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The Infamous Anonymous Hijacker – D.B. Cooper

One of the most captivating cases of unidentified people is arguably that of D.B. Cooper. The case itself is unique to any other unidentified person case because it is the only unsolved air piracy case in history. So who was D.B. Cooper and what became of him? ‪  ‪

It was the afternoon of 24 November, 1971, when a man approached the flight counter in Portland International Airport. He was carrying a black suitcase and asked the employee behind the desk for a one-way ticket to Seattle, giving the name “D.B. Cooper.” He was given seat 18C on the Boeing 727-100 which was departing at 2:50PM.

Mr. Cooper had dark hair and a medium complexion. He was described as being 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall and in his mid-40s.  He was well-dressed in a suit and a raincoat, and appeared extremely nonchalant.

A composite sketch of D.B. Cooper.

Once aboard, he ordered a bourbon and soda and lit a cigarette.  ‪Shortly after the airplane took off, Cooper handed a note to flight attendant, Florence Schaffner. Assuming the note was just Cooper’s phone number, she didn’t bother reading it in placed it in her purse. “I thought he was trying to hustle me,” she later said. Cooper then leaned forward and whispered: “Miss, you better look at that note. I have a bomb.” After getting the attendant’s attention, Cooper slowly opened his bag to show her “two red cylinders and wires” which he declared was a homemade bomb. 1

Afterwards, he told her his demands: $200,000, four parachutes, and a fuel truck waiting in Seattle to refuel. The Seattle police and FBI were contacted and scrambled to assemble Cooper’s demands in time for landing. When the aircraft landed at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the passengers and two stewardesses disembarked. Cooper waited on board while the money, which was amassed from Seattle area banks, and the parachutes were delivered.

The hijacked Boeing 727 at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.

While refuelling, Cooper detailed his flight plan to the remaining crew on board. He wanted the pilot to head towards Mexico City at the minimum speed possible and flying no higher than 10,000 feet.  “Let’s get this show on the road” the hijacker announced before take-off once again. Unbeknownst to him, though, the Air Force had sent a jet fighter, a jet trainer, and a cargo plane with parachutists aboard to trail the airliner.

Weather had worsened and they were now flying through a severe rainstorm in the night sky. After being in the air for approximately 20 minutes, Cooper ordered the flight attendant to the cockpit. As she complied, she turned around to see Cooper seemingly fashioning something around his waist. Moments later, a warning light in the cockpit indicated that the air-stair system had been activated. Following the warning, there was a change in air pressure, indicating the airplane door was open. Cooper was gone and nobody, including the trailing aircrafts, saw a thing.

He had jumped from the airplane, leaving behind just a black tie from J.C. Penney and two of the parachutes in his wake. D.B. Cooper and his cash literally disappeared into thin air, plummeting to earth in pure darkness with no fear.

The black J.C. Penney tie left behind by D.B. Cooper.

The pilot had been flying over Lewis River in southwestern Washington when Cooper jumped from the airplane. A search party for the “very cool” hijacker was assembled straight away. 2 The FBI announced that D.B. Cooper must have been “either an experienced jumper of crazy,” to have pulled off such a dangerous stunt. 3

They also announced that they believed that D.B. Cooper was probably staking out in a tiny wooded area just east of Woodland, Washington, and that he very likely had a broken leg from the stunt. Military and privately owned helicopters were called in to assist in the search as well as a legion of sniffer dogs.

The FBI released the ransom serial numbers to financial institutions in the hopes that somebody somewhere could have come into contact with the mysterious hijacker. In 1980, a little boy discovered three packets of the random cash while playing on a beach in Columbia River, approximately 9 miles from Vancouver. ‪The cash matched the serial numbers of the ransom cash. But what did that mean? Could it have accidentally fallen out whilst he threw himself from the airplane or did it land with his body?  ‪

Over the forthcoming years, there have been a plethora of theories as to the real identity of D.B. Cooper and whether or not he survived the jump.

Between 1971 and 2016, the FBI processed over a thousand “serious suspects.” From publicity seekers to death bed confessions, some have been more plausible than others. 4 One of the “favourite” suspects is Richard Floyd McCoy who perpetrated the 1972 “copycat” hijacking.

“Copycat” Hijacker, Richard Floyd McCoy.

On the 7th of April, 1972, McCoy boarded United Airlines’ Flight 855 in Denver claiming he had a bomb on his person. He demanded four parachutes and $500,000 which was delivered at San Francisco International Airport. He jumped from the aircraft over Provo, Utah. However, he left behind a magazine which was riddled with his fingerprints. He was tracked down and apprehended two days later and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Two years later, McCoy escaped from Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and was killed by police officers in a shootout. 5Due to the striking similarities in the two hijacking cases, he was a lead suspect for numerous years. In fact, in the book “D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy” by parole officer Bernie Rhodes and former FBI agent, Russell Calame, they penned McCoy as D.B. Cooper. However, the FBI later announced that he is not a suspect due to significant differences including the age and description of D.B. Cooper. Nevertheless, he remains a favourite among numerous sleuths.

One of the more obscure suspects is John List, who, on the 9th of November, 1971, murdered his wife, mother, and three children in their New Jersey home. After slaughtering his entire family, List went on the run and wasn’t apprehended until 1989. He denied any involvement in the D.B. Cooper hijacking.

John List with his family. This photograph was taken just months before the mass murder.

The baffling case of D.B. Cooper was “one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations” in FBI history. One small jump for D.B. Cooper was one giant leap for mankind in the sense that it completely changed the face of airline travel. This one event paved the way to paranoid travel with a world of metal detectors, luggage-screening machines and handheld body scanners. Before D.B. Cooper, getting on an airplane was as easy as getting on a train or bus.

Over the forthcoming years, D.B. Cooper became somewhat of a cult figure with many sleuths rooting for him.  The case gripped the nation and continues to grip the nation to this very day. It was the inspiration for three books, a play, and a movie. “The whole mystique of D.B. Cooper comes from several things: It was the first skyjacking not headed for Cuba. It was the first one for money and then the skyjacker disappeared without a trace,” said Larry Finegold, one of the passengers on the flight. 6

Despite an extensive and exhaustive investigation,  D.B. Cooper’s true identity and what became of him, still remains unknown.


 

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Footnotes:

  1. Evening Post – 25 November, 1971 – “Hijacker Escapes With $200,000”
  2. The Evening Star – 26 November, 1971 – “Chutist Hijacker ‘Cool… Long Gone’”
  3. The Evening Star – 27 November, 1971 –“No Sign of Jumper”
  4. U.S. News & World Report – 24 July, 2000 – “Skyjacker at large”  
  5. Crime Library – “The D.B. Cooper Story: The Copycats”
  6. The Spokesman-Review – 25 November, 1996 – An American Legend D.B. Cooper’s Parachute Jump 25 Years Ago Changed The Face Of Air Travel”

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