Citizen sleuths follow trail of elusive hijacker D.B. Cooper

McClatchy NewspapersApril 20, 2009 

US NEWS DBCOOPER MCT

While a team of citizen sleuths, with the help of the FBI, have turned up some tantalizing new clues, the fate of D.B. Cooper after he jumped out of a hijacked airplane with a parachute and $200,000 in cash nearly 38 years ago may never be known.

ALBERT WEINBERG — Albert Weinberg/Le Lombard [Dargaud-Lombard s.a.]/MCT

WASHINGTON — It's among the coldest of cold cases.

While a team of citizen sleuths, with the help of the FBI, have turned up some tantalizing new clues, the fate of D.B. Cooper after he jumped out of a hijacked airplane with a parachute and $200,000 in cash nearly 38 years ago may never be known.

Over the years, Cooper has become a folk hero in the Northwest, the subject of movies, songs and Internet chat rooms. He's the only person in U.S. history to hijack a domestic airliner and escape. The hijacking led to the first of the tougher security procedures for passengers boarding planes that are now standard at airports.

The informal team of detectives includes a fossil hunter who works with the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle, a well-known scientific illustrator, an Egyptologist who speaks 12 languages, a metallurgist, and an Arkansas man who discovered $5,800 of the loot in $20 bills while throwing a Frisbee on the banks of the Columbia River when he was 8 years old.

"We are looking down every rabbit hole," said Tom Kaye, a paleontologist who spends part of his time searching for dinosaur bones in Wyoming and the rest staring through an electron microscope at particles lifted from a black J.C. Penney tie that Cooper left behind on the plane.

The team is scouring a French comic book series that featured a Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot named Dan Cooper. The comics were popular in France and French-speaking Canada at the time of the hijacking, leading to speculation that Cooper borrowed the name of the fictional comic book hero. Cooper used the name Dan Cooper when he purchased his ticket for Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. The media, mistakenly, dubbed him D.B.

The team also spent several days along the Columbia River using satellite maps and global positioning systems to try to locate the exact spot where the money was found. Though no one knows for sure, it's thought the money washed downstream more than 20 miles from where Cooper may have landed in southwestern Washington state. Kaye and his team think the money reached the Columbia River sandbar where it was found, months after the hijacking. Previously, it was thought to have taken several years.

"We are looking at everything," said Carol Abraczinskas, a scientific illustrator who teaches at the University of Chicago. She didn't know much about Cooper but became fascinated after hearing Kaye talk about the case during a break at a convention.

On Nov. 21, 1971 — Thanksgiving eve — a nondescript man wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie bought a one-way ticket on Flight 305, bound to Seattle from Portland. After boarding the plane and ordering a bourbon and soda, the man handed a note to a flight attendant telling her he had a bomb in his briefcase. He opened the briefcase, which contained bundles of wires and red sticks. He demanded $200,000 and parachutes.

After the flight landed in Seattle, he released the 36 passengers. The plane took off again, headed for Mexico City. The hijacker told the pilot to fly at 200 mph at 10,000 feet and ordered the crew to stay in the cockpit. Twenty minutes or so after takeoff, the man lowered the stairs at the back of the Boeing 727 and jumped.

It may have been the perfect crime. He was never seen again.

The FBI suspected he might have landed in a heavily timbered, rugged area near the small town of Ariel. A search by agents and soldiers from Fort Lewis failed to turn up any sign of Cooper, his parachute or the money. Over the years, the FBI has run down thousands of leads and conducted thousands of interviews, including a handful involving people of special interest. None led anywhere.

Decades later, the FBI's Seattle Field Office is tired of talking about Cooper and declined to comment, saying there was nothing new.

The special agent leading the investigation, Larry Carr, has said it's "highly unlikely" that Cooper survived the jump.

"Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open," Carr said on an FBI Web site.

Whether he survived or not, one fundamental question remains unanswered — who was D.B. Cooper?

"Even if he is dead, everyone wants to know who he was," Abraczinskas said.

Carr thinks Cooper:

_ Served in the Air Force and, at one point, was based in Europe, where he may have read the Dan Cooper comic books.

_ May have been a loner with little or no family and few friends who would have reported him missing.

_ May have worked as a cargo loader because of his knowledge of airplanes.

_ Knew about parachutes, though wasn't an expert because few experts would have jumped out of a plane in the conditions he faced.

_ Didn't have help on the ground because that would have required him to communicate closely with the plane's crew to hit a specific drop zone.

Though the investigation has remained open, Carr said it didn't make sense for the FBI to spend a lot of time, money or manpower on it. So the agency asked the public for help and offered access to its voluminous case files.

"It's the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history," said Kaye, the de facto leader of the team. "The FBI doesn't have the money, but they don't want to give up."

Kaye is a paleontologist, a research associate at the Burke Museum, an astronomer, geologist, inventor, pilot and the former owner of a paintball company. He was recommended to Carr by an acquaintance.

The tie was the only piece of evidence left behind by Cooper on the plane. The FBI was able to lift a DNA sample from the tie; DNA testing didn't exist at the time of the hijacking. Carr is using an electron microscope in the basement of his house to try to identify particles taken from the tie.

Among the most interesting particles are grains of pollen that Kaye is trying to identify. That could help tell where Cooper was before the hijacking, he said. Carr said he's found no pine pollen, and that probably means Cooper hadn't been in the Northwest, which is covered with pine trees.

Abraczinskas has been concentrating on the comic books, which are no longer in print. More than 40 of them were published. She's scanning the comic books into a computer, which translates them from French to English (she doesn't speak French). One of her colleagues at the University of Chicago, the Egyptologist who speaks 12 languages and grew up in French-speaking Montreal, sometimes helps.

They're looking for any clues that might indicate Cooper read the comics, stole the hero's name and borrowed other parts of the stories. One comic published near the time of the hijacking has Maj. Dan Cooper on the cover parachuting.

"He was a real rock star, a real James Bond type," Abraczinskas said of the mythical Dan Cooper.

Kaye, Abraczinskas, Bobby Ingram — who found the $5,800 when he was a boy — and others spent several days last month scouring the banks of the Columbia near a place called Tena Bar. They were attempting to reconstruct how the money had gotten to the Columbia.

They took measurements, water and soil samples and used old FBI photographs to try to pinpoint exactly where Ingram found the money. They also placed bundles of money similar to those Cooper was given in the water to see if they floated.

"No one had done that before," said Abraczinskas, adding that the bundles floated for about 10 minutes.

Kaye said it's possible Cooper actually landed in the Columbia River, although the FBI dredged the river off Tena Bar after the money was found in 1980. There also had been speculation that Cooper may have actually buried the money on Tena Bar.

The team also wants to take a close look at the rubber bands that held the bundles of $20 bills together and a length of parachute cord. Authorities gave Cooper four parachutes after he hijacked the plane. He had cut a piece of cord off one of the parachutes left behind on the plane and may have used it to strap the money to his waist before he jumped. One theory is the parachute cord broke or came undone as Cooper fell toward earth, scattering the money.

Kaye thinks there's a 50-50 chance that Cooper lived.

"I can see it both ways," he said.

Abraczinskas said she isn't so sure.

"My instinct tell me he died," she said. "Skydivers say it was a suicide jump. But it's hard to explain how three bundles of money made it to the Columbia River."

ON THE WEB:

The FBI's D.B. Cooper Web site

Freedom of Information Act documents about D.B. Cooper released by FBI

The D.B. Cooper song

The D.B. Cooper movie

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