[This Wednesday, November 24, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of skyjacker D.B. Cooper's infamous crime and escape from authorities. Local historian Doug Kenck-Crispin has read all 22,277 pages (!!) of the FBI's investigation on Cooper, and shares with Mercury readers his picks for the top ten weirdest facts relating to the case.—eds]
On November 24, 1971, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a man purchased a one-way airplane ticket from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington. He paid for the ticket with a $20 bill and gave his name as “Cooper. Dan Cooper.” Once he and the 36 other passengers boarded, Cooper sat in seat 18E, sipped a bourbon and seven, smoked some Raleigh cigarettes, and passed the flight attendant a note stating that he had… a bomb.
He proceeded to show her something in his attaché case that certainly resembled a bomb (six or eight stacked red tubes, wires, and a big battery). The skyjacker said that when the airplane landed at SEATAC, he wanted money, parachutes, fuel, and “No funny stuff, or I’ll do the job.” Roughly six hours later, as the now passenger-less Northwest Orient 727 was back in the air, flying south at 10,000 feet over southwestern Washington, Dan Cooper would jump from the back of the airplane into the dark, rainy night. On his back was a US Navy surplus parachute. Tied to his waist was $200,000 in ransom money—all in $20 bills. Cooper was never heard from again.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) pursued the caper until July 2016, when after almost 45 years, they considered the case closed-ish. The Feds had investigated over 1,000 suspects and came up with nothing. Since closing the case, the FBI have released 22,277 pages of reports on their website covering most aspects of the investigation "between November 1971 and May 1992.”
To properly remember the 50th anniversary of the only unsolved skyjacking in US Aviation history (happening on Wednesday, November 24), I have reviewed every single document—all 22,277 pages—with my own eyes, and for your enjoyment, have compiled the top ten weirdest, wildest revelations from the hunt for D.B. Cooper.
Note: Many of the documents you'll see are heavily redacted, as the release process must preserve the identity of many of the living suspects. But as you will see, there are still gems of substantiation to be unearthed by intrepid researchers... or, if you prefer, a lot of bullshit conjecture. But what emerges from this pile of papers is a myriad of possible D.B. Coopers, a patchwork of vastly diverse suspects, along with varied paradigms and theories that contribute to the provenance of weirdness that comprise this legend. (And honestly, some of them are pretty good reading!)
DID D.B. COOPER DROP INTO THE SANDY HUT?
Was D.B. Cooper caught drinking at the Sandy Hut at 10 in the morning? Yes, that Sandy Hut!
On December 29, 1971, an off-duty Portland Police officer went for a drink at the Sandy Hut… at 7:30 am... on a Wednesday... as one does, right? An hour or two later, another man entered the bar who the cop thought resembled D.B. Cooper. The “looks like D.B. Cooper guy” was spending lots of money, and breaking four $100 bills—which for 1971 was a sizable amount of cash. So the presumably drunk Portland cop called the FBI. In conversation, it was revealed that the suspect was a private pilot, an experienced skydiver, and a Washington lawyer. He was also “in a state of extreme inebriation, uncooperative.”
Once the Feds showed up at the Sandy Hut, our suspect stated, “I am aware of the Federal statutes and will be filing a false arrest suit as a result of being questioned by FBI Agents.” He also mentioned that he couldn’t recall where he'd been on November 24 or 25 (Thanksgiving), unnecessarily adding that “D.B. Cooper should be given a medal” for his crime.
OF A CERTAIN "COMPLEXION"
It seems that race played an integral role in the federal investigation. When we look at the FBI poster or suspect sheet, we notice that D.B. Cooper’s race is listed as “White” or “Caucasian,” but it also noted that Cooper had an “olive" or "Latin complexion." This is probably why agents spent time looking into a Los Angeles parachute club called “Latin Sky-Divers,” whose members were “of Latin descent or background.” Several documents refer to D.B. Cooper as displaying “Mexican characteristics,” and at least one suspect was cleared by the Bureau because their complexion didn't fit the witness' description.
Acting upon this suspicion, the Bureau recommended that all divisions who had a “concentration of Mexican-American extremists, including Chicanos [and] Brown Berets" should be on the lookout for activists who look like Cooper.
In addition, a correspondent from Tennessee, engaging in what the Feds correctly called "pure speculation,” suggested that D.B. Cooper could've been a member of the elite, all Black paratrooper unit known as the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, based in Pendleton, Oregon, during World War Two. The battalion never fired a shot in the conflict, but instead parachuted into conflagrations to fight western forest fires, some caused by Japanese balloon bombs. The writer suggested that Cooper “was actually a Black man who could pass for a White man,” and that his grudge was with systemic racism, or something to that effect, which inspired the hijacking.
One of the primary components of this case is that D.B. Cooper displayed an object that looked like a bomb. Now whether the bomb was real or not is a matter of chatroom discussions (some suggest the red tubes were highway flares, not sticks of dynamite), but at the time, you had to consider D.B. Cooper was armed and dangerous due to the fact he had an alleged bomb in his possession, which he threatened to detonate if he did not receive cash and parachutes.
Thus, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that someone in authority invited a troop of Boy Scouts to investigate the suspected jump site and help law enforcement officers look for the skyjacker. While the offer was quickly turned down by the feds, it is a bit inconceivable that someone in authority thought it was a good idea to have children searching the woods for a guy unbalanced enough to jump out of an airplane with a bomb.
CASE CLOSED... IN 1986?
