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D. B. Cooper

An FBI composite sketch of the air hijacking suspect known as DB Cooper. It shows coloured sketches of a dark-complexioned white man in a dark suit, with neat short dark hair. One of the images shows Cooper wearing dark glasses.

On November 24, 1971, a man hijacked a flight from Oregon to Washington, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes, which he planned to use in his escape. The case remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in the history of commercial aircraft, and while there are numerous theories about who he was and what happened to him, one thing that can be said for sure is that the man known as "DB Cooper" more than earned his place in true crime - and pop culture - history.

DB Cooper was not actually the name the man used in the heist - the name he gave when he bought his one-way ticket from Portland International Airport to "Sea-Tac" - Seattle-Tacoma International Airport - was actually "Dan Cooper", but a reporter confused him with another suspect and so he has been known as "DB Cooper" ever since. (It has been suggested that the alias "Dan Cooper" came from a popular comics series where the hero was one Dan Cooper, a Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot who went on many adventures, including skydiving and parachuting.) Regardless, Cooper was described as a white man in his mid-40s, with dark hair and brown eyes, and he wore a black or brown business suit, with a white shirt, thin black tie, black raincoat, and brown shoes, and he carried a briefcase and a brown paper bag. When he boarded his flight - Flight 305, a Boeing 727-100 - he sat in seat 18-E, in the last row, and ordered a bourbon and 7-Up. On board the flight were a total of 43 people - 37 passengers and six crew.

Shortly after takeoff, Cooper passed a note to the flight attendant sitting behind him, Florence Schaffner. When she didn't read it immediately (thinking it was just a phone number), Cooper leaned towards her and said, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb." The note was written in neat capital letters and with a felt-tip pen. It read:


Schaffner sat next to Cooper as the note requested, and asked to see the bomb. Cooper opened his briefcase to show her what she later described as "two rows of four red cylinders, which she assumed was dynamite. Attached to the cylinders were a wire and a large cylindrical battery." Cooper then gave his demands to the flight attendant, who relayed them to the flight crew in the cockpit. Cooper wanted: "$200,000 in a knapsack by 5:00 pm... two front parachutes, two back parachutes... the money in negotiable American currency." The request for two sets of parachutes made authorities believe that Cooper was planning on taking a hostage, which discouraged them from potentially supplying him with non-functional parachutes. Later on in the flight, Cooper also demanded that, when they landed at Sea-Tac, fuel tanks would meet the plane, and all the passengers would remain seated while the money was brought on board. Once he had the money, Cooper said he would let the passengers disembark. The four parachutes would be brought on board last.

Northwest Orient, who owned the airplane, agreed to all of Cooper's demands but needed time to get the money and parachutes, and so the plane circled Puget Sound for approximately two hours. During this time, another flight attendant, Tina Mucklow, sat next to Cooper and talked to him. She said that he did not seem nervous, and "seemed rather nice and... not cruel or nasty." She also said that he seemed familiar with the Seatle-Tacoma area and that when she asked him why he picked Northwest Orient Airlines to hijack, he laughed and replied:

It's not because I have a grudge against your airline. It's just because I have a grudge.

A black and white picture of several of the flight crew of Flight 305 - three pilots and one flight attendant.

Eventually, the FBI assembled the money and the parachutes. They had originally offered Cooper military-issue parachutes, but he refused them and demanded civilian parachutes with manually-operated ripcords. The ransom consisted of 10,000 unmarked $20 bills, and all of them were photographed on microfilm before being handed over to Cooper. True to his word, once he had been given the ransom money, Cooper allowed the passengers to disembark.

(At this point Tina Mucklow jokingly asked Cooper if she could have some of the ransom money. Surprisingly, Cooper agreed and actually handed her a packet of bills. Mucklow immediately returned the money, however, telling Cooper that it was actually against company policy to accept gifts or gratuities. She said later that Cooper had actually tried to tip her and two other flight attendants with his own money, but they had declined for the same reason.)

