DB Cooper mystery
Story of DB Cooper
What likely happened to DB Cooper
D. B. Cooper is a media epithet popularly used to refer to an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the airspace between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, on November 24, 1971, extorted $200,000 in ransom (equivalent to $1,160,000 in 2014), and parachuted to an uncertain fate. Despite an extensive manhunt and an ongoing FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been located or positively identified. The case remains the only unsolved air piracy in American aviation history.
The suspect purchased his airline ticket using the alias Dan Cooper, but due to a news media miscommunication he became known in popular lore as “D. B. Cooper”. Hundreds of leads have been pursued in the ensuing years, but no conclusive evidence has ever surfaced regarding Cooper’s true identity or whereabouts. Numerous theories of widely varying plausibility have been proposed by experts, reporters, and amateur enthusiasts. The discovery of a small cache of ransom bills in 1980 triggered renewed interest but ultimately only deepened the mystery, and the great majority of the ransom remains unrecovered.
While FBI investigators have insisted from the beginning that Cooper probably did not survive his risky jump, the agency maintains an active case file—which has grown to more than 60 volumes—and continues to solicit creative ideas and new leads from the public. “Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the $5,800 in ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream,” suggested Special Agent Larry Carr, leader of the investigation team since 2006. “Or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle.”[5
The incident began mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving eve, November 24, 1971, at Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon. A man carrying a black attaché case approached the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. He identified himself as “Dan Cooper” and purchased a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a 30-minute trip to Seattle, Washington.
Cooper boarded the aircraft, a Boeing 727-100 (FAA registration N467US), and took seat 18C (18E by one account, 15D by another) in the rear of the passenger cabin. He lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. Eyewitnesses on board recalled a man in his mid-forties, between 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) and 6 feet 0 inches (1.83 m) tall. He wore a black lightweight raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, a black necktie, and a mother of pearl tie pin.
F.B.I. wanted poster of D. B. Cooper
Flight 305, approximately one-third full, took off on schedule at 2:50 pm, local time (PST). Cooper passed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant situated nearest to him in a jumpseat attached to the aft stair door. Schaffner, assuming the note contained a lonely businessman’s phone number, dropped it unopened into her purse. Cooper leaned toward her and whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
The note was printed in neat, all-capital letters with a felt pen. It read, approximately,[note 1] “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.” Schaffner did as requested, then quietly asked to see the bomb. Cooper cracked open his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders (“four on top of four”) attached to wires coated with red insulation, and a large cylindrical battery. After closing the briefcase, he dictated his demands: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”; four parachutes (two primary and two reserve); and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival. Schaffner conveyed Cooper’s instructions to the cockpit; when she returned, he was wearing dark sunglasses.
The pilot, William Scott, contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport air traffic control, which in turn informed local and federal authorities. The 36 other passengers were informed that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a “minor mechanical difficulty”. Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop, authorized payment of the ransom and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker. The aircraft circled Puget Sound for approximately two hours to allow Seattle police and the FBI time to assemble Cooper’s parachutes and ransom money, and to mobilize emergency personnel.
Schaffner recalled that Cooper appeared familiar with the local terrain; at one point he remarked, “Looks like Tacoma down there,” as the aircraft flew above it. He also mentioned, correctly, that McChord Air Force Base was only a 20-minute drive from Seattle-Tacoma Airport.[note 2] Schaffner described him as calm, polite, and well-spoken, not at all consistent with the stereotypes (enraged, hardened criminals or “take-me-to-Cuba” political dissidents) popularly associated with air piracy at the time. Tina Mucklow, another flight attendant, agreed. “He wasn’t nervous,” she told investigators. “He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time.” He ordered a second bourbon and water, paid his drink tab (and insisted Schaffner keep the change), and offered to request meals for the flight crew during the stop in Seattle.
FBI agents assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks—10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills, many with serial numbers beginning with the letter “L” indicating issuance by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, most carrying a “Series 1969-C” designation—and made a microfilm photograph of each of them. Cooper rejected the military-issue parachutes initially offered by authorities, demanding instead civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords. Seattle police obtained them from a local skydiving school.
At 5:24 pm Cooper was informed that his demands had been met, and at 5:39 pm the aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Cooper instructed Scott to taxi the jet to an isolated, brightly lit section of the tarmac and extinguish lights in the cabin to deter police snipers. Northwest Orient’s Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, approached the aircraft in street clothes (to avoid the possibility that Cooper might mistake his airline uniform for that of a police officer) and delivered the cash-filled knapsack and parachutes to Mucklow via the aft stairs. Once the delivery was completed Cooper permitted all passengers, Schaffner, and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock to leave the plane.
During refueling Cooper outlined his flight plan to the cockpit crew: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft (approximately 100 knots (190 km/h; 120 mph)) at a maximum 10,000 foot (3,000 m) altitude. He further specified that the landing gear remain deployed in the takeoff/landing position, the wing flaps be lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin remain unpressurized. Copilot William Rataczak informed Cooper that the aircraft’s range was limited to approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) under the specified flight configuration, which meant that a second refueling would be necessary before entering Mexico. Cooper and the crew discussed options and agreed on Reno, Nevada, as the refueling stop. Finally, Cooper directed that the plane take off with the rear exit door open and its staircase extended. Northwest’s home office objected, on grounds that it was unsafe to take off with the aft staircase deployed. Cooper countered that it was indeed safe, but he would not argue the point; he would lower it himself once they were airborne.
An FAA official requested a face-to-face meeting with Cooper aboard the aircraft, which was denied. The refueling process was delayed due to a vapor lock in the fuel tanker truck’s pumping mechanism, and Cooper became suspicious; but he allowed a replacement tanker truck to continue the refueling—and a third after the second ran dry.
Back in the air
Boeing 727 with the aft airstair open
At approximately 7:40 pm the 727 took off with only Cooper, pilot Scott, flight attendant Mucklow, copilot Rataczak, and flight engineer H. E. Anderson aboard. Two F-106 fighter aircraft scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base followed behind the airliner, one above it and one below, out of Cooper’s view. A Lockheed T-33 trainer, diverted from an unrelated Air National Guard mission, also shadowed the 727 until it ran low on fuel and turned back near the Oregon-California border.
After takeoff Cooper told Mucklow to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and remain there with the door closed. As she complied, Mucklow observed Cooper tying something around his waist. At approximately 8:00 pm a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft airstair apparatus had been activated. The crew’s offer of assistance via the aircraft’s intercom system was curtly refused. The crew soon noticed a subjective change of air pressure, indicating that the aft door was open.
At approximately 8:13 pm the aircraft’s tail section sustained a sudden upward movement, significant enough to require trimming to bring the plane back to level flight. At approximately 10:15 pm Scott and Rataczak landed the 727, with the aft airstair still deployed, at Reno Airport. FBI agents, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and Reno police surrounded the jet, as it had not yet been determined with certainty that Cooper was no longer aboard; but an armed search quickly confirmed that he was gone.
Aboard the airliner FBI agents recovered 66 unidentified latent fingerprints, Cooper’s black clip-on tie and mother of pearl tie clip, and two of the four parachutes, one of which had been opened and two shroud lines cut from its canopy. Eyewitnesses in Portland, Seattle, and Reno, and all individuals who personally interacted with Cooper were interviewed. A series of composite sketches was developed.
Local police and FBI agents immediately began questioning possible suspects. One of the first was an Oregon man with a minor police record named D. B. Cooper, contacted by Portland police on the off-chance that the hijacker had used his real name, or the same alias in a previous crime. His involvement was quickly ruled out; but an inexperienced wire service reporter (Clyde Jabin of UPI by most accounts, Joe Frazier of AP by others), rushing to meet an imminent deadline, confused the eliminated suspect’s name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. The mistake was picked up and repeated by numerous other media sources, and the moniker “D. B. Cooper” became lodged in the public’s collective memory.
An animation of the 727’s rear airstair, deploying in flight. The gravity-operated apparatus remained open until the aircraft landed. (Click to view animation.)
A precise search area was difficult to define, as even small differences in estimates of the aircraft’s speed, or the environmental conditions along the flight path (which varied significantly by location and altitude), changed Cooper’s projected landing point considerably. An important variable was the length of time he remained in free fall before pulling his rip cord—if indeed he succeeded in opening a parachute at all. Neither of the Air Force fighter pilots saw anything exit the airliner, either visually or on radar, nor did they see a parachute open; but at night, with extremely limited visibility and cloud cover obscuring any ground lighting below, an airborne human figure clad entirely in black clothing could easily have gone undetected. The T-33 pilots never made visual contact with the 727 at all.
An experimental re-creation was conducted using the same aircraft hijacked by Cooper in the same flight configuration, piloted by Scott. FBI agents, pushing a 200-pound (91 kg) sled out of the open airstair, were able to reproduce the upward motion of the tail section described by the flight crew at 8:13 pm. Based on this experiment, it was concluded that 8:13 pm was the most likely jump time. At that moment the aircraft was flying through a heavy rainstorm over the Lewis River in southwestern Washington.
Initial extrapolations placed Cooper’s landing area on the southernmost outreach of Mount St. Helens, a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington, near Lake Merwin, an artificial lake formed by a dam on the Lewis River. Search efforts focused on Clark and Cowlitz Counties, encompassing the terrain immediately south and north, respectively, of the Lewis River in southwest Washington. FBI agents and Sheriff’s deputies from those counties searched large areas of the mountainous wilderness on foot and by helicopter. Door-to-door questioning and searches of local farmhouses were also carried out. Other search parties ran patrol boats along Lake Merwin and Yale Lake, the reservoir immediately to its east. No trace of Cooper, nor any of the equipment presumed to have left the aircraft with him, was found.
The FBI also coordinated an aerial search, using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters from the Oregon Army National Guard, along the entire flight path (known as Victor 23 in standard aviation terminology but “Vector 23” in most Cooper literature) from Seattle to Reno. While numerous broken treetops and several pieces of plastic and other objects that, from the air, resembled parachute canopies were sighted and investigated, nothing relevant to the hijacking was found.
In early 1972, shortly after the spring thaw, teams of FBI agents aided by some 200 Army soldiers from Fort Lewis, along with Air Force personnel, National Guard troops, and civilian volunteers, conducted another thorough ground search of Clark and Cowlitz Counties for eighteen days in March, and then an additional eighteen days in April. Electronic Explorations Company, a marine salvage firm, used a submarine to search the 200-foot (61 m) depths of Lake Merwin. Two local women stumbled upon a skeleton in an abandoned structure in Clark County; it was later identified as the remains of a female teenager who had been abducted and murdered several weeks before. Ultimately, the search operation—arguably the most extensive, and intensive, in U.S. history—uncovered no significant material evidence related to the hijacking.
Subsequent analyses called the original landing zone estimate into question: Scott, who was flying the aircraft manually because of Cooper’s speed and altitude demands, later determined that his flight path was significantly farther east than initially assumed. Additional data from a variety of sources—in particular Continental Airlines pilot Tom Bohan, who was flying four minutes behind Flight 305—indicated that the wind direction factored into drop zone calculations had been wrong, possibly by as much as 80 degrees. This and other supplemental data suggested that the actual drop zone was probably south-southeast of the original estimate, in the drainage area of the Washougal River.