Not quite five years after the crime, in April of 1976, the FBI held a conference in San Francisco where agents working on the investigation really dug into the evidence they had at the moment (very little) and the current, viable suspects (none). The study that emerged from the conference determined “if COOPER was to surrender to authorities now or in the near future, it would be extremely difficult to make the case if he was uncooperative.” In essence, by 1976, Dan Cooper had gotten off scot-free, and yet? The investigation continued.
CARRYING CLIPPINGS IS NOT A CRIME!
Okay, so some poor bastard in Vancouver had an odd fetish: He liked to cut out newspaper stories about D.B. Cooper and carry them around with him. (As fetishes go, this one seems pretty mild.) Nevertheless, the cops thought that seemed a little weird, and decided to detain him in the Clark County jail even though the man denied he was Cooper and admitted, “I just like to carry clippings.” (Spoiler alert: He was not D.B. Cooper, and the nerd was released.) (Full disclosure: I like to carry clippings, too.)
A SOLID TIP
It turns out D.B. Cooper was a big spender! During the hijacking, he even offered a bundle of cash ($2,000) to flight attendant Tina Mucklow, after the ransom money was brought to the plane in Seattle. Mucklow declined, stating that tipping violated Northwest Airline’s policy. (Psst. Or at least that’s what she told the Feds….)
THE DALLES DUBBED D.B.
The man in the dark business suit who purchased his ticket in Portland with a $20 bill gave his name as "Dan Cooper." So where did this other name, “D.B. Cooper,” come from? Why, from the Oregon town so cool they had to put a “the” in front of it... The Dalles!
According to this document, when the passengers finally deplaned in Seattle and their names were compared against the flight’s manifest, it was determined that a "Dan Cooper" was missing, and therefore must still be on the plane. They had a name for the hijacker! The FBI quickly took this data and poured through their “indices,” locating a man by the name of "REDACTED" (but likely similar to “D.B. Cooper”) who lived in The Dalles. A police officer in The Dalles went to this (similar to “D.B. Cooper”) person’s home, and since (similar to “D.B. Cooper”) was inside the home, “the fact was noted that he could not have been on the plane since he was at The Dalles.”
The story of the incident in The Dalles was not released to the press, but was later revealed anyway, and so the name of the suspect in the public consciousness became “D.B.” and not “Dan” Cooper. The FBI was cool with this; they wanted to “utilize this fact as an aid in the initial evaluation of new leads.” (Lotta good that did, huh?)
A SURVIVABLE JUMP?
For years, even decades, the federal hypothesis was that D.B. Cooper died in his jump. The night was too cold (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit at 10,000 feet), he was shod in slip-on loafers (not jump boots), and his velocity exiting the aircraft at nearly 200 mph all indicated a nearly impossible jump... at least from their perspective.
But the feds also interviewed several skydiving experts that completely disagreed with this assessment. Some afforded that there were hundreds of parachutists, maybe a few thousand, that could pull off this stunt and walk away. Their disparate versions of D.B. Cooper could have survived the plummet, and to emphasize this fact, a handful of parachutists offered to personally make the same jump, from the same 727, under the same weather conditions, and attired like D.B. Cooper. Again, convinced the jump was "unsurvivable," the feds declined their assistance.
D.B. COOPER: LONG-HAIRED HIPPIE
One suspect the FBI investigated was “an anti-war radical” who boasted that he was D.B. Cooper. Involved with the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement, this version of D.B. Cooper donated his ill-gotten money to various radical political movements. I’m not sure if “the square” pictured in the composite actually resembles a “long-hair hippie type.” Neither am I sure that a "hippie" would go to such extreme risks as jumping out of an airplane in the middle of the night to fund political organizations. But hey—stranger things have happened. (For example, in the movie Point Break).
DEPUTIZING THE CAMPERS
At around ten months into the investigation, the FBI was on the hot seat. The Bureau became so desperate for resolution that they distributed flyers to Washington State game wardens to hand out to hunters, campers, and fisherpersons they encountered in the woods. The missive asked for the outdoor enthusiasts' help in keeping a look-out for clues to help solve the caper. What kind of clues? Well, things like… a body! (Possibly dead for one year). Perhaps $200,000 in cash, wrapped in a parachute canopy! ("Don't take it for yourself, please.") Oh, and a briefcase! (Again, it would've been nice to mention something about a possible BOMB in that briefcase. Good luck, campers!)
While these may be some of the oddest documents in the Dan Cooper files, they certainly are not outliers. I could have conferred you with 100 additional oddities. Anyone examining the FBI's 22,000-plus Cooper documents will be presented with a slew of D.B. Coopers. There seems to be a suspect for every pet theory one might conjure, or a D.B. Cooper to fit every hypothesis, no matter how far-fetched: a Black D.B. Cooper, a Latino D.B. Cooper, a boring middle-aged white male D.B. Cooper, a trans D.B. Cooper, even a "The Dalles" D.B. Cooper. It’s all there; the 31 Flavors of D.B. Coopers, and you can pick your personal favorite! You get to meld the person in the dark business suit at PDX to fit the provenance that suits you best.
There truly is no wrong answer in this quest, nothing too outlandish, and this is the primary reason why we still celebrate this caper, even after 50 years.
Doug Kenck-Crispin is the Resident Historian and co-producer of the podcast series Kick Ass Oregon History. He likes to write about strange and sordid stories from Oregon's past. You can find all 22,000-plus documents from the FBI's D.B. Cooper case here.
On Wednesday, November 24, Doug Kenck-Crispin will be live-tweeting the D.B. Cooper caper, minute-by-minute as it happened, exactly 50 years later. You can follow along here.