D. B. Cooper – Legendary Skyjacker
D. B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the United States on November 24, 1971, received $200,000 in ransom, and parachuted from the plane. The name he used to board the plane was Dan Cooper, but he became known as “D. B. Cooper”. No conclusive evidence has ever surfaced regarding Cooper’s true identity or whereabouts, and the bulk of the money has never been recovered. Several theories offer competing explanations of what happened after his famed jump. To date it remains the only unsolved U.S. aircraft hijacking case.
On Wednesday, November 24, 1971, a man travelling as Dan Cooper (aka D.B. Cooper) hopped aboard a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 flying from Portland International Airport to Seattle, Washington. Described as being in his mid-forties, around 5 feet 10 inches tall, he wore a black raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, and a neatly pressed white shirt with a black necktie and sunglasses. He sat in the back of the plane. Just after takeoff, he calmly handed a note to the flight attendant, Florence Chaffner, who was sitting in the jumpseat near him. Florence, and experienced flight attendant, figured the note was a phone number and slipped it into her pocket. Cooper leaned closer and said, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” The note read, “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.”
The note also demanded $200,000 in unmarked bills, two sets of parachutes (two main back chutes and two emergency chest chutes). The note provided instructions ordering the items be delivered to the plane when it landed in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The note sternly demanded that the instructions be followed and if they were not, he would trigger the bomb. Florence notified the captain that they were being hijacked.
The FBI was immediately contacted and working with Northwest Airlines, they instructed Florence to try to determine if the bomb was real or not. She returned to her seat next to Cooper where he opened the briefcase long enough for Florence to see red cylinders, a large battery, and wires. The FBI understood that they had to cooperate and figured they’d simply catch him when he landed at his next destination.
The plane was put into a holding pattern until the money and parachutes could be secured. The FBI followed Cooper’s instructions and provided unmarked bills but they decided to give him bills printed mostly in 1969 with serials numbers beginning with the letter “L” (issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco). They also quickly ran the bills through a Recordak device to create a microfilm photograph of each of the bills.
While they waited, Cooper calmly drank a cocktail of bourbon whiskey and lemon-lime soda. Tina Mucklow, a flight attendant who spent quite a bit of time with Cooper, noted that “he seemed rather nice.” Cooper was even thoughtful enough to request the crew be brought meals after the jet landed in Seattle.
Once the parachutes were secured from a local skydiving school (Cooper demanded that civilian parachutes be used), the FBI notified Captain Scott to land the plane. Cooper instructed Captain Scott to taxi the plane to a remote section of the tarmac and to dim the cabin lights in order to deter police snipers. He instructed air traffic control to have one person deliver the money and parachutes to the plane. Cooper then released all 36 passengers and attendant Florence Shaffner.
While the plane was refueled, the FBI pondered why he had demanded four parachutes. Did he have an accomplice? Nobody had ever attempted to jump from a highjacked commercial aircraft so they puzzled as to Cooper’s intentions. During the refueling process, a vapor lock developed slowing the process. Sensing a trap, Cooper again threatened to blow up the plane while the crew worked as quickly as possible to get the plane refueled.
After refueling, Cooper carefully examined the ransom money and parachutes. Satisfied that everything was in order, he instructed the pilots to take off. Cooper ordered the flight crew to fly to Mexico City, at a speed of 200 mph, with the landing gear down, and at an altitude lower than 10,000 feet (normal cruising altitude is between 25,000 and 37,000 feet). First Officer Rataczak told him that the aircraft would only be able to fly 1,000 miles at that altitude. After discussions between Cooper and the crew, it was decided that they would fly to Reno, Nevada where they would again refuel before completing the trip to Mexico City. They also decided to fly on Victor 23, a low altitude Federal airway that passed west of the Cascade Range. Cooper also demanded that the cabin remain unpressurized.
