The Curious Case of D.B. Cooper: The FBI’s Greatest Unsolved Mystery (Epik Fails of History)

Reblogged from EpikFails.com

The ‘D.B. Cooper’ Incident: November 24th, 1971

“D.B. Cooper” is easily one of the most confounding mysteries of the 20th century. The mysterious hijacker who got away with $200,000 has proven to be just as elusive as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. So much so that after 45 years, the FBI finally closed the door on the case back in 2016! If the freaking Federal Bureau of Investigation gives up, you know it’s probably not getting solved by some random podcaster in his basement. Even Sherlock Holmes himself would have had trouble with this one…

The Facts

In 1971, a mysterious man in a plain suit and tie, wearing non-descript sunglasses, and carrying nothing, but a black attaché case, arrives at Portland International Airport, like he just walked off the set of “Mad Men”. The man who identifies himself as ‘Dan Cooper’ buys a ticket for a Northwest Orient Airlines flight. He boards the plane in Portland, Oregon: Flight 305 non-stop service to Seattle, Washington. It’s a short 30-minute flight, but one that would go on to stay with the crew and the other 35 passengers for the rest of their lives…

After ordering a bourbon and 7-Up, the man known only as Dan Cooper passes a note to a stewardess. The woman doesn’t immediately read the note, assuming it’s just another guy trying to join the Mile High Club, but when the gentleman politely tells her to read it, she soon discovers a message indicating that he has a bomb in his briefcase!

The flight attendant sits next to Cooper as he shows her a row of red cylinders attached to wires. He then orders her to relay his demands to the pilot. The woman, Florence Schaffner, nervously approached the cockpit, where she informed the flight crew that they were being hijacked. The pilot, Captain William A. Scott, radioed in to Northwest Flight Operations in Minnesota: “He requests $200,000 in a knapsack by 5:00pm. He wants two front parachutes, two back parachutes. He wants the money in negotiable American currency.”

Mr. Cooper instructed them to meet them on the runway with fuel trucks and told them that passengers would be free to go, once he got his money and parachutes. At approximately 5:46PM (PST), the Boeing 727 landed at Seattle’s Tacoma airport. When asked to speak to an FAA official in a face-to-face meeting, Cooper turned them down.

One of the other flight attendants, Tina Mucklow, retrieved the money from the feds as instructed. When Mucklow attempted to hand him instructions for the parachutes, Cooper apparently declined, indicating he knew what he was doing. The plane refueled according to plan, and the passengers were allowed to depart unharmed as Cooper counted the ransom bills. Allegedly he attempted to tip the crew with some of his own cash, but they declined stating company policy.

Mr. Cooper then outlined his flight plan to the pilots in the cockpit. He ordered them to chart a course south-east for Mexico City, and they agreed to stop and refuel in Reno, Nevada en route. Now here’s where it gets weird: he requested that they fly at just 100 knots – the slowest possible airspeed without stalling the aircraft. In addition, he told them to keep the landing gear deployed, and the cabin unpressurized. He further specified that the wing flaps be lowered to 15 degrees and to keep the plane no higher than 10,000 feet. The pilots themselves weren’t even sure if the plane could safely handle those conditions, but Cooper calmly assured them it could.

At 7:40 PM, the plane took off once more, and it was soon tailed by two F-106 fighter jets. At 8PM, a warning light flashed in the cockpit – the aft staircase had been deployed. One of the pilots called to Cooper over the intercom, asking if he required assistance. He responded with a simple: “No.” – it would be the last anyone would ever hear from him again.

When the plane landed in Reno at 11:02 PM, the aft stairs were still down, and Captain Scott confirmed to the local authorities that Dan Cooper was nowhere to be found. Federal agents moved in and the bomb squad swept through the plane, but the only clues left behind were unidentified fingerprints, 2 of the 4 requested parachutes, and Cooper’s black clip-on tie. It would seem that in the middle of the night, during a torrential downpour, D.B. Cooper lowered the aft stairs of the plane, secured his parachute and briefcase, using the other parachute to store the cash, before leaping out into the dark, cold, windy night, and forever disappearing from history…

The Investigation

The FBI immediately opened an investigation into the incident, interviewing eyewitnesses in Portland, Seattle, and Reno. They came up with very little in the way of tangible evidence, and unfortunately the composite sketch didn’t help much in the way of identifying the culprit.

D.B. Cooper – the most generic looking white dude of all time

One of the initial suspects was a man named ‘D. B. Cooper’, a white male from Oregon with a previous criminal record. While he was quickly ruled out as the mastermind behind the hijacking, the name ‘D. B. Cooper’ stuck thanks to a sloppy reporter and a country-wide game of telephone, even though the real ‘D. B. Cooper’ only ever went by ‘Dan Cooper’, which may or may not have been an alias since he paid for the flight with cash and left behind no discernable identification.

The flight crew – after the incident

When the passengers first departed in Seattle, apparently most of them weren’t even aware that the plane had been hijacked. FBI Special Agent, Ralph Himmelsbach stated that “no one was unduly upset by the ordeal.” And from all the eyewitness reports from the crew, Mr. Cooper had appeared to be perfectly calm. According to Tina Mucklow: “he was not nervous. He seemed rather nice … and he was never cruel or nasty.”

The search for Cooper continued throughout the North/West United States, as the Feds performed aerial flyovers, combed through possible landing sights in the woods, patrolled numerous lakes in the area, and even deployed a submarine to search the depths of Lake Merwin. They found no sign of the hijacker or his equipment. On top of that, the FBI continued to keep an eye out for the marked bills that he’d absconded with, but none of the bills were ever used, leaving many to speculate that he didn’t survive his escape from the plane. Several newspapers put out ransoms for information on the case over the next decade, but the few leads that came about were later disproven.

The Clues

The recovered bills…

In 1980, a new clue surfaced in the form of $5,800 in damaged $20 bills! They were discovered by a kid in Vancouver, Canada, washed up on the shores of the Columbia River. The FBI soon confirmed that these were in fact from the same stash from the Cooper caper, but nothing else ever manifested from this reveal.

Another odd clue people often like to point to is that according to the eyewitness reports, it appeared as though Cooper had some kind of training. He seemed to know what he was doing, he had extensive knowledge of the aircraft and skydiving. During the incident, Dan spoke with Tina Mucklow (the flight attendant) and as they passed over Tacoma airport, he off-handedly mentioned that McChord Air Force Base was only a 20 minute drive from there. At one point she asked him, why Northwest Airlines? He responded, “It’s not because I have a grudge against your airlines, Miss. I just have a grudge.”

Weirdly enough, conspiracy theorists have since pointed out that the name ‘Dan Cooper’ could have been an alias based on an obscure French-Canadian Comic Book character, who was a pilot for the Canadian Airforce. To add more fuel to this theory, some of the issues of the series involved ransom money, as well as hijackings, and even had Dan Cooper (the character) parachuting out of airplanes – in a business suit! If this connection were to prove true, it would seem that D.B. Cooper had based his alias on the comic book character, indicating that he either came across the comics while on a military tour in Europe, or that he’d grown up with them in Canada. If he was Canadian, it might explain why he specified that he wanted American currency, and why he referred to Minnesota as a ‘nice country’ at one point.

He even allegedly introduced himself as “Cooper, Dan Cooper”, mimicking Sean Connery’s iconic delivery as James Bond in “Dr. No” and “From Russia with Love”, (check out my reviews of all the Bond movies over on Podcasters Assemble!)

In 2009 it was revealed that a team of citizen sleuths under the leadership of a paleontologist, Tom Kaye, had continued the investigation with modern cutting edge forensics. Although they came up with little to nothing, one odd clue they discovered was that the tie he left behind contained traces of pure titanium, and rare minerals – which were consistent with alloys that Boeing was secretly using to develop their super-sonic aircraft throughout the 70’s, which may indicate that he was an employee of the company, which would explain both his knowledge of the 727 *and* his line about holding a grudge…

The Suspects

There have been dozens of different suspects over the years, but none of which have been ruled out as the man himself beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • Ted Braden – a special forces commando who served in Vietnam, and part of the 101st Airborne in WWII. He also happened to be a master skydiver, and convicted felon. He was even an instructor who taught HALO jumps to members of Project Delta. During his time in Vietnam, he deserted and became a mercenary in the Congo, where he was later arrested by the CIA and brought back to the states where he was honorably discharged. He was investigated and arrested for a number of thefts over the years, including fraud schemes, and grand theft auto – eventually landing him in prison in the late 80’s.
  • Kenneth Peter Christiansen – an Army Paratrooper who enlisted in 1944 and passed away in 1994. In 2003, his brother, Lyle, was convinced he was the guy, after watching a ‘D. B. Cooper’ documentary.
  • Jack Coffelt – a con-man who claimed to have been ‘D. B. Cooper’ saying he injured his leg when he landed and lost the money in the process. Records indicate that he was in Portland at the time and did injure his leg around them as he claimed.
  • Lynn Doyle (L.D.) Cooper – a Korean war veteran, proposed as a possible suspect by his niece due to odd circumstances regarding that day, and his obsession with the ‘Dan Cooper’ comic books.
  • Joe Lakich – he was working at an electronics capacity facility at the time (which would explain the materials on the tie), and had recently lost his daughter during a botched FBI hostage negotiation (which would explain the grudge).
  • Barbara Dayton (born Robert Dayton) – a WWII vet, who later worked with explosives in construction and aspired to an aviation career. She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1969 and claimed to have staged the hijacking, disguised as a man to ‘get back’ at the airline industry.
  • William Gossett – a Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force veteran who served in both the Korean War and Vietnam, who claimed that the missing money is in a safety deposit box in Vancouver.
  • Robert Rackstraw – another Vietnam vet, retired pilot, and ex-con. Rackstraw pulled a number of stunts over the years, including faking his own death with a false ‘Mayday’ claim while flying over Monterey Bay, before repainting the plane. He was one of the initial suspects by the FBI, and found himself in the spotlight once again in 2016 after a new book and History channel program came out, but he fervently denied that he was Cooper until his death in 2019.
  • Sheridan Peterson – a Marine during WWII who worked at Boeing at the time, and would often tease the media about being D. B. Cooper, but when the FBI pressed him for information, he claimed to have been in Nepal at the time. Entrepreneur and D. B. Cooper expert claims that he’s 98% sure that Sheridan Peterson was Dan Cooper. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 94.

