The unsolved crime of the century: the hunt for D B Cooper

The tale of the hijacker who parachuted from a plane with a $200,000 ransom in 1971 has inspired songs, books and a film. Now the FBI has reopened the case. By David Usborne
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The Independent US

The good folks at the FBI don't like it when someone commits a high-profile crime and then simply vanishes. They go through the evidence over and over again, wait a while decades sometimes and then start investigating all over again. Suspects don't just disappear into thin air never to be seen again.

Well, one man did do that, literally. On Thanksgiving Eve in 1971, Dan Cooper, not his real name, blithely stepped off the back stairway of a Northwest Orient Boeing 727 at an altitude of about 10,000ft. Equipped with two parachutes and clasping a bag of $200,000 in ransom money, he hurtled through the rain clouds to the rugged terrain of Washington State below.

In these post-September 11 days of international terror threats, what happened that night seems almost like an innocent caper. No one was murdered or even grazed and the sum of missing money seems almost paltry. Yet it was an act of derring-do that quickly entered modern American folklore. Songs and books were written about it and a film was shot starring Treat Williams as Cooper. More than that, the seizing of Northwest Orient Flight 305 remains the world's only unsolved hijacking.

And so it is that, more than 36 years on, that the FBI has once again declared its refusal to admit defeat. It has reassembled the few fragments of evidence that it has and made a fresh appeal to the public for help. "Would we still like to get our man?" the FBI said in a release out of its Pacific Northwest office in Seattle this week. "Absolutely. And we have reignited the case."

The public is being invited to visit the FBI's website, FBI.gov, where, for the first time, it has displayed sketches of Dan Cooper more commonly known as D B Cooper together with photographs both of a cheap clip-on tie he left behind on the plane before making his mid-air exit and of ragged remains of a few $20 bills found in the vicinity on the ground by a boy in 1980.

Over the decades, the FBI has interviewed 1,000 people in the case, given close scrutiny to scores of possible suspects before ruling out every one. The task of starting all over again has been given to the Seattle-based agent Larry Carr, who was just four when the hijacking took place.

By making the few snippets of information they have available to the public, the FBI is hoping they will jog someone's mind somewhere and they will come forward with the key to unlock the mystery. "This case is 36 years old, it's beyond its expiration date, but I asked for the case because I was intrigued with it," Mr Carr told The New York Times yesterday. "I remember as a child reading about it and wondering what had happened. It's surreal that after 36 years here I am, the only investigator left. I wanted to take a shot at solving it."

Such has been the intrigue about the Cooper story, you do not have to been alive in 1971 to know its twists and turns. It has been featured on the popular TV show Unsolved Mysteries and remains one of the most celebrated crimes in modern American history. Aside from the books and the film, called The Pursuit of D B Cooper, there was also the popular song, "The Ballad of D B Cooper", by Chuck Brodsky. "Out of a little service doorway", the first verse begins, "In the rear of the plane/Cooper jumped into the darkness/Into the freezing rain/They say that the wind-chill was 69 degrees below/Not much chance that he'd survive/But if he did where did he go?"

Dan Cooper is the name the hijacker gave when, according to a narrative of the case published last October in New York magazine, he showed up in a black trenchcoat at the Northwest Orient desk at the airport in Portland, Oregon, on 24 November 1971, and bought a ticket to Seattle. He settled quietly in a seat towards the rear of the plane and paid $2 for a bourbon and soda shortly after take-off. Then he handed one of the flight attendants a note.

"I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit beside me," the note read. Cooper showed the attendant tangled wires and what looked like red sticks of dynamite. He then gave her his instructions. "I want $200,000 by 5pm. In cash. Put 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."

Flight 305 duly landed in Seattle where Swat teams were already in place. But the money and parachutes were handed over as requested and Cooper duly allowed all 36 passengers off the plane. Only Cooper and the crew remained. He then ordered the pilot to take off again, and head for Mexico City. He also requested that the plane fly low and slow. The plane never got further than Reno, Nevada, because it was only a few minutes after leaving Seattle that Cooper performed his disappearing act.

