sniffing K9’s “alert” on Craig Kipp’s sock would meet a similar fate to the note. The state admitted “neither the handwriting analysis nor the dog trainer’s statements were credible enough” for a murder conviction. So, the government dropped its case against Craig Kipp.
Joan Kipp’s murder languished in cold case files for over a decade after this. It remains there to this day.
II. October 15, 1993: The Lenza Package.
Retired NYC sanitation worker Anthony Lenza was vacationing with his wife in the Poconos Pennsylvania. It was an Indian summer-kind October day when the Lenzas’ children brought their parents’ mail from Staten Island to their Poconos vacation home.
There was one package addressed to Anthony. Postmarked Staten Island, it appeared to be a blue velvet case with a commemorative medallion or coin in it. When it was opened, Anthony was hit by a .22 caliber bullet. Two of his family members — including his 11-year old granddaughter Liza — were also hit by the live rounds or shrapnel. All survived.
III. Opening Old Wounds: The Hunt for a Serial Bomber Begins.
The Kipp case was cold for around 11 years by the time of the Lenza package.
It took specialists from the FBI, BATFE, Postal Inspector’s Office, and the NYPD’s Arson and Explosives Squad to put 2 and 2 together when examining the remnants of this device versus those of the Kipp device. There was no doubt: these were the work of the same psychopath.
If he did not have work or military service-related experience on how to build these devices himself, he didn’t have to go to an obscure underground source like William Powell’s “The Anarchist Cookbook” either. The primary source material Powell used in writing his book was the New York Public Library’s copy of “The U.S. Combat Bookshelf”. If we assume the Bomber lived somewhere in the 5 boroughs, it’s not at all inconceivable the Bomber could have used the very same book Powell did as he was doing research for his “cookbook” in the early ‘70s.
The Lenza Bombing opened those still-pretty-fresh wounds with the Kipp Bombing. Howard and Craig hopefully felt some relief that maybe now the police will be looking for someone else: the truly-responsible party. Some investigators, however, would stick to them as the best suspects for years.
IV. A Paranoid Suspect Sheds Possible New Light on Joan Kipp’s Cryptic Words.
This leads us to a later — and arguably more promising — suspect: ex-Navy man Steven Wavra.
Wavra was in jail when Joan Kipp was murdered. But on that point, some investigators believe he sent what was necessary to fashion the zip gun to his unnamed roommate to assemble and send to the ultimate recipient.
This seems a tad improbable on its face because how would one smuggle the components of a zip gun or instructions to build one, through CENSORED mail in a jail? Still, some investigators like this theory of the crime.
Wavra went to school at Dyker Heights Junior High when Joan Kipp was a guidance counselor there. Wavra said of Kipp, “I had nothing against her.” He was, however, held back twice while he attended Dyker Heights.
Wavra’s navy stint was pretty uneventful. He served from 1972 to 1973. It’s also unclear what exactly he did in the Navy. It’s therefore impossible to know whether he would’ve received training conducive to building a device like those in the Kipp and Lenza cases. The military did, however, diagnose him as a clinically-paranoid schizophrenic during his tour of duty.
There are more interesting and substantive ties to Steven Wavra in the infamy of the Zip Gun Bombings. In 1983, while working an unrelated case, police stumbled upon hollowed-out books and “bomb-making equipment” on the stove of the apartment Wavra shared with an unknown roommate (the roommate’s name was withheld in the press, the Daily News would only call him a “ex-con”).
Wavra took the rap for this, claiming his roommate knew nothing. Wavra said he was going to use the materials on “another [unspecified] crime at a [unnamed] U.S. military base.”
V. Wavra’s Rap Sheet.
Wavra had an extraordinarily-long rap sheet. One notable charge was “criminal possession of noxious liquids” (perhaps for more bomb building); bomb threats at numerous post offices; and assaulting an MP while out of his mind on booze.
In 1995, Wavra was arrested for hollowing out a book in the Brooklyn Public Library in order to fashion a booby-trapped device very identical to those sent to the Kipps and the Lenzas but booby trapped with razor blades acting as shrapnel. He also served 90 months in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas for possession of ammunition (four .22 caliber rounds) by a felon.
