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How the Hunt for D.B. Cooper Worked

Whoever this "D.B. Cooper" is, he looks pretty sketchy.
Whoever this "D.B. Cooper" is, he looks pretty sketchy.
Bettman/Getty Images

In July 2016, the FBI closed the book on a cold case that had captivated amateur and professional sleuths alike for nearly half a century.

On Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1971 — the day before Thanksgiving — a man walked up to the Northwest Orient Airlines ticket counter at Oregon's Portland International Airport and inquired about a ticket for Flight 305, a 30-minute flight to Seattle's SeaTac Airport. It was cold and stormy out, but the flight — depending on whom you talk to — was on schedule.

The man wanted to be sure that the plane on that route was a Boeing 727-100, which, in a couple hours, would be significant. The ticket agent assured him indeed it was, and the man purchased a one-way ticket for $20. He filled out the ticket voucher in red ink, putting his name down in block letters as Dan Cooper.

The Boeing 727-100 is a smallish plane, not the smallest in the Boeing fleet, but the only one that had an aft staircase. On board the plane for Flight 305 were five crew members: pilot, Capt. William Scott; co-pilot, Robert Rataczak; senior flight attendant Alice Hancock; and two flight attendants, Tina Mucklow and Florence Schaffner. The 37 passengers settled in for the flight. Dan Cooper, who sat in 18C, ordered a bourbon and 7-Up. He smoked Raleigh brand cigarettes, an off-brand, with his left hand.

Cooper looked to be in his mid-40s. He was olive-complected, with fancy marcel waves in his hair. He wore a white shirt beneath a russet-colored suit, that kind of dark burgundy-brown color, dark loafers and a skinny black tie that was, in fact, a clip-on from J.C. Penney. He fastened it in place with an imitation-pearl tie pin. Dan Cooper had with him an overcoat for the rainy weather and a bag, a sort of briefcase. Other than the fact that he was wearing horn-rimmed sunglasses aboard the flight, there was nothing remarkable about the man.

After the plane was aloft and pretty 23-year-old Florence Schaffner brought him his drink, he quietly passed her a note.

This kind of thing happened a lot to Florence Schaffner. Businessmen routinely hit on her on flights and she assumed this was more of the same. In view of Dan Cooper, she put the note away without looking at it. After a moment, Dan Cooper called her over to his seat in 18C.

"Miss, you'd better look at that note," Cooper said to her. "I have a bomb."

The Hijacking

Flight attendant Florence Schaffner, one of the crew members of the hijacked Flight 305, told reporters she initially thought the hijacker was trying to hustle her when he gave her a note stating "I have a bomb."
Flight attendant Florence Schaffner, one of the crew members of the hijacked Flight 305, told reporters she initially thought the hijacker was trying to hustle her when he gave her a note stating "I have a bomb."
Bettman/Getty Images

Florence Schaffer read the note. It informed her again of the presence of a bomb and invited her to sit beside him. Schaffner was shaken enough to follow his instructions. Once seated beside him, she asked if Cooper was kidding. He opened his bag enough to show her what looked like a large battery and half a dozen red cylindrical sticks, connected by a series of wires inside the bag. He told her to write down a note to take to the cockpit. It read:

"I want $200,000 by 5 p.m. in cash. Put it in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff, or I'll do the job."

Dan Cooper was a sharp tack. The only threat Cooper made during the entire hijacking came in that ransom demand. He was smart enough to ask Florence Schaffner for the initial note back when she was done reading it. From that point on, Cooper dictated all of his demands for the flight attendants to write down and deliver to the cockpit, which meant other than the ticket duplicate he'd filled out using block letters, the cops would have no handwriting samples of his. Aside from speaking briefly on the cabin to cockpit phones in a couple of instances, the pilot and co-pilot had no interaction with Cooper, and so they would be of little help after the hijacking was over.

What's more, that he'd asked for two pairs of parachutes was a stroke of brilliance. While it revealed his intention to parachute away with the ransom, it also indicated to authorities that he planned on forcing a hostage to jump with him. This ensured the FBI wouldn't give Cooper parachutes that had been tampered with.

