Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

DB Cooper: The Legendary Daredevil

The Crime

D. B. Cooper gained infamy on Thanksgiving Eve 1971, a dank, chilly day in the American Northwest. At 4 o'clock that Wednesday afternoon, a man wearing a modest businessman's suit stepped to the Northwest Orient counter at Portland International Airport and paid $20 cash for a one-way ticket to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The man, roughly 45 years old, gave the name Dan Cooper. Ticket agent Hal Williams assigned him aisle seat 18C in coach aboard Northwest Flight No. 305, scheduled to depart at 4:35 for a half-hour journey to Sea-Tac.

Piedmont 727, actual plane
Piedmont 727, actual plane
 

Flight 305 was a Boeing 727-100 that had begun the day in Washington, D.C. It carried passengers to the Northwest hub in Minneapolis, then made stops in Great Falls and Missoula, MT, before continuing west to Portland. The brief flight to Seattle would conclude its long day. The jet could seat 94 passengers—66 in coach and 28 in first class—but it carried just 37 customers as the five crew members secured doors and prepared for takeoff.

The Minneapolis-based crew included the pilot, Capt. William Scott, 51, a 20-year Northwest veteran; First Officer Bob Rataczak; Flight Engineer H.E. Anderson, and two young flight attendants, Tina Mucklow, 22, and Florence Schaffner, 23, each with less than 24 months in the air.

Before takeoff, no crew member took particular note of Dan Cooper, a fit 6-footer who weighed perhaps 175 pounds. D. B. Cooper's wardrobe was the definition of nondescript in 1971: a dark suit and tie and a white shirt with a pearl tie tack. Like so many other American males of that day, he wore a homburg hat—felt, with a dented crown and narrow brim. He carried a dark raincoat and a brief case. He had brown eyes, short brown hair and no whiskers. He was white and spoke with no accent. He was tan or had a Mediterranean complexion described as swarthy or olive.

Cooper handed a note to Flo Schaffner moments after the jet was airborne. Men traveling alone often passed phone or hotel room numbers to the attractive young stewardess. She assumed another come-on and gave the note her usual treatment, sticking it unread in a uniform pocket.

The next time Schaffner passed, Cooper gestured for her to lean close. He said, "You'd better read that. I have a bomb." He nodded toward the briefcase in his lap. Schaffner went to the galley, read the note, then shared it with fellow attendant Tina Mucklow. They hurried to the cockpit, where Capt. Scott had a look. The pilot immediately radioed Sea-Tac air traffic control, who alerted Seattle police, who in turn alerted the FBI. The feds placed an urgent call to Northwest Orient's president, Donald Nyrop, who ordered full compliance with Cooper's demands. Nyrop no doubt hoped to avoid the negative publicity that a disaster aboard a Northwest flight would bring. By comparison, $200,000 was a pittance.

The precise wording of Cooper's extortion note has been lost because the hijacker insisted the crew return the note since it was potential evidence. But Schaffner would later recall that the note was hand-printed in ink with precise demands and simple instructions for $200,000 in cash and two sets of parachutes (two backpacks and two chestpacks, which serve as emergency backups). He ordered the items delivered to the jet when it landed at Sea-Tac, and he said he would blow up the plane if the airline failed to comply. Schaffner and others who read the note later agreed it included the phrase "no funny business."

Capt. Scott sent Schaffner back to the hijacker. She sat in Cooper's aisle seat. He had moved to the window. Cooper opened his briefcase wide enough to give her a glimpse at wires and two red cylinders that might have been sticks of dynamite. Cooper told her to tell the pilot to stay aloft until the money and chutes were ready in Seattle. She hurried back to the cockpit with the latest message.

Scott soon announced over the intercom that a mechanical problem would require the jet to circle before landing. All but a few passengers apparently were unaware of a hijacking, although it would not have come as a great surprise in 1971.

 

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