The Search For D. B. Cooper

The Search For D. B. Cooper

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Language: English

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00:18
A daring parachute escape from a flying 727 somewhere between Reno... A search was made of the plane immediately... We don't know who he was, where he came from, or where he went. I expect that we'll keep looking until we find him or find out what happened. In the afternoon of November 24, 1971, a middle-aged man carrying a briefcase walked into Portland International Airport and purchased a one-way ticket to Seattle, Washington. The man identified himself as Dan Cooper and, along with 36 other passengers and a crew of 6, he soon boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305. Once aboard, Cooper made himself comfortable in the middle of the last row of seats on the right side of the cabin. He ordered a drink and had a smoke because this was the 70s. Once the flight was cleared for departure, Cooper turned around and handed an envelope to flight attendant Florence Schaffner. Inside the envelope was a note featuring a handwritten message stating he had a bomb. Schaffner reluctantly sat down beside him and glimpsed what appeared to be
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eight sticks of dynamite inside his briefcase. Cooper's demands were quite simple. He wanted $200,000 in cash and four parachutes. He also demanded a fuel truck to stand ready to refuel the aircraft once they landed in Seattle. Should they fail to comply with his demands, he threatened to "do the job." Once the flight was airborne, Schaffner went to inform the cockpit crew, while another flight attendant, by the name of Tina Mucklow, remained by Cooper's side. By using a telephone in the rear of the cabin, Mucklow acted as an intermediary between Cooper and the rest of the flight crew for the remainder of the hijacking. For the next hour and a half, Flight 305 maintained a holding pattern near Seattle while local and federal authorities scrambled to procure the ransom as well as the four parachutes. 10,000 $20 bills were collected from a local bank while the owner of a nearby skydiving school supplied the chutes. At 5:45 P.M., more than two hours past its scheduled arrival, Flight 305 finally touched down in Seattle. By this point, it was well after sunset,
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and the aircraft was brought to a remote section of the tarmac. Once the flight came to a stop, both the ransom and the parachutes were handed over to Mucklow, who then brought them back aboard. In exchange, Cooper permitted two of the flight attendants as well as all the passengers to disembark. Many of whom had not yet realized the flight had been hijacked. With the ransom paid and only four crew members remaining onboard, Cooper told Mucklow to inform the Captain that he wanted to fly to Mexico City. They were to fly with the landing gear down, the flaps at 15 degrees, and below 10,000 feet. The lights in the cabin were to be switched off, and the aft stairway, which opens from the underbelly of the fuselage, was to remain extended. Two of Cooper's demands could not be satisfied. First of all, the flight configuration he'd requested would not allow for a non-stop flight to Mexico City. As such, Cooper proposed a refueling stop in Phoenix, Yuma, or Sacramento before they all agreed on Reno, Nevada. Second of all, it was not possible to depart with the ventral staircase extended.
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Cooper agreed to retract the stairs on the condition that Mucklow remained by his side and taught him how to extend them once the plane was airborne. Parked for nearly two hours due to complications with refueling, Flight 305 was back in the air by 7:36 P.M. Less than five minutes after takeoff, Cooper told Mucklow to head for the cockpit and that, from this point onwards, he was not to be disturbed. The last time she saw Cooper, he was standing in the middle of the aisle as if though he was preparing to jump. Mucklow joined the rest of the crew, locked the cockpit door behind her, and some three hours later, Flight 305 safely landed in Reno. Once the flight came to a stop, the crew carefully ventured into the rear of the cabin, but there was no sign of Cooper nor the bomb. The aft stairway had been extended mid-flight and was slightly damaged upon landing. It seemed, there was only one explanation for the hijacker's absence. At some point, between Seattle and Reno, Cooper had strapped on a parachute, walked down the stairs, and leaped into the dark of night.
05:13
As soon as it became clear that Cooper was no longer on board, dozens of FBI agents converged upon the aircraft, only to discover a disappointing amount of physical evidence. A black clip-on tie... ...eight cigarette butts... ...and two of the four parachutes were all that Cooper left behind. Evidently, he brought the ransom and briefcase along with him. In interviews conducted on the night of the hijacking, Cooper was described by the crew and passengers as a white male with brown eyes and dark hair. He appeared to be in his mid-forties and wore a dark trench coat, a dark suit, a white shirt, a black tie, and dark shoes. Soon after boarding, he'd also donned a pair of sunglasses. Based on this description, the FBI produced the first of several composite sketches. Before they could mount a search, however, the FBI had to figure out when Cooper abandoned ship. But that was easier said than done. None of the four crew members witnessed Cooper jumping from the plane nor did the pilots of two fighter jets, which escorted the flight between Seattle and Reno.