Schaffner took the note Cooper had dictated to her to Alice Hancock, who took it to the cockpit. The pilot and co-pilot relayed to air traffic control at SeaTac that a man with a bomb had taken control of the plane and wanted $200,000 in "negotiable American currency" (which is weird). The airport's management called the Seattle PD, which, in turn, called the FBI. They had about an hour to come up with the cash and the parachutes. What would prove to be the only unsolved hijacking in American history was officially underway.

Meeting Demands

Flight attendant Tina Mucklow (right) described the hijacker as "not nervous." Captain Bill Scott (center) said, "We first knew he was not aboard when we arrived in Reno." First officer Bill Rataczak is at left.
Flight attendant Tina Mucklow (right) described the hijacker as "not nervous." Captain Bill Scott (center) said, "We first knew he was not aboard when we arrived in Reno." First officer Bill Rataczak is at left.
Bettman/Getty Images

While Schaffner was away taking the ransom demands to the cockpit, Cooper had Mucklow sit beside him in her place. To give the cops time to come up with the ransom money, the airliner would have to circle the area around SeaTac Airport.

The other 36 passengers were told that the plane was experiencing a slight mechanical problem and that they would need to circle for an hour or so to burn off some fuel. They had no idea they were aboard a plane that had been hijacked, that's how cool Cooper played it. (One passenger would later claim to have suspected they'd been hijacked, though.) In reality, Flight 305 was the only plane in the sky above Seattle; all other flights had been diverted. One nearby plane tuned into the comm line between 305 and SeaTac control and broadcast it into the cabin for its own passengers to listen in on.

As the plane circled, Cooper chatted calmly with Mucklow about her home state (Minnesota, which Cooper said was nice) and the driving time between SeaTac and a local Air Force base (20 minutes). At one point Cooper offhandedly pointed out that the plane was over what looked like Tacoma, which would later indicate to the feds who interviewed Mucklow that Dan Cooper likely knew the area. In the interim, Cooper sat calmly and quietly and occasionally smoked a cigarette.

Mucklow asked Dan Cooper if he had a grudge against Northwest Orient.

"I don't have a grudge against your airline, miss," he replied. "I just have a grudge."

On the ground, authorities scrambled to fulfill Cooper's demands. The money was no problem. Northwest Orient's president Donald Nyrop agreed to pay immediately. The company was insured against such events, and the insurance company would take the brunt of the hit, paying back $180,000 (NWO had a $20,000 deductible on that particular policy).

The downtown branch of a local bank, SeaFirst, was tapped to provide the actual currency on NWO's behalf. They kept money pre-assembled in stacks of varying amounts to make it look like the money had been hastily gathered. In reality, each bill's serial number had been recorded and stored on microfilm. Banks do this in case of armed robberies, but in this case it worked just as well for a skyjacking.

Much more difficult was finding the parachutes.

The recreational skydiving craze was in its infancy and the cops were having a difficult time finding someone who could come up with four chutes. The manager of SeaTac knew a guy who ran Seattle Sky Sports in nearby Issaquah. The owner, Earl Cossey, agreed to help out, and a cop car was dispatched to pick up the chutes.

Cossey called the center to ask an employee to get the chutes ready. In their haste, they grabbed a dummy reserve chute. This kind of chute is used to practice throwing the initial pilot chute into the air. The main part of the chute — the important part — was sewn shut. To prevent just such cases of mistaken use, dummy chutes are marked clearly with an X.

Tension on the Ground

D.B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727-100 similar to this one.
D.B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727-100 similar to this one.
MyLoupe/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

When the cops arrived with the chutes and the money, Flight 305 was given notice, and the hijacked crew prepared to land. Assuming correctly that the authorities on the ground had snipers in positions around the airport, Cooper had the flight attendants ask the passengers to lower their window shades prior to landing. The passengers, still unaware of their situation, did as they were asked.

