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D.B. Cooper: An American Original

Posted on 11/21/2011

Artist's sketch of D. B. Cooper (Photo: Seattle FBI)

The first aircraft hijackings were political. Leave it to American ingenuity to monetize the action! D.B. Cooper, not his real name, did it in 1971.   Dan Cooper bought a ticket on Thanksgiving Eve 1971 from Portland to Seattle on Northwest Orient Flight 305. During the brief flight, he passed a note to a stewardess claiming to have a bomb and showed her a briefcase containing eight red cylinders wired to a battery. His instructions were for four parachutes and $200,000 in $20 bills to be delivered to the plane at the Seattle Tacoma Airport and for the plane to be refueled. This was done. He released the passengers and stewardesses. Flight 305 took off, headed for Mexico via Reno, Nevada. Somewhere along the way, over southern Washington, Cooper parachuted out of the plane. It was dark and rