It’s a mystery that’s never been solved despite the best efforts of the FBI and hundreds of other interested people, both professionals and armchair enthusiasts.
It’s 24 November 1971 and the eve of Thanksgiving. The place: Portland International Airport. A well dressed businessman approaches the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. Turkeys are the last thing on his mind as he buys a one way ticket to Seattle for $20 under the name Dan Cooper.
He sits down in his seat near the rear of the cabin and orders a bourbon and soda while lighting up a cigarette. He is dressed nondescriptly and conservatively in a dark suit with a white shirt and dark tie, loafers and a lightweight black raincoat.
14:50 pm – the 727 takes off, only about one-third full. The man signals the attention of the nearest flight attendant, Florence Schaffner, and passes her a note, which she slips into her bag, under the impression it’s a telephone number or dating request. The man demands she look at it at once. He asks her to sit next to him and whispers that he has a bomb in his case. She quietly asks to see it and he complies with her request, opening the case to reveal what resembles the wiring system of a bomb.
His demeanour remains calm and unruffled as he asks for another bourbon.
Keeping her shock under control Florence rises and takes the note to the cockpit. The note is neatly written in capital letters with a felt tipped pen.
The pilot, William Scott, relays the hijacker’s demands for $200 000 and four parachutes, as well as a fuel truck to be on standby to refuel the 727 at Seattle, to aviation authorities who relay the info to the FBI and the Seattle police and other relevant authorities.
The safety of the passengers foremost in his mind, the airline president authorizes release of the ransom money and orders personnel to co-operate fully with the hijacker’s demands. Each of the 10 000 unmarked twenty dollar bills is photographed in microfilm by the FBI and the serial numbers are recorded.
While preparations for organizing the money and parachutes are underway the 727 circles the area around Puget Sound for the next two hours or so and the hijacker remarks on recognizing Tacoma down below.
The four parachutes are hastily collected from a skydiving school and accidentally include one dummy one used for training purposes only and has been sewn shut.
17:39 – the airplane touches down at Seattle Airport. A knapsack containing the cash, as well as the parachutes, are taken to the plane and handed to flight attendant Tina Mucklow, by means of the aft stairs. When the transfer is finally complete, Cooper allows the passengers as well as some of the crew to disembark, including the attendant whom he gave the note to at the beginning.
Cooper demands a flight plan to Mexico City. This will require another refuelling stop and Reno, Nevada is selected for this purpose.
19:40 – the plane finally takes off for Reno with only Cooper, the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and Tina Mucklow aboard.
Unknown to Cooper two fighter aircraft are deployed to follow the 727 into the night sky, as does Lockheed T33 training aircraft which soon has to turn back after running low on fuel.
Soon after takeoff Cooper orders Mucklow to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit, lock the door and not come out. As she leaves the cabin she notices him tying something around his waist.
20:13 – The cockpit crew notice a sudden upward movement in the tail section, necessitating trimming to restore the plane to a level course.
22:15 – On landing at Reno an armed search takes place and it is finally confirmed that Cooper is no longer anywhere aboard the plane. It becomes clear that Cooper never intended to make for Mexico but had planned to jump from the plane using the aft stairway.
All the authorities could find aboard was the black clip-on tie and mother of pearl tie pin which the suspect had worn, and two of the four parachutes which had been supplied, one of which had been used for parts.
No one on the fighter planes noticed anyone jumping in the poor visibility conditions and nothing showed on their radar either. Determining where to start looking for Cooper was not easy.
At that time airliners had no transponders which are now used to accurately indicate the flight path of an aircraft.
A test flight was undertaken with the same plane and pilot along a similar flight path, and federal authorities dropped a sled weighing 91 kg from the aft stairs at 20:13 pm to establish a general area to start the search in earnest.
The name by which our mystery man is best known, D B Cooper, is a type of misnomer because of a misunderstanding which arose when someone named D B Cooper, who was known to have a minor criminal record, was suspected of the crime but soon ruled out. But by that time the media were already referring to the man as DB.
Some of the investigating agents believe the mystery man took his alias from Dan Cooper, a fictional Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot and paratrooper featured in popular Belgian comics published in French during the 1970s. His exciting adventures were available in Europe and Canada but not the US, as they were not translated into English. If this is the case, the mystery man probably either spent time in Europe or was of Canadian origin.
Large swathes of mountainous and snow-covered southwest Washington around Ariel and Lake Merwin, a dam on the Lewis River, were combed on foot and by helicopter to no avail. Searches of nearby rivers and lakes revealed nothing at all. Alive or dead, he seemed to have vanished into thin air.
After the spring thaw renewed efforts were made to find evidence of the man or the money. Virtually every square inch of Clark and Cowlitz counties were combed without success by hundreds of searchers. A marine salvage company even used a submarine to explore the 61m depths of Lake Merwin but to no avail.