The plane touched down in Seattle. Before the passengers were allow to deplane, Cooper sent Mucklow to get the money and the parachutes. At this point, Tina Mucklow could have stayed safe and sound on the ground outside of the plane with the FBI. But because the passengers and her co-workers were still aboard, she went back onto the plane, essentially trading herself for the passengers.

Once she was back aboard, the passengers were allowed to leave — and with them Florence Schaffner and Alice Hancock. At one point after the plane had emptied, a blissfully ignorant passenger scrambled back onboard to retrieve an item left behind.

And then it was down to Cooper, Mucklow, Scott and Rataczak. Scott and Rataczak had repaid Mucklow for coming back by staying aboard themselves. There was an emergency rope ladder in the cockpit they could have used to easily escape the hostage situation with the plane on the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) apparently didn't have high hopes for the crew remaining behind. The agency's chief psychiatrist had delivered a brief analysis of Cooper and decided that he would parachute from the plane, forcing Tina Mucklow to jump with him, and would blow up the plane after he'd jumped out. The FAA decided to share this info with the cockpit crew.

Cooper asked for food to be delivered to the plane for the crew he kept hostage. And Mucklow said he was steady during the tense situation on the ground. She was steady herself: With the passengers released and the cabin empty except for herself and the hijacker, she sat back down beside Cooper. He offered her a couple stacks of bills for her troubles, but she turned it down. "No tipping allowed," she told him.

As the plane was being refueled, Cooper passed along a request to the flight crew. He wanted the plane to take off with its aft staircase down. The pilot told him this was impossible, but he still looked into it. To his surprise, he learned after communicating via relay with Boeing engineers that while the plane could not possibly take off with the aft staircase down, the aft stairs could be lowered mid-flight. This would later provide a tantalizing clue.

After convincing Cooper that this was his only option, staircase-wise, the hijacker relented. They discussed where they would fly next. His answer? Mexico City. The crew informed him that they'd have to refuel along the way, and the cockpit crew suggested Reno, Nevada, and Yuma, Arizona, as the stops. Cooper agreed.

The Jump

After Tina Mucklow turned away from D.B. Cooper in the 727, no one knowingly saw the hijacker again.
After Tina Mucklow turned away from D.B. Cooper in the 727, no one knowingly saw the hijacker again.
Patrick Bennett/Getty Images

As the refueling process went on, Cooper had a moment of uncharacteristic aggravation.

"It shouldn't take this long," he told Mucklow, and he picked up the cabin-to-cockpit phone to address the pilot directly: "Let's get this show on the road," he ordered.

He gave them specific instructions on just how to fly the plane: Altitude of 10,000 feet, wingflaps at 15 degrees (an angle option only the 727-100 had) and no more than 200 knots (about 190 mph, or 305 kph). At that altitude, the cabin would not be pressurized, which ensured two things. One, it would allow Cooper to open the aft stair door, and two, it would keep him from being sucked right out of the plane when he did.

Cooper had problems. The feds had delivered the cash in a canvas bank bag, not in a knapsack like he'd asked for. That meant he would have to make a handle for the bank bag using the lines from one of the parachutes. He likely never planned to force Mucklow or anyone else to jump with him.

He opened a recreational freefall chute, a pink one, the best of the four he had on hand, and cut the lines and used them to make a handle for the bank bag. He and Mucklow had now moved to the rear of the plane, into the compartment where the aft stairs lowered. It seemed that Cooper believed he would need her help in lowering the stairs, and Mucklow was understandably a little freaked out. She asked for some of the rope from the chute he'd opened so she could lash herself to the interior of the plane in case she was sucked out.

"Never mind," Cooper said and dismisses her. He instructed her to go to the cockpit and not to come any farther back than the curtain that divided first class from coach. When she turned and walked away, it was the last time anyone saw Dan Cooper.

In the cockpit, a light came on at 7:42 p.m., indicating the aft staircase door was open. The crew called the phone in the rear of the plane. Cooper answered, and they asked whether he needed any help. "No," he replied, and hung up. At 8:12, the crew felt the plane oscillate — the movement created by Cooper jumping from the bottom of the aft stairs. Dan Cooper was gone.