“I have to confess,” wrote retired FBI chief investigator Ralph Himmelsbach in his 1986 book, “if I [were] going to look for Cooper, I would head for the Washougal.” The Washougal Valley and its surroundings have been searched by multiple private individuals and groups in subsequent years; to date, nothing directly traceable to the hijacking has been found.
Search for ransom money
In late 1971 the FBI distributed lists of the ransom serial numbers to financial institutions, casinos, race tracks, and other businesses routinely conducting significant cash transactions, and to law enforcement agencies around the world. Northwest Orient offered a reward of 15 percent of the recovered money, to a maximum of $25,000. In early 1972 U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell released the serial numbers to the general public. In 1972 two men used counterfeit 20-dollar bills printed with Cooper serial numbers to swindle $30,000 from a Newsweek reporter named Karl Fleming in exchange for an interview with a man they falsely claimed was the hijacker.
In early 1973, with the ransom money still missing, The (Portland) Oregon Journal republished the serial numbers and offered $1,000 to the first person to turn in a ransom bill to the newspaper or any FBI field office. In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer made a similar offer with a $5,000 reward. The offers remained in effect until Thanksgiving 1974, and while there were several near-matches, no genuine bills were found. In 1975 Northwest Orient’s insurer, Global Indemnity Co., complied with an order from the Minnesota Supreme Court and paid the airline’s $180,000 claim on the ransom money.
Statute of limitations
In 1976 discussion arose over impending expiration of the statute of limitations on the hijacking. Most published legal analysis agreed that it would make little difference, as interpretation of the statute varies considerably from case to case and court to court, and a prosecutor could argue that Cooper had forfeited immunity on any of several valid technical grounds. The question was rendered moot in November when a Portland grand jury returned an indictment against “John Doe, aka Dan Cooper” for air piracy and violation of the Hobbs Act. The indictment in effect formally initiated prosecution of the hijacker that can be continued, should he be apprehended, at any time in the future.
In 1978 a placard containing instructions for lowering the aft stairs of a 727 was found by a deer hunter near a logging road about 13 miles (21 km) east of Castle Rock, Washington, well north of Lake Merwin but within the basic path of Flight 305.
Portion of Brian Ingram’s 1980 discovery
In February 1980 an eight-year-old boy named Brian Ingram, vacationing with his family on the Columbia River about 9 miles (14 km) downstream from Vancouver, Washington, and 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Ariel, uncovered three packets of the ransom cash, significantly disintegrated but still bundled in rubber bands, as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. FBI technicians confirmed that the money was indeed a portion of the ransom—two packets of 100 twenty-dollar bills each, and a third packet of 90, all arranged in the same order as when given to Cooper.
The discovery launched several new rounds of conjecture, and ultimately raised many more questions than it answered. Initial statements by investigators and scientific consultants were founded on the assumption that the bundled bills washed freely into the Columbia River from one of its many connecting tributaries. An Army Corps of Engineers hydrologist noted that the bills had disintegrated in a “rounded” fashion, and were matted together, indicating that they had been deposited by river action, as opposed to having been deliberately buried. If so, it confirmed that Cooper had not landed near Lake Merwin, nor in any other part of the Lewis River, which feeds into the Columbia well downstream from the discovery site; and it lent credence to supplemental speculation (see Later developments) placing the drop zone near the Washougal River, which merges with the Columbia upstream from the discovery site.
But the “free floating” hypothesis presented its own difficulties; it did not explain the ten bills missing from one packet, nor was there a logical reason that the three packets would have remained together after separating from the rest of the money. Physical evidence was incompatible with geologic evidence: Himmelsbach observed that bundles floating downstream would have had to wash up on the bank “within a couple of years” of the hijacking (before November 1973); otherwise the rubber bands would have long since deteriorated. Geologic evidence suggested, however, that the bills arrived at the area of their discovery—a beach front known as Tina Bar—well after 1974, the year of a Corps of Engineers dredging operation on that stretch of the river. Geologist Leonard Palmer of Portland State University found two distinct layers of sand and sediment between the clay deposited on the river bank by the dredge and the sand layer in which the bills were buried, indicating that the bills arrived long after dredging had been completed.
Multiple alternative theories were advanced. Some surmised that the money had been found at a distant location by someone (or possibly even a wild animal), carried to the river bank, and reburied there. There was also the possibility that the money had been found on the riverbank earlier, perhaps before the dredging, and buried in a superficial sand layer at a later time. The sheriff of Cowlitz County proposed that Cooper accidentally dropped a few of the bundles on the airstair, which then blew off the aircraft after he jumped and fell into the Columbia River. One local newspaper editor theorized that Cooper, knowing he could never spend the money, dumped it in the river or buried it there (and possibly elsewhere) himself. No hypothesis offered to date satisfactorily explains all of the existing evidence; the means by which the money arrived on the river bank remains unknown.
In 1981 a human skull was unearthed along the same riverbank during excavations in search of additional evidence. Forensic pathologists eventually determined that it belonged to a woman, possibly of Native American ancestry.
In 1986, after protracted negotiations, the recovered bills were divided equally between Ingram and Northwest Orient’s insurer; the FBI retained 14 examples as evidence. Ingram sold fifteen of his bills at auction in 2008 for about $37,000. To date, none of the 9,710 remaining bills has turned up anywhere in the world. Their serial numbers remain available online for public search.
In 1988 a portion of a parachute was raised from the bottom of the same stretch of the Columbia River, but FBI experts determined that it could not have been Cooper’s. In 2008 children unearthed another parachute near Amboy, Washington, about 6 miles (9.7 km) due south of Lake Merwin, which proved to be of World War II-era military origin. The Columbia River ransom money and the airstair instruction placard remain the only bona fide physical evidence from the hijacking ever found outside the aircraft.
Subsequent FBI disclosures
In late 2007 the FBI announced that a partial DNA profile had been obtained from three organic samples found on the clip-on tie left behind by the hijacker. The Bureau also made public a file of previously unreleased evidence, including Cooper’s 1971 plane ticket from Portland to Seattle (price: $18.52 plus tax, total $20.00, paid in cash); and disclosed that Cooper chose the older of the two primary parachutes supplied to him, rather than the technically superior professional sport parachute.
In addition, from the two reserve parachutes he received, Cooper selected a “dummy”—an unusable unit with an inoperative ripcord intended for classroom demonstrations, despite the fact that it had clear markings identifying it to any experienced skydiver as non-functional. (He cannibalized the other, functional reserve parachute, possibly using its shrouds to tie the money bag shut, and to secure the bag to his body, as witnessed by Mucklow.) The FBI stressed that inclusion of the dummy reserve parachute, one of four obtained in haste from a Seattle skydiving school, was accidental. The agency also posted previously unreleased composite sketches and fact sheets, along with a request to the general public for information which might lead to Cooper’s positive identification.
In March 2009 the FBI disclosed that Tom Kaye, a paleontologist from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, had assembled a team of “citizen sleuths” including scientific illustrator Carol Abraczinskas and metallurgist Alan Stone. The group, now known as the Cooper Research Team, is using technology unavailable in 1971 to reinvestigate important components of the case. Using GPS and satellite imagery, they are attempting to determine if the money found by Ingram floated freely to its discovery location over time, or was found elsewhere and reburied. They have reexamined the 727’s flight path from Seattle to Reno to more precisely estimate Cooper’s landing zone. Using electron microscopy they examined hundreds of particles on Cooper’s tie, identifying Lycopodium spores (likely from a pharmaceutical product), and fragments of bismuth and aluminum.
In November 2011 Kaye announced that particles of pure titanium had also been found on the tie. He explained that titanium, which was much rarer in the 1970s than it is today, was found at that time only in metal fabrication or production facilities, or at chemical companies using it (combined with aluminum) to store extremely corrosive substances. The findings suggested, he said, that Cooper may have been a chemist or a metallurgist, or may have worked in a metal or chemical manufacturing plant.
Theories and conjectures
FBI sketch of Cooper, with age progression
In the years since the hijacking the FBI has periodically made public some of its working hypotheses and tentative conclusions about the case, drawn from witness testimony and the scarce physical evidence.
The official physical description remains unchanged and is considered reliable. Flight attendants Schaffner and Mucklow, who spent the most time with Cooper, were interviewed on the same night in separate cities, and gave nearly identical descriptions: 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) to 6 feet 0 inches (1.83 m) tall, 170 to 180 pounds (77 to 82 kg), mid-40s, with close-set piercing brown eyes. Passengers and other eyewitnesses gave very similar descriptions.
Agents believe that Cooper was familiar with the Seattle area and may have been an Air Force veteran, based on testimony that he recognized the city of Tacoma from the air as the jet circled Puget Sound, and his accurate comment to Mucklow that McChord Air Force Base was approximately 20 minutes’ driving time from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport[note 2]—a detail most civilians would not know, or comment upon. His financial situation was very likely desperate, as extortionists and other criminals who steal large amounts of money nearly always do so, according to experts, because they need it urgently; otherwise, the crime is not worth the considerable risk. (A minority opinion is that Cooper was “a thrill seeker” who made the jump “just to prove it could be done.”)
Agents theorize that he took his alias from a popular Belgian comic book series of the 1970s featuring the fictional hero Dan Cooper, a Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot who took part in numerous heroic adventures, including parachuting. (One cover from the series, reproduced on the FBI web site, depicts test pilot Cooper skydiving in full paratrooper regalia.) Because the Dan Cooper comics were never translated into English nor imported to the US, they speculate that he may have encountered them during a tour of duty in Europe. Tom Kaye’s Cooper Research Team (see Ongoing investigation) has suggested the alternative possibility that Cooper was Canadian, and found the comics in Canada, where they were also sold. They note his specific demand for “negotiable American currency”, a phrase seldom if ever used by American citizens; since witnesses stated that Cooper had no distinguishable accent, Canada would be his most likely country of origin if he were not a United States citizen.
The FBI task force believes that Cooper was a careful and shrewd planner. He demanded four parachutes to force the assumption that he might compel one or more hostages to jump with him, thus ensuring he would not be deliberately supplied with sabotaged equipment. He chose a 727-100 aircraft because it was ideal for a bail-out escape, due not only to its aft airstair, but also the high, aftward placement of all three engines, which allowed a reasonably safe jump without risk of immediate incineration by jet exhaust. It had “single-point fueling” capability, a recent innovation which allowed all tanks to be refueled rapidly through a single fuel port. It also had the ability (unusual for a commercial jet airliner) to remain in slow, low-altitude flight without stalling; and Cooper knew how to control its air speed and altitude without entering the cockpit, where he could have been overpowered by the three pilots. In addition, Cooper was familiar with important details, such as the appropriate flap setting of 15 degrees (which was unique to that aircraft), and the typical refueling time. He knew that the aft airstair could be lowered during flight—a fact never disclosed to civilian flight crews, since there was no situation on a passenger flight that would make it necessary—and that its operation, by a single switch in the rear of the cabin, could not be overridden from the cockpit. He may even have known that the Central Intelligence Agency had been using 727s to drop agents and supplies behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War.