Both Wavra and his roommate would re-enter our story as the Bomber’s reign of terror continues for three more years.
VI. April 5, 1994: The Caswell Package.
Alice decided to enjoy the day a bit and walk out to get her mail. Today she found a random assortment of bills and solicitations but… what’s this?
Inside the mailbox was a package addressed to her brother Richard McGarrell, a customs officer at Newark, NJ’s Liberty International Airport. How strange was this? Richard hadn’t lived with her for the past 15 years. Nevertheless, she decided to take the package inside and open it. She would give it to him the next time she saw him.
Richard’s package was a blue velvet case. The kind used to hold commemorative medallions or coins. Alice decided to find out which.
Alice was abruptly deafened as the explosion propelled a metallic punch into her abdomen. Her body fell with a deep “thud!” to her kitchen floor.
Alice was still very conscious. She held her abdomen as she bled like a GI who had just stepped on a German mine while fighting her way through a gauntlet of explosives, blood, and bullets up a French beach.
But this was no June 6, 1944 Omaha Beach — bombs exploding everywhere, bullets whizzing past your ears. This was a quiet corner of Brooklyn — and Alice fortunately made it slowly to her neighbor’s door to call an ambulance.
Against the odds, Alice Caswell survived the savage attack of the Zip Gun Bomber that day.
VII. June 27, 1995: The Gaffney Package.
Stephanie Gaffney was a St. Albans, Queens 18-year old who was 8 months pregnant when she lived with her grandfather, last name Gilmore. He was a retired beat cop with the NYPD; while her uncle was a NYPD narcotics detective who brought down a large Latin American street gang.
That June day was particularly humid, but Stephanie thought getting up and walking around might soothe her pregnancy aches. So, she decided to get up and get the mail.
There was a package postmarked from Manhattan. It was addressed to “Gilmore or Occupant”. When Stephanie sat down and opened it, three .22 caliber bullets fired. She was rushed to the hospital where doctors immediately induced labor in case any shrapnel hit her baby.
Fortunately, nothing did. Both Stephanie and her baby girl were fine. The new mother credited her and her daughter’s survival to having opened the book at an odd angle. She was only grazed and burned by the zip gun.
VIII. Theory A.
The randomness of the bombings so far boggled the minds of investigators. There was no connection between the victims beyond them all being in some kind of civil service or the military at a point in time.
Then, there was the way some of the witnesses and victims reacted under questioning. “Reticent” was how one investigator put it, unwilling to help investigators, and just wanting to move on from their attack.
This gave birth to an entirely new theory: extortion. Somebody had dirt on each and every one of our victims. When they (presumably) refused his shakedown, the zip guns were deployed.
If true, this would give entirely new light to Joan Kipp’s cryptic “there may be others” quote. Was this community-minded, 50-something guidance counselor a part of a shadowy criminal ring with its hands in all manner of dirty dealings? Had she and the other targets done something unspeakable that only the bomber knew about?
“It’s shocking that a person such as Joan — who dedicated her life to helping others — should have her life ended in such a violent way,” the school-district superintendent told the Brooklyn Spectator. She led “almost a sheltered kind of life…She was very family-oriented — and it’s hard to figure out how any of this could happen.”
Which basically shoots down the extortion hypothesis. Even if it were true, why wait over 10 years to exact a pound of flesh from your targets? Also, if the bomber’s goal was to kill out of spite, he wasn’t very good at it, racking up just one in his body count.
Still, some investigators see this as the most viable theory.
IX. Theory B.
Howard Kipp himself had an interesting theory of his wife’s murder. He thought it was intended as a dark joke by a very troubled student in his wife’s school; something that was intended to just scare Joan and not to kill her. (Aside: why put live rounds in the package if that was the case?)
This brings us back to Steven Wavra. Perhaps he had paranoid delusions about Joan Kipp from his school days, being a paranoid schizophrenic. Perhaps he wanted to just scare her for some reason. Perhaps he did manage to get the zip gun making instructions out of prison (he was incarcerated for possession of ammunition by a felon) to his unidentified accomplice who built the zip gun and sent it.