The Manhunt

Helicopters of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Ft. Lewis, Washington, prepare to land after making a terrain search for hijacker D.B. Cooper.
Helicopters of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Ft. Lewis, Washington, prepare to land after making a terrain search for hijacker D.B. Cooper.
Bettman/Getty Images

Because Cooper had clearly signaled his intention to parachute from the plane, the FBI scrambled nearby military aircraft to keep tabs on Flight 305. They had a couple issues. The fighter jets they chose were too fast and quickly lapped the 727. Conversely, the helicopter tailing the plane was too slow. Meaning? No one saw Dan Cooper jump.

Instead, the FBI used the crew's report about the plane oscillating suddenly at 8:12 to zero in on a probable landing zone, and they identified the area around Ariel, Washington, near the Lewis River, as the likely spot.

The manhunt was massive. A thousand military troops and police officers combed the woods and riverbanks. A local millionaire suspected that Cooper had dropped into Lake Merwin and rented a small submarine to search for the ransom money. Even the SR-71 Blackbird, the secret stealth spy plane in the employ of the CIA, was scrambled multiple times to secretly surveil the area in search of Cooper — a suspicious tidbit that would emerge later.

The FBI interviewed everyone in the region with the last name of Cooper. And it is through this canvassing that we come to one of the biggest misreportings of all time. At one point, cops (or a record clerk, depending on whom you ask) discussed in front of a reporter (either UPI or AP, depending on whom you ask) about possible suspects named Cooper who could have pulled off such a crime. One mentioned a D.B. Cooper. The reporter filed a story saying authorities were looking for a D.B. Cooper, and the name Dan Cooper became irreversibly altered. Later on, the FBI would learn that Dan Cooper was the name of a popular comic book character in Belgium, an ace Canadian jet pilot, who was created in the early 1950s.

For its part, the FBI believed Cooper died during the jump. Ralph Himmelsbach, a blowhard field agent from the Seattle office who was a pilot himself, had been following Flight 305 in the helicopter that hadn't been able to keep up. Himmelsbach wasn't the lead agent on the case, but he was the most dedicated to it and became the most famous fed associated with D.B. Cooper. He was also the one who gave the case its official code name, NORJAK (for "Northwest hijacking"), and self-published a book about the case in 1986.

Himmelsbach believed Cooper probably hadn't even gotten his chute open and had plunged to his death, winding up buried by the impact on the forest floor in the Cascade Mountains.

After he retired in the early 80s, Himmelsbach finally got the chance to meet with Capt. William Scott, the pilot of Flight 305, and after interviewing him, he came to believe the probable landing zone was actually 40 miles east of where the manhunt had focused.

The Odds

The Cascade Mountains are beautiful but probably don't make for the best landing zone.
The Cascade Mountains are beautiful but probably don't make for the best landing zone.
Lidija Kamansky/Getty Images

Indeed, Cooper had tremendous odds against him during his jump. The outside temperature that night was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius), and at 190 mph (305 kph) and 10,000 feet (3,047 meters), the wind chill would have dropped to about -7 F (-21.7 C). It was also pelting freezing rain, and the clouds would have mostly covered up the faint quarter moon out that night, cutting visibility to a minimum.

Cooper was also not dressed for the occasion. He was wearing business attire: loafers, a suit and an overcoat. The terrain he jumped into was as forbidding as the weather. The Cascade Mountains are nearby, and the land is covered with tall, pointy trees. And he also had to carry both the bank bag and the bag with the bomb, which — contrary to the prediction of the FAA's chief psychiatrist — he had not left behind to detonate.

In fact, after Florence Schaffner was interviewed, the FBI believed the sticks of dynamite she saw were actually road flares (since those are red and dynamite is tan) and that Cooper didn't have a bomb at all. Still, Cooper must have known this would be crucial evidence and decided to take the bag with him in the jump.