Cooper also allowed the flight attendants to leave as well as they wanted, and two of them, including Florence Schaffner, disembarked the plane as well as the passengers. There were some small delays and errors made by people on the ground during this time, including a problem with refueling the plane and the money being delivered in a cloth bag and not the knapsack that Cooper had asked for. These incidents caused Cooper to become somewhat annoyed and impatient. When the plane was finally ready to take off, Cooper told the crew to fly southeast towards Mexico City, at the minimum sleep possible without stalling the aircraft (which was approximately 100 knots, or 185 km/h, or 115 mph), no higher than 10,000 feet (3,000 m). He also demanded that the landing gear remain deployed, the wing flaps be lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin remain unpressurised. He also asked that the rear door of the aircraft be kept open, with the stairs extended, during take off, but when the crew objected to that he agreed that he would lower the staircase once they were airborne, even though he stated, "It can be done, do it."

Flight 305 took off again at 7:40 pm, with only Cooper, Mucklow, and the three cockpit crew on board. Cooper asked Mucklow to lower the stairs for him, but she was too afraid of being sucked out of the plane, so Cooper told her to go to the cockpit and stay there. Mucklow was the last person to see Cooper: the last time she saw him, he was standing in the aisle and tying what seemed to be the money bag around his waist.

At around 8 pm, a light turned on in the cockpit indicating that the rear staircase had been lowered. The pilot turned on the intercom to ask Cooper if he needed assistance: Cooper simply replied, "No." Approximately 13 minutes later, the aircraft's tail section suddenly pitched upwards - co-pilot Bill Rataczak later said this occurred while the flight was near the suburbs north of Portland.

An FBI bulletin for DB Cooper, featuring a black and white composite sketch and a description of his features and what he was wearing.

Flight 305 landed at Reno-Tahoe International Airport at 11:02 pm. DB Cooper was no longer on board the plane. The focus now shifted to an investigation into the hijacking, uncovering Cooper's real identity, tracking him down, and arresting him. Inside the plane, the FBI found 66 latent fingerprints, as well as Cooper's black clip-on tie, tie clip, and two of the four parachutes. One of the parachutes had been opened and three of the shroud, or suspension, lines had been cut from the canopy.

One of the problems the FBI soon came up against, was that they did not know where exactly Cooper had made his jump from the plane. Three planes - two F-106 fighters and a Lockheed T-33 - had been following Flight 305, but they had not seen him jump, and radar hadn't detected a deployed parachute. Furthermore, there were a number of other variables that had to be considered when trying to calculate where Cooper might have landed, including how long Cooper might have been in free-fall before pulling the parachute ripcord. Eventually, using the same type of plane and flight plan, and a 200lb (91kg) sled, the FBI was able to calculate a rough landing zone, somewhere on the southmost area of Mount St. Helens and near Lake Merwin. Searches were conducted through the dense woods of the area, along Lake Merwin and Yale Lake, and in all the areas surrounding it. None of these searches turned up any trace of DB Cooper or anything he had been carrying.

DB Cooper had apparently jumped out of Flight 305 and into the history books - and legend, while not leaving a single physical trace.

Well, not quite. On February 10, 1980, an eight-year-old boy named Brian Ingram was on vacation with his family at Tina - or Tena - Bar, a beachfront area about nine miles downstream from Vancouver, Washington. As Brian was playing in the sandy riverbank, he found three packets of bills that turned out to be $5,800 of DB Cooper's ransom money. Nearly a decade exposed to the elements, not the least of which was all the sand and water - had caused some damage to the bills, but the rubber bands holding the together were still intact and the serial numbers were still readable. This discovery added weight to the theory that Cooper had not in fact landed near Lake Merwin, but potentially near the Washougal River instead. Further searches, however, proved fruitless; the March 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens might have destroyed any evidence in that area.

A photograph of ten of the $20 bills found by Brian Ingram in February 1980. The bills are damaged due to exposure to the elements; three are blackened and all are crumbling at the edges.

Over the years, the FBI also tried on several occasions to test the items Cooper apparently left on the plane for DNA. Unfortunately, it turned out that people were far less strict about keeping evidence like that safe in the 1970s, and so evidence such as hairs and cigarette butts that had been collected at the time were unfortunately lost or destroyed before the technology developed to successfully test them. They were able to test the clip-on tie and that gave two partial DNA profiles and one large profile, but none of those profiles could be conclusively linked to Cooper.

