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Mexican Pen Pal of Unabomber Suspect Worries About the Cost of His Friendship

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sand devils whipped the desert just outside town and the wind swept blinding clouds across a dirt track called Private Street 28 as the elderly Mexican hired hand shuffled through a broken screen door and into a tiny kitchen where cracked windows were repaired long ago with masking tape.

Juan Sanchez Arreola tilted his straw cowboy hat back on a shock of silver hair. He greeted his visitors, eased himself into a warped wooden chair and slowly took off his watch. He stared at its worn face, rubbed a few days of white stubble on his chin and calculated the moment this week that he knew his life had changed.

“It was at 12:15 yesterday afternoon I found out I was famous,” the 68-year-old ranch hand said. “This woman brought a truck with everything on it and, at the news hour, this woman turned on a television she had on her truck and the first thing I saw was me, Juan Sanchez Arreola.

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“It made me sad,” he went on. “These are things I don’t like, because these are things that can go to your head. I have my children and I want them to be able to go to the United States. But maybe now they won’t be able to go.”

Just that simple.

The news, by any standard, was more complex--almost bizarre. It told of a seven-year relationship between this tough, old hired hand with just two years of education in a Mexican primary school and the hermit American university professor turned chief suspect in the Unabomber case.

For more than seven years, Sanchez publicly acknowledged this week, he and Theodore J. Kaczynski were the best of pen pals.

He said that they exchanged as many as 80 letters on subjects ranging from the evils of bureaucracy to tracking rabbits in the snow.

Sanchez saved five of them, which he shared with the world. And in an interview, he bared details of the close relationship he had forged with Kaczynski, with his brother, David, and even the brothers’ parents--who once left the comfort of their suburban Chicago home to meet him in the dusty border town that Sanchez calls home.

But as the news brought a storm of reporters and television cameras into the cracked, 20-by-10-foot, three-room home that Sanchez and his wife share with their three children, it forced him to focus on his own life along with that of his now-famous pen pal.

True, both men lived simply--and poor.

But the similarities begin and end there. Kaczynski and Sanchez offer a study in contrast--the difference, perhaps, between poverty by choice and poverty by circumstance.

And a closer look at the life of the man Kaczynski chose to call “my dear and valued friend” says as much about the simple challenges and fears of life just south of the U.S. border as it does about the complexities of the alleged Unabomber.

For Sanchez, the greatest concern through his years of correspondence with Kaczynski has been the U.S. immigration status of his children. While Kaczynski wrote to him about “pure things--pure sadness--about the abuses of people in higher places against people in lower places,” Sanchez wrote Kaczynski again and again about his wife and children getting deported from the United States on Feb. 8, 1993. They had no immigration papers, he conceded, “but the world fell out from under me” when they were expelled.

“When I first got to the United States in 1945, I didn’t see colors--just people,” Sanchez said of his 40-year career as carpenter, bricklayer, farmhand and repairman. It earned him U.S. residency status and a pension that he has been seeking to collect.

In recent years, though, he said, he has learned firsthand of the immigration pressures in America, which Sanchez says has failed to honor promises of residency status for his family.

For tens of thousands of Mexicans like him, in towns like Ojinaga all along the border, that status--and the access to well-paying jobs it provides--is the only important issue.

A U.S. immigration official “was here this morning and told me nothing is going to happen. . . . But I even think they could take my papers away now,” Sanchez said of the new fears his disclosures brought into his life this week. “It makes me sad, but it wouldn’t be just.”

Other effects of his newfound fame underscored the simplicity of Sanchez’s 68 years.

Asked whether he ever suspected that his pen pal had a sinister side, he replied: “When I was 8 years old, my father died and I’ve had to worry about what my mother will eat. I’ve never thought about these kinds of things. Now, my head is full of thorns. I’m just very tired of all this.”

Of the media attention, he added: “I don’t like that you journalists don’t wait for my words, and you’re always making me go backward until I’m frothing at the mouth. I need a rest.”


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