He also didn't help his own cause with his extremely poor choice of parachutes. He'd left the two best chutes on the plane, one of which he'd harvested for its rigging to make the bank bag handle. Instead, Cooper opted for a military chute, which had no means of steering once deployed and the ripcord of which was not as easily reached as those of the two recreational chutes he passed over. For his reserve front chute he chose the dummy chute, again clearly marked with an X to indicate the main parachute inside had been sewn shut.

Other theories of Cooper's immediate demise include his surviving the landing but being eaten by bears or Sasquatch or facing some other type of gruesome death before he could make it out of the woods.

Another suggestion is that he was burned by the jet exhaust of the 727's tail engine, which was located just above and in front of Dan Cooper while he stood on the aft staircase before he jumped. However, FBI testing largely discredited this theory. The feds used a 200-pound (90.7-kilogram) sled to simulate Cooper's weight, plus the 21 pounds (9.5 kilograms) the weight of the $200,000 added. They found that at the altitude and speed Flight 305 maintained, the dummy fell straight down, away from the jet's engine. The drop also produced the same oscillation to the plane that the crew had noted at 8:12 p.m.

Despite all of the probabilities stacked against Dan Cooper surviving his jump, there was one key matter that continues to suggest he may have made it: Not a single trace was found of him during that massive manhunt, or for many years after.

The Clues

Brian Ingram found some of Cooper's $20 bills, now badly decomposed.
Brian Ingram found some of Cooper's $20 bills, now badly decomposed.
Bettman/Getty Images

That's not to say Cooper vanished without leaving anything behind. There were the two chutes he left. The FBI found his skinny tie and tie pin on board the 727. They also recovered his Raleigh cigarette butts (he'd smoked eight over the five hours aboard the plane; all eight butts have since been lost) and a hair from the headrest. That was about it.

Cooper thwarted the FBI's most routine evidence, fingerprints. They couldn't find a single print on any of the cigarette butts Cooper had left behind. This was particularly maddening, since such prints could conclusively be shown to be Cooper's. They did find prints around the area where he sat, including on an in-flight magazine, but no known print of Cooper's was found.

Outside of the plane it would be seven years before a trace of the hijacking was found, and even then it was fairly humdrum. In 1978, hunters in the Oregon woods found a plastic instruction placard showing how to lower the aft staircase on a 727-100. While it was definitively shown to be from Flight 305, the placard was found along the plane's flight path, so the clue generated no new leads. Instead, it was remarkable for reigniting interest in the case, enough to inspire a 1981 movie called The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, starring Treat Williams as Cooper and Robert Duvall as the insurance investigator pursuing him after he successfully gets away.

In February 1980, the first sensational clue turned up. Eight-year-old Brian Ingram was on a camping trip with his family and was smoothing out sand to make a fire pit on Tina (or Tena) Bar along the Columbia River, 5 miles (8 kilometers) downstream from Vancouver, Washington. Ingram turned up three stacks of rotting $20 bills, totaling $5,880. Ingram's parents contacted the police and then the FBI, which asked Ingram's father to read out one of the serial numbers. The stacks turned out to be part of the ransom money given to D.B. Cooper.

After years of analysis, investigators have not conclusively determined how the money could have arrived at the point where Ingram found it. In the state of preservation the money was in after nine years, Agent Himmelsbach and others believe it was exposed to water for only a year or so prior to being found. Tina Bar is more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) away and along another river from the Ariel, Washington, search area along the Lewis (which does flow into the Columbia downstream from Ariel).

A hydrologist consulted by the FBI suggested that either the money ended up there when the Columbia was dredged and the sand taken from it was deposited along Tina Bar in 1974, or when the Columbia River flooded in 1977. Who knows?

For his part, Brian Ingram got to keep $3,000 of the loot later on, and in 2008 he sold 15 of the bills for a total of $37,000.

After Ingram found the cash, no other clues turned up for 28 years. In 2008, in the area around Amboy, Washington, a few miles southeast of the Ariel search zone, kids noticed a piece of fabric sticking out of some freshly graded ground on their family land. As they pulled, more and more fabric was exposed. It turned out to be a military parachute and one that looked to have been buried for some time. When the kids reached the lines and cords attached to the fabric, they cut them and took their discovery to their father who alerted the cops.

