Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

DB Cooper: The Legendary Daredevil

The Investigation

Cooper left behind a few things, including the spare chutes and 8 Raleigh-brand cigarette butts. Authorities were surprised also to find the hijacker's black tie and tie tack, with a mother-of-pearl detail—an overlooked potential bit of evidence that was perhaps the only mistake he made. FBI crime-scene experts catalogued 66 fingerprints that could not be matched to the crew or other passengers. They led nowhere.

In retrospect, a simple cops-and-robbers approach might have been the best chance to catch the hijacker: follow the plane, wait for him to jump, then track him to the ground. Law enforcers tried to do this, but the opportunity was lost in a questionable choice of a chase plane. The Air Force scrambled up two F-106 fighter jets from McChord. Those pilots were instructed to follow at a safe distance and watch for a jumper. But the fighters are built to fly at speeds of up to 1,500 mph. They were useless in slow-motion, low altitude surveillance. The authorities tried to recover by sending up a slower-flying Air National Guard Lockheed T-33, but Cooper probably had already jumped by the time it arrived.

Nasty weather on the night of the jump led authorities to put off a ground search until the next day, Thanksgiving. An exhaustive search, by land and by air, over several weeks failed to turn up any trace of the hijacker or his parachute, an eye-catching yellow and red, although they did find the body of a missing teenager. Searching was difficult in the vast timberlands of the jump area—much of it owned by the giant paper firm Weyerhauser. But many Cooper-philes contend that the fruitless searches after the hijacking disprove the splatter theory about the hijacker's fate.

On Thanksgiving, the FBI mounted a search of its national crime records for known felons named Dan Cooper, just in case the hijacker had been foolish enough to use his real name. The agency dispatched a Portland-based agent to police headquarters in that city to check the rap sheet of a local man, D.B. Cooper. Joe Frazier, a news wire service reporter in Portland, heard the FBI was nosing around police headquarters. A records clerk told him they were checking on D.B. Cooper regarding the Northwest Orient hijacking. The man was cleared, but the name D.B. Cooper was hung on the hijacker, and the alias stuck like Velcro.

DB Cooper Wanted Poster
DB Cooper Wanted Poster

A widely circulated composite drawing of the suspect, based on recollections by the Northwest Orient crew and passengers, shows a man who bears a vague resemblance to Bing Crosby—probably as much for the skinny tie as the facial features. The hijacker ("John Doe AKA Dan Cooper") was charged with air piracy in abstentia in federal court in 1976. The charges stand today, and the case is technically still open. The FBI says it has checked out nearly 1,200 potential suspects and compiled enough paperwork and reports on the case to fill a 727. The tips continue to trickle in—some from citizens who call with a hunch about a friend, relative or colleague, others from people claiming to be Cooper.

The FBI no doubt would love to solve the case of the man who made a monkey out of law enforcers.

"It's that desperado mystique," Walt Crowley, a historian who lives in the vicinity of the jump, told Susan Gilmore of the Seattle Times. "It was an extraordinary audacious act to lower that rear gangway in flight and jump into a dark and stormy night. He didn't hurt anybody ... and we all love a mystery."

FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach who spent eight years as lead investigator in the case before retiring in 1980, sees it differently. He has called Cooper "a rodent," "a bastard," "a dirty, rotten crook" and "nothing more than a "sleazy, rotten criminal who jeopardized the lives of more than 40 people for money."

"That's not heroic," he once told a newspaper reporter. "It's selfish, dangerous and antisocial. I have no admiration for him at all. He's not at all admirable. He's just stupid and greedy."

In his book about the case, "NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper," Himmelsbach promoted the splatter theory. And how did the body, the cash and the parachute escape detection, after years of searching by armies of law enforcers, volunteers and even Boy Scouts? Himmelsbach says they may have been looking in the wrong place. 

The jump area was believed to have been roughly 10 miles east of Interstate 5, near Ariel, Wash., and the Lake Merwin Dam of the Lewis River, which separates Clark and Cowlitz counties. The FBI helped pinpoint that location by staging a reenactment of the jump. A 200-pound sled attached to a parachute was heaved from the aft stairs of a 727 traveling at the same speed and altitude as the Cooper jet at the precise place where Capt. Scott felt the jet genuflect.

But later calculations placed the jump just west, not east, of I-5, near the village of Woodland, Wash., and the Columbia River. The costly searching near Ariel was wasted, Himmelsbach said. Remarkably, he said this revelation occurred to him in 1980 when, on the day of his retirement, Capt. Scott paid him a courtesy visit. They got to talking, and Scott let drop that the jet was traveling west of where the FBI believed it had been. No one with the agency has ever offered an explanation as to how such a goof could have gone undetected for nine years.


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