06:17
Which is not all too surprising given it was the middle of the night. Although, the flight crew did report something odd. The last communication with the hijacker occurred at approximately 8:05 P.M. when the crew used the intercom to offer assistance, which Cooper declined. Within the next 10 minutes, the crew experienced what they described as an oscillation or vibration of the aircraft. At the time, the crew suspected it might have been produced by Cooper's jump, and a subsequent recreation of the hijacking supported that conclusion. Okay, so that took care of the when, but what about the where? While Cooper was very explicit about the flight's configuration and destination, he never specified any kind of route. In fact, Cooper grew so impatient with the slow refueling in Seattle that he dismissed the Captain's request to file a flight plan and simply told him to "get the show on the road." As such, the Captain chose to fly along an airway known as Victor 23 without any input from Cooper. By using Victor 23 as a guide, authorities estimated the most probable location of the flight
07:18
at the approximated time of the jump was about 40 kilometers north of Portland. And so, at the break of dawn, the FBI mounted an impressive search operation using helicopters, airplanes, and ground troops. The problem was, even if the estimated bailout point was accurate, Cooper's eventual landing- or drop zone was far more difficult to pinpoint. The loosely defined search area covered a vast stretch of mountainous wilderness occluded by a dense forest, so it was truly like finding a needle in a haystack. Apart from the difficult terrain, the search was further complicated by low temperatures and inclement weather which persisted for days. Despite their best efforts, authorities never managed to find a single trace of Cooper nor the items he'd brought along with him. Having made little to no progress by early December, the FBI turned their attention to the $200,000 ransom. The money had been collected from the Seattle-First National Bank, which maintained a ransom package of $250,000 just for such an occasion.
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Because of this, the serial numbers of the 10,000 $20 banknotes given to Cooper had been documented in advance. A complete list of which were quickly made available to financial institutions, government agencies, and the general public. The intention was to make it as difficult as possible for Cooper to spend his money. Northwest Airlines and several newspapers even began to offer rewards to anyone who could find a note with a matching serial number. In spite of these efforts, no one ever did. That is until nearly a decade later. In early 1980, a young boy, named Brian Ingram, was building a campfire on a small beach in southern Washington. As he was digging into the sand, Ingram discovered three bundles of cash totaling $5,880. Having heard about the infamous skyjacking, Ingram's parents brought the severely degraded bundles to the FBI. The notes were promptly inspected, and sure enough, the serial numbers matched those of the ransom. Once the excitement subsided, however, the money managed to raise far more questions than it answered.
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The most significant of which was how? How did the money end up so far away from the drop zone? Looking at this map, it might be tempting to think that Cooper simply dropped some of the money, which then fell into the Lewis River. The bundles could then have been carried further downstream by the Columbia River before finally being washed ashore at Tina Bar, which is the name of the beach. Tina Mucklow. Tina Bar. Coincidence!? Yeah, coincidence. Anyway, the problem with this idea is that the Columbia River flows in the opposite direction. This has lead some, including members of the FBI, to reevaluate the initial drop zone assessment. For instance, if the drop zone was much further southeast, close to a river called the Washougal River, it is conceivable, albeit improbable, that the money floated all the way down to Tina Bar. Alternatively, the bundles may have simply landed on the beach if the flight path was further to the west. Even so, natural explanations struggle to explain how three independent,
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potentially free-falling and/or free-floating, bundles of cash ended up at the exact same place on the same beach. To complicate matters, sediment from the riverbed was excavated and dumped onto Tina Bar as part of a dredging operation in 1974. And, according to one analysis, the money was discovered above this layer of sediment. If true, that would mean the money came to rest at Tina Bar sometime after 1974. But a reexamination of that analysis found that what was believed to be a layer of deposited sediment might actually have been a perfectly natural layer of clay. Not only that, but the sediment was clearly dumped some distance away from where the money was discovered. Furthermore, when Ingram discovered the bundles, the rubber bands which held them together were still intact. This is significant because experiments conducted in 2009 revealed that this brand of rubber bands could not withstand exposure to open-air or water for more than a year. So unless the bundles where somehow protected from the elements, they must have become buried at Tina Bar within a year of the hijacking.