The FBI showed it to Earl Cossey, the owner of the now-defunct skydiving center, to see whether it was one of the ones he'd provided as part of Cooper's ransom. It wasn't. The chute Cooper used was nylon; this one was made of silk. Instead, amid much hubbub in the national media over the possibility that a major clue from the Cooper heist had been discovered, it was identified as a far older parachute, specifically the one that jet pilot Marine Lt. Floyd Walling ditched in the woods after he bailed out of his Corsair fighter one night in December 1945.

While the chute wasn't Cooper's, its discovery did shine a light on the possibility Cooper survived. Walling had. In the same type of weather, Walling had survived his jump and the walk in the woods as he made his way for 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) to a nearby town.

Without a Trace

The CIA sent out one of its SR-71 Blackbirds in the search.
The CIA sent out one of its SR-71 Blackbirds in the search.
John Parrot/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

There's a famous composite sketch of D.B. Cooper drawn by FBI sketch artists who interviewed Florence Schaffner, Alice Hancock and Tina Mucklow. It isn't very good.

Schaffner was extremely freaked out during the hijacking. In fact, while the Cooper crime is widely considered victimless, Schaffner said later: "I was thinking about dying. That's all I thought." Both she and Hancock spent relatively little time with Cooper.

Tina Mucklow, however, spent five hours with him and was also deeply affected by the hijacking. She spent the 1980s as a nun in an Oregon convent and has always refused to speak publicly about the incident.

Analysis of Cooper's behavior and decisions has yielded some potential clues. He chose a military chute over a superior recreational chute. This suggests he had perhaps military experience with skydiving and was not a recreational skydiver. But a great many people in skydiving circles who follow the case point out that just about anyone with parachuting experience would note the dummy chute Cooper chose as his back up and avoid it.

It seems insane to suggest that Cooper planned the heist without any prior parachuting experience. So was he military and simply overlooked the X, or an inexperienced civilian who noticed it and missed its meaning?

He also knew the plane extremely well. He knew about its altitude capacities, wingflap capabilities and was noted later by the flight crew as being obviously familiar with the interior of the cabin. Yet he initially believed that he would need Tina Mucklow's assistance in lowering the aft staircase midflight. Was he a pilot? An airline employee of some sort?

His awareness of the aft staircase and its potential to be used for a skydiving jump also raises flags. In 1971 only a very small group of people knew of the 727-100's ability to lower the staircase mid-flight. This group was limited to the aircraft's engineers at Boeing and the CIA. During the Vietnam War, the CIA flew covert missions into Cambodia (where it most decidedly was not supposed to be) in 727-100s and used the aft staircase midflight to drop supplies and agents. These operations were a closely guarded secret for years. So was Cooper a CIA agent? Does this explain why the CIA was so generous with its SR-71 spy plane in the search for Cooper?

Cooper was also described by everyone who interacted with him as calm and even considerate. He never lost his head, and he even tried to pay for the drink he ordered during the flight. The only threat was in the initial ransom demands. And he was obsessively meticulous and careful to leave behind as little trace of himself as possible.

The Suspects

Sketch lookalike Richard McCoy was sent to jail for a crime similar to D.B. Cooper's.
Sketch lookalike Richard McCoy was sent to jail for a crime similar to D.B. Cooper's.
Bettman/Getty Images

The FBI refuses to say one way or the other, but some estimates of the number of suspects in the case over the years approach 1,000. A great many have been state prisoners who confessed in the hopes of being transferred to vastly preferable federal facilities. Others have been turned in by their families.

One of the first suspects to emerge was Richard Floyd McCoy. In February 1972, four months after the Cooper heist, McCoy hijacked a 727-100, demanded and received $500,000 in ransom and successfully landed and escaped after he jumped from the aft stairs of the plane over Utah.

