The Mystery of D. B. Cooper

For the 36 passengers and six crew of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, Thanksgiving eve of 1971 was unforgettable They found themselves the victims of an audacious hijacking

One man, acting alone according to a meticulous plan, commandeered their plane and held them to ransom for $200,000 He has inspired novels, movies and ballads To many, he is a folk hero But just who was D B

Cooper? Witnesses gave separate but virtually identical descriptions of Cooper His features were nondescript, he was in his 40s and between 5’10” to 6’ tall He wore a black raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, white collared shirt and a black tie with a mother of pearl pin He was calm, polite and well-spoken He seemed to know the area around Tacoma and Seattle

He ordered two bourbons with water and paid for them When the plane was in the air, he handed a note to the flight attendant It said that he had a bomb and he was hijacking the plane He took back the note so no analysis of his writing can be made He had a black briefcase which he opened just enough for the attendant to see a mass of cylinders and wires inside

He ordered the plane to land in Seattle He was aware of police snipers and ordered the crew to turn the plane’s lights off He let all the passengers off unharmed, in return for four parachutes and $200,000 in 10,000 20-dollar bills Today, it would be worth $12 million

Once the plane was refueled, he ordered the pilot to take them to Mexico and maintain an altitude below 3,000 metres He also told him to leave the landing gear deployed, the wing flaps lowered and the cabin to remain unpressurized He was clearly familiar with aircraft Two fighter jets tailed the plane from Seattle After 8pm between Seattle and Reno, Cooper opened the aft airstairs and jumped out over the woods near the Lewis River, in a freezing rainstorm

The fighter pilots in pursuit never noticed him jump He was never found Although he bought his ticket under the name of Dan Cooper, the press reported his name as D B Cooper

This is because a reporter confused him with the FBI’s first suspect, a man with a minor police record going by the name of D B Cooper Investigators ruled him out very quickly, but the new moniker became part of the growing legend The FBI believes he took the name Dan Cooper from the hero of popular Belgian comic books

These weren’t published in America, and given his indistinct accent and his request for “negotiable American currency”, it seems likely that Cooper was Canadian He left behind his clip on tie and several sets of fingerprints DNA was obtained from three organic samples on his tie In early 1972, the FBI led 200 soldiers in search of any evidence of Cooper and the hijacking They were aided by National Guard troops and civilian volunteers, and searched for 36 days

A submarine searched the bottom of Lake Merwin But they found nothing Years later, analysis of the flightpath suggested the FBI may have been looking in the wrong place: in 1986, chief investigator Ralph Himmelsbach said they should look in the Washougal Valley However, no subsequent searches of the valley have revealed anything In 1980, Brian Ingram found 3 bundles of 20 dollar bills, worth about $5,800, on the banks of the Columbia River

The rotting notes were still in rubber bands and had the same serial numbers as ransom money Investigations in the area have failed to find any other clues Air piracy is felony that carries a statute of limitations of five years, so Cooper escaped justice for the skyjacking in 1977 But Cooper can still be charged for violating the Hobbs Act, a federal statute against extortion that has no limitation As early as 1972, the FBI thought Cooper may have died

In 2007, they revealed that of the four parachutes given to Cooper, one was a dummy reserve chute He chose this dummy along with the older and inferior of the two primary chutes This indicates he was inexperienced enough at skydiving to make a fatal mistake when he jumped during the storm Many people have claimed they know the hijacker Several others have claimed to be the hijacker, but have either retracted their statements, been proven to be lying, or submitted DNA samples that don’t match those on the tie

Possibly the most popular suspect is Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr A Vietnam veteran, McCoy carried out a similar hijacking and escape by parachute fewer than five months after Cooper McCoy made away with $500,000 but was eventually caught and killed in a shootout with the FBI The officer who killed McCoy believed he was Cooper In 1991 a former FBI agent and a parole officer supported this claim

However, McCoy didn’t match witness descriptions from Flight 305, nor did his fingerprints match Cooper’s Furthermore, he was in Las Vegas when the Portland hijacking took place Most recently, in November 2015, the Lepsy family claimed they recognised the police sketch as their father, Dick Lepsy He disappeared two years before the hijacking from his job at a grocery store The suit and shoes he wore when he disappeared matched the clothes the hijacker was wearing

Intriguingly, the FBI never looked at Lepsy in their original investigation However, the physical resemblance is not that strong, and without a DNA test, there is nothing to directly connect Lepsy to Cooper Lepsy had no prior criminal record Furthermore, we know Cooper had quite advanced technical knowledge which Lepsy was unlikely to have Either way, Lepsy was declared legally dead in 1976

The Cooper case is significant, not only for its mystery, but for the era of airline security that followed Although later, more severe tragedies would force authorities to put passengers under ever more scrutiny, it was Cooper’s successful hijacking that effectively ended unrestricted air travel In 2007 the FBI issued new composite sketches, hoping to solve the case On July 8th 2016, they reassigned the one agent still working on the case and closed it The 45 year investigation looked at over 1,000 suspects and all available evidence, to no avail

If Cooper were still alive today, he would be in his nineties It remains the only unsolved act of air piracy in US history

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