Man Hijacks a Plane and Vanishes; Will New Clues Solve the Case?
If a criminal can force the FBI to give up, they must be good. That was true with one man, only known by the alias of D.B. Cooper. Decades after his crime took place, his true identity has still not been discovered. It stumped both the government and military. To this day, D.B. Cooper’s case is the only unsolved case of air piracy in commercial aviation history. Modern technology, however, has revealed new bits of evidence. The people still investigating the case believe they are getting closer to solving it than ever before. Take a look and see what we know so far.
A Fake Name
Although the name D.B. Cooper might sound familiar, that was not the name on his plane ticket. Dan Cooper is the name he used on the ticket but it is thought that even that name was most likely an alias.
The reason why we know him as D.B. Cooper is due to a mistake made by the media, but it ended up sticking. At Portland International Airport, the strange man identified himself as Dan Cooper and presumably, this is also what his ID said. But who was he, and what on earth did he do? Read on to find out.
One-Way Flight to Seattle
On November 24, 1971 (the day before Thanksgiving), Cooper bought a one-way Northwest Orient Airlines ticket to Seattle, Washington, which is about a 30-minute plane ride from Portland, Oregon. The passengers patiently boarded Flight 305, a Boeing 727-100 aircraft.
According to witnesses, Cooper sat in seat 18C in the rear of the plane. The flight was only about a third full and took off at 2:50 PM PST, right on time. Little did passengers know that they were in for a wild ride.
Descriptions From Memory
Remember, this was 1971 and no one had cell phones to take pictures or capture any scenes on the flight. So police had to solely rely on descriptions from the passengers and crew. All we have are sketches of him.
People described him as a white man who looked possibly like a businessman wearing a dark colored suit, a white shirt, a black tie, and a rain coat. His accessories included sunglasses and the now infamous briefcase. What was inside his briefcase would never have made it past security nowadays.
The Bomb in the Briefcase
It didn’t take long after the plane took off for Cooper to announce to a flight attendant that he had a bomb in his briefcase and he was going to hijack the plane. He actually first passed a folded note to the 23-year-old flight attendant, Florence Schaffner, who was sitting in the jump seat.
She assumed it was just another guy hitting on her and she placed the note in her purse. Cooper, though, didn’t want her to read it later and told her “Miss. You’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
His Crazy Demands
At first, Schaffner thought the man must be joking but then she saw how serious he was and quickly took the note out of her purse. It said something like “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit beside me,” in all capital letters. Cooper eventually took the note back.
The flight attendant did as she was told but asked to see the bomb. Cooper said he would detonate it unless he was given $200,000 (about $1,204,124 today), four parachutes, and a new fuel tank when the plane landed. She notified the pilot, who then called local authorities.
The FBI’s Plan
When the plane landed in Seattle, it was two hours late, which was done on purpose so that the FBI could have time to evaluate the situation and get the money. Each bill was carefully recorded in hopes they’d be able to track down where it was spent.
As per his demands, the plane was refueled and an airline staff member brought four civilian parachutes on board, as well as the $200,000, all in $20 bills. After Cooper got what he wanted, he let all the passengers leave the aircraft, including Schaffner and another flight attendant, but made the rest of the crew stay.
A True Gentleman?
As soon as Schaffner was released, she was able to tell the police and FBI the full story of what happened aboard the flight, including Cooper showing her the bomb. Surprisingly, the flight attendant didn’t describe him as a frightening terrorist.
Instead, she said he was actually pretty nice and even gave her $20 for a $2 drink. He wasn’t like any of the known air pirates of the time and was pretty calm the whole time, never being rude or threatening. She thought Cooper might have been a local since he seemed to recognize the area.
Specific Flying Instructions
After he was given all that he had asked for, he ordered the pilot to take off. Unlike other air pirates of the time, he didn’t want to go to Cuba or an island in the Caribbean. Instead, Cooper told pilot William Scott and copilot William Rataczak that he wanted them to fly toward Mexico City at the lowest airspeed possible.
Furthermore, he instructed them not go above 10,000 feet, and to leave the cabin unpressurized. The pilots told him, though, that the small aircraft wouldn’t be able to make it to Mexico City without refueling so they decided to make a stop in Reno, Nevada.
Opening the Door in Midair
His last crazy demand didn’t seem like a good idea at all. Cooper wanted the plane to take off with the rear exit door open with the staircase extended. That should have been a sign of what he was about to do.