McCoy was a Green Beret in Vietnam, experienced with skydiving, bore some resemblance to Dan Cooper and, not least of all, pulled off a virtually identical heist. McCoy was found five days after his heist and was sent to prison. He escaped by making a fake gun out of plaster and rode out of the prison on a garbage truck. He was killed shortly after in a shootout with police. However, he's considered likelier a copycat since he was 29 while Cooper was in his 40s and because his family said he was at home with them in Utah for Thanksgiving in 1971.

Duane Weber was a career criminal, both as himself and as John C. Collins, an alias he used. Combined, his two personas had done 16 years in the pokey. Weber's wife, Jo, said that nine days before he died in 1995 he confessed to her on his deathbed that he was Dan Cooper. Jo had no idea what her husband was talking about. He blew up, never explained further and the two dropped it.

Later on, Jo learned that Dan Cooper was the original name of D.B. Cooper and began poking around in her husband's past, becoming more convinced as she did. She has become his greatest champion and promoter of her late husband being Cooper (she even commented that Duane was Cooper on an earlier HowStuffWorks article about the heist).

In addition to describing his confession, Jo said that in 1979 she and Duane were on a car trip through the area where the Cooper hijack took place. At one point he pointed to a patch of woods and told her, "That's where D.B. Cooper walked out of the woods." On the same trip, she said he stopped the car on a bridge over the Columbia River around the area where Brian Ingram found the $5,880 in ransom money the next year. Duane told Jo to wait in the car, while he opened the trunk and was gone for several minutes. She said she couldn't tell where he went or what he did. Despite being ruled out by the FBI thanks to DNA testing, he remains widely liked as Cooper by many people.

As does Kenny Christiansen. His brother Lyle outed him in a strange effort to get Nora Ephron to direct a movie about D.B. Cooper with Kenny as the culprit. Despite that bizarre basis, there are quite a few interesting coincidences that link Dan Cooper and Kenny Christiansen.

For one, Kenny looked a lot like the sketches of D.B. Cooper. He was a flight purser for Northwest Orient Airlines. He was a former paratrooper with experience using military parachutes. He was quiet and calm, smoked cigarettes and drank bourbon, and lived in the area where the hijacking took place. In 2011, reporter Geoffrey Gray showed Florence Schaffner a photo of Kenny from that era, and she thought he "might be onto something." Like Duane Weber, Kenny Christiansen also tried to make a deathbed confession of some sort, but his brother wouldn't hear him out, and whatever secret he had to share went with him to the grave.

The List Goes On

FBI agents dig in the sand on the north shore of the Columbia River where a portion of the D.B. Cooper hijack money was found.
FBI agents dig in the sand on the north shore of the Columbia River where a portion of the D.B. Cooper hijack money was found.
Bettman/Getty Images

A man by the name of L.D. Cooper was also outed by a family member as a possible suspect. His niece came forward in 2011 and said she remembered her uncle showing up to Thanksgiving dinner in 1971 bruised and bleeding, explaining he'd been in a car accident. But he'd seemed inexplicably triumphant.

She suspected another uncle, L.D.'s brother, had helped him in the heist. L.D. and his brothers lived in the area of the hijacking and were handy out of doors. His brother was an engineer at Boeing. He was also known to be a fan of the Dan Cooper comic books. The FBI still kind of likes L.D. for Cooper, even after DNA comparison proved inconclusive. One big missing piece of the puzzle is that, while L.D. was a Korean War veteran, he didn't seem to have had any experience skydiving. This could rule him out, or he could have been the type of person crazy enough to try a heist like that without any prior experience. It would explain the choice of the dummy chute.

Barbara Dayton is the only woman suspected of being D.B. Cooper. Born Robert Dayton, in 1969 Barbara became Oregon's first recipient of gender reassignment surgery. In her former life, she'd been an Army paratrooper and during WWII, in Special Ops in charge of, among other things, assembling guerilla armies from local tribesmen.