Immediately upon takeoff, Cooper instructed the crew to stay in the cockpit. Attendant Mucklow hid behind a curtain that separates the coach and first class seats and watched as he tied something to his waist. Moments later, the crewed noticed a light flashing indicating that Cooper was attempting to operate the door. Over the intercom, Captain Scott asked Cooper if there was anything they could do for him but the hijacker replied with a stern, “No!” The crew then noticed a change in air pressure in the cabin. D.B. Cooper had lowered the aft stairs and jumped out of the plane.
The FBI believed Cooper had jumped over the southwestern portion of the state of Washington. The stairs had “bumped” at this time, most likely due to the weight of Cooper being released from the aft stairs. At the time he jumped, the plane was flying through a heavy rainstorm and hence, his descent went unnoticed by a U.S. Air Force F-106 jet fighter that was secretly tracking the airliner. To this date, the precise location of his jump is unknown.
The Plane Returns Empty
Nearly 2½ hours after take-off from Seattle-Tacoma, with the aft stairs dragging on the runway, the Boeing 727 landed safely in Reno. The airport and runway were surrounded by FBI agents and local police. It was determined Cooper was gone, and FBI agents boarded the plane to search for any evidence left behind. They recovered a number of fingerprints (which may or may not have belonged to Cooper), a tie and a mother of pearl tie clip, and two of the four parachutes. Cooper was nowhere to be found, nor was his briefcase, the money, the moneybag, or the two remaining parachutes. The individuals with whom Cooper had interacted on the plane and while he was on the ground were interrogated to compile a composite sketch; those interviewed all gave nearly identical descriptions of him, leading the FBI to create the sketch that has been used on wanted posters ever since (he has been described as being of Latin appearance).
The FBI theorized that Cooper jumped with two parachutes – the main and a reserve. He used the cord from one of the remaining parachutes to tie the stolen money bag shut and most likely tied it around his waist. Years later, the FBI revealed that one of the chest chutes (emergency parachute) was actually a training parachute – it had been sewn shut and would not function.
Because months passed with no significant leads coming in, the arrival of the spring thaw provided incentive for a thorough ground search, conducted by the FBI and no fewer than 200 U.S. Army troops from nearby Fort Lewis. Teams of agents and soldiers searched the area virtually yard by yard for eighteen straight days in March and for another eighteen straight days in April 1972. After a combined six weeks of searching the projected drop zone, one of the most intense manhunts in the history of the northwestern U.S. revealed no evidence related to the hijacking. As a result, it remains widely disputed whether Cooper actually landed inside the initial estimated drop zone, as well as whether he survived the jump and subsequently escaped on foot. Shortly after the hijacking, the FBI questioned and then released a Portland man by the name of D. B. Cooper, who was never considered a significant suspect. Due to a miscommunication with the media, however, the initials “D. B.” became firmly associated with the hijacker/skyjacker and this is how he is now known today.
Meanwhile, the FBI stepped up efforts to track the 10,000 ransomed $20 bills by notifying banks, savings and loan companies, and other businesses of the notes’ serial numbers. Law enforcement agencies around the globe, including Scotland Yard, also received information on Cooper and the serial numbers. In the months following the hijacking, Northwest Airlines offered a reward of 15 percent of the recovered money up to a maximum of $25,000, but the airline eventually canceled the offer as no new substantial tips came from the offer.
Later Evidence Surfaces
In late 1978, a hunter walking just a few flying minutes north of Cooper’s projected drop zone found a placard with instructions on how to lower the aft stairs of a 727. The placard was from the rear stairway of the plane from which Cooper jumped.
On February 10, 1980, Brian Ingram, then eight years old, was with his family on a picnic when he found $5,880 in decaying bills (a total of 294 $20 bills), still bundled in rubber bands, approximately 40 feet from the waterline and just 2 inches below the surface, on the banks of the Columbia River, five miles northwest of Vancouver, Washington. After comparing the serial numbers with those from the ransom given to Cooper almost nine years earlier, it was proven that the money found by Ingram was part of the ransom given to Cooper. Upon the discovery, then-FBI lead investigator Ralph Himmelsbach declared that the money “must have been deposited within a couple of years after the hijacking” because “rubber bands deteriorate rapidly and could not have held the bundles together for very long.”
