November 24, 2021, marks 50 years since one of the most mysterious disappearances in modern history. Since the night he jumped out of a plane, never to be seen again, people have been enthralled by the case of D. B. Cooper. Who was the mysterious hijacker? Where did he go?
Over the past five decades, people have speculated about the answers to these questions—and theories abound. From fellow hijackers to deathbed confessors, possible D. B. Coopers are still popping up well into the 21st century. We might never know the truth about the identity of the man who disappeared on that rainy night in 1971, but the enduring mystery has undoubtedly made D. B. Cooper’s disappearance a modern-day American legend.
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On November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, a man calling himself Dan Cooper approached the Northwest Orient Airlines counter at Portland International Airport and purchased a ticket for Flight 305, bound for Seattle, Washington. He paid cash. He was, by all accounts, an unassuming and quiet man. As he waited for takeoff in seat 18C, he politely ordered a bourbon and soda.
A little after 3 pm, he handed Florence Schaffner, a flight attendant, a note that claimed he had a bomb in his briefcase. The note also asked Schaffner to sit next to him. When she did, he opened his briefcase to show her a mass of wires and red sticks. He then demanded that she write a new note that she was to deliver to the captain.
The note demanded four parachutes and $200,000—in 2021 dollars, that’s $1.3 million. The captain called air traffic control in Seattle who then informed the authorities. The plane circled the area around Puget Sound for about two hours while police and FBI agents gathered the money —all $200,000 was in 20 dollar bills—and parachutes. The plane touched down in Seattle at 5:39 and, after learning that his demands had been met, Cooper agreed to exchange the 35 other passengers and most of the crew for his ransom.
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Cooper kept four members of the crew on board with him and demanded the plane take off again and fly to Mexico City. He also stipulated that the plane should not fly any higher than 10,000 feet, cruise as slow as possible, keep the landing gear deployed, and that the rear exit door should remain open with the staircase extended. He relented on the last demand when the crew told him that it was unsafe to take off with the staircase deployed, he stated that he would open it himself when they were in the air. The group also agreed to stop in Reno, Nevada to refuel the plane.
Soon after the 7:36 takeoff, Cooper asked flight attendant Tina Mucklow to show him how to open the door to the back staircase. Once she had done so, he sent her to the cockpit with the rest of the crew. Around 8 p.m., the crew noticed that the exit stairs had been activated, and at 8:13, the tail section of the plane sustained a sudden and noticeable upward movement. D. B. Cooper had jumped out of the plane.
The FBI began their NORJACK—short for Northwest Hijacking—investigation immediately. The search and recovery operation that resulted was arguably the most extensive in US history. Investigators first focused their efforts on attempting to locate where Cooper landed after he jumped, but that proved to be easier said than done. It was difficult for investigators to outline a precise search area since small differences in the aircraft’s speed and environmental conditions along the flight path would have changed his projected landing point.
It was concluded that the original landing zone was in the area around Lake Merwin, a man-made lake formed by a dam on the Lewis River, in Washington. However, later analyses determined that the real drop zone was probably closer to the Washougal River, further southeast than the original location. No trace of Cooper or his parachute has ever been found.
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The only physical evidence found to date was discovered in 1980. On February 10, a young boy, Brian Ingram, found rotting packages containing $5,800 of 20 dollar bills on a stretch of beach along the Columbia River known as Tena Bar. It was quickly reported to investigators, and they soon found that the bills matched the serial numbers of Cooper’s ransom money. A search was launched of the area, but nothing else was found, and the rest of the money has still never been located.
Debate is still ongoing about how the money ended up buried in the sand on Tena Bar. Most people agree that it was somehow transported by water. Hydrologists have noted that the way the bills disintegrated is consistent with having been in the water as opposed to being deliberately buried. Still, no agreement has been reached on when the packages arrived there. Did they fall into a river as Cooper fell from the sky? Or did he attempt to get rid of the cash with the incriminating serial numbers later?
Over the years, there have been hundreds of suspects in the D. B. Cooper case. Within five years of the hijacking, the FBI had considered over 800 people. As of 2011, the count had reached over 1,000 individuals. There have been many theories put forward over the years, far too many to list all of them here, but we’ve made sure to address the most interesting and plausible.
Before getting into the suspects, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s very possible that Cooper may not have survived his jump. Larry Carr, the FBI Special Agent who led the Cooper investigation from 2007 until the agency declared it inactive in 2016, believes that to be a very likely scenario. Cooper chose to use a parachute he couldn’t steer and he jumped into a wooded area at night during a rainstorm. No experienced parachute jumper would make those decisions.
At the same time, many investigators and theorists have pointed out that parachuters in World War II jumped in those conditions frequently, so it was by no means impossible for him to have survived. And as we’ve already established no trace of him has ever been found.
As the FBI whittled down their list of suspects, they often relied on the physical descriptions given of Cooper by witnesses. The two flight attendants, Florence Schaffner and Tina Mucklow gave identical descriptions of him. He appeared to be in his mid-40s, was between 5’10” and 6” tall, and had dark, combed-back hair. Before jumping, Cooper had also removed his tie, which later provided investigators with a small DNA sample.
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Also of note is the fact that D. B. Cooper is not the name the hijacker ever used. One of the first suspects interviewed was a man from Oregon named D. B. Cooper on the off chance that the hijacker had used an alias close to his real name. He was quickly ruled out as a suspect, but a local reporter confused his name with the “Dan Cooper” who had actually hijacked the plane. The error was published in his story and was continuously reprinted into media history.
Richard Floyd McCoy Jr.