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The most probable explanation, therefore, seems to be that Cooper or someone else deliberately buried the money. Did Cooper survive and bury the money himself? Did someone else bury the money after stumbling upon Cooper's remains? If there is an explanation which does not require human intervention, it's managed to elude investigators for decades. Suffice it to say this is a mystery within a mystery. Since Ingram's discovery in 1980, both Tina Bar and the grounds around the Washougal River have been subjected to numerous searches. But, to date, there's been no sign of Cooper nor the rest of the money. From the very beginning, it was assumed by many that Cooper did not survive his daring escape. It would not make for a very thrilling conclusion to this story, but that's the thing about stories, they're usually far more exciting than reality. While there is no hard evidence for nor against Cooper's survival, the assumption that he fell to his death is not without merit. When Cooper leaped into the darkness, Flight 305 was plowing through a frigid rainstorm
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at roughly 170 knots, 10,000 feet above southern Washington. The wind was so violent that it ripped out a placard from the aft stairway, which was later recovered in 1978 almost directly below the estimated flight path. To say that Cooper was not dressed for the occasion would be an understatement. The ground beneath him, meanwhile, was obscured by multiple layers of clouds, which likely means that Cooper jumped without knowing his precise location. Even if he could see the ground and had a specific drop zone in mind, the parachute he selected was non-steerable. Meaning, he would not have been able to steer his descent towards a specific landing spot. Thus, precluding any potential coordination with an accomplice stationed on the ground. While Cooper expressed some familiarity with parachutes, his actual competence level is up for debate. It's widely believed that Cooper demanded two pairs of parachutes, two primary and two reserves, to make the authorities believe that he intended to take a hostage. That is precisely what happened as the FBI contemplated but eventually decided against
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sabotaging the chutes as they did not want to risk the life of an innocent civilian. But in their haste to obtain them, they unintentionally provided Cooper with a nonfunctional dummy-chute intended for training purposes. This mishap seems to have gone unnoticed by Cooper because that dummy-chute was one of the two missing from the plane. Not only that, but Cooper chose the older and technically inferior parachute out of the two primary chutes provided. So, in both cases, it seems like Cooper made the worst possible choice. But there are other ways to interpret this information. For instance, it's possible that Cooper used the dummy-chute, not as a reserve, but as a means to secure the bag of money. In fact, that is precisely what Cooper tried to do with the functional reserve chute. First, he tried to place the money in the chute's canopy before removing some of the suspension lines and wrapped them around the bag. Perhaps he used the dummy-chute for a similar purpose? And Cooper's decision to use the older primary chute is not necessarily an indication of inexperience.
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It could also be a sign of familiarity because the chute he left behind was a civilian luxury chute while the one he used was a military chute. The argument is that Cooper might have been trained as, say, a paratrooper, and chose the older military chute because that's the one with which he was most familiar. And there is at least one other reason to suspect that Cooper had a military background. While the flight was in a holding pattern near Seattle, Cooper mentioned that the McChord Air Force base was only 20 minutes away from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. At the time, that was an accurate assessment and might suggest a military background. Apart from the potential military connections, Cooper may even have had links to the Central Intelligence Agency. You see, the type of aircraft which Cooper chose to hijack, a Boeing 727, was also used by the CIA to covertly drop agents and supplies during the Vietnam War. A task for which the Boeing 727 was uniquely qualified due to its distinctive aft stairway. So it's fairly safe to assume that Cooper chose to hijack a Boeing 727
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specifically because it provided a relatively safe means of escape. Whether he learned of this from the CIA or came to that conclusion independently is another question. However, the fact that Cooper chose to hijack a flight operated by Northwest Airlines was apparently random chance. When Tina Mucklow asked Cooper about his motives, he responded: "It's not because I have a grudge towards your airline, it's just because I have a grudge." He further clarified that Flight 305 happened to be in the right place at the right time. Even so, it's clear that Cooper came prepared. He seemed to know a great deal about aircraft and aviation. He appeared to be familiar with the local terrain. He maintained a low profile to avoid a panic. He covered his eyes with a pair of glasses to conceal his identity. He left very little evidence behind. And he demanded four parachutes to force the assumption that he was taking a hostage. He was even cunning enough to reclaim the note which he'd initially given to Florence Schaffner. Apart from the name he wrote on his plane ticket, there are no other samples of Cooper's handwriting.