New calculations surfaced which brought the initial search area into question and placed the more likely flight path of Flight 305 farther east, near the Washougal River.
Meanwhile the search went on to see if any of the missing banknotes would turn up. The serial numbers were released to the public in 1972.
Two con men actually printed counterfeit $20 banknotes with these serial numbers in order to swindle a reporter out of $30 000 in exchange for an interview with someone who they claimed was connected to the hijacking.
The first evidence of any interest eventually came to light in 1978 when a deer hunter found a placard bearing instructions for lowering the aft staircase of a 727. He found this near a logging road in an area east of Castle Rock, Washington, close to the 305’s flight path but further north than the general search area.
In February 1980 an eight year old boy named Brian Ingram was camping with his family near the Columbia River. While digging a hole for a campfire he discovered a cache of rotting banknotes. This cache turned out to contain $5800 of the missing money. There were two packs of 100 $20 bills each and one from which ten notes were missing. The new development led to a lot more speculation as to where the rest was and where this portion of the ransom had come from. The area where Brian found it is downstream from where the Washougal River meets the Columbia.
To this day none of the remaining bills have ever turned up.
A group of scientific experts under the leadership of palaeontologist Tom Kaye, established in 2009, conducts an ongoing search for evidence using modern technology to uncover some of the 46 year old secrets which our mystery man left unanswered. We humans always have a fascination with curious and unexplained events and this just one which has more questions than answers.
The general feeling of the FBI is that Cooper didn’t survive his jump into the -57C wind and rain chill of any icy November night wearing no protective clothing or helmet. It would even be a risky act for an experienced paratrooper.
THE PRIME SUSPECTS
Many people have been suspected and ultimately ruled out. Some people make deathbed confessions in the hope that after a rather uneventful life they will be remembered after their death as the mysterious man who successfully hijacked a plane. Others hope to profit from a book deal by claiming to be the notorious Cooper.
In 2003 a guy from Minnesota, Lyle Christiansen, became certain that his late brother Kenneth must have been Cooper due to a wealth of circumstantial evidence.
Kenneth apparently told him before his death “there is something you should know but I cannot tell you” and never actually divulged whatever he thought Lyle should know.
Kenneth worked for Northwest Orient Airline since the 1950s and collected newspaper clippings about the airline. However he never kept any clippings about the hijacking, which was certainly the most newsworthy event in the airline’s history, or any event after that.
He purchased a house with cash a few months after the hijacking and was found to have over $200 000 in bank accounts after his death in 1994, as well as valuable stamp and coin collections.
He also smoked, enjoyed bourbon, and was left handed. It has been surmised that Cooper was left handed. He was about the right age fitting the descriptions (45) and an experienced skydiver.
A book was published in 2010, outlining all the circumstantial evidence linking him to the mystery man.
Christiansen is not considered a prime suspect by the FBI.
Verdict: if he was smart enough, he could have got away with it! The general feeling is that the suspect was not an experienced skydiver, since he took an older parachute to jump with and a dummy one as the reserve, but maybe that’s what the hijacker wanted them to believe.
William Gossett had quite an obsession about the Cooper case and told a number of people, including his sons, that he was DB Cooper. He was also an experienced paratrooper and resembled descriptions of the mystery man. Apparently he was a compulsive gambler and his son reckons he may have gambled the money away in Las Vegas. He showed his son “wads of money” just before Christmas 1971, a few weeks after the hijacking.
However, surely some of this money would have been identified as having the missing serial numbers if this were the case?
In later life he changed his name to Wolfgang and became a Catholic priest and thus cutting all links to his previous life.
Verdict: No physical evidence placing him in the area at the time is available. If he were DB, he could also have been smart enough to disguise his parachuting expertise just like Christiansen could have. A compulsive gambler may have taken such a risky gamble as the Cooper affair as an ultimate thrill. Maybe he just wanted the notoriety associated with DB and was nowhere near Flight 305.
Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr.
An experienced recreational paratrooper, McCoy, who had seen service in Vietnam as a demolition expert and a helicopter pilot, hijacked a plane in Denver on 7 April 1972. He demanded four parachutes and $500 000. He was later arrested and sent to prison, but escaped two years later. Three months after this he was killed in a shootout with federal agents. The agent who shot him asserted that he had shot DB Cooper and a book was published claiming that McCoy was indeed Cooper. But the FBI doesn’t consider him a prime suspect either.
Verdict: if he had hijacked Flight 305, why would he attempt another risky hijacking just a few months later? This was simply a “copycat” hijacking, one of several which took place in 1972. He was reliably established that he was in Las Vegas on 24 November 1971.
Another habitual criminal who spent much of his life serving time, Weber apparently told his wife three days before his death that he was Cooper. The name didn’t mean anything to her but later she checked it out and decided there was something to it. She found a book about DB Cooper at the local library and notes in her husband’s handwriting written in the margins.
