The FBI says its investigation into one of America's most enduring criminal mysteries – the "D B Cooper" hijacking 40 years ago – is "still open, but not active", amid claims that staff are about to declare that the case has finally been solved.
In November 1971 a man wearing dark glasses and a clip-on tie bought a $20 ticket under the alias D B Cooper and boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle. After ordering a whisky and smoking several cigarettes, he passed a note to a stewardess saying that he was carrying a bomb. He said he would release the 36 passengers, provided $200,000 (worth around $1m today) and four parachutes were waiting for him in Seattle.
After his demands were met, he then instructed the captain to fly from Seattle towards Mexico. But somewhere over south-western Washington state, he opened the rear exit door and disappeared into the night sky, carrying two of the parachutes and all of the cash. Bad weather meant it was days before police could send out proper search parties: the hijacker was never seen or heard from again. Some, but not all, of the ransom money was found a decade later, buried in a sandbar on the Columbia River, near Vancouver.
Now an Oregon woman, Marla Cooper, has told NBC News that evidence linking her late uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, to the audacious crime is strong enough for its official files on the investigation to be closed. She first came forward in August, claiming to be the source of what the FBI called a "significant" new lead.
Agents took DNA samples and tested a guitar strap that once belonged to Lynn Doyle Cooper for fingerprints. They have also compared several photographs of him to the original police drawings of the criminal. While the fingerprint evidence has yet to be processed, and the DNA evidence did not yield a match, Ms Cooper said that she met a female FBI agent last Wednesday and was told that her evidence is sufficiently compelling for the case to be closed. "She told me that, regardless of the findings of the fingerprints, they would be closing the case after this," Ms Cooper told NBC. "She said 'I feel certain that your uncle did it. And [given] that, what's the point in continuing the investigation?' "
Over the years, Cooper has come to be seen as a Robin Hood figure, with many fans impressed by the nonchalance with which he perpetrated the audacious crime. The case has inspired at least 17 books, as well as a film starring Robert Duvall. 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 consists of DNA from eight cigarette ends that may have belonged to the hijacker, partial fingerprints from a magazine he read, and the clip-on tie.
Marla Cooper said she was eight years old when her uncle came into the family home on Thanksgiving 1971, the day after the crime, with injuries he claimed had been sustained in a car crash. She said that he was fixated on a comic book character named Dan Cooper, which could have explained the alias. The FBI promptly described her as a "significant" and "credible" witness. Although a subsequent DNA test proved negative, law enforcement sources said that it was by no means 100 per cent accurate, thanks to the passage of time and uncertainty over whether they had an actual sample from the hijacker. Despite the result, a spokesman said Lynn Doyle Cooper "has not been ruled out as a suspect".
Not everyone accepts Ms Cooper's claims. There are many competing conspiracy theories, and cynics have pointed out that recent publicity has been lucrative for her: she spent the weekend in Portland, speaking at a 40th-anniversary "symposium" about the case. Ayn Deitrich, a spokesman for the Seattle FBI, said: "This case is still open – but it is not an active one, in that we continue to pursue all credible leads but are not still actively looking for information."