In late 2007 the FBI announced that a partial DNA profile had been obtained from three organic samples found on the hijacker’s clip-on tie in 2001, though they later acknowledged that there is no evidence that the hijacker was the source of the sample material. “The tie had two small DNA samples, and one large sample,” said Special Agent Fred Gutt. “It’s difficult to draw firm conclusions from these samples.
The FBI believed that Cooper was familiar with the Seattle area, as he was able to recognize Tacoma from the air while the jet was circling over the Puget Sound. He also remarked to flight attendant Mucklow that McChord Air Force Base was approximately 20 minutes from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Although the FBI initially believed that Cooper might have been an active or retired member of the United States Air Force, based on his apparent knowledge of jet aerodynamics and skydiving, it later changed this assessment, deciding that no experienced parachutist would have attempted such a risky jump.
In 1971, mass-murderer John List was considered a suspect in the Cooper hijacking, which occurred only fifteen days after he had killed his family in Westfield, New Jersey. List’s age, facial features, and build were similar to those described for the mysterious skyjacker. FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach stated that List was a “viable suspect” in the case. Cooper parachuted from the hijacked airliner with $200,000, the same amount List had used up from his mother’s bank account in the days before the killing. After his capture and imprisonment in 1989, List strenuously denied being Cooper, and the FBI no longer considered him a suspect. List died in prison custody on March 21, 2008.
Richard McCoy, Jr.
On April 7, 1972, four months after Cooper’s hijacking, Richard McCoy, Jr., under the alias “James Johnson,” boarded United Airlines Flight 855 during a stopover in Denver, Colorado, and gave the flight steward an envelope labeled “Hijack Instructions,” in which he demanded four parachutes and $500,000. He also instructed the pilot to land at San Francisco International Airport and ordered a refueling truck for the plane. The airplane was a Boeing 727 with aft stairs, which McCoy used in his escape. He was carrying a paper weight grenade and an empty pistol. He left his handwritten message on the plane, along with his fingerprints on a magazine he had been reading, which the FBI later used to establish positive identification.
Coincidentally, McCoy had been on National Guard duty flying one of the helicopters involved in the search for D.B. Cooper. Inside his house FBI agents found a jumpsuit and a duffel bag filled with $499,970 in cash. McCoy claimed innocence, but was convicted and received a 45-year sentence. Once incarcerated, using his access to the prison’s dental office, McCoy fashioned a fake handgun out of dental paste. He and a crew of convicts escaped in August 1974 by stealing a garbage truck and crashing it through the prison’s main gate. It took three months before the FBI located McCoy in Virginia. McCoy shot at the FBI agents, and agent Nicholas O’Hara fired back with a shotgun, killing him.
The FBI never tied McCoy to the Cooper hijacking but many wonder if they could have been one and the same.
In July 2000, U.S. News & World Report ran an article about a widow in Pace, Florida, named Jo Weber and her claim that her late husband, Duane L. Weber (born 1924 in Ohio), had told her “I’m Dan Cooper” before his death on March 28, 1995. She became suspicious and began checking into his background. Weber had served in the Army during World War II and had later served time in a prison near the Portland airport. Weber recalled that her husband had once had a nightmare during which he talked in his sleep about jumping from a plane and said something about leaving his fingerprints on the aft stairs. Jo recalled that shortly before Duane’s death, he had revealed to her that an old knee injury of his had been incurred by “jumping out of a plane.”
Weber also recounts a 1979 vacation the couple took to Seattle, “a sentimental journey,” Duane told Jo, with a visit to the Columbia River. She remembers how Duane walked down to the banks of the Columbia by himself just four months before the portion of Cooper’s cash was found in the same area. Weber related that she had checked out a book on the Cooper case from the local library and saw notations in it that matched her husband’s handwriting. She began corresponding with Himmelsbach, the former chief investigator of the case, who subsequently agreed that much of the circumstantial evidence surrounding Weber fit the hijacker’s profile. However, the FBI stopped investigating Weber in July 1998 because of a lack of hard evidence.