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But for all his planning and cunning, it seems Cooper did not give enough thought to his eventual escape. Not only did he fail to specify a route, but he was forced to make a last-minute destination change from Mexico City to Reno. He could have demanded more appropriate parachuting equipment like a pair of boots, a helmet, or jumpsuit. He could even have specified the ransom to be delivered in larger denominations to make it lighter and less cumbersome to carry. Presuming he did survive the fall and made it safely to the ground, he may then have had to make his way through a dense, partially snow-covered forest in nothing but loafers and a trench coat in late November. I get the distinct impression that Cooper's escape was much more of a leap of faith than a carefully executed jump. On the other hand, authorities never received a missing persons report matching the description of Cooper in the wake of the hijacking. This might suggest that he did survive and that he swiftly and quietly resumed his normal routine. Furthermore, other hijackers have performed similar stunts,
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and many of them did survive, even if they were quickly apprehended. Finally, the simplest explanation for how three bundles of cash ended up at Tina Bar is human intervention. At the end of the day, most of this is based on nothing but supposition. Without any concrete evidence of Cooper's demise, it leaves the door wide open to the far more exciting proposition that he did, in fact, survive. By the time the press got wind of the hijacking, the FBI had already begun to investigate a few potential suspects. Among them was a man in Portland with the initials D. B. and surname Cooper. This Cooper was quickly eliminated as a suspect but, due to a mixup by the press, the name Dan Cooper was confused for D. B. Cooper, and the rest is history. While Dan Cooper is most likely a pseudonym, there is a comic book series of the same name. The comic is written in French and centers around a Canadian pilot named Dan Cooper. While the comic was not translated into English nor sold in the United States before 1971,
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it was available in Canada, which has a large French-speaking population. Given that American and Canadian accents can be difficult to distinguish, it's possible that Cooper, who was described as having no discernible accent, was a bilingual Canadian. This might even be supported by something that Cooper might have said. You see, when the Captain relayed Cooper's demands to Air Traffic Control, he used the phrase "negotiable American currency". It seems doubtful that an American citizen would specify "American currency", so perhaps Cooper was not American. The problem is, we don't know if this is a direct quote from Cooper or paraphrasing by the Captain. For instance, notes taken by the crew during the hijacking merely contain the phrase "negotiable currency". While testimonies provided by the crew after the hijacking include phrases like "$200,000 in cash" and "circulated US currency". So Cooper might have been Canadian, and he might have taken his name from the Dan Cooper comics,
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just as he might have been American, and might have taken his name from something or someone else. Nearly half a century has gone by since the hijacking took place, and, in that time, thousands of suspects have been questioned and investigated. It would obviously be impossible to cover all of them here, but let's take a look at some of the people that, at some point or another, have been suspected of being D. B. Cooper. Robert Rackstraw first became a suspect in 1978, and, on the surface, he seems like a solid candidate. He was a decorated Army paratrooper and helicopter pilot. He had experience with explosives. He had an extensive criminal record. He had an uncle named John Cooper, who was an avid skydiver. He was expelled from the Army only months before the hijacking, which might suggest a motive. After all, the hijacker did say he had a grudge. When confronted by journalists and private investigators, Rackstraw would neither confirm nor outright deny that he was D. B. Cooper. Instead, he'd say things like "I could have been" or "I would not discount myself."
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On the other hand, Rackstraw had light-colored eyes, which Cooper did not. More significantly, Rackstraw was only 28 years of age at the time of the hijacking. This is well outside the range of ages reported by the crew and passengers. Most of whom believed Cooper was in his mid-forties. Kenneth Christiansen first became a suspect in 2003 when his brother noticed certain parallels between him and Cooper. Christiansen had briefly served as a paratrooper in World War II and, since 1953, he'd worked for Northwest Airlines as both a mechanic and a flight attendant. He was 45 years old at the time of the hijacking. He was left-handed, which Cooper might have been. For instance, Cooper used his left hand to interact with his briefcase, and the clip-on tie he left onboard was affixed with a tie clasp applied from the left. Shortly before he died in 1994, Christiansen had supposedly told his brother: "There is something you should know, but I cannot tell you." After his passing, his family discovered over $200,000 in his bank accounts.
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To top it all off, Florence Schaffner stated that photographs of Christiansen bore a strong resemblance to Cooper. On the other hand, Christiansen did not match the physical description of Cooper. He was both shorter and lighter. While Schaffner did see a strong resemblance, she remarked that Cooper had more hair, and that is supported by the composite sketches. And there was nothing suspicious about the large sums of money which he'd simply earned by selling land. Richard McCoy first became a suspect in 1972 when he hijacked a Boeing 727 and escaped via the aft stairway, much like D. B. Cooper. Because of the significant overlap between the two hijackings, some believe they must have been committed by the same person. McCoy used a fake name. He used a fake hand-grenade to threaten the crew. He used handwritten notes to issue his demands. Both McCoy and Cooper used the phrase "no funny stuff" as a warning to the crew. McCoy demanded $500,000 in cash and four parachutes.