Years before, Weber had told her that an old knee injury was from jumping from a plane. He had a nightmare in which he recalled leaving his fingerprints on the aft stairs while jumping from a plane. Like the hijacker he liked to drink bourbon, and chain smoked. In addition, in 1979 he was in the exact area of the Columbia River where Brian Ingram found some of the money four months later in February 1980.
Verdict: None of his fingerprints matched the ones found on Flight 305. If he were Cooper, the FBI would surely have found evidence of this since he had a criminal record. Perhaps he simply had an obsession with the case to the extent that his mind began playing tricks on him, in which he vividly remembered jumping from a plane. His trip to the exact spot on the Columbia River where some of the money was later found seems curious, unless visiting the search area was part of an ongoing obsession with the Cooper saga.
Barbara Dayton, born Robert Dayton underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1969. She had seen service during World War II and later became a university librarian, as well as a recreational pilot in her spare time. She claimed that she planned the hijacking to get her own back on the FAA for refusing to allow her to become a pilot. For various reasons she was never able to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence.
She claimed that she hid the money in a cistern near Woodburn, Oregon. She changed her story when she learned that she could still be charged with the hijacking.
Verdict: She had identified as female since 1969 and unless she was a very good actress someone would surely have noticed a woman disguised as a man, either in speech or appearance. Maybe she was also one of the many who craved the attention and notoriety associated with Cooper.
Lynn Doyle Cooper
Lynn Doyle Cooper’s name was only added to the suspects in 2011 when Marla Cooper proposed the theory that her late uncle, L D Cooper, was DB. She said that as an 8 year old girl in Sisters, Oregon, she heard him and another uncle planning something “very mischievous involving the use of expensive walkie talkies”. This was the day before the hijacking. Being Thanksgiving they said they were going turkey hunting. LD Cooper came home badly injured and wit his shirt full of blood which he claimed was from a car accident.
Verdict: Marla Cooper said her uncle was obsessed with the comic book hero Dan Cooper and one of the comic books pinned to his wall. However, maybe this was simply because the character had the same surname as he did. Probably many folk whose surname is Kent have an obsession with Superman.
She never saw her uncle again after that Thanksgiving and the family told her he eventually died in 1999.
An accomplice on the ground with a walkie talkie would certainly have been a boon to the hijacker. However It is unlikely that Cooper’s uncle would have been wearing business clothes.
Had Cooper been badly injured by the jump, he could not have easily got away from the area except if he had an accomplice nearby with a vehicle handy. Had he jumped blindly with no communication device or accomplice, and little idea of where he was, it’s unlikely he could have survived especially if he was injured upon landing. There was no GPS those days to tell him where he was and to take a right turn at the next pine tree!
Can a hijacking be described as “mischievous”?
No DNA or fingerprint matches were found to connect LD Cooper to the crime.
The latest addition to the list is that of Richard (Dick) Lepsy. Author Ross Richardson makes a strong case for Lepsy in his 2014 book Still Missing. Lisa Lepsy, his only daughter, is convinced that her father was Dan Cooper.
Dick Lepsy wanted to escape from his humdrum life working long hours and placating difficult customers as the manager of a small-town grocery store in Grayling, Michigan, so one fine day in 1969 he simply walked out of his family’s lives and was never seen by his wife or four children again. He called his wife to say he wouldn’t make it to lunch as he was going for a drive to “clear his head”. Later he called his work to tell them he wasn’t coming back. Lepsy’s boss discovered $2000 missing from the safe.
A few days after his disappearance his wife and a friend found his car at a nearby airport, Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, with the keys still in the ignition, and half a pack of cigarettes on the dashboard. An airport worker told them a man fitting his description had bought a ticket for Mexico City.
Verdict: He was a little younger than descriptions of the hijacker indicated, however, and would have been about 35 at the time of the incident. His daughter, however, claimed that the whole family remarked that the pictures shown on TV resembled their missing dad to a T and were convinced it was he. He also loved to wear loafers – they were his favourite type of shoe. Lisa Lepsy also stated that the tie was identical to the type he wore, which was mandatory for employees of that store at the time.
But if he was Cooper why would he be holding on to a clip-on tie which he wore two years previously? He surely would not be wearing the same outfit he was wearing at the time of his disappearance! No one ever seems to have seen Lepsy again after his disappearance. If he got to Mexico he may well have began a new life there, but if he was Dan Cooper, he jumped from the plane a very long way from his new homeland.
The FBI is no longer actively seeking any clues in the case. Despite all the advances in technology it seems that the mystery of DB Cooper may never be solved to the satisfaction of all the armchair enthusiasts who would like the feather in their cap which proof positive would give them but seems to be forever elusive.