Over the years, multiple people have come forward claiming to know the real identity of Cooper. Many pointed to a rugged Vietnam War veteran named Richard McCoy. He came into view when just months later he staged a similar hijacking over Utah, leaping out and wafting to the ground below under a parachute with $500,000 in ransom money. He was captured, imprisoned and subsequently shot in 1974 by prison officers during a botched break-out.

Russell Calame, a former FBI agent, co-authored a book linking Cooper with McCoy. His former colleagues insist he is wrong because the physical descriptions of Cooper provided by the attendants and people on the ground in Seattle do not match with McCoy. "I'm open," Calame said this week in response to the latest FBI appeal for help. "We haven't seen anything that really destroys our theory. Maybe we will, but for right now I haven't seen anything to the contrary, so I have no reason to change what I think."

Then there has been the dogged campaign waged by a Minnesota man, Lyle Christiansen, to persuade the authorities that Cooper was in fact his now deceased brother, Kenneth Christiansen, a former army paratrooper and in-flight purser for Northwest. From 2003, he began writing letters to the FBI explaining his suspicions. "Before I die I would like to find out if my brother was D B Cooper. From what I know I feel that he was and without a doubt," he wrote in one of them. Frustrated that the FBI was not taking him seriously, he hired a private detective agency in New York to contact the screenwriter, Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) on his behalf and persuade her to make a film exposing his brother as Cooper.

Many of the details of Christiansen's life, including his employment by the airline and his past as a parachute jumper seem to fit, but there are problems again matching the physical descriptions. The hair, for one, doesn't seem quite right. The FBI, at any rate, is certain it's a red herring. Christiansen, an FBI spokeswoman reiterated, is "not a viable suspect".

Another man, Duane Weber, claimed on his deathbed that he himself was Cooper. However, in 2001, the FBI used new DNA technology on the discarded tie to rule Weber out.

Which leaves the agency with nothing beyond the vague hope that the pictures on the web page launched this week will mean something to someone. On it, the agency admits that over the years it has pursued "thousands of leads and considered all sorts of scenarios" but to no avail. "And amateur sleuths have put forward plenty of their own theories. Yet the case remains unsolved. Please look it all over carefully to see if it triggers a memory or if you can provide any useful information."

Mr Carr thinks, meanwhile, that they he has enough information to clarify some important points about the events of that November night and correct a few myths. First of all, he, in common with most other experts, does not believe it likely that Cooper hit the ground alive. They arrive at this conclusion partly because of the random way in which the hijacker stepped out of the plane. He had chosen a night when the conditions were atrocious and gave no specific route instructions to the pilot. That also seems to suggest that he did not have accomplices waiting for him below.

"We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper," Mr Carr said. "We concluded after a few years this was simply not true... Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open."

Cooper would have come down in the rugged landscape of the Cascade Mountains. They are remote, but not so remote that you would not have expected to have found his remains by now. Tantalising also was the discovery of the $20 notes by the young boy near the Columbia River in 1980. But they only added up to $5,800 so what happened to the rest of the loot if Cooper never ran away with it?

Mr Carr hopes that the discovered cash might itself open up new avenues for the investigation. "Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the $5,800 in ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream," said Carr. "Or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle."

If a money trail does lead investigators to the point of Cooper's impact then even the tiniest fragments of his long-ago crushed corpse would be enough, with DNA analysis, to resolve the case. But so long as nothing of Cooper's body is found, the thought will never entirely go away that he really did land safely and may, even now, be sipping daquiris on a Caribbean beach and chuckling at his enduring fame.

Even Mr Carr does not rule this out. "If he's alive today, he'd be about 85 years old," he surmised. "Maybe one day I'll be sitting at my desk and I'll get a call from an old man who says, 'You're not going to believe this story'."

And that really would make a good movie.

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