Barbara was also a pilot and had befriended a husband and wife private pilot couple, Ron and Pat Forman. At some point, Barb Dayton confessed to being Dan Cooper to the Formans. They came to believe that she had disguised herself as a man to carry out the heist and then blended back into society as a woman after her escape. Dayton later recanted, and the FBI has never listed her as an official suspect, but the Formans still managed to get a book out of it, The Legend of D.B. Cooper: Death by Natural Causes.

Other suspects — and there are lots of them — include a man who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986; a military veteran who killed his mother, wife and three kids a few months before the heist; a skydiving instructor who called the FBI to offer assistance on the case; and a paratrooper with experience with HALO night jumps.

The Legacy

The 1981 film "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper," starring Treat Williams, is yet one more aspect of the case's enduring legacy.
The 1981 film "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper," starring Treat Williams, is yet one more aspect of the case's enduring legacy.
Universal/Film Favorites/Getty Images

To this day, the D.B. Cooper heist remains America's only unsolved airline hijacking. Though the case faded into obscurity after the initial event, the emergence of prospective clues and new suspects over the years has revived interest and cemented the case's status as a piece of American folklore.

Every year, on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, you can go to the Ariel Store and Tavern for the D.B. Cooper Days Festival and enter a lookalike contest. The case has spawned songs, like "The Ballad of D.B. Cooper"; movies, like the one starring Treat Williams; countless books, most of which purport to close the case once and for all but do not; dramatizations on TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries; and lots of websites, like n467us.com, citizensleuths.com and Dropzone.com, formerly a recreational skydiving forum that has been mostly taken over by D.B. Cooper aficionados.

On Dropzone you can find all manner of people involved in the case, like Jo Weber and even Larry Carr, who in 2007 became the lead FBI agent on the cold case. Carr posted pseudonymously as "ckret" and challenged the amateur detectives on the site to propose suspects based on profiles he offered, like that Cooper obviously wasn't a big drinker (he'd had only one drink in a high-stress situation) or a chain-smoker, as is frequently reported (eight cigarettes over five hours).

Carr's presence on the Dropzone boards was part of a larger information dump to the public. Previously, the FBI maintained close secrecy over its files on the Cooper case. Carr, whose background is in bank robberies and who was a Cooper enthusiast before he took over the case, opened much of it up to the public in the hopes of generating leads. He also oversaw DNA samples taken from the tie (three people's profiles were found, as were traces of, puzzlingly, pure titanium and impatiens pollen). Like Himmelsbach before him, Carr also thinks Cooper didn't survive the drop.

The D.B. Cooper heist changed American aviation forever. Dan Cooper is the reason we began to all walk through metal detectors and why, in 1973, airlines were given the power to search passengers' bags before they boarded their flights. The death penalty was reinstituted for hijacking that same year. And if you look at the rear of any Boeing 727-100, you will find a white paddle on the plane's exterior. The paddle, which has to be unlatched from the outside, holds the aft staircase locked in place and prevents it from being lowered midair. They call this paddle, a very simple mechanism that arose from a very complicated unsolved mystery, a Cooper vane.

Author's note: How the Hunt for D.B. Cooper Worked

D.B. Cooper was one of the first subjects, like ghosts and trepanation, to catch my attention as a kid. I remember seeing his story first on the old NBC series Unsolved Mysteries, and I still hear Robert Stack's voice narrate when I imagine the staircase lowering from the jet in flight and Cooper jumping into the night sky over Washington. When I came to HowStuffWorks.com and worked as the history writer for a time, this was one of the first article ideas I pitched.

One of the parts of the D.B. Cooper story that makes it so enduring isn't just the mystery alone. It's also the tantalizing clues or the theories from retired FBI agents that float to the surface of the media from time to time and revive the whole discussion again. The D.B. Cooper mystery is alluring because it may never be solved (and I kind of hope it isn't).

But there is also a darker side to it -- even darker than the crime itself. The Cooper theft led to a new world where hijacking is possible. In just a few short years, taking control of airplanes filled with hostages became too regular an occurrence. I don't think you can pin that trend entirely on Cooper, but his crime did take away a lot of the naïveté that people once had toward air travel.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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