D. B. Cooper
At 2:53 P.M. on November 24, 1971, a tall, nondescript man boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle. Five hours later, with $200,000 in ransom money tied to his waist, he parachuted out the back of the Boeing 727 into the dense forests of southern Washington—and into the pantheon of folk heroes.
The man gave the alias Dan Cooper when he bought his ticket (an erroneous news report supplied the name D. B., which stuck). Wearing sunglasses and a dark suit, he found a seat in an unoccupied row. As the plane was taking off, he passed the flight attendant a note stating that he had a bomb in the briefcase on his lap and demanding $200,000 in small bills and four parachutes when they landed in Seattle. When his demands were met, Cooper released the passengers and directed the pilot to take off toward Mexico at an altitude below 10,000 feet and a speed of less than 200 miles per hour. Shortly after 8 p.m., Cooper ordered the flight attendants into the cockpit, put on two of the parachutes, lowered the aft staircase, and stepped out into the stormy night somewhere near the Washington-Oregon state line. To this day, it stands as the world's only unsolved skyjacking.
Despite one of the most extensive manhunts in FBI history, agents found no body or parachute and never determined the hijacker's real identity. Meanwhile, Cooper was rumored to be drowned in the Columbia River, dead and eaten by animals in the forest, laundering his cash in Reno or Las Vegas, or alive in New York, Florida, or Mexico. People came forward with skulls, deathbed confessions, and tales of a man who looked like the FBI's composite sketch, but none of it ever amounted to anything. Cooper's legend blossomed, inspiring a 1981 movie, The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, with Treat Williams in the title role. In 1978, a hunter in Washington found a plastic placard that was verified to be from the rear stairs of the 727.
In 1980, an eight-year-old boy playing in the sand on the banks of the Columbia River unearthed $5,880 of Cooper's loot. Those 294 bills are the only part of the ransom that has ever surfaced, and they seem to lend credence to retired FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach's less than romantic version of what really happened. "Most likely he was injured on impact," says Himmelsbach, who worked on the case from 1971 to 1980 and posits that Cooper died by the side of a creek. "And then later, the creek overflowed and carried him and the money downstream, where the money was found."
Sounds logical, but logic never killed a folk hero. The most recent fuel for the fire comes in the form of Duane Weber, a 70-year-old Florida man who, as he was dying in 1995, confessed to his wife that he was Dan Cooper. His widow, Jo Weber, contacted the FBI. She began to wonder about some of Duane's strange behavior—like the 1978 nightmare in which a sleep-talking Duane said something about fingerprints on the aft stairs, or the 1979 vacation to Washington during which Duane walked down to the banks of the Columbia by himself just four months before the portion of Cooper's cash was found in the same area. "If Duane was not Cooper, someone will have to explain a lot of things to me," says Weber. "It is a story with so many coincidences that it defies the odds."
The FBI recently visited Weber's Florida home and removed gloves, an electric shaver, and hair samples, presumably for the purpose of extracting Duane's DNA to compare with that extracted from cigarette butts that the hijacker left behind.
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.
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.
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."
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."
As it turns out, a certain Dan Cooper is very much alive—on the pages of a French comic book series that was popular when the hijacking occurred. In the fictional series, Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot Dan Cooper takes part in adventures in outer space and real events of that era. In one episode, published near the date of the hijacking, the cover illustration shows him parachuting.
Special Agent Carr believes it's possible the hijacker took his name from the comic book. That's important because the books were never translated into English, which means the hijacker likely spent time overseas. This fits with Carr's theory that Cooper had been in the Air Force. Carr discovered the comic book connection on D.B. Cooper Internet forums, where fascination with the case is undiminished. The forums are also where Carr found the "citizen sleuths" who volunteered to help us reinvigorate the case.
Tom Kaye, a paleontologist who usually searches for dinosaur bones in the Wyoming desert, with a team that included a scientific illustrator and a metallurgist, and assistance from a veteran Cooper searcher and Brian Ingram—who was eight years old in 1980 when he found $5,800 of the ransom money on a sand bar along the Columbia River (the only physical evidence in the case after Cooper jumped from the plane)—Kaye recently spent time conducting soil, water, and other experiments on the Columbia and some of its tributaries. "The FBI threw out the challenge," he said, "and we've taken the bait."
Using technology unavailable in 1971, such as satellite maps and GPS, Kaye hopes to pinpoint exactly where Ingram found the money nearly three decades ago. He plans to retrace the plane's flight plan to determine more exact coordinates for Cooper's landing zone. And using an electron microscope, he wants to figure out if pollen found on a tie Cooper left behind on the plane came from a specific region of the country.
Kaye conducted experiments to help determine if the money, a stack of dollar bills on fishing line, Ingram found floated there over time, or was buried there shortly after Cooper jumped. "After 37 years," he said, "we're trying to use science to narrow all the possibilities." The case continues to fascinate the nation.
The FBI has confirmed that the case is still open, and will remain so indefinitely. Even though our investigation has remained open, it doesn't make sense for the FBI to commit substantial resources to this nearly four-decade-old crime, Carr says. "So if the public can help, by whatever means, maybe we can shake something loose." The daring hijack and disappearance remain an intriguing mystery — for law enforcement and amateur sleuths alike. Fair warning: you might get hooked on the case!
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