Despite his careful planning and attention to detail, the Bureau feels strongly that he lacked crucial skydiving skills and experience. “We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper,” said Special Agent Larry Carr, leader of the investigative team since 2006. “We concluded after a few years this was simply not true. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky. He also missed that his reserve ‘chute was only for training, and had been sewn shut—something a skilled skydiver would have checked.” He also failed to bring or request a helmet, chose to jump with the older and technically inferior of the two primary parachutes supplied to him, and jumped into a −70 °F (−57 °C) wind chill.
Assuming that Cooper was not a paratrooper, but was an Air Force veteran, Carr believes that he could have been an aircraft cargo loader. Such an assignment would have given him knowledge and experience in the aviation industry; and loaders—because they throw cargo out of flying aircraft—wear emergency parachutes and receive rudimentary jump training. Such training would have given Cooper a working knowledge of parachutes—but “not necessarily sufficient knowledge to survive the jump he made.”
The Bureau has argued from the beginning that Cooper did not survive his jump. “Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his ‘chute open,” said Carr. Even if he did land safely, agents contend, survival in the mountainous terrain would have been all but impossible without an accomplice at a predetermined landing point, which would have required a precisely timed jump—necessitating, in turn, cooperation from the flight crew. There is no evidence that Cooper had any such help from the crew, nor any clear idea where he was when he jumped into the stormy, overcast darkness.
Cooper was not the first to attempt air piracy for personal gain; two weeks prior, Paul Cini did it aboard an Air Canada DC-8 over Montana, but was overpowered by the crew when he put down his gun to strap on the parachute. Cooper’s apparent success inspired a flurry of imitators. Most “copycats” struck during the year that followed. Some examples:
Garrett Brock Trapnell hijacked a TWA airliner en route from Los Angeles to New York City in January 1972. He demanded $306,800 in cash, the release of Angela Davis, and an audience with President Richard Nixon. After the aircraft landed at Kennedy Airport he was shot and wounded by FBI agents before being arrested.
Richard McCoy, Jr., a former Army Green Beret, hijacked a United Airlines 727-100 in April after it left Denver, Colorado, diverted it to San Francisco, then bailed out over Utah with $500,000 in ransom money. He landed safely, but was arrested two days later.
Frederick Hahneman used a handgun to hijack an Eastern Airlines 727 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in May, demanded $303,000, and eventually parachuted into Honduras, his country of birth. A month later, with the FBI in pursuit and a $25,000 bounty on his head, he surrendered to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa.
Robb Dolin Heady, a paratrooper and Vietnam veteran, stormed a United Airlines 727 in Reno in early June, extorted $200,000 and two parachutes, and jumped into darkness near Washoe Lake, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Reno. Police found Heady’s car (sporting a United States Parachute Association bumper sticker) parked near the lake and arrested him as he returned to it the next morning.
Martin McNally, an unemployed service station attendant, used a submachine gun in late June to commandeer an American Airlines 727 en route from St. Louis to Tulsa, then diverted it eastward to Indiana and bailed out with $500,000 in ransom. McNally lost the ransom money as he exited the aircraft, but landed safely near Peru, Indiana, and was apprehended a few days later in a Detroit suburb.
In all, a total of 15 hijackings similar to Cooper’s—all unsuccessful—were attempted in 1972. With the advent of universal luggage searches in 1973 (see Airport security) the general incidence of hijackings dropped precipitously. There were no further notable Cooper imitators until July 11, 1980, when Glenn K. Tripp seized Northwest flight 608 at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, demanding $600,000 ($100,000 by an independent account), two parachutes, and the assassination of his boss. After a ten-hour standoff he was apprehended; but on January 21, 1983—while still on probation—he hijacked the same Northwest flight, this time en route, and demanded to be flown to Afghanistan. When the plane landed in Portland he was shot and killed by FBI agents.
Since 1971 the FBI has processed over a thousand “serious suspects” along with assorted publicity seekers and deathbed confessors, most of whom have been definitively ruled out. Some notable examples:
In 2003 a Minnesota resident named Lyle Christiansen, after watching a television documentary about the Cooper hijacking, became convinced that his late brother Kenneth was D. B. Cooper. After repeated futile attempts to convince first the FBI, and then the author and film director Nora Ephron (whom he hoped would make a movie about the case), he contacted a private investigator in New York. In 2010 the detective, Skipp Porteous, published a book postulating that Christiansen was indeed the hijacker. In early 2011 an episode of the History series Brad Meltzer’s Decoded also summarized the circumstantial evidence linking Christiansen to the Cooper case.
Christiansen enlisted in the Army in 1944 and was trained as a paratrooper. The war had ended by the time he was deployed in 1945, but he made occasional training jumps while stationed in Japan with occupation forces in the late 1940s. After leaving the Army he joined Northwest Orient in 1954 as a mechanic in the South Pacific, and subsequently became a flight attendant, and then a purser, based in Seattle. Christiansen was 45 years old at the time of the hijacking, but he was shorter (5 ft. 8 in.), thinner (150 pounds), and lighter complected than eyewitness descriptions. Christiansen smoked (as did the hijacker), and displayed a particular fondness for bourbon (Cooper’s preferred beverage). He was also left-handed. (Evidence photos of Cooper’s black tie show the tie clip applied from the left side, suggesting a left-handed wearer.) Flight attendant Florence Schaffner told a reporter that photos of Christiansen fit her memory of the hijacker’s appearance more closely than those of other suspects she had been shown. (Tina Mucklow, who had the most contact with Cooper, has never granted a press interview.)
Christiansen reportedly purchased a house with cash a few months after the hijacking. While dying of cancer in 1994 he told Lyle, “There is something you should know, but I cannot tell you.” Lyle said he never pressed his brother to explain. After Christiansen’s death family members discovered gold coins and a valuable stamp collection, along with over $200,000 in bank accounts. They also found a folder of Northwest Orient news clippings which began about the time he was hired in the 1950s, and stopped just prior to the date of the hijacking, despite the fact that the hijacking was by far the most momentous news event in the airline’s history. Christiansen continued to work part-time for the airline for many years after 1971, but apparently never clipped another Northwest news story.
Despite the publicity generated by Porteous’s book and the 2011 television documentary, the FBI is standing by its position that Christiansen cannot be considered a prime suspect. They cite a poor match to eyewitness physical descriptions, a level of skydiving expertise above that predicted by their suspect profile, and an absence of direct incriminating evidence.
William Pratt Gossett was a Marine Corps, Army, and Army Air Force veteran who saw action in Korea and Vietnam. His military experience included advanced jump training and wilderness survival. After retiring from military service in 1973 he worked as an ROTC instructor, taught military law at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and hosted a radio talk show in Salt Lake City which featured discussions about the paranormal. He died in 2003.
Gossett was widely known to be obsessed with the Cooper hijacking. He amassed a voluminous collection of Cooper-related news articles, and told one of his wives that he knew enough about the case to “write the epitaph for D.B. Cooper”. Late in his life he reportedly told three of his sons, a retired Utah judge, and a friend in the Salt Lake City public defender’s office that he had committed the hijacking. Photos of Gossett taken circa 1971 bear a close resemblance to the most widely circulated Cooper composite drawing.
According to Galen Cook, a lawyer who has collected information related to Gossett for years, Gossett once showed his sons a key to a Vancouver, British Columbia safe deposit box which, he claimed, contained the long-missing ransom money. Gossett’s eldest son, Greg, said that his father, a compulsive gambler who was always “strapped for cash”, showed him “wads of cash” just before Christmas 1971, weeks after the Cooper hijacking. He speculated that Gossett gambled the money away in Las Vegas.
In 1988 Gossett changed his name to “Wolfgang” and became a Catholic priest, which Cook and others interpreted as an effort to disguise his identity. Other circumstantial evidence includes testimony that Cook claims to have obtained from William Mitchell, a passenger on the hijacked aircraft, regarding a mysterious “physical detail” (which he will not divulge) common to the hijacker and Gossett. Cook also claims to have found “possible links” to Gossett in each of four letters signed by “D.B. Cooper” and mailed to three newspapers within days after the hijacking, although there is no evidence that the actual hijacker created or mailed any of the letters.
The FBI has no direct evidence implicating Gossett, and cannot even reliably place him in the Pacific Northwest at the time of the hijacking. “There is not one link to the D.B. Cooper case,” said Special Agent Carr, “other than the statements [Gossett] made to someone.”
Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr.
Main article: Richard McCoy, Jr.
McCoy was an Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, first as a demolition expert, and later, with the Green Berets, as a helicopter pilot. After his military service he became a warrant officer in the Utah National Guard and an avid recreational skydiver, with aspirations, he said, of becoming a Utah State Trooper.
On April 7, 1972 McCoy staged the best-known of the so-called “copycat” hijackings (see above). He boarded United Airlines’ Flight 855 (a Boeing 727 with aft stairs) in Denver, and brandishing what later proved to be a paperweight resembling a hand grenade and an unloaded handgun, he demanded four parachutes and $500,000. After delivery of the money and parachutes at San Francisco International Airport, McCoy ordered the aircraft back into the sky and bailed out over Provo, Utah, leaving behind his handwritten hijacking instructions and his fingerprints on a magazine he had been reading. He was arrested on April 9 with the ransom cash in his possession, and after trial and conviction, received a 45-year sentence. Two years later he escaped from Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary with several accomplices by crashing a garbage truck through the main gate. Tracked down three months later in Virginia Beach, McCoy was killed in a shootout with FBI agents.
In their 1991 book, D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy, parole officer Bernie Rhodes and former FBI agent Russell Calame asserted that they had identified McCoy as D.B. Cooper. They cited obvious similarities in the two hijackings, claims by McCoy’s family that the tie and mother-of-pearl tie clip left on the plane belonged to McCoy, and McCoy’s own refusal to admit or deny that he was Cooper. A principal proponent of their theory was the FBI agent who killed McCoy. “When I shot Richard McCoy,” he said, “I shot D. B. Cooper at the same time.”
While there is no reasonable doubt that McCoy committed the Denver hijacking, the FBI does not consider him a suspect in the Cooper case due to significant mismatches in his age (29) and description; a level of skydiving skill well above that thought to be possessed by the hijacker; and credible evidence that McCoy was in Las Vegas on the day of the Seattle hijacking, and at home in Utah the day after, having Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
Duane L. Weber was a World War II Army veteran who served time in at least six prisons from 1945 to 1968 for burglary and forgery. He was proposed as a suspect by his widow, based primarily on a deathbed confession: Three days before he died in 1995, Weber told his wife, “I am Dan Cooper.” The name meant nothing to her, she said; but months later, a friend told her of its significance in the hijacking. She went to her local library to research D.B. Cooper, found Max Gunther’s book, and discovered notations in the margins in her husband’s handwriting.
She then recalled, in retrospect, that Weber once had a nightmare during which he talked in his sleep about jumping from a plane, leaving his fingerprints on the “aft stairs”. He also reportedly told her that an old knee injury had been incurred by “jumping out of a plane”. Like the hijacker, Weber drank bourbon and chain smoked. Other circumstantial evidence included a 1979 trip to Seattle and the Columbia River, during which Weber took a walk alone along the river bank in the Tina Bar area; four months later Brian Ingram made his ransom cash discovery in the same area.
The FBI eliminated Weber as an active suspect in July 1998 when his fingerprints did not match any of those processed in the hijacked plane, and no other direct evidence could be found to implicate him. Later, his DNA also failed to match the samples recovered from Cooper’s tie, though the Bureau has since conceded that they cannot be certain that the organic material on the tie came from Cooper.