Officials from Northwest Airlines told the hijacker that it is dangerous to take off with the stairs lowered but was Cooper insistent. In the end, Cooper decided to compromise with the pilot. He said he would simply lower the stairs himself during the flight. He was ready to go now.
Off to Mexico
Before leaving Reno, the Federal Aviation Administration asked if they could send someone on board to talk to Cooper. They hoped this would be able to defuse the situation and possibly the bomb as well. However, Cooper flatly refused. All he cared about was getting in the air.
They took to the air around 7:40 pm with the pilot, co-pilot, a flight attendant, and a flight engineer. Two F-106 fighter aircraft trailed the Boeing 727-100, out of sight, but the pilots failed to notice the big thing that happened next.
The Great Escape
Cooper did not want anyone to see what he was about to do, so he made sure that everyone, including the flight attendant, stayed behind the closed cockpit door. Nonetheless, the stewardess said that she saw him strap the money to himself.
Cooper also gave each crew member a $2,000 tip for their troubles before making them go into the cockpit, 45-minutes into the flight. Shortly after, the pilots were able to tell that the rear exit door and stairs had been opened. Suddenly, into the darkness and rainfall, he jumped and seemingly vanished into thin air.
Hiding in the Cockpit
Although it was clear that Cooper was no longer on board, the crew stayed in the cockpit for the remainder of the flight until they landed again at the airport in Reno. Upon arrival, members of the FBI, state troopers, and local police were waiting.
The plane landed at the airport 10:15 pm and the stairs from which Cooper jumped were still down. Authorities immediately surrounded the plane, not knowing what to expect. They wanted to make sure that the mysterious and possibly dangerous man wasn’t still on the plane. Agents stormed the aircraft and did a thorough search. All that was left, though, were two parachutes and a mother-of-pearl tie clip.
Let the Search Begin
The investigators were able to find 66 fingerprints, but they didn’t lead to any definite matches. Soon after, they began questioning any possible suspects, including a man named D.B. Cooper, and interviewed witnesses that may have seen him.
A search for Cooper was conducted in the possible areas he could have landed but it was difficult because they don’t know when exactly he jumped. The F-106 pilots that followed Cooper’s plane also didn’t see anyone jump, but it was also pitch black out and cloudy.
FBI’s Most Wanted
The mysterious hijacker, who’s story quickly became famous across the country, managed to make it onto the FBI’s most wanted list. Even the military got involved in trying to find him, whether dead or alive. Yet, the initial search kept leading to dead end. No clear answers were found.
An experiment was conducted using the same Boeing 727-100 and flight path with Pilot Scott. They used a 200-pound sled to act as Cooper and it was pushed out of the open staircase. They concluded that he must have jumped at 8:13 pm and landed somewhere near the southernmost outreach of Mount St. Helens.
By Air and By Land
A thousand troops were sent to the suspected drop area both on foot and by helicopter. They looked for Cooper or, at least, evidence that he was there. They didn’t find a single thing at the time. Maybe the search was too broad, they thought, so the investigation moved to a smaller radius.
They narrowed their search to Clark and Cowlitz counties, looking around the Lewis River, and also in the wilderness of the mountains. They even went door-to-door to local farmhouses, as well as searching Lake Merwin and Yale Lake. The hijacker was nowhere to be found.
Searching High and Low
In the beginning, the FBI and police were sure they would find the man who hijacked the plane and robbed the U.S. government of $200,000. The Oregon Army National Guard provided aircraft and helicopters to continue the search from above.
The search continued well into 1972. In March and April, more searches were conducted for 18 days by the FBI as well as by 200 soldiers, National Guard troops, and civilian volunteers. A submarine searched the depths of Lake Merwin as well. It is said to have been the most extensive search operation in U.S. history.
Rewards for Finding the Bills
Each of the $20 bills that were given to the hijacker was marked with a specific serial number. The FBI then gave those numbers to financial institutions, casinos, race tracks, and other places they believed that the money might turn up.
Attorney General John Mitchell released the numbers to the public and soon came offerings of rewards if someone found the ransom money. Northwest Orient offered 15% of the total money as a reward. Meanwhile, the “Oregon Journal” offered $1,000 and the “Post-Intelligencer” offered $5,000. Still, nothing turned up for years until someone made an interesting find in an unexpected place.
Money is Found
Nine years after the hijacking, the FBI finally had new evidence related to the case and this one was important: it ws $5,800 of the ransom money. Making it even more interesting was that it was found by a child who was just playing on a beach.