It seemed that, short of a confession or the discovery of a skeleton hanging from a parachute in the woods somewhere in Washington State, DB Cooper's identity would never be revealed. This led to a lot of speculation as to who he could have been, and a large number of suspects have been suggested over the years, including:

  • Theodore "Ted" Burdette Braden Jr, a Special Forces commando during the Vietnam War, a skilled skydiver, and a convicted felon. A large number of those in the Special Forces community believed that he was DB Cooper. From his experiences in covert operations in Vietnam, Braden could very well have developed the skills necessary to jump from a 727 and survive. He also strongly resembled the physical description of Cooper (dark complexioned, short dark hair, medium build, and 43 years old at the time of the hijacking). A family member also described Braden as "the perfect combination of high intelligence and criminality." Ted Braden died in 2007.

  • Kenneth Peter Christiansen, who had been a paratrooper at the end of World War 2, and afterward had worked several jobs for Northwest Orient in the 1950s, including mechanic and flight attendant. Christiansen came to the public's attention as a potential DB Cooper suspect in 2010, after his brother Lyle Christiansen, who had spent seven years trying to convince the FBI of his suspicions, eventually contacted private investigator Skipp Porteous, who wrote a book detailing this theory. Christiansen had been a smoker and a bourbon drinker; however, he did not resemble the descriptions given by the witnesses and there was no direct evidence that could have incriminated him. Kenneth Christiansen died in 1994.

  • Lynn Doyle "LD" Cooper, who was suggested as a suspect in 2011 by his niece Marla Cooper. LD Cooper was a Korean War veteran and leather worker. Marla recalled Cooper and another of her uncles planning something "very mischievous" the day before Flight 305 was hijacked. LD Cooper was also said to have resembled one of the alternate witness descriptions of DB Cooper, and was said to have been obsessed with the Canadian comic book hero Dan Cooper The FBI looked into LD Cooper, but could not match any fingerprints or DNA samples to him, although they also acknowledged that they did not know for certain that the DNA from the tie was from DB Cooper. LD Cooper died in 1999.

  • John List, an accountant, war veteran, and family annihilator. He murdered his wife, mother, and three children on November 9, 1971, and then disappeared. He was considered a suspect because of the timing of the crimes and the reasoning that "a fugitive accused of mass murder has nothing to lose". List was finally arrested in 1989, however, and denied all involvement in the DB Cooper hijacking. There was also no actual evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, and List is no longer considered a suspect. John List died in prison in 2008.

A movie poster for the movie "Bigfoot vs DB Cooper". It features an angry Bigfoot, with blood dripping from its mouth and fingers, looming over a man presumed to be DB Cooper, against a green background.
Yes, this is a real movie.

Other suspects suggested over the years included Jack Coffelt, Barbara Dayton (the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Washington State in 1969), William Gossett, Joe Lakish, Ted Mayfield, Richard McCoy Jr, Vincent C Petersen, Sheridan Peterson, Robert Rackstraw, Walter R Reca, William J Smith and Duane L Weber. Less serious suggestions have included the so-called "Man from Taured" and Tommy Wiseau. The majority of these suspects are now dead; the fingerprints and DNA did not match the evidence the FBI had on file (although we have already seen the problems in that area); most did not match the descriptions or composite sketches of Cooper; and several had very strong alibis for the time of the hijacking. In the end, the only thing the FBI could say was that none of the suspects have been proven culpable "beyond a reasonable doubt".

Today, DB Cooper has achieved cult status. In part, this is because he fits the image of the "gentleman thief - he was polite, well-mannered and well-dressed, hurt nobody, and seemingly got away scot-free with his crime. There have been songs written, novelty t-shirts made... There's a "Cooper Day" that was held every November in Ariel, Washington, that has since been replaced with CooperCon, which takes place in Vancouver, Washington every November as well. He's been depicted in TV shows, books, and movies of... varying quality throughout the years. Whatever his actual fate was, the one thing we can say for sure is that he has achieved immortality of a sort. Certainly, he's never going to be forgotten.


DB Cooper (Wikipedia)

"Unmasking DB Cooper" (New York Magazine)

"FBI reheats cold case" (National Post, via Wayback Machine)

"Boy to Split $5,520 of DB Cooper's Loot" (Los Angeles Times)

"Here are 11 possible suspects in the D.B. Cooper mystery, including some who falsely confessed" (Indianapolis Star)

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