Main article: John List
John Emil List was an accountant and World War II and Korea veteran who murdered his wife, three teenage children, and 85-year-old mother in Westfield, New Jersey fifteen days before the Cooper hijacking, withdrew $200,000 from his mother’s bank account, and disappeared. He came to the attention of the Cooper task force due to the timing of his disappearance, multiple matches to the hijacker’s description, and the reasoning that “a fugitive accused of mass murder has nothing to lose.” After his capture in 1989, List admitted to murdering his family, but denied any involvement in the Cooper hijacking. While his name continues to crop up in Cooper articles and documentaries, no direct evidence implicates him, and the FBI no longer considers him a suspect. He died in prison in 2008.
Barbara Dayton, a recreational pilot and University of Washington librarian who was born Robert Dayton, served in the Merchant Marine in 1926 and then the Army during World War II. After discharge Dayton worked with explosives in the construction industry and aspired to a professional airline career, but could not obtain a commercial pilot’s license.
Dayton underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1969 and changed her name to Barbara. She claimed to have staged the Cooper hijacking two years later, disguised as a man, in order to “get back” at the airline industry and the FAA, whose insurmountable rules and conditions had prevented her from becoming an airline pilot. She said she hid the ransom money in a cistern near her landing point in Woodburn, a suburban area south of Portland, Oregon. Eventually she recanted her entire story, ostensibly after learning that she could still be charged with the hijacking. The FBI has never commented publicly on Dayton, who died in 2002.
Mayfield is an Army Special Forces veteran, former pilot, competitive skydiver, skydiving instructor, and ex-convict who served time for negligent homicide after two of his students died when their parachutes failed to open. His criminal record also includes armed robbery and transportation of stolen aircraft, and in 2010 he was sentenced to three years’ probation for flying a single-engine plane, 26 years after permanent revocation of his pilot’s license. He was suggested repeatedly as a suspect early in the investigation, according to FBI Agent Ralph Himmelsbach, who knew Mayfield from a prior dispute at a local airport. He was ruled out, based partly on the fact that he called Himmelsbach less than two hours after Flight 305 landed in Reno to volunteer advice on standard skydiving practices and possible landing zones.
In 2006 two amateur researchers named Daniel Dvorak and Matthew Myers proposed him as a suspect once again, attracting coverage from a Portland television station and the syndicated program Inside Edition. They asserted that they had assembled a convincing circumstantial case that would be presented in detail in a forthcoming book. Among other things, they theorized that Mayfield called Himmelsbach not to offer advice, but to establish an alibi; and they challenged Himmelsbach’s conclusion that Mayfield could not possibly have found a phone in time to call the FBI less than four hours after jumping into the wilderness at night. Mayfield denied any involvement, and repeated a previous assertion that the FBI called him five times while the hijacking was still in progress to ask about skydiving techniques. (Himmelsbach said the FBI never called Mayfield.) Mayfield further charged that Dvorak and Myers asked him to play along with their theory, and “we’ll all make a lot of money.” (Dvorak and Myers called any inference of collusion a “blatant lie.”)
Dvorak died in 2007, and the pair’s investigation and book apparently died with him. The FBI has offered no comment beyond Himmelsbach’s original statement that Mayfield, who still resides in Sheridan, Oregon, was ruled out as a suspect early on.
Coffelt was a conman, ex-convict, and purported government informant who claimed to have been the chauffeur and confidante of Abraham Lincoln’s last undisputed descendant, great-grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith. In 1972 he began claiming he was D.B. Cooper, and attempted through an intermediary, a former cellmate named James Brown, to sell his story to a Hollywood production company. He said he landed near Mount Hood, about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Ariel, injuring himself and losing the ransom money in the process. Photos of Coffelt bear a resemblance to the composite drawings, although he was in his mid-fifties in 1971. He was reportedly in Portland on the day of the hijacking, and sustained leg injuries around that time which were consistent with a skydiving mishap.
Coffelt’s account was reviewed by the FBI, which concluded that it differed in significant details from information that had not been made public, and was therefore a fabrication. Brown, undeterred, continued peddling the story long after Coffelt died in 1975. Multiple media venues, including the television news program 60 Minutes, considered and rejected it. In a 2008 book about Lincoln’s descendants, author Charles Lachman revisited Coffelt’s tale although it had been discredited 36 years before.
Lynn Doyle Cooper
Undated photo of Lynn Doyle Cooper.
L.D. Cooper, a leather worker and Korean War veteran, was proposed as a suspect in July 2011 by his niece, Marla Cooper. As an 8-year-old, she recalled Cooper and another uncle planning something “very mischievous”, involving the use of “expensive walkie-talkies”, at her grandmother’s house in Sisters, Oregon, 150 miles (240 km) south of Portland. The next day flight 305 was hijacked; and though the uncles ostensibly were turkey hunting, L.D. Cooper came home wearing a bloody shirt—the result, he said, of an auto accident. Later, she said, her parents came to believe that L.D. Cooper was the hijacker. She also recalled that her uncle, who died in 1999, was obsessed with the Canadian comic book hero Dan Cooper (see Theories and conjectures), and “had one of his comic books thumbtacked to his wall”—although he was not a skydiver or paratrooper.
In August New York magazine published an alternative witness sketch, reportedly based on a description by Flight 305 eyewitness Robert Gregory, depicting horn-rimmed sunglasses, a “russet”-colored suit jacket with wide lapels, and marcelled hair. The article notes that L.D. Cooper had wavy hair that looked marcelled (as did Duane Weber).
On August 3 the FBI announced that no fingerprints had been found on a guitar strap made by L.D. Cooper. One week later they added that his DNA did not match the partial DNA profile obtained from the hijacker’s tie, but acknowledged, once again, that there is no certainty that the hijacker was the source of the organic material obtained from the tie. “The tie had two small DNA samples, and one large sample lifted off in 2000–2001,” said Special Agent Fred Gutt. “It’s difficult to draw firm conclusions from these samples.” The Bureau has made no further public comment.
The Cooper hijacking marked the beginning of the end for unfettered and unscrutinized airline travel. Despite initiation of the federal Sky Marshal program the previous year, 31 hijackings were committed in U.S. airspace in 1972, 19 of them for the specific purpose of extorting money. (Most of the rest were attempts to reach Cuba.) In 15 of the extortion cases the hijackers also demanded parachutes. In early 1973 the FAA began requiring airlines to search all passengers and their bags. Amid multiple lawsuits charging that such searches violated Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure, federal courts ruled that they were acceptable when applied universally, and when limited to searches for weapons and explosives. In contrast to the 31 hijackings in 1972, only two were attempted in 1973, both by psychiatric patients, one of whom intended to crash the airliner into the White House to kill President Nixon.
In the wake of multiple “copycat” hijackings in 1972 the FAA required that all Boeing 727 aircraft be fitted with a device, later dubbed the “Cooper vane”, which prevented lowering of the aft airstair during flight. Several airlines elected to abandon use of the airstair entirely, and simply welded the aft doors of their 727s shut.
A less-well-known modification mandated as a direct result of the hijacking was the installation of peepholes in all cockpit doors, making it possible for the cockpit crew to observe events in the passenger cabin with the cockpit door closed.
Subsequent history of N467US
In 1978 the hijacked 727-100 aircraft was sold by Northwest to Piedmont Airlines where it was reregistered N838N and continued in domestic carrier service. In 1984 it was purchased by the now-defunct charter company Key Airlines, reregistered N29KA, and incorporated into the Air Force’s civilian charter fleet that shuttled workers between Nellis Air Force Base and the Tonopah Test Range during the top-secret F-117 Nighthawk development program. In 1996 the aircraft was scrapped for parts in a Memphis boneyard.
In late April 2013 Earl Cossey, the owner of the skydiving school that furnished the four parachutes given to Cooper, was found dead in his home in Woodinville, a suburb of Seattle. His death was ruled a homicide due to blunt-force trauma to the head. The perpetrator remains unknown. Conspiracy theorists immediately began pointing out possible links to the Cooper case, but authorities responded that they have no reason to believe that any such link exists. Woodinville officials later announced that the most likely motive for the crime was burglary.
Main article: D. B. Cooper in popular culture
While D.B. Cooper was an air pirate and extortionist (Himmelsbach famously called him a “rotten sleazy crook”) who endangered the lives of 42 people and caused immeasurable inconvenience for many others, his bold, adventurous, unprecedented crime inspired a cult following, expressed through song, film and literature. Cities in the Pacific Northwest sold tourist souvenirs and held celebrations in his memory. He is remembered in Ariel, Washington with a “Cooper Day” event held annually on the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend, and elsewhere with Cooper-themed promotions held by restaurants and bowling alleys. Cooper has also been used in the storylines of such popular TV series as Prison Break, White Collar, NewsRadio, and Numb3rs, as well as a book titled The Vesuvius Prophecy, based on The 4400 TV series.
Sketch of DB Cooper
The particulars of D.B. Cooper’s clever airborne crime and daredevil getaway have been pondered, picked over and recapitulated for three decades now.
In 1971, D.B. Cooper hijacked and threatened to blow up an airliner, extorted $200,000 from its owner, Northwest Orient, then leaped from the airborne 727 with 21 pounds of $20 bills strapped to his torso.
He was never seen again—dead or alive. The crime was perfect if he lived, perfectly crazy if he didn’t.
In either case, D.B. Cooper’s nom de crime—no one knows his real name—may be the most recognized alias among western felons since Jack the Ripper.
Everyone from dour G-men to giddy amateur sleuths have pored over the details, hoping to wheedle a resolution out of some overlooked aspect, as though a clue concealed in the holdup’s hieroglyph of facts might lead to an a-ha!, a la Inspector Clouseau.
Yet the case remains unsolved more than 30 years later, and D. B. Cooper has become the Bigfoot of crime, evading one of the most extensive and expensive American manhunts of the 20th century. The whereabouts of the man (or his remains) is one of the great crime mysteries of our time.
Of course, the annals of wrongdoing are stuffed with titillating unsolved cases, from London’s notorious ripper in the 1880s to the Black Dahlia murder of an aspiring actress in Los Angeles in 1947 to the befuddling murder—and muddled investigation—of little Jon Benet Ramsey in 1997 in Boulder, Colo.
But D.B. Cooper’s crime was different. First, no innocent bystander was injured, although law enforcers argue that he put several dozen lives at risk.
There was modest collateral damage to Northwest Orient’s bottom line, and the FBI’s swollen ego was bruised to the bone. Cooper pulled his buccaneering swipe in the twilight of the 47-year tenure of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who died not long after the hijacking. The director no doubt went to his grave with teeth gritted over his agency’s inability, in this case, to get their man.
Cooper’s crime also was unusual in that it helped rally critical support for sweeping air travel security initiatives, including passenger screening. Until D. B. Cooper’s skydive, it was entirely possible to walk aboard a jet carrying a bomb.
Most law-abiders react with revulsion to violent criminals, with disgust to extortionists, and with a tsk-tsk to the preponderate larcenies that fill crime blotters in police stations across America.
Yet Cooper induced more smiles than frowns.
Hijackings became more violent and less palatable as the 1970s wore on, and the destruction of September 11, 2001, makes any such act seem evil.
