Almost four decades after the most infamous skyjacking in the nation’s history, the FBI is still chasing the elusive D. B. Cooper.
The chase began on November 24, 1971, when Cooper, flying to Seattle on Northwest Orient, passed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner. Assuming the note was a come-on, Schaffner ignored it, prompting Cooper to lean over and whisper, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
The hijacker, according to most descriptions, was between 5’10” and 6’0” and wore a black tie with a black suit. Or perhaps it was dark brown or even a russet color, accounts vary. Composite sketches suggest he resembled, in the words of author Max Gunther, a “middle-aged Bing Crosby in a seizure of profound boredom.”
He drank bourbon and Coke while negotiating for parachutes, $200,000 in cash, and a plane ride to Mexico. Tellingly, he ordered the pilot to fly below an altitude of 10,000 feet, which would permit the cabin to remain unpressurized—the latter provision allowing the aftstairs to remain in the down position during the flight.
It was from these aftstairs that Cooper jumped, somewhere over the Pacific northwest. The only traces of him were the murky descriptions of witnesses, the clip-on tie that he left behind, and a few cigarettes butts.
Shortly after the hijacking, Clyde Jarbin, a reporter for UPI, heard reports of the crime over police scanners. Although the suspect was named “Dan Cooper,” Jarbin misheard the name, and identified the suspect as “D. B. Cooper” across the wires. The legend of D. B. Cooper took flight.
The manhunt centered on a two-county area in southwest Washington, with local law enforcement, the feds, and, later, the Army conducting the search. When asked by a reporter what they were looking for, Clark County Deputy Sheriff Tom McDowell responded, “Either a parachute or a hole in the ground.”
They found neither. In 40 years of searching, only a few thousand dollars of Cooper’s ransom was found, and that was discovered by a family on a picnic in 1980.
Despite such scant evidence, the number of suspects has proliferated. There’s Duane Weber, who offered a deathbed confession to his wife in 1995, but no direct evidence has tied him to Cooper. There’s also Richard McCoy, who staged a similar hijacking a few months after Cooper’s but who, at 29, was a decade-and-a-half younger than the “real McCoy.”
But 15 years is nothing compared to the discrepancies in the Barbara Dayton case. Born “Bobby Dayton,” she underwent a sex-change operation in 1969, and then, according to claims she made to friends, disguised herself as “Cooper” in the 1971 hijacking. To add to the confusion, she later recanted this story, perhaps after learning that she could still be charged with the crime.
Geoffrey Gray, author of the recently-released Skyjack: The Hunt for D. B. Cooper, found Kenneth Christiansen a compelling suspect for a while and, as recently as this month, Marla Cooper stirred the alphabet soup when she notified the FBI that she believed D. B. Cooper to be her uncle, L. D. Cooper. When DNA evidence came back negative, the FBI released a rather awkward statement, saying, in effect, “D.B. Cooper is still missing.”
In all, the FBI has investigated more than 1,000 suspects in the case. As Ralph Himmselbach, one of the lead FBI agents on the case noted, “We don’t know who he was, but we know a whole of people who he wasn’t.”
Whoever he was, he has become something of an anti-hero. According to Gray, Cooper was asked by a flight attendant whether he had a grudge against the airline. “I don’t have a grudge against your airline,” he responded. “I just have a grudge.”
In an age leery of authority, Cooper’s hijacking spoke for others with grudges. His crime prompted a series of copy-cat hijackings. It also prompted the town of Ariel, Washington to initiate an annual celebration for the hijacker, with parachute décor, D. B. Cooper stew, and an emphasis on celebration. And it spurred a number of songwriters to pen odes to Cooper. Perhaps the best is by Todd Snider, whose lyrics dwell on the possibility of escape: “some people say that he died up there somewhere in the rain and the wind / Other people say that he got away but his girlfriend did him in / The law men say if he is out there someday they’re gonna bring him in / As for me, I hope they never see / D.B. Cooper again.”
According to newspaper editor Bob Reed, Cooper “symbolized…the idea of an ordinary guy breaking out. Just a plain, lone, middle-class guy like you and me—that’s how he struck people. He broke loose from the system and got away with it.”
More than four decades after the hijacking, Cooper remains as elusive and as intriguing as ever. He symbolizes the “everyman” who beat the system, and that symbol still animates those with anti-establishment leanings, and perhaps those who would simply like to get away.