When the bomb worked a bit better than intended, it scared Wavra and his unidentified accomplice into waiting a solid decade before finally moving down their vicious hit list.
Referring to the weird victimology of this case, one investigator said, “There was always a common denominator between them [Wavra and his unidentified accomplice] and the victims. Whether it was the pharmacy, the neighborhood, the hollowed-out cookbook. There was a record of [Wavra’s unidentified accomplice] in the computer of each of the victims’ local pharmacies. We could never figure it out.”
A telling quote indeed. Might our “Unidentified Wavra Accomplice” be doctor and pharmacy shopping for opioids or other types of pharmacological ecstasy? This was, after all, way before the current Two Million Pound Law Enforcement Shit Hammer came down and heavily-regulated narcotics like oxy and hydro-codone. So, doctor and pharmacy shopping would’ve been easier to do.
Again though, we have no solid evidence to back the theory up. Wavra has long maintained innocence and is seeking to write a history of the case himself.
X. Theory C.
The possibility of the Lenza package being a (much later) copycat of the Kipp package would account for the decade-plus cooling-off period of the bomber. Some of the most gifted, seasoned, and astute bomb investigators in the United States have gone on record saying they believe with a high degree of certainty that every package thus far is the work of one individual or group of individuals.
This one, as far as the author can tell, has very little backing; likely because it’s pretty hard to prove or disprove. But it is still A possibility.
XI. June 20, 1996: The Final Package, Richard Basile.
The Zip Gun Bomber’s final act of terror was a videotape sent to Marietta Basile, wife of retired real estate agent Richard Basile of Bath Beach, Brooklyn. Its return address was the same as the March of Dimes of Greater New York.
Richard opened the package at a distance in his kitchen. Luckily, the .22 rounds only blew out the window. The Basiles’ postal carrier Ken Barris would tell the Daily News, ``If he [Richard Basile] had opened it in another direction, he would have had two bullets in the belly.″
It’s unclear whether the Basiles had a connection to civil service or the military the way the Zip Gun Bomber’s other victims did. What is clear is that the bombings stopped after this package and no one has the faintest idea why.
XII. Post Script.
The Basiles received the last booby-trapped package of the Zip Gun Bomber. Did he die? Did he pack up shop and move? Was he incarcerated for a different crime? Only that last question may get close to explaining his first, decade+ cooling-off period.
The rest however is inadequately-accounted for in what is perhaps the most bizarre series of crimes to ever affect the five boroughs — jaded and tough as New Yorkers like to portray themselves. There is something besides the fact that we know next to nothing about this case that is so viscerally creepy; something that nags non-stop, at even the most hardened, cynical heart, “even your mail at home is no longer safe…”
Works Cited, Further Reading, and the Unsolved Mysteries Episode on the Zip Gun Bombings, can all be found below.
Burrard, G., 2002. The Identification Of Firearms And Forensic Ballistics. Birmingham, Ala.: Palladium Press.
Douglas, J., Burgess, A., Burgess, A., Ressler, R. and Douglas, J., 2006. Crime Classification Manual. San Francisko: Jossey-Bass.
Flynn, K., n.d. The New York Times Book Of Crime.
Geberth, V., 2006. Practical Homicide Investigation. Boca Raton, USA: CRC Press.
Girod, R., 2004. Profiling The Criminal Mind. New York: iUniverse.
Heyridge.com. 2020. The Bad Old Days: The Mad Mail Bomber Who Struck Bay Ridge | Hey Ridge. [online] Available at: <https://www.heyridge.com/2018/04/the-bad-old-days-the-mad-mail-bomber-who-struck-bay-ridge/> [Accessed 5 July 2020].
Ogle, R., 2007. Crime Scene Investigation & Reconstruction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson — Prentice Hall.
Pallone, N. and Hennessy, J., 1994. Criminal Behavior. New Brunswick (U.S.A.): Transaction Publishers.
Whelan, M., 2018. The Zip Gun Bomber — Unresolved. [online] Unresolved. Available at: <https://unresolved.me/the-zip-gun-bomber> [Accessed 5 July 2020].