But D. B. Cooper’s crime was of its time, the early 1970s, when antisocial behavior had cache. Many Americans commended his moxie. He was celebrated in a song, film and books. He managed to tweak J. Edgar Hoover’s nose and finagle a bag of loot from a big corporation. He was Robin Hood for tie-dyed longhairs—and not a few wearers of more traditional attire.
But did D. B. Cooper get away with it? No one can say for certain. We do know that he could have survived the dangerous nighttime skydive because Cooper’s caper, like a crime science experiment, was replicated with complete success by a copycat aerial clip artist just months later. That hijacker hit the ground safely, although the mimic ultimately paid dearly. The copycat case also spawned a controversial theory about the fate of Dan Cooper.
Coincidentally, Cooper himself probably copied a similar hijacking that occurred two weeks before his endeavor.
Many others have tried variations on the airline extortion technique—generally with less success. Some have “splattered,” as law enforcers like to say. FBI investigators believe Cooper probably met that fate—a fatal kiss of the ground. But their opinion is far from unanimous.
Books by a half-dozen authors, including three separate tomes by ex-FBI agents, have posited theories—some serious, some spurious—about what happened to Cooper. Several men have stepped forward claiming to be Cooper, although none convincingly so. Some believe Cooper is alive and well and living on a beach in Mexico. Others say he slipped back into an obscure American life and grins like a Cheshire cat at premature reports of his demise.
D. B. Cooper gained infamy on Thanksgiving Eve 1971, a dank, chilly day in the American Northwest. At 4 o’clock that Wednesday afternoon, a man wearing a modest businessman’s suit stepped to the Northwest Orient counter at Portland International Airport and paid $20 cash for a one-way ticket to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The man, roughly 45 years old, gave the name Dan Cooper. Ticket agent Hal Williams assigned him aisle seat 18C in coach aboard Northwest Flight No. 305, scheduled to depart at 4:35 for a half-hour journey to Sea-Tac.
Piedmont 727, actual plane
Piedmont 727, actual plane
Flight 305 was a Boeing 727-100 that had begun the day in Washington, D.C. It carried passengers to the Northwest hub in Minneapolis, then made stops in Great Falls and Missoula, MT, before continuing west to Portland. The brief flight to Seattle would conclude its long day. The jet could seat 94 passengers—66 in coach and 28 in first class—but it carried just 37 customers as the five crew members secured doors and prepared for takeoff.
The Minneapolis-based crew included the pilot, Capt. William Scott, 51, a 20-year Northwest veteran; First Officer Bob Rataczak; Flight Engineer H.E. Anderson, and two young flight attendants, Tina Mucklow, 22, and Florence Schaffner, 23, each with less than 24 months in the air.
Before takeoff, no crew member took particular note of Dan Cooper, a fit 6-footer who weighed perhaps 175 pounds. D. B. Cooper’s wardrobe was the definition of nondescript in 1971: a dark suit and tie and a white shirt with a pearl tie tack. Like so many other American males of that day, he wore a homburg hat—felt, with a dented crown and narrow brim. He carried a dark raincoat and a brief case. He had brown eyes, short brown hair and no whiskers. He was white and spoke with no accent. He was tan or had a Mediterranean complexion described as swarthy or olive.
Cooper handed a note to Flo Schaffner moments after the jet was airborne. Men traveling alone often passed phone or hotel room numbers to the attractive young stewardess. She assumed another come-on and gave the note her usual treatment, sticking it unread in a uniform pocket.
The next time Schaffner passed, Cooper gestured for her to lean close. He said, “You’d better read that. I have a bomb.” He nodded toward the briefcase in his lap. Schaffner went to the galley, read the note, then shared it with fellow attendant Tina Mucklow. They hurried to the cockpit, where Capt. Scott had a look. The pilot immediately radioed Sea-Tac air traffic control, who alerted Seattle police, who in turn alerted the FBI. The feds placed an urgent call to Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop, who ordered full compliance with Cooper’s demands. Nyrop no doubt hoped to avoid the negative publicity that a disaster aboard a Northwest flight would bring. By comparison, $200,000 was a pittance.
The precise wording of Cooper’s extortion note has been lost because the hijacker insisted the crew return the note since it was potential evidence. But Schaffner would later recall that the note was hand-printed in ink with precise demands and simple instructions for $200,000 in cash and two sets of parachutes (two backpacks and two chestpacks, which serve as emergency backups). He ordered the items delivered to the jet when it landed at Sea-Tac, and he said he would blow up the plane if the airline failed to comply. Schaffner and others who read the note later agreed it included the phrase “no funny business.”
Capt. Scott sent Schaffner back to the hijacker. She sat in Cooper’s aisle seat. He had moved to the window. Cooper opened his briefcase wide enough to give her a glimpse at wires and two red cylinders that might have been sticks of dynamite. Cooper told her to tell the pilot to stay aloft until the money and chutes were ready in Seattle. She hurried back to the cockpit with the latest message.
Scott soon announced over the intercom that a mechanical problem would require the jet to circle before landing. All but a few passengers apparently were unaware of a hijacking, although it would not have come as a great surprise in 1971.
Time Life Pictures / FBI / Getty
To this day, no one knows his real name but on Nov. 24, 1971, everyone in America was talking about the mysterious man who called himself D.B. Cooper. That day, Cooper hijacked Northwest Airlines Flight 305 and its 36 passengers using a briefcase that he said contained a bomb. “We will ask you to stay there until we get coordinated with our friend in the back,” the pilot told the control tower after the plane landed in Seattle. Once $200,000 and several parachutes were delivered per Cooper’s request, he demanded the plane fly him to Mexico. He also asked for the rear door to remain unlocked and the plane to be flown low and slow.
Cooper clearly had a plan, although officials didn’t realize what it was until it was too late. While the plane flew to Reno, Nev. (ostensibly for a refueling stop), Cooper parachuted into the night. Despite the fact that law-enforcement officials in five different planes were tailing the jetliner, no one witnessed the jump. Though the FBI contends that Cooper couldn’t have survived, it released new composite sketches in 2007 in hopes of closing the case.
The Hijacking Dilemma
The 1960s and early ’70s were the heydays of hijacking. More than 500 incidents of air piracy have been reported around the globe over the past 70 years, and about two-thirds of them happened from 1960 to 1973.
America has suffered its share—115 successful hijackings in 225 attempts against commercial airplanes owned by U.S. firms, according to the federal Transportation Safety Administration. The first reported airplane hijacking happened in 1931 in South America, when a Pan American mail plane piloted by an American was commandeered by revolutionary political faction in Peru. The commandos wanted to use the plane to drop propaganda leaflets. The pilot refused to fly, and the plane sat at an airfield for 11 days before the revolutionaries scratched the plan.
Political ideology played a role in most early hijackings, including about 25 airplane takeovers from 1947 to 1958 by Eastern Europeans attempting to flee Communism.
Financially motivated hijackings were rare but not unknown. On November 1, 1955, a United Air Lines flight from Denver to Seattle crashed 11 minutes after takeoff, killing all 39 passengers and five crew members. Investigators found indications of a bomb in the cargo hold. Evidence eventually cast suspicion on Jack Graham, a married father of two who managed a drive-in restaurant in Denver. Forensic experts determined the explosion was centered in a gift-wrapped parcel in luggage checked onto the jet by Daisie King, Graham’s mother, who died in the crash. Graham had given the package to his mother as she prepared to leave on a trip to Alaska via Seattle. Evidence would show that Graham had hoped to collect an inheritance and $50,000 in insurance policies. Instead, he was convicted of murder and executed.
Hijackings spiked sharply during in the 1960s, when “Take me to Havana” became a reliable laugh line for comedians as backers of revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro and others loyal to the man Castro deposed, Fulgencio Batista, crisscrossed the Straits of Florida aboard hijacked airplanes. This led President Kennedy in 1961 to initiate America’s first anti-hijacking measures, which are well-known today: armed Border Patrol agents assigned to select flights and cockpit doors equipped with locks. Congress also approved the death penalty for air piracy.
In 1968, a new era in air piracy commenced as disaffected Palestinians and other Arabs used passenger jets to lash out against Israel. The first such hijacking happened on July 23, 1968, when three Arabs seized a Tel Aviv-to-Rome flight of El Al, the Israeli airline. The plane was diverted to Algiers, where the passengers were eventually released, although some were held for a month.
El Al became an industry leader in airline security by screening passengers, posting armed guards on its flights and equipping cockpits with armored doors. Political hijackers then began focusing on other airlines that serviced Israel, including a number of American air carriers. In 1970, Palestinians achieved the landmark coordinated hijackings of three jets—one each from TWA, Swissair and British Airways. The planes were diverted to Jordan, emptied of passengers and crew, and blown up. (Many terrorism experts view that hijacking as a blueprint for the deadly attacks of September 11, 2001.)
But American authorities were loath to make sweeping changes in air security, even after the trio of hijackings to Jordan. President Nixon ordered the usual response of armed sky marshals on some flights. More aggressive measures, including baggage inspection and metal detectors, were rejected as being bad for the air travel business: They would make passengers jittery.
Against that backdrop, Dan Cooper was able to walk unchallenged aboard Flight 305 with a bomb—or what he claimed was a bomb—even though everyone in the air travel industry understood that the lack of security meant any individual passenger could take down a plane.
Meeting the Demands
The hijacking crisis crew on the ground, including Seattle cops, FBI agents, Northwest employees and Federal Aviation Administration officials, had roughly 30 minutes to meet Cooper’s demands. The FBI scrambled to assemble the $200,000 cash while Seattle cops worked on the two sets of parachutes.
Cooper had specified $20 bills—an indication of his attention to detail in the planning. He apparently had calculated that 10,000 $20 bills would weigh just 21 pounds. Smaller denominations would add weight and danger to his skydive. Larger denominations would be more conspicuous and therefore more difficult to pass.
Cooper specified the bills should have random, not sequential, serial numbers. FBI agents followed his instructions but made sure each bill began with the code letter L, issued by the Federal Reserve office in San Francisco. Nearly all of the bills were dated 1969. Against a ticking clock, the agents held a hurried session in which each bill was photographed to create a microfilm record of all 10,000 serial numbers.
Meanwhile, the search for suitable parachutes was more difficult than acquiring $200,000 cash.
The task at first seemed simple. Authorities at Tacoma’s McChord Air Force Base agreed to provide military-issue chutes. But Cooper—through a flight attendant messenger—rejected the military chutes, which have automatic opening mechanisms. Cooper insisted on civilian chutes, with user-operated ripcords. After a series of urgent phone calls, Seattle cops managed to make contact with the owner of a skydiving school. The business was closed, but the owner was pressed into service. He met officers at the school, and soon a police car with lights flashing and siren screaming raced to Sea-Tac Airport with a precious cargo of four parachutes.
Cooper’s hijacking note did not spell out his plan to skydive with the loot, but the authorities were able to deduce his intentions. They puzzled over his request for two sets of chutes. Did he plan to take along a passenger or crew member as an airborne hostage? The question negated any thoughts of using dummy parachutes that would end the hijacking—and the hijacker’s life—with a splat. To some, it was another brilliant detail of his plan.