There have been a few other suspects over the decades, including more than a couple death bed confessions, and some pretty convincing stories here and there, but none of them with any hard, tangible evidence compelling enough to prove that they were in fact the hijacker.

The Legend

Like many other unsolved mysteries, the story of D.B. Cooper has captured the public’s imagination over the years. There have been countless books, movies, comic books, and podcasts made about the case. It even sparked a merchandise craze with t-shirts, coasters, and other memorabilia. A few years back, Oni-Press put out a sci-fi comic book series called, “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper” by Brian Churilla. There are even ‘CooperCon’ conventions in the Pacific North-West, and a literal B.D. Cooper-themed Craft Brewery called ‘Victor 23’ in Vancouver!

D.B. Cooper has become synonymous with other notorious larger-than-life crooks like Jesse James, or Al Capone, but the difference here is that we know very little about Dan Cooper, the man himself, just his exploits on that fateful day – which might be why the legend has persisted all this time, because we may never really know who he was, why he did it, or whether or not he survived the landing.

In more recent pop-culture, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Loki (the Asgardian Trickster God himself, played by Tom Hiddleston) was revealed to actually be D. B. Cooper in a flashback during an episode of the “Loki” Disney Plus series! (click here to check out my MCU reviews on ComicZombie.net)

And if you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the recent Netflix documentary: “B.D. Cooper: Where Are You?” 

The True Story?

Last November marked the 50th anniversary of the D.B. Cooper case, and it seems that we’re no closer to getting closure than that strange November day in 1971. To date, the D.B. Cooper case is the only instance of air piracy that has never been solved.

Most investigators seem to believe that he jumped from the plane around Ariel, Washington, but many dispute whether or not he would have been able to survive the skydive under such adverse conditions. However, there have been a few enterprising daredevils who have since proven that it is in fact possible to pull off. While some have argued that he didn’t have the proper equipment on him, others have pointed out that he could have had additional tools on him, in his briefcase, or in the second carryon that some of the passengers claimed to have seen him with.

Further complicating things is that depending on where he landed, evidence might have been obliterated by the subsequent eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980!

In 2016, the FBI officially closed the file on the unsolved mystery, redirecting resources to other more pressing matters. FBI Special Agent Larry Carr who did a thorough investigation into the case believes that it’s highly unlikely that Cooper survived. Especially considering one of the two parachutes he took with him was inoperable.

He went on to say that he believes the real D. B. Cooper was in the Airforce, stationed in Europe where he became a fan of the ‘Dan Cooper’ comic books. He thinks that Cooper may originally have been from the East coast, but took a job in Seattle, most likely as a cargo loader on planes. Agent Carr believes that Cooper may have lost his job during the economic downturn in the aviation industry at the time, prompting his desperate plot, and that he was probably a loner, someone without any friends or family that would have missed him when he disappeared into the night, on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday.

We may never know the full story, the man behind the myth, but the legend will surely outlive him, regardless of whether the case is ever solved…

– Erik Slader

If you enjoyed this article, follow me on Twitter @ErikSlader for updates, check out the Epik Fails of History podcast for more random content like this! If you’d like to support me you can buy my books, give the podcast(s) a 5 star review, or Buy Me a Coffee! 

Sources: 

“B.D. Cooper: Where Are You?” – Netflix (2022)

“Skyjack: The Hunt for B.D. Cooper” by Geoffrey Gray

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._B._Cooper

https://www.pdxmonthly.com/news-and-city-life/2021/11/mystery-db-cooper-skyjacking

https://www.opb.org/article/2021/11/24/d-b-cooper-50th-anniversary/

https://www.chronline.com/stories/the-db-cooper-vortex-skyjacker-now-part-of-northwest-culture,278603

https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2009/march/in-search-of-d.b.-cooper/dbcooper_031709

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