Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

DB Cooper: The Legendary Daredevil

Clues and More Theories

On February 10, 1980, an 8-year-old boy digging in the sand along a Columbia River bank unearthed three bundles of deteriorating currency—all $20 bills, and $5,800 in all--whose serial numbers matched the Cooper loot. Himmelsbach took this as evidence of his splatter theory, although the cash was found some 40 miles upstream from the newly pinpointed Woodland jump site. A geologist reckoned the money had been deposited on the river bank in August 1974, nearly three years after the jump. He said the money probably was carried along by the river current and deposited where it was found. Perhaps it had been hung up in some other location on the river. Perhaps the bag Cooper had lashed to his body was at the bottom of the river, hung up on something, and had decomposed enough by 1974 to begin releasing bundles of cash.

Mount St. Helens spews ash
Mount St. Helens spews ash

The discovery of the cash gave impetus to new searches in that area until nature intervened. On May 18, 14 weeks after the bundles were found, the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens carpeted the region with a thick coating of ash and touched off vast fires. Many fear the eruption may have permanently obscured additional Cooper clues that may have been waiting in the Woodland vicinity.

Retired FBI agent Richard Tosaw
Retired FBI agent Richard Tosaw

Richard Tosaw, a former FBI agent from California, declared the riverbank find as proof that Cooper splashed, a variation on splatter. He told a newspaper reporter, "I'm convinced he's on the bottom of the Columbia River. I have no doubt that his skeleton will be found there, along with his parachutes and the rest of the money." Tosaw mounted searches with scuba divers, sonar and grappling hooks in the Columbia not far from where the money was found. He found nothing, but published a book about his search, "D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive."

Money found in riverbank
Money found in riverbank

Beyond the FBI, few Cooper sleuths believe that the money found in the riverbank was incontrovertible evidence of Cooper's demise. Some contend he made his way to Vancouver or Portland and threw the money in the river because he learned the serial numbers had been recorded and he judged the loot too hot to spend. Still others say that a few bundles of cash fell from Cooper's bag as he descended by parachute.

Of course, theories abound in crime cases were evidence is scarce.

According to a scenario favored by the mountain-dwellers of the jump region, Cooper hid his chute in an animal den or beneath a forest rock ledge, hiked to a planned rendezvous with an accomplice and hightailed it to Mexico, where he spent his loot, one bottle of tequila at a time. And what of the cash in the river? They say he may have paused at a Columbia bridge to toss in a few bundles, just to confound the cops.

That theory has several faults. Cooper was wearing street shoes that would have blown off in his skydive. If he hiked, he hiked with bare feet. Also, he was rather nonchalant about the precise line of the flight path from Seattle to Reno, accepting Capt. Scott's suggestion of the low-altitude route, Vector-23. A planned rendezvous with an accomplice would have required a dive at a pinpointed location.

And then there is the problem of the missing money.

Cooper has not used his hijacking loot on tequila or anything else. The FBI distributed to law enforcers and banks 100,000 copies of a 34-page pamphlet listing all the serial numbers from the Cooper $20 bills. Besides those found on the Columbia River, not a single bill has ever shown up in circulation, as far as the FBI admits. In his book, former G-man Tosaw offered a $100,000 reward in exchange for one of the bills. No one stepped forward, just as there were no takers on rewards totaling $30,000 offered by Northwest Orient and a Seattle newspaper. If Cooper had accomplices, they have been extraordinarily loyal.


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