Aboard the jet, Cooper drank a bourbon and water—and, oddly, offered to pay Mucklow for the highball. Cooper’s manners and temperament have been the subject of some disagreement. By the FBI’s account, he was boozy and rather raunchy. Ralph Himmelsbach, a lead FBI investigator on the case, has said the hijacker used “filthy language” and was “obscene.”
Yet Mucklow, who spent more time with Cooper than any other crew member, has described him as a gentleman. She said, “He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm.” One example was Cooper’s request that meals for the crew be brought on board once the jet was on the ground in Seattle.
Investigators surmised that Cooper was native to the Seattle area or was born in the Northwest and had spent some years around Puget Sound. The Northwest agent at Sea-Tac had discerned no regional accent when Cooper bought his ticket. Cooper had recognized Tacoma from the air while the hijacked jet was circling, and he knew that McChord Air Force Base was 20 minutes from Sea-Tac, based on a comment he made to Mucklow.
He was well-acquainted with skydiving and schooled in jet aerodynamics, including such details as the specs for wing flap angles and minimum air speeds for the Boeing 727. Some believe he was an active or retired airman who had spent time stationed at McChord.
‘Everything Is Ready’
With the cash and parachutes on hand, the ground team radioed Capt. Scott at 5:24 p.m. with a simple message: “Everything is ready for your arrival.” The plane landed at 5:39, barely 30 minutes behind schedule. Cooper ordered Scott to taxi to a remote, well-lit position on the tarmac. He ordered the cabin lights dimmed—a deterrent to police marksmanship. He specified that no vehicle should approach the plane and that the person chosen to deliver the chutes and money—a Northwest employee, it turned out—should arrive unaccompanied.
The airline employee drove a company vehicle to a point near the plane. Cooper ordered Mucklow to drop the aft stairs. The employee carried two parachutes at a time to the stairs, where he handed them over to Mucklow. The same courier then delivered the cash in a large, canvas bank bag.
With his demands met, Cooper got busy. He allowed his 36 fellow passengers and attendant Flo Schaffner to leave the jet via the same aft stairs. He did not release Tina Mucklow or the three men in the cockpit, Scott, Rataczak and Anderson.
Through Capt. Scott, an FAA official asked Cooper for permission to come aboard the jet. He apparently wanted to warn the hijacker of the consequences of his air piracy—including a possible death sentence. Cooper told him to stuff it and denied the request.
Meanwhile, as Mucklow stood by Cooper read an instruction card for operation of the aft stairs, which lowered by gravity from the underside of the rear of the fuselage through employment of a simple lever similar to an automobile emergency brake. Cooper questioned Mucklow carefully about the stairs, and the flight attendant said she did not believe they could be lowered during flight. Cooper told her flatly that she was wrong.
The hijacker then used the flight attendant’s cabin phone to give the cockpit personnel instructions on how and where to fly. He ordered an altitude not to exceed 10,000 feet, with wing flaps set at 15 degrees and airspeed of no more than 150 knots. Cooper warned the pilot he was wearing a wrist altimeter to monitor the altitude.
Larger jets could not have maintained such a low airspeed. But Cooper obviously knew that the lightweight 727 (just 50 tons without fuel) could fly as slowly as 80 knots in the dense air at 10,000 feet. Even with a full load of fuel the jet would have no problem maintaining a speed of 100 knots.
Skydivers prefer slower airspeeds to diminish the buffeting effects of the wind, but a dive at 150 knots is acceptable for an experienced jumper. And Cooper chose Flight 305 as much for its airplane as for its destination. The Boeing 727-100 has three engines, one high on the fuselage immediately in front of the vertical tail fin and two others on either side of the fuselage just above the horizontal tail fins. He knew that neither engine intakes nor exhaust would interfere when he lowered the aft steps and stepped out into the night sky.
Cooper told the crew he wanted to go to Mexico City, but First Officer Rataczak said the jet would have a range of just 1,000 miles at the altitude and airspeed the hijacker had ordered, even loaded to capacity with 52,000 gallons of fuel. Mexico City was 2,200 miles away. After a brief back-and-forth, the crew and Cooper agreed to an intermediate refueling stop in Reno, Nevada.
Before leaving Seattle, Cooper ordered a full refueling. A tanker truck was hurried to the jet, but a vapor lock slowed the process. Cooper again displayed his detailed knowledge of the 727. He apparently knew the jet could take on 4,000 gallons of fuel per minute. When the refueling process was not complete after 15 minutes, he demanded an explanation and made threats. Chastened by a man with an apparent bomb, the fuel crew soon completed the job.
In the meantime, the hijacker and cockpit crew negotiated the flight path. A straight-line route from Seattle south-southeast to Reno was impossible at Cooper’s assigned altitude of 10,000 feet. The 727 would have passed perilously close to several high peaks of the Cascade Range, including Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet), Mount St. Helens (9,677) and Mt. Adams (12,276). Capt. Scott and Cooper compromised on a standard low-altitude route—known as Vector 23 in the Jeppesen air navigational charts—that passed safely west of the high peaks. Vector-23 allows planes to maintain altitudes as low as 5,000 feet.
Finally, Cooper told Capt. Scott that the cabin should not be pressurized. The hijacker understood he could breathe normally at 10,000 feet, and he also knew the equalized air pressure inside the jet and out would minimize the potential for a violent surge of air when he dropped the aft stairs.
With all the essential flight details settled, Cooper ordered a prompt departure. The 727 taxied, rumbled down the runway, went aloft and tucked its wheels. The time was 7:46 p.m., two hours and six minutes after Flight 305 had landed in Seattle.
After takeoff, Cooper ordered Mucklow to the cockpit with the rest of the crew. The cockpit door had no peephole, and the jet was not equipped with the remote cameras and monitors now employed on many commercial planes. The crew was left wondering as Capt. Scott did his best to maintain the mandated elevation and airspeed against a bucking wind.
At 8 p.m., a red light illuminated on the instrument panel to warn of an open door on the aircraft—the aft stairs.
Over the intercom, Scott said, “Is there anything we can do for you?” The response was curt: “No!” It was the last word the crew heard from Dan Cooper.
At 8:24, Scott noticed the slightest dip in the jet’s nose, followed by a correcting dip of its tail. He suspected the aft stairs had been lowered, causing the jet to genuflect. Scott marked the spot, near the Lewis River, 25 miles north of Portland. The crew considered the possibility that Cooper had jumped, but it had no choice but to continue to Reno since there was no way to confirm the suspicion short of disobeying his order to stay in the cockpit.
The plane touched down in Reno at 10:15 p.m. The crew waited nervously for five minutes. Capt. Scott spoke over the intercom. Receiving no response, he cautiously opened the cockpit door. The passenger cabin was empty. The hijacker was gone, and he had taken with him most everything he carried on board, including his hat, overcoat and the briefcase bomb. The cash and one set of parachutes were gone, as well.
Pursuit of DB Cooper video highlights the daring leap
Pursuit of DB Cooper video highlights the daring leap
The leap was a remarkable feat.
Cooper had ambled down the aft stairs wearing both backpack and chestpack parachutes. He had a bag of money the size of a chubby toddler lashed to his body with nylon cords cut from the spare parachutes. He was either carrying or wearing a suit jacket, hat and raincoat. On his feet were leather street shoes. He stood at the bottom step, buffeted by a stinging wind and icy rain, and confronted a blind leap into unknowable terrain on a dark, stormy night. The air temperature at 10,000 feet was an estimated 7 degrees below zero. At Cooper’s moment of truth, the plane was traveling at slightly faster than his mandated airspeed—170 knots, or about 195 mph. Yet Cooper followed through on his plan. He took a dive into the inky darkness. Waiting to greet him were the spiked tops of 150-foot Douglas firs and the dangerous crags and crevasses of mile-high mountains.
Cooper, of course, was never heard from again. No one has been able to prove that he got away. But no one has proven that he didn’t.
Brief Summary of D.B. Cooper Case in 20 Sentences
One afternoon a day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a guy calling himself Dan Cooper (the media mistakenly called him D.B. Cooper) boarded Northwest Airlines flight #305 in Portland bound for Seattle. He was wearing a dark suit and a black tie and was described as a business-executive type. While in the air, he opened his brief case showing a bomb to the flight attendant and hijacked the plane. The plane landed in Seattle where he demanded 200K in cash, four parachutes and food for the crew before releasing all the passengers. With only three pilots and one flight attendant left on board, they took off from Seattle with the marked bills heading south while it was dark and lightly raining. In the 45 minutes after takeoff, Cooper sent the flight attendant to the cockpit while donning the parachute, tied the bank bag full of twenty dollar bills to himself, lowered the rear stairs and somewhere north of Portland jumped into the night. When the plane landed with the stairs down, they found the two remaining parachutes and on the seat Cooper was sitting in, a black tie.
Jets, a helicopter and a C-130 aircraft had been scrambled from the closest air force base to follow Cooper’s plane. The military was called in days after the hijacking and approximately 1,000 troops searched the suspected jump zone on foot and in helicopters. The Boeing 727 used in the hijacking was flown out over the ocean and the stairs lowered and weights dropped in an attempt to determine when Cooper jumped. The SR-71 super-secret spy plane was sent in to photograph the entire flight path but no sign of D.B. Cooper was ever discovered.
Nine years later in 1980 just north of Portland on the Columbia River, a young boy named Brian Ingram was digging a fire pit in the sand at a place called Tena Bar. He uncovered three bundles of cash a couple inches below the surface, with rubber bands still intact. There was a total of $5800, the Cooper serial numbers matched, and the first evidence since 1971 came to light. The FBI searched and analyzed the beach, the river was dredged by Cooper Hunters and the theories on how the money got there supercharged the Legend of D.B. Cooper.
Decades passed, D.B. Cooper became famous in book, movie and song. In 2007, Special Agent Larry Carr took on his favorite case with the restriction not to waste government time or money pursuing it. Agent Carr brilliantly decided the way around the problem was to treat the hijacking like one of his bank robbery cases – to get as much information out to the public as possible. He released previously unknown facts about the case and the D.B. Cooper frenzy started anew. In 2008 the Cooper Research Team came together to take up the challenge and was given special access to investigate the case. This website is the result of that three year investigation.
The Public Debates You Should Know About Before Reading this Website
The D.B. Cooper case continues to be debated in forums and chat rooms around the world. Most of the conversation (and arguments) center around a few ideas outlined below. The ‘Debate Factor’ is the level of interest for that theory among Cooper followers.
