DB Cooper: The Legendary Daredevil
The famous crime alias D.B. Cooper has been kept alive in the popular media by anniversary look-backs at his crime—e.g., "The Legend of a Jet Age Jesse James," a 3,000-word opus published in The Los Angeles Times in 1996, 25 years after the hijacking. But Cooper's name also has lived on in periodic news reports each time someone has attempted a variation of his caper.
There have been many copycats, some more cockeyed than others.
Most recently, on May 25, 2002, a man named Augusto Lakandula, distraught over financial problems and armed with a grenade and a pistol, robbed many of the 277 passengers aboard a Philippine Airlines jet, then jumped from the plane at 6,000 feet wearing a homemade parachute. His body was scraped off the forest floor 40 miles east of Manila.
Such news stories always refer to Cooper as the grandfather of such crimes. But he was really only a great uncle.
Two weeks before Cooper's hijacking, a passenger named Paul Cini brandished a handgun aboard an Air Canada flight over Montana. He extorted money and a parachute, just like Cooper, but he was rushed and subdued by the jet's crew when he put down the gun to don the parachute. The FBI's Himmelsbach has said he believes Cooper borrowed his basic plan from Cini and the detail of a bomb in his briefcase from the plot of "Airport," the disaster flick released six months before the Cooper hijacking.
Three other hijackers copied the Cini/Cooper scheme in 1972 alone. All three survived the skydive—more "proof" for those who believe Cooper lived. One was shot dead and the others captured on the ground.
Of the three, a hijacking that occurred on April 7, 1972, about four months after Cooper's, was perhaps the most interesting to law enforcers.
A man using the name James Johnson boarded United Flight 855, from Newark to Los Angeles, during a stopover in Denver. The jet was a Boeing 727, with aft stairs. Like Cooper, the man was described as nondescript. Just before takeoff, he went to the lavatory and donned a disguise of sunglasses, a wig and a fake mustache. When he returned to his seat, another passenger noticed that he was holding what appeared to be a grenade.
The hijacker discreetly revealed a pistol to a stewardess then gave her an envelope labeled "Hijack Instructions." She hurried to the cockpit. The orders to the pilot were explicit:
- Land at San Francisco International Airport and park at the remote Runway 19 Left.
- Order a refueling truck, but allow no other vehicles to approach without permission.
- Direct United Air Lines to provide four parachutes and a ransom of $500,000.
The pilot diverted as ordered, and the demands were met—a virtual replay of the Cooper hijacking at Sea-Tac. Back in the air, Johnson prescribed an east-northeast flight path, toward Provo, Utah, at 16,000 feet and 200 mph. After 90 minutes aloft, the hijacker ordered the cabin depressurized. A copilot peeked under the cockpit door and watched as Johnson skillfully donned jump gear, as though he had done it many times before. The man double-checked the jet's airspeed and altitude, as well as wind direction and sky conditions. He killed the cabin lights for a better view of the ground, then bailed out over central Utah from the rear stairs. The FBI began a by-the-book investigation the moment the 727 landed at Salt Lake City. Crime technicians checked seat belts, gum wrappers, cigarette butts and the like for fingerprints. A single note left behind by the hijacker was sent to the FBI lab for scrutiny. An army of law enforcers scoured the Provo countryside for clues.
Unlike Cooper, James Johnson helped out investigators with the usual criminal's bugaboo: He had a big mouth. After news of the hijacking broke, a Utah man called the FBI in Salt Lake. An acquaintance, Richard F. McCoy Jr., had told him about a "foolproof" ransom scheme. Its details were identical to the United hijacking. Police learned that McCoy, 29, was a former Mormon Sunday school teacher who was studying law enforcement at Brigham Young University. He was married with two children.
He had no record, but his bio was titillating. A Vietnam veteran, he was a former Green Beret helicopter pilot and avid skydiver. The FBI pulled a fingerprint from the United in-flight magazine at the hijacker's seat. It matched McCoy's Army prints, and the handwriting from the hijacker's note was a dead-on copy of the soldier's.
Meanwhile, a boy found a parachute stuffed near a culvert outside Provo. Cops who flashed McCoy's photo in that area found a burger stand griddle jockey who sold a milkshake to a man resembling McCoy just before midnight on the night of the hijacking. The man paid a teenager $5 for a ride into town.
On April 9, two days after the hijacking, the FBI arrested McCoy on air piracy charges as he prepared to leave home for a routine National Guard drill. In his house agents found a jumpsuit and $499,970. McCoy insisted he was innocent, but the cash was a hurdle for his defense. He was convicted at trial. Prosecutors asked for a stiff sentence to make a point about America's air piracy intolerance. The judge complied, handing down a 45-year sentence.
McCoy was shipped to a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. Facing a caged life, he and another desperate inmate escaped from the medium-security joint in August 1974. Three months later, a tip led the FBI to a house in Virginia Beach, VA. McCoy fired a pistol at agents serving the arrest warrant. Agent Nicholas O'Hara fired back with a shotgun, and McCoy fell dead.
In 1991, Russell Calame, yet another book-writing ex-FBI agent, co-authored "D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy," which made the case that Cooper and McCoy were the same man. His theory was based on the similar methods of the hijackings, as well as an extrapolation drawn from a key piece of evidence that Cooper left behind on the Northwest jet: the skinny black tie with a mother-of-pearl clasp. The tie was like those worn by McCoy and other male Brigham Young students, and McCoy owned a mother-of-pearl clasp identical to the one left behind by Cooper.
Calame told the Salt Lake Tribune that McCoy "never admitted nor denied he was Cooper." Calame said McCoy was asked directly whether he was Cooper during interrogation following his arrest. According to Calame, McCoy responded, "I don't want to talk to you about it.'' He went to his grave with sealed lips.
O`Hara, the agent who killed McCoy, bought his colleague's theory, saying, "When I shot Richard McCoy, I shot D.B. Cooper at the same time."
But the FBI paid no public credence to Calame's idea, and Karen Burns McCoy, widow of the second hijacker, sued and won a cash settlement against the book's co-authors and publisher. Despite that, Calame has stood by his theory about Cooper/McCoy.