In February 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram stumbled upon the money while digging in sand along the Columbia River. It was confirmed that the bills were Cooper’s. The rubber bands holding the bills were still intact and the money seemed untouched, but the bills had disintegrated due to exposure. The rest of the money has not yet been found.
This huge discovery sparked a new round of search operations and greatly increased the theory that Cooper was dead at the bottom of the river. Everyone was once again talking about D.B. Cooper but still, many more questions remained over how the money arrived at the exact spot.
Did Cooper bury the money there himself? Did the river carry it there? Where did it come from? The FBI wasn’t able to find answers. Despite a thorough search of the beach and dredging the river, they found nothing—just more theories. Former FBI agent Richard Tosaw would spend more than 25 years searching that river.
The Tie Has It?
Aside from the 66 unidentified fingerprints found on surfaces and objects around the plane, the only other thing investigators had of Cooper’s was his black tie and tie clip. The tie was found to have three samples of DNA on it. The problem, though, was that investigators had no idea if the tie was really the hijacker’s or if he borrowed it. Therefore, it is unknown so we don’t know if the DNA is actually his.
The FBI has interviewed hundreds of possible suspects and while some have been more plausible than others, none of them were confirmed to be the kidnapper. What made it harder for the investigators was the fact that they don’t know Cooper’s real name or if he even survived the fall.
In 2007, the FBI announced that they had a partial DNA profile but it did not connect to anyone in their large suspect pool. Still, it lead them to a woman named Lynn Doyle Cooper who claimed D.B. Cooper was her uncle. She said she remembered him and her father acting strangely and the two using expensive walkie talkies.
Another lead came from the family of a man named Richard Lepsy. They contacted the FBI claiming that the sketches of Cooper looked like him and that he went missing in 1969. His car was discovered at a local airport but other than that, his family never knew what happened to him. The daughter gave the investigators DNA samples but the FBI never shared the results with the public.
Should They Give Up?
After 45 years of keeping the D.B. Cooper hijacking case open but getting little new evidence, the FBI eventually decided it was time to give up on the case on July 12, 2016. It looked like the hijacker had gotten away with his crime. In their announcement, they said they “exhaustively reviewed all credible leads” but have decided to use those resources for other cases.
Despite years of intensive searches, he only physical evidence they had was some of the cash and the instruction sign from the plane’s stairs that had fallen off. Little did they know that only a few months later, they a new lead would come about.
A New Lead?
Just six months after the FBI closed the D.B. Cooper case, a team of amateur scientists, who call themselves the Citizens Sleuths and devote time specifically to investigating the D.B. Cooper case, said they had found new evidence, through a new method.
The group studied the tie that was allegedly Cooper’s and found microscopic particles that may indicate where he worked. In fact, the particles were rare earth minerals that indicated he may have been an engineer at a plant that supplied metal to the aerospace industry. Boeing had such a plant and lead to a theory that Cooper may have been a Boeing employee.
Despite this evidence, the FBI still said they were not going to reopen the case based on just the theory. Furthermore, it was never confirmed that the tie definitely belonged to Cooper. Yet, they are not ignoring the theory completely.
A spokeswoman for the FBI said that they were “still committed to justice for this criminal incident.” However, she emphasized that the agency is “not actively investigating at this time and have not requested additional assistance from outside entities.” The local FBI has been helping the Citizens Sleuths, though, and they have said they will continue to investigate what the FBI won’t. And their persistence bore fruit with their next find.
D.B.’s Parachute Strap?
On August 10, 2017, another piece of evidence was discovered in the Pacific Northwest mountains. It was a frayed parachute strap made of nylon measuring 18-inches long that appeared to be “decades old.” A group of volunteer investigators found this latest item, led by TV and movie executive Thomas Colbert, who also runs the site dbcooper.com and has co-written a book on the case.
The exact location was not revealed, but Colbert noted it was found “right where a credible source claimed the chute and remaining money are buried.” He gave the strap to the FBI on August 11, but will they decide to reopen the case once again?
Running On Theories
So in the end, all that the investigators have managed to uncover are a bunch of theories as to what happened to D.B. Cooper that fateful day, but no concrete evidence. Only one fact remains: that people out there still want an answer and will continue to investigate the case.
Whether he survived jumping out of a plane in a night storm or died from the fall, Cooper, or at least his body, may still be out there. So is the rest of the $200,000. With time, more evidence may come to light and one day, we may be able to call the case closed.
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