Did Cooper die in the jump? It is a huge public debate if Cooper died in the jump or not. Experienced skydivers say he would have died if it was his first jump but if he was an expert, no problem. One experience parachutist believed that anyone who had six or seven practice jumps could accomplished the jump. The cold weather may or may not have killed him in the woods even if he landed ok. No body or parachute was ever found. Debate factor* = 9 of 10
Was Cooper an experienced skydiver? He requested “front and back parachutes” = novice. He turned down instructions on how to use the parachute = experienced. He picked the non-steerable military parachute = novice. The military chute could better withstand the exit speed of the plane = experienced. He put the parachute on like he knew what he was doing = experienced. He took the reserve chute that was sewn closed and non-functional = novice. Debate factor = 7 of 10
The Tena Bar money find is problematic because it is 20 miles away from the town of Ariel, Washington where the drop zone analysis completed in 1971 said he jumped. In order to get the money on to Tena Bar, several theories are in play. First is the Washougal Washdown Theory, based on the idea that the money had to wash first down smaller rivers, then into the Columbia River in order to end up on Tena Bar. Second is that the FBI flight path was incorrect and Cooper actually landed on Tena Bar and buried the money. Third is that Cooper or someone else buried the money on Tena Bar to throw off the FBI. Debate factor = 10 of 10
The “Palmer Report” stemmed from the FBI bringing in Portland State University geologist Dr. Leonard Palmer to analyze the sand bar where the money was found. In between the 1971 hijacking and the 1980 money find, the Columbia River was dredged and sand was deposited on Tena Bar in 1974. Palmer’s report determined that the money was in a layer of top sand laid down by the dredging. This implied that the money was somewhere else upstream for years before coming to rest on Tena Bar. The counterpoint was that the delicate rubber bands were still intact on the bundles when found. The bands pointed to an earlier time frame for the money coming to rest on Tena. Debate factor = 9 of 10
Where was the real flight path? The flight path map in the FBI archive has no information on who drew the flight path or when it was created. The flight path as drawn is thought to be from the detailed analysis of radar data and flight recorder discussed in the FBI transcripts. The FBI path does NOT fly over Tena Bar or the Washougal area. The money found on Tena Bar forces the flight path debate because it would be much easier to explain the money find if Cooper flew over Tena Bar and jumped, or flight #305 flew over the Washougal River and Cooper’s ransom money ended up washing down stream. Debate factor = 7 of 10
How did three loose bundles of money stay together for years and then get buried together? Several possibilities have been put forth. The bank bag protected them for years in the river and then rotted away before the bills did. Cooper lost the money when he landed on Tena Bar in the dark. Someone else buried the money there. Debate factor = 5 of 10
Was Cooper from the area? He recognized Tacoma from the air = local. He would be an idiot to hijack an airplane where he could possibly be recognized = not local. He made the very unusual request for “negotiable American currency” unlike most Americans = not from this country. Debate factor = 3 of 10
How did the money degrade around the edges and get holes in them? Roots, tumbling downstream, dredging? Debate factor = 3 of 10
Are any of the current crop of suspects the real D.B. Cooper? Debate factor = 13+ of 10
D.B. Cooper Redux
Help Us Solve the Enduring Mystery
On a cold November night 36 years ago, in the driving wind and rain, somewhere between southern Washington state and just north of Portland, Oregon, a man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted out of a plane he’d just hijacked clutching a bag filled with $200,000 in stolen cash.
Who was Cooper? Did he survive the jump? And what happened to the loot, only a small part of which has ever surfaced?
It’s a mystery, frankly. We’ve run down thousands of leads and considered all sorts of scenarios. And amateur sleuths have put forward plenty of their own theories. Yet the case remains unsolved.
Would we still like to get our man? Absolutely. And we have reignited the case—thanks to a Seattle case agent named Larry Carr and new technologies like DNA testing.
You can help. We’re providing here, for the first time, a series of pictures and information on the case. Please look it all over carefully to see if it triggers a memory or if you can provide any useful information.
Left: During the hijacking, Cooper was wearing this black J.C. Penney tie, which he removed before
jumping; it later provided us with a DNA sample. Right: Some of the stolen $20 bills found by a
young boy in 1980.
A few things to keep in mind, according to Special Agent Carr:
Cooper was no expert skydiver. “We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper,” says Special Agent Carr. “We concluded after a few years this was simply not true. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky. He also missed that his reserve chute was only for training and had been sewn shut—something a skilled skydiver would have checked.”
– March 2009: New Developments in the Unsolved Case
– December 2007: Help Us Solve the Enduring Mystery
– November 2006: The D.B. Cooper Mystery
– Video: Scientists Hunt for D.B. Cooper
– FBI Vault: Documents About D.B. Cooper Case
– Gallery: The D.B. Cooper Case
The hijacker had no help on the ground, either. To have utilized an accomplice, Cooper would’ve needed to coordinate closely with the flight crew so he could jump at just the right moment and hit the right drop zone. But Cooper simply said, “Fly to Mexico,” and he had no idea where he was when he jumped. There was also no visibility of the ground due to cloud cover at 5,000 feet.
We have a solid physical description of Cooper. “The two flight attendants who spent the most time with him on the plane were interviewed separately the same night in separate cities and gave nearly identical descriptions,” says Carr. “They both said he was about 5’10” to 6’, 170 to 180 pounds, in his mid-40s, with brown eyes. People on the ground who came into contact with him also gave very similar descriptions.”
And what of some of the names pegged as Cooper? None have panned out. Duane Weber, who claimed to be Cooper on his deathbed, was ruled out by DNA testing (we lifted a DNA sample from Cooper’s tie in 2001). Kenneth Christiansen, named in a recent magazine article, didn’t match the physical description and was a skilled paratrooper. Richard McCoy, who died in 1974, also didn’t match the description and was at home the day after the hijacking having Thanksgiving dinner with his family in Utah, an unlikely scenario unless he had help.
One of the parachutes left behind by Cooper and the canvas bag it came in. Cooper asked for four
chutes in all; he jumped with two (including one that was used for instruction and had been sewn shut).
He used the cord from one of the remaining parachutes to tie the stolen money bag shut.
As many agents before him, Carr thinks it highly unlikely that Cooper survived the jump. “Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open.”
Still, we’d all like to know for sure, and Carr thinks you can help.
“Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the $5,800 in ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream. Or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle.”
This map was made to help investigators figure out where Cooper landed.
If you have any information: please e-mail our Seattle field office at firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more details on the case, see our story of November 24, 2006.
Cooper left behind a few things, including the spare chutes and 8 Raleigh-brand cigarette butts. Authorities were surprised also to find the hijacker’s black tie and tie tack, with a mother-of-pearl detail—an overlooked potential bit of evidence that was perhaps the only mistake he made. FBI crime-scene experts catalogued 66 fingerprints that could not be matched to the crew or other passengers. They led nowhere.
In retrospect, a simple cops-and-robbers approach might have been the best chance to catch the hijacker: follow the plane, wait for him to jump, then track him to the ground. Law enforcers tried to do this, but the opportunity was lost in a questionable choice of a chase plane. The Air Force scrambled up two F-106 fighter jets from McChord. Those pilots were instructed to follow at a safe distance and watch for a jumper. But the fighters are built to fly at speeds of up to 1,500 mph. They were useless in slow-motion, low altitude surveillance. The authorities tried to recover by sending up a slower-flying Air National Guard Lockheed T-33, but Cooper probably had already jumped by the time it arrived.
Nasty weather on the night of the jump led authorities to put off a ground search until the next day, Thanksgiving. An exhaustive search, by land and by air, over several weeks failed to turn up any trace of the hijacker or his parachute, an eye-catching yellow and red, although they did find the body of a missing teenager. Searching was difficult in the vast timberlands of the jump area—much of it owned by the giant paper firm Weyerhauser. But many Cooper-philes contend that the fruitless searches after the hijacking disprove the splatter theory about the hijacker’s fate.
On Thanksgiving, the FBI mounted a search of its national crime records for known felons named Dan Cooper, just in case the hijacker had been foolish enough to use his real name. The agency dispatched a Portland-based agent to police headquarters in that city to check the rap sheet of a local man, D.B. Cooper. Joe Frazier, a news wire service reporter in Portland, heard the FBI was nosing around police headquarters. A records clerk told him they were checking on D.B. Cooper regarding the Northwest Orient hijacking. The man was cleared, but the name D.B. Cooper was hung on the hijacker, and the alias stuck like Velcro.
DB Cooper Wanted Poster
DB Cooper Wanted Poster
A widely circulated composite drawing of the suspect, based on recollections by the Northwest Orient crew and passengers, shows a man who bears a vague resemblance to Bing Crosby—probably as much for the skinny tie as the facial features. The hijacker (“John Doe AKA Dan Cooper”) was charged with air piracy in abstentia in federal court in 1976. The charges stand today, and the case is technically still open. The FBI says it has checked out nearly 1,200 potential suspects and compiled enough paperwork and reports on the case to fill a 727. The tips continue to trickle in—some from citizens who call with a hunch about a friend, relative or colleague, others from people claiming to be Cooper.
The FBI no doubt would love to solve the case of the man who made a monkey out of law enforcers.
“It’s that desperado mystique,” Walt Crowley, a historian who lives in the vicinity of the jump, told Susan Gilmore of the Seattle Times. “It was an extraordinary audacious act to lower that rear gangway in flight and jump into a dark and stormy night. He didn’t hurt anybody … and we all love a mystery.”
FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach who spent eight years as lead investigator in the case before retiring in 1980, sees it differently. He has called Cooper “a rodent,” “a bastard,” “a dirty, rotten crook” and “nothing more than a “sleazy, rotten criminal who jeopardized the lives of more than 40 people for money.”
“That’s not heroic,” he once told a newspaper reporter. “It’s selfish, dangerous and antisocial. I have no admiration for him at all. He’s not at all admirable. He’s just stupid and greedy.”
In his book about the case, “NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper,” Himmelsbach promoted the splatter theory. And how did the body, the cash and the parachute escape detection, after years of searching by armies of law enforcers, volunteers and even Boy Scouts? Himmelsbach says they may have been looking in the wrong place.
The jump area was believed to have been roughly 10 miles east of Interstate 5, near Ariel, Wash., and the Lake Merwin Dam of the Lewis River, which separates Clark and Cowlitz counties. The FBI helped pinpoint that location by staging a reenactment of the jump. A 200-pound sled attached to a parachute was heaved from the aft stairs of a 727 traveling at the same speed and altitude as the Cooper jet at the precise place where Capt. Scott felt the jet genuflect.
But later calculations placed the jump just west, not east, of I-5, near the village of Woodland, Wash., and the Columbia River. The costly searching near Ariel was wasted, Himmelsbach said. Remarkably, he said this revelation occurred to him in 1980 when, on the day of his retirement, Capt. Scott paid him a courtesy visit. They got to talking, and Scott let drop that the jet was traveling west of where the FBI believed it had been. No one with the agency has ever offered an explanation as to how such a goof could have gone undetected for nine years.
FILE–This is a 1973 file photo of a drawing of D. B. Cooper who became a legend when he jumped out of a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 with $200,000 in ransom money 25 years ago between Seattle and Portland, Ore. Cooper hasn’t been heard of since; however, some $5,880 of the loot was found along the Columbian River in 1980. Mike Cooper, who was sitting across the aisle and has a similar name, for a brief time became the most wanted man in America. (AP Photo/FBI, HO) Ran on: 09-04-2005 D.B. Cooper, shown here in a 1973 FBI drawing, became a legend when he hijacked a plane and parachuted away with $200,000.
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2005-09-04 04:00:00 PDT Vancouver, Wash. — Some people spend their summer days lounging on beaches or hiking up mountains. Others retreat into movie houses and bookstores.
For California lawyer and former FBI agent Richard Tosaw, summer means trekking to the Columbia River and continuing his 24-year search for the legendary skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper. Thirty-four years ago above this southwest Washington town, Cooper parachuted from a jetliner with $200,000 — and into folk-hero stardom. He was never seen or heard from again.