One of the most popular suspects is Richard McCoy, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, including one with the Green Berets as a helicopter pilot. After the war, he served in the Utah National Guard and in his free time, was an amateur skydiver. His knowledge of planes and skydiving is notable, but that’s not what makes McCoy so intriguing.
In April 1972, five months after Cooper disappeared, McCoy, using an alias, hijacked a United Airlines flight out of Denver. Armed with a paperweight that looked like a grenade and an unloaded handgun, he demanded four parachutes and $500,000. Once he got his ransom, he demanded the aircraft take off again and proceeded to jump out of the plane somewhere over Provo, Utah. He was arrested two days later.
McCoy is the favorite suspect of former FBI Agent Russel Calame and parole officer Bernie Rhodes, who wrote a book on the subject. The book also notes that both hijackings occurred when Brigham Young University, where McCoy was studying, was on break. For the rest of his life, McCoy refused to confirm or deny if he had committed the D. B. Cooper hijacking.
Despite this, the FBI has ruled McCoy out as a suspect. Although his modus operandi was strikingly similar to Cooper’s, he was not the only hijacker inspired by him. Airplane hijackings were surprisingly frequent in the 1970s. By the middle of the decade, 150 planes had been “skyjacked” in the US alone. He also did not match the physical description, he was in Las Vegas on the day of the hijacking and back home in Utah for Thanksgiving the next day, and he was too experienced with skydiving.
After his arrest, McCoy was sentenced to 45 years in prison. In 1974, he managed to escape and stayed on the run for several months. He was finally tracked down in Virginia and died there in a gunfight with FBI agents.
Most of the evidence linking Duane Weber to D. B. Cooper comes from his wife, Jo. According to her, as he lay dying in 1995, Weber told her, “I am Dan Cooper.” After his confession, Jo began to recall small details about her husband that suddenly seemed like more than a coincidence. There was much Jo didn’t know about Duane’s life before their marriage in 1978, but she had never thought to probe.
As she reflected, Jo realized Duane had several small connections to airplanes. She claimed that he had frequent nightmares during which he would talk in his sleep about leaving fingerprints on a plane. He also had a knee injury that he had told her was from jumping out of a plane. Duane also had saved an old Northwest Airlines ticket for reasons he never explained.
In 1979, Duane took Jo on a trip to the Pacific Northwest. At one point, he showed her a spot near Lake Merwin which he described as "where Cooper walked out of the woods." Later on the trip, Duane went for a walk and came back covered in dirt. As they visited another nature site, he threw a bag of "trash" into a nearby river. Less than a year later, Brian Ingram found the packages of D. B. Cooper's money on the beach.
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Former lead FBI Agent Ralph Himmelsbach agreed that Weber did fit several elements of the FBI profile and did find Jo to be a credible source, but he still does not think Weber was D. B. Cooper. His fingerprints did not match those found on the plane, and his DNA did not match the sample taken from Cooper’s tie.
Somewhat similar to Richard McCoy, Sheridan Peterson enjoyed his association with the Cooper case. He regularly teased the media about whether or not he really was the hijacker. Peterson had served in the US Marine Corps in WWII, and later became a technical editor at Boeing. He also was an experienced smokejumper and enjoyed taking physical risks, a possible motive investigators had ascribed to Cooper early on.
In 2011, a research team headed by paleontologist Tom Kaye called the Cooper Research Team, found traces of pure titanium on Cooper’s tie using electron microscopy. Titanium was much rarer in the 1970s than today, which suggested that Cooper may have been employed in a metal fabrication or production facility, where traces of the titanium would have collected on his tie. Peterson’s position as a technical editor at Boeing would have made it possible for him to be in a production facility.
Lynne Doyle Cooper
A newer suspect, Lynn Doyle “L. D.” Cooper was first proposed as the real D. B. Cooper by his niece, Marla Cooper in 2011. In November 1971, her whole family was gathered at her grandmother’s house in Oregon for Thanksgiving. She recalls hearing L. D. and another uncle, Dewey, planning something. When she asked if they were planning to go turkey hunting for the holiday, the two men laughed and refused to tell her anything else. The next day, her two uncles left, and D. B. Cooper hijacked Flight 305.
On Thanksgiving morning, LD and Dewey returned from their “trip”. L. D. was wearing a bloody shirt and was so badly injured that he was nearly unconscious. She overheard Dewey say that they had hijacked a plane and that the family’s money problems were solved. After the holiday ended, Marla’s father sat her down and swore her to secrecy.
Although Marla did pass a polygraph test, many of her skeptics argue that there is not much evidence beyond her own recollections to link L. D. to the D. B. Cooper case. Investigators have also found it difficult to believe that the hijacker would have used an alias so close to his real name.
In 2003, Lyle Christiansen sat down to watch an episode of Unsolved Mysteries that covered the D. B. Cooper disappearance. As he watched, he became increasingly convinced that the hijacker was his late brother, Kenneth. In 1994 on his deathbed, Kenneth said he had a secret that he could not tell Lyle. He now thought he knew what the secret was.
To begin, Kenneth had been a head flight attendant on Northwest Airlines. He was also a bourbon drinker. Shortly after the hijacking, Christiansen also bought a house.
The best piece of evidence for Christiansen comes from author Geoffrey Gray. In researching his book on Cooper, Gray showed a picture of Christiansen to Florence Schaffner. Gray claims that she said Christiansen, of all the suspects she had seen, looked the most like Cooper.
Despite this, the FBI said Christiansen did not resemble the description of Cooper enough to be considered a suspect. Christiansen had also been a paratrooper in WWII, again making him too experienced to fit the profile. And even when she saw the photo of him, Schaffner did not feel that she could definitively identify him.
Featured still from "The Mystery of D. B. Cooper" via HBO.