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McCoy also bailed out the back of the plane once they passed over his hometown in the state of Utah. Apart from the similar modus operandi, McCoy had also served in the Vietnam War as a demolition expert and a helicopter pilot. McCoy did actually survive the fall and managed to evade authorities for two full days before he was apprehended and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Before his death in 1974, McCoy refused to confirm or deny that he was D. B. Cooper. On the other hand, McCoy was an avid recreational skydiver and even came prepared with a skydiving helmet and jumpsuit. He gave very specific instructions about the flight path. In addition to the fake hand-grenade, McCoy also used an unloaded handgun to threaten the crew. He failed to retrieve one of the notes he'd given to a flight attendant. He was only 29 years of age at the time of the hijacking. And all three flight attendants were quite certain that McCoy was not Cooper. While there are meaningful parallels between these two cases, McCoy might simply have been a copycat who'd read about D. B. Cooper in the news.
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Duane Weber first became a suspect in 1995 when, shortly before his death, he supposedly told his wife: "I've got a secret to tell you. I am Dan Cooper." Following his deathbed confession, Weber's widow recalled a number of fascinating details. She claims to have found a bank bag resembling the one used in the hijacking. She claims Weber had sustained a knee injury after jumping out of a plane. Weber supposedly had a nightmare about leaving his fingerprints on the aft stairs. And a year before the money was discovered at Tina Bar, Weber had allegedly paid a quick visit to the same location. In addition, Weber was a World War II veteran. He had an extensive criminal record. He matched the physical description. And he was 47 years old in 1971. On the other hand, Weber's fingerprints did not match any of the prints collected from Flight 305. Although, to be fair, there's no way to know if any of those prints actually belong to Cooper. Furthermore, Weber's DNA did not match a DNA sample collected from the tie clasp. But, once again, there's no way to know if the DNA on the tie clasp
25:57
actually came from the hijacker and not someone else. What's so frustrating is that the FBI likely had a much better source of DNA at one point. If you recall, eight cigarette butts were collected from the scene, and there's a good chance they were all suffused with Cooper's DNA. The problem is, that evidence was lost at some point and has not turned up since. William Smith first became a suspect in 2018. Smith served in the Navy during World War II and likely had some experience with parachuting. He was 43 years old at the time of the hijacking. He had dark brown eyes. He matched the physical description. He shared a certain likeness with the composite sketches, especially this speculative sketch of an older D. B. Cooper. A student named Ira Daniel Cooper, who was killed in World War II, attended the same high school as Smith. Smith worked as a yardmaster for a railroad company for most of his life, but in 1970 the company filed for bankruptcy. As a consequence, Smith lost his pension, which might suggest a motive.
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He could, for instance, have developed a grudge towards the airline industry for their role in bringing about the downfall of the rail transportation industry. It's further speculated that Smith could have used his knowledge of railroad networks to hop on a train and escape undetected. On the other hand, Smith spent his entire life in the northeastern United States. Given that the hijacking occurred on the other side of the country and was committed by someone who, at least, appeared to be familiar with the local terrain, Smith is not the most ideal candidate. However, the fact that Smith worked as a yardmaster is interesting. You see, the tie that Cooper left behind was recently examined using an electron microscope which uncovered various metallic particles. Some of these particles, especially pure titanium, were quite rare in 1971. This might suggest that Cooper worked as a manager at some sort of chemical or metallurgical facility, or possibly a rail yard. If nothing else, I hope that this limited selection of suspects illustrates just how difficult it is to be certain when you have so little evidence to work with.
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These five individuals look nothing alike, yet any one of them could be D. B. Cooper. Was Cooper really in his mid-forties or did he simply look old for his age? Did Cooper really serve in the military? Which one of these sketches most closely resemble Cooper? In 2016, the FBI had to admit defeat and officially closed down the case. Unless someone stumbles upon Cooper's remains or manages to track down the rest of the money, it seems there is little hope of resolution. Did Cooper survive? I have no idea. But as long as that possibility can not be dismissed, the legend of D. B. Cooper will no doubt persist.

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