In early 2009, University of California at Los Angeles geography researchers not only predicted that Usama Bin Laden wasn't hiding in a remote cave, they figured out there was an 88.9 percent probability he would be found in a major city about 130 miles from where the terror kingpin was actually found.
UCLA geography professor Tom Gillespie, who co-authored a paper with colleague John Agnew and five undergraduate students, concluded that Bin Laden was hiding in Parachinar, a Pakistani border town just west of Abbottabad, where he was actually found.
“On some levels, we were about 130 miles off from where the town he was actually found, but my goodness, he certainly wasn’t living in a cave, was he? It was a structure that really did match his life history characteristics, which was actually pretty surprising to all of us that worked on the paper,” Gillespie says.
In fact, they were so convinced with their findings that one undergrad student who was working on the research passed the paper to her mother, who hand delivered the results to CIA Director Leon Panetta's wife, who lives in the same area.
“I expected the government should pretty much not take it seriously,” former UCLA student-researcher, Erika Mariano, tells FoxNews.com. “Because how much truth or credibility could there be to something built from open source materials.”
Gillespie said he passed the paper along to the FBI prior to its publishing but never heard anything back.
“I think anyone in the CIA if they said they were going to use a bird theory to find Usama Bin Laden they’d probably lose their job,” Gillespie says with laugh.
The FBI's Los Angeles told FoxNews.com it was unable to confirm or deny receiving this particular study but says it is not uncommon for the FBI to receive information in high-profile cases from all kinds of sources. The CIA didn't respond to requests for comment on this story.
“We used geographic theories about locations of different people and animals to try and find where Usama Bin Laden is, and then we used satellite imagery…to kind of pick out an actual single location on earth,” explained Gillespie.
Gillespie and Agnew, with the help of UCLA geography students, used two geographical scientific theories normally used in locating endangered species, known as “distance decay” and “island biogeographic” to narrow down Bin Laden’s probable location.
These theories led students to hypothesize that the further bin Laden moved from his last known location, the more likely he would find himself in areas with different religious and political beliefs, making it more likely he would be discovered; meaning he wasn’t hiding very far from Tora Bora -- his last reported location used in the study.
They concluded after studying bin Laden's "life history characteristics" that the list of requirements for his hideout included a tall building to fit his unusual 6-foot-4-inch height, access to electricity for a dialysis machine to treat his reported kidney disease, rooms for a small number of body guards and walls for privacy.
They picked Parachinar because several buildings there met those requirements. Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad also fit their mold – a fact Gillespie draws a sense of satisfaction from.
“We didn’t find that actual location in 2009, but when you look at where he was found it’s pretty close.”
Mariano, now in her first year of a master’s degree in non-proliferation and terrorism studies at Pepperdine University in California, says she ran to a computer as soon as she heard news of bin Laden’s death to check the location.
“I was stunned that our theories that used common, open source materials would be that accurate,” says Mariano. “To find out that just the brainstorming and these theories were relatively accurate is incredible."
Garrett Tenney is a correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined FNC in April 2013 and is based in the DC bureau.