The FBI compared Weber’s prints with those processed from the hijacked plane and found no matches. In October 2007, the FBI stated that a partial DNA sample taken from the tie that Cooper had left on the plane did not belong to Weber.
One of the most promising suspects is Kenneth Christiansen. The October 29, 2007 issue of New York magazine stated that Kenneth P. Christiansen had been identified as a suspect by Sherlock Investigations. The article noted that Christiansen is a former army paratrooper, a former Northwest Airlines employee (with a grudge against the airlines), had settled in Washington near the site of the hijacking, was familiar with the local terrain, had purchased property with cash a year after the hijacking, drank bourbon and smoked (as did Cooper during the flight) and resembled the eyewitness sketches of Cooper. However, the FBI ruled out Christiansen because his height, weight and hair color did not match the descriptions given by the passengers or the crew of Flight 305. The hijacker had dark hair while Christiansen was balding on top. The hijacker was 5’0″ to 6’0″ while Christiansen was 5′ 8″.
Regardless, Christiansen’s brother himself believed that Kenneth was the infamous DB Cooper. He noted that while on his deathbed, Christiansen had told him that he had a secret he needed to tell but could not bring himself to do it. After Christiansen’s death, his brother investigated further and found several clues indicating Christiansen was indeed DB Cooper. In his photo album, tucked behind another picture, was a photo of Christiansen, taken only days after the hijacking, walking out of a room wearing attire identical to DB Cooper, carrying a black briefcase in one hand, and what looked like a large white bag in the other hand. His brother also found a briefcase identical to the one the hijacker had used and inside of the briefcase were many newspaper articles and personal letters regarding the 1972 hijacking incident. Included in the paperwork was an original 1972 FBI “Wanted” posted with a picture that looked exactly like his brother.
As for the FBI disregarding Christiansen as a suspect because of his hair color, his brother noted that Christiansen always wore a toupee up until the hijacking and for some mysterious reason, stopped wearing it after the hijacking took place.
Many years later, independent investigators went to the home of Christiansen to investigate the possibility of Christiansen being DB Cooper. The home, now a print shop, was scanned using infrared cameras, and a hinged hiding place was found in a secret area in the attic above Christiansen’s bed. In addition, the owner of the print shop confirmed that during construction on the land, bulldozers uncovered a plastic bag on the property containing $20 bills.
Dick Lepsy (Robert Richard Lepsy)
While researching cases of missing persons in his native Michigan, author Ross Richardson came across the story of a grocer named Dick Lepsy, who mysteriously left his family in 1969. Intrigued by the similarity between Lepsy’s photograph and the FBI composite of Cooper, Richardson dug deeper into the vanished grocer’s background and found further connections which strengthen the case that the two men were the same person. Richardson pointed to how Cooper’s tie and shoes matched the standard outfit worn by Lepsy and that the physical description as well as the accent of the skyjacker also fit with the vanished grocer. The similarities were not lost on Lepsy’s family, who recall their astonishment in 1971 when they watched news coverage of the Cooper case and were certain that the fugitive was their departed patriarch. According to Richardson:
“On the day he disappeared, he called his wife, Jackie, around lunchtime and told her he was going to go for a ride. A few days later, Dick Lepsy’s car was found in the parking lot at Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport with the doors unlocked; a half-pack of cigarettes were sitting on the dash, and the keys were still in the ignition. Both the Grayling Police Department and the Michigan State Police worked together on the Lepsy case, but they ultimately concluded that Mr. Lepsy voluntarily left on his own accord, and that this was not a missing persons case, so not a large effort was made to find Lepsy.”
