FBI closes in on plane hijacker who got away by parachute

After 40 years, the law may yet catch up with 'DB Cooper'. By Guy Adams
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The FBI says it has a "credible lead" in one of its most high-profile cases: the 40-year investigation into "DB Cooper", an unidentified man who parachuted out of the back of an aeroplane over Washington state, in what is still the nation's only unsolved hijacking.

A spokeswoman for the FBI said they are testing fingerprints and DNA evidence of someone with a "strong" possible connection to the man responsible for the crime. She described the "significant" new lead as the "most promising" development since the case was opened in 1971.

The elusive hijacker, who identified himself as Dan Cooper, struck on the day before Thanksgiving, on a Northwest flight from Portland to Seattle. After ordering a whiskey, and smoking several cigarettes, he passed a flight attendant a note saying he was carrying a bomb in his suitcase.

"Cooper", who was wearing sunglasses and a suit and tie, said he would release 36 fellow passengers provided $200,000 (£120,000) and four parachutes were waiting for him on the runway in Seattle. Having secured the items, he then instructed the captain to take off again and fly south, towards Mexico. Somewhere over south-western Washington, he opened the plane's rear exit door and disappeared into the night sky, carrying two of the parachutes and all of the cash. Bad weather meant that it was days until police could send out proper search parties. And the hijacker was never seen or heard from again.

In four subsequent decades, the case has fascinated professional and amateur sleuths alike. At least 17 books have been published advancing competing theories about Cooper's identity and the incident has also inspired a film starring Robert Duvall.

Known only by a photofit, he is seen in many circles as a Robin Hood figure who managed to outwit the US government and a major corporation. The nonchalant manner in which he carried out the daring crime also draws many admirers. After Cooper had opened the plane's door, the pilot asked "is everything OK back there?" over the intercom. His last word before leaping was: "No!"

Several potential suspects have made deathbed confessions that they carried out the crime, but each has subsequently been discredited. The only concrete evidence investigators have to go on consists of DNA from eight of his cigarette ends, partial fingerprints from a magazine Cooper read and a tie he left behind before exiting the plane. No one even knows for sure if he survived the parachute jump. Temperatures outside were below zero when he opened the aircraft's rear stairway and there was a heavy rainstorm. However, in 1980, a portion of the ransom money was found some distance from the "drop zone" in a sandbar on the north bank of the Columbia River, west of Vancouver.

A newspaper reporter interviewed the FBI's spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich while researching a feature pegged to the publication of a new book on the case, Skyjack: The Hunt for DB Cooper.

"You're the first to know this, but we do actually have a new suspect we're looking at. And it comes from a credible lead who came to our attention recently via a law-enforcement colleague," she told the reporter from The Daily Telegraph. "The credible lead is somebody whose possible connection to the hijacker is strong, and the suspect is not a name that's come up before."