The FBI calls his crime the only unsolved skyjacking in history, and the agency continues to keep the case open.
Tosaw believes the skyjacker’s remains lie somewhere in the river. This month he hired a team of divers to scour a stretch of the river where a small portion of the ransom money was found. It was Tosaw’s second trip to the river this summer. He’s made the journey often enough to call it a tradition.
“I know guys who go elk hunting every year,” said 80-year-old Tosaw, who lives in the Modesto area. “I look for Mr. Cooper. It’s my hobby.”
It’s an expensive hobby, but Tosaw, a bachelor with no children, said he “can afford to have a little fun.” He paid the three-man dive team $2,500 a day for four days, searching an area on the Washington side of the river about five miles west of Vancouver. The team used a barge, pushed by a tugboat, as a command center. Tosaw, in jeans and sweatshirt, manned the barge like a captain, overseeing the activity and occasionally offering direction.
With the searchers wearing camera-equipped helmets, Tosaw watched the search as it happened, seeing what the divers saw in real time.
The river is about 400 feet across and 40 feet deep at that location. The divers concentrated on the shallows, going no deeper than 30 feet along the bank. They found all kinds of debris, including a 2,000-pound anchor believed to be about 100 years old — but no sign of Cooper.
The hope was to find something sticking out of the silt: a leg bone or belt buckle or wallet. Tosaw said the water in the Columbia was cold enough that Cooper’s body probably would be well-preserved if it was down there.
“He could also be under 5 feet of sand,” Tosaw said. “It’s a needle in a haystack, I know. You’d have to be a lot lucky to find him.”
What drives him, he said, is plain curiosity and stubbornness.
“I’ve always liked solving mysteries, and this is a big mystery,” he said. “How can a person in America in the 20th century jump from an airplane with $200,000 in ransom money and nobody knows who he is or where he is? That doesn’t sit well with me. There’s got to be an answer.”
Tosaw has spent most of his life solving mysteries of one kind or another. As a new graduate of a Denver law school, he joined the FBI in 1951 and served as a special agent for five years before starting his law practice in California. After a quarter century of law, he started a business tracking down heirs of people who died with unclaimed estates.
He was never officially involved in the search for Cooper, but he said he was always intrigued by the case and became friends with some of the lead investigators. In 1981, he read a newspaper article on the 10th anniversary of the skyjacking, and Tosaw has been looking ever since.
On his own time, he interviewed the crew and passengers of the skyjacked plane and eventually wrote and published in 1984 a book titled “D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive?” At one point, Tosaw offered a $25,000 reward for the fugitive. Each year he uses the latest in high-tech search equipment to search the Columbia River, which is calmest and clearest during the summer.
He’s also surveyed more than 100 parachutists on whether they thought Cooper could have survived the jump; about three-fourths said it was possible if he had served in the military as a paratrooper. At that time, military service was the most likely way to have learned how to parachute. Cooper was believed to have been in his 40s at the time of the skyjacking, which means he could have served in the Korean War.
The skyjacking happened on Thanksgiving eve 1971. A white man wearing a white shirt, narrow black tie, dark suit, raincoat, sunglasses and carrying a briefcase boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 in Portland, Ore. During the flight, he informed the crew that his briefcase contained a bomb and that he would detonate it if he wasn’t given $200,000 in ransom money and four parachutes.
The Boeing 727 landed in Seattle, where the passengers were released and authorities complied with Cooper’s demands. The plane took off for Portland with only Cooper and the crew left on the plane. About 45 minutes later, Cooper offered the flight attendants $2,000 each as a tip and then opened a door in the back of the plane and bailed out — into darkness and a driving rainstorm.
That was the last anybody saw of Cooper. Authorities don’t even know whether that was his real last name. The name he provided when he bought his airline ticket was Dan Cooper. After the skyjacking, a newspaper reported that police had interviewed an Oregon man named D.B. Cooper, who turned out to be the wrong man, but the name stuck.
Cooper made it to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
“This is a guy who tweaked Uncle Sam’s nose and appears to have gotten away with it,” said retired FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, trying to explain Cooper’s folk-hero status. Himmelsbach, who once headed the investigation, said that although Cooper broke the law, he didn’t hurt anyone — except probably himself.
Himmelsbach said Cooper jumped from 10,000 feet into a minus 7 degree temperature — 69 degrees below zero when calculated with wind chill — while wearing “a business suit and slip-on loafers. … It’s a long shot he survived.”
In February 1980, an 8-year-old boy picnicking with his family along the Columbia River found a muddy wad of $20 bills totaling $5,800. Authorities confirmed the money had been part of Cooper’s loot. The find corroborated the theory that Cooper probably was dead at the bottom of the river, but others speculated that he was clever enough to have placed the money in the river as a diversion.
It is near this spot — an area where debris naturally collects — where Tosaw has concentrated his efforts over the past several summers.
“People want to believe he got away with it. They want to believe he’s alive somewhere,” Tosaw said. “I just want to find his wallet, so the world will know who the hell D.B. Cooper really was.”
A woman claiming to be the niece of infamous skyjacker D.B. Cooper has spoken to ABC News in an exclusive interview about her role in the recently re-ignited 40-year-old cold case that has haunted the FBI for years.
Marla Cooper told ABC News that she has provided the FBI with a guitar strap and a Christmas photo of a man pictured with the same strap who she says is her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper.
After clarifying her childhood memories surrounding the incident and more recent conversations with her parents, she is now sure that her uncle is in fact the notorious man who hijacked and threatened to blow up a commercial plane flying to Seattle in 1971, then parachuted to the ground with $200,000 in hand.
“I’m certain he was my uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper. Who we called L.D. Cooper,” she told ABC News.
Marla Cooper is working on a book about her belief that her uncle is the hijacker, but that is not her main motivation for coming forward.
She said that L.D. Cooper was a Korean war veteran, but he was not a paratrooper. She thinks he lived in the northwest, had children and died in 1999. She said he remained isolated from his family.
He worked with leather and made the guitar strap that she has turned over to the FBI.
The FBI is now searching the guitar strap they received for fingerprints at their forensic lab in Quantico, Va., which will be checked against partial fingerprints obtained from the hijacking. Meanwhile they are hunting for evidence to prove L.D. Cooper was on that plane in 1971.
The real identity of D.B. Cooper has been a mystery since November 24, 1971, when a man calling himself Dan Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient Airlines plane bound for Seattle from Portland. He ordered the plane to land and demanded a $200,000 ransom and a parachute.
After he received the money in $20 bills and the parachute, he ordered the plane to take off for Mexico. Cooper then did the unthinkable when he lowered the back stairs and jumped out of a speeding 727, thousands of feet over the Pacific Northwest during a raging storm.
He disappeared, despite a massive manhunt that has become the stuff of legend and even a 1981 movie. Throughout the years many leads in the case have became dead ends, and it remains the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history.
The case was reignited when a male suspect’s name was given to the FBI by a law enforcement agent, as was a guitar strap. Sources familiar with the case confirm that it was Marla Cooper who prompted the latest flurry of investigation.
So far no fingerprints have been found on the guitar strap, and the F.B.I. will not officially comment on the case.
“It’s a very unique case…Agents have been actively assigned to it and it’s passed on from generation to generation…of agents that have worked leads as they have developed,” said Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and former FBI profiler.
Garrett said the FBI is likely examining the life of Marla Cooper’s uncle for more clues that he could be the infamous D.B. Cooper.
“Does this guy’s background actually fit someone that could have pulled this off because this guy did have a proficiency in a 727 plane, how low it would fly, how slow it would fly and that you could jump out the back of it,” Garrett said.
Family Secrets Could Crack Mystery
Marla Cooper says that as an 8-year-old she recalled her two uncles planning something suspicious at her grandmother’s house in Sisters, Oregon — not far from where D.B. Cooper jumped from a plane with $200,000 in cash one day later.
“My two uncles, who I only saw at holiday time, were planning something very mischievous. I was watching them using some very expensive walkie-talkies that they had purchased,” she said. “They left to supposedly go turkey hunting, and Thanksgiving morning I was waiting for them to return.”
A day later, Northwest Orient flight 305 was hijacked, and her uncle L.D. Cooper came home claiming to have been in a car accident.
“My uncle L.D. was wearing a white t-shirt and he was bloody and bruised and a mess, and I was horrified. I began to cry. My other uncle, who was with L.D., said Marla just shut up and go get your dad,” she said.
Marla Cooper is now convinced there was not a car accident, but that her uncle was injured crashing to earth in a parachute. She says that she also remembers a discussion about the money that day.
“I heard my uncle say we did it, our money problems are over, we hijacked an airplane,” she said.
It later became clear, however, that there was no money. It is believed that the hijacker lost much of the cash as he came crashing down.
Marla Cooper says that her two uncles wanted to return to search for the cash, but her father refused. She believes this was because the FBI search was just beginning to take shape.
After that Thanksgiving Day she never saw her uncle again. She was told he died in 1999.
In 1980, the case was put in the spotlight once again, after a young boy found $5,800 in $20 bills from the ransom money decomposing along the banks of the Columbia River.
Marla Cooper showed ABC News a 1972 Polaroid picture of her uncle, a Korean War veteran. She claims the picture is eerily similar to the composite sketch authorities put out in the 1970s — and even says that one of the flight attendants that was in the hijacked plane agrees.
“Of all the photos that have been brought to her attention over the years my uncle really looked like him, ‘this sure looks like the guy’ is what she said,” she told ABC News.
ABC News tried to reach some of those flight attendants for comment but was unsuccessful.
According to Marla Cooper, two conversations with her parents initially made her suspicious. The first was in 1995 with her father just before he died.
“My father made a comment about his long lost brother, my uncle L.D. … he said ‘don’t you remember he hijacked that airplane?'” she said.
At the time she was unable to embrace such an incredible story. But in 2009 it came up again while speaking with her mother.
“A couple years ago my mother made a comment, another comment, a similar comment that she had always suspected that my uncle L.D. was the real D.B. Cooper,” she said.
Marla Cooper eventually contacted the FBI, and recently provided them with the guitar strap seen on the photo so that they can check it for fingerprints.
“I contacted the FBI as soon as I was sure that what I was remembering were real memories,” she said. “There’s a crime that’s taken place that hasn’t been solved and I’m the only one, as far as I know, who knows what happened.”
She also said that her uncle was obsessed with the Canadian comic book hero Dan Cooper, and even had one of the comic books thumb-tacked to the wall. She added that she thinks her uncle didn’t expect to survive the hijacking.
“I’m not convinced that he wasn’t on somewhat of a suicide mission. I really think he jumped out not expecting to live,” she said.
The FBI also obtained a partial DNA sample from the black JCPenney clip-on tie Cooper left on the plane before jumping out. The FBI extracted the sample in 2001.
Geoffrey Gray, the author of the forthcoming “Skyjacking,” is the first journalist to look at the FBI files related to the case and said that several people have come forward over the years claiming that their long-lost relative was the hijacker.
“I think that right now we’re on the verge of like a new round of Cooper mania…The story of Cooper is really the story of people coming forward claiming that they heard a long-lost uncle say something,” Gray said. “We’re fascinated with genteel thiefs and here’s a guy who committed a crime where there were relatively few victims, dressed in a suit, clip-on tie and made a getaway and was never seen again.”