Who Was D.B. Cooper?
A man who came to be known as D.B. Cooper used a bomb threat to hijack a flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, on November 24, 1971. After the jet landed in Seattle, passengers disembarked and $200,000 was placed on board, along with parachutes requested by the hijacker. The plane then took off for Mexico City. Mid-flight, Cooper jumped off the plane and subsequently disappeared. The FBI spent years investigating the case, which was called NORJAK, for Northwest Hijacking. Though hundreds of suspects were considered and $5,800 of the ransom money was found, the hijacker was never identified. In 2016, the FBI said it was closing its investigation, though this decision didn't dim public interest in Cooper.
On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper (at the time proof of identity was not required by airlines) paid $18.52 in cash for a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. Onboard the Boeing jet he had a bourbon and soda, smoked cigarettes and gave a flight attendant a note that said he had a bomb. He showed the attendant a case containing wires and red sticks. The plane's captain was made aware of the hijacker's demands: $200,000 in $20 bills, as well as four parachutes.
Getting the money and parachutes ready took a few hours, so the flight circled in the air. After making it to Seattle, 36 passengers and two crew members disembarked in exchange for the ransom. The plane, staffed by four remaining crew members — two pilots, a flight engineer, and a flight attendant — then took off for Mexico City. Cooper demanded the jet fly lower than 10,000 feet, at a speed under 200 knots.
While the crew was in the cockpit, Cooper lowered the stairs at the back of the plane and jumped out shortly after 8:00 p.m. The jet continued to Reno, Nevada. As news of the hijacking spread, a reporting mistake rendered the hijacker's name as D.B. Cooper instead of Dan Cooper. This misnaming entered the public lexicon.
After the flight, sketch-artist portraits of the hijacker were created. The FBI described Cooper as "white male, 6'1" tall, 170-175 pounds, age-mid-forties, olive complexion, brown eyes, black hair, conventional cut, parted on left."
FBI agents collected evidence, including the hijacker's clip-on necktie and eight cigarette butts, though Cooper hadn't left his ransom note behind. Agents also undertook ground searches and conducted interviews. More than 800 suspects would come to the Bureau's attention over the first five years of the investigation.
One theory of the case is that Cooper didn't survive, succumbing either to his jump or the conditions in which he landed. He left the plane during a storm, amid 200 mile-per-hour winds, and might not have been able to deploy his chute. Even if his parachute did open, it was not a type that could be steered. And landing in rough, wooded terrain at night is dangerous, particularly for a man wearing just a suit, loafers, and trench coat.
Law enforcement were in the air following the hijacked flight but didn't see Cooper's jump. Some Cooper aficionados have speculated that instead of the flight path the FBI used in its investigation, Cooper actually left the plane while it was on what's been dubbed a "Western Flight Path," about seven miles farther west. The manhunt therefore might have focused on the wrong area.
In 1980, a boy camping with his family found $5,800 buried on the banks of Washington's Columbia River. Serial numbers on the bills linked them to the Cooper case. However, the location of this discovery, near Portland, Oregon, was several miles from Cooper's suspected jump zone of Ariel, Washington.
The area was searched but no other evidence was located. No bills from Cooper's ransom have been discovered in circulation.
Since 1971, many men have come under suspicion for possibly being Cooper. Among them are:
Robert Rackstraw was a military veteran with parachute training who had several brushes with the law. He was dismissed as a suspect by the FBI, but in 2018 a fellow veteran said he'd decoded messages allegedly sent by Cooper that implicated Rackstraw. Before his 2019 death Rackstraw at times made cryptic comments about the case rather than denying involvement.
In 1972 Richard Floyd McCoy Jr. hijacked a Boeing 727, the same type of plane Cooper targeted. After receiving his ransom McCoy parachuted from the plane. Despite this matching M.O., McCoy did not resemble the sketches of Cooper. After escaping from prison in 1974, McCoy was killed in a shootout with police.
Lynn Doyle Cooper's niece, Maria Cooper, reported in 2011 that in 1971 she'd heard her uncle say, "We did it, our money problems are over, we hijacked an airplane." The FBI investigated but ended up ruling out Lynn as a suspect.
Kenneth Christiansen, a military paratrooper who'd worked for Northwest Orient Airlines, was put forward as a potential Cooper suspect by his brother. A year after the hijacking, Christiansen was able to purchase a house with cash.
William J. Smith, who died in 2018, served in the military and would have been capable of making a parachute jump. A data analyst who considered Smith a likely suspect found that the bankruptcy of Smith's employer placed his pension in jeopardy, which may have spurred him to strike back at another corporate player.
Recent Case Movements
In 2016, the FBI announced it was closing the book on its Cooper investigation in order to redirect resources. The Bureau's existing evidence will be preserved. However, Cooper's cigarette butts from the flight, which could contain DNA, are missing.
Civilians continue to pursue leads. In 2020, an amateur scientist shared that he'd discovered microscopic bits of algae ("diatoms") on the money that had been dug up in 1980. The diatoms on these bills only bloom in spring, and the bills had only one season of diatoms on them. This means the money did not go into the water at the time of Cooper's November 1971 jump, which had been one theory.
In the Media
The Cooper case has inspired movies, such as the 1981 thriller The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper. Documentaries like the History Channel's D.B. Cooper: Case Closed? and an upcoming project produced by HBO and the BBC have delved into the case. Songs and books have also drawn inspiration from Cooper. In addition, an annual festival in Ariel, Washington, helps keep interest in Cooper alive.
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