Thomas Colbert, TV and film executive, believes he has evidence linking 73-year-old Army veteran Robert Rackstraw as D.B. Cooper. Rackstraw has a prior criminal record under the alias “Dan Cooper”. Rackstraw was a decorated Army paratrooper, trained in special forces and survival skills, who knew his way around the kinds of explosives Cooper used to threaten the airliner crew.
In 1978, he was convicted of check fraud, explosives charges and an unrelated airplane theft and was sentenced to two years in state prison.
Rackstraw received a two-year probation term in 1992 for damaging property he rented while building an illegal barn to house construction equipment. In 1999, the FAA suspended his commercial pilot license for providing false statements on an application and failing to report a drunk-driving conviction as required.
In the days immediately following the Northwest hijacking, letters signed “D.B. Cooper” were mailed to newspapers in Reno, Nev., Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, B.C. Two of the notes — the first and last — were sent from within 50 miles of Valley Springs, a remote Northern California town where Rackstraw’s parents lived and where the Vietnam veteran stayed on and off throughout the 1970s. The four letters, hand-scrawled in halting capital letters not unlike the passenger ticket filled out by Dan Cooper, were mailed over five days from hundreds of miles apart.
Rackstraw was questioned by investigators in 1978 and eliminated as a suspect. Rackstraw himself has repeatedly denied any involvement in the caper.
Changes to the Airline Industry
The hijacking caused major changes in commercial flight safety, mainly in the form of metal detectors added to the airports by the airline companies, several related flight safety rules set in place by the FAA, and modifications made to the Boeing 727 aircraft. Following three similar but less successful hijackings in 1972, the Federal Aviation Administration required that all Boeing 727 aircraft be fitted with a device known as the “Cooper vane”, (named after Cooper) a mechanical aerodynamic wedge that prevents the airstair or rear stairway of an aircraft from being lowered in flight.
What’s in a name?
FBI Special Agent Larry Carr has theorized that Cooper took his alias from Dan Cooper, a French-Canadian comic book hero who is a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force and is depicted parachuting on the cover of one issue.
New clues (2016)
In 2016, researchers examined a clip-on tie discarded by Cooper during the heist using a electron microscope. They discovered thousands of tiny rare earth particles, most notably titanium. These particles were seldom used in the manufacturing process in 1971. One industry that did use them was the airline industry, particularly Boeing. Given the article of clothing was a tie, it is theorized that Cooper may have been a manager or engineer at a Boeing plant.
New clues (2017)
In August 2017, it was announced that a crew of investigators, led by a former FBI agent, uncovered evidence “right where a credible source claimed the chute and remaining money are buried”. The crew’s dig uncovered a potential parachute strap matching the one D.B. Cooper would have worn in his jump.
DB Cooper letters
After the heist, DB Cooper mailed letters to newspapers. Letters believed to have been penned by Cooper were mailed to newspapers in Reno, Nev., Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, B.C.
DB Cooper letter written to FBI (obtained via FOIA act in 2017)
I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be caught.
I didn’t rob Northwest Orient because I thought it would be romantic, heroic or any of the other euphemisms that seem to attach themselves to situations of high risk.
I’m no modern day Robin Hood. Unfortunately do have only 14 months to live.
My life has been one of hate, turmoil, hunger and more hate, this seemed to be the fastest and most profitable way to gain a few fast grains of peace of mind.
I don’t blame people for hating me for what I’ve done, nor do I blame anybody for wanting me to be caught and punished, though this can never happen.
Here are some (not all) of the things working against the authorities:
I’m not a boasting man
I left no fingerprints
I wore a toupee
I wore putty make-up
They could add or subtract from the composite a hundred times and not come up with an accurate description; and we both know it.
I’ve come and gone on several airline flights already and am not holed up in some obscure backwoods town.
Neither am I a psycho-pathic killer. As a matter of fact I’ve never even received a speeding ticket.
Thank you for your attention.
Below are a collection of pictures related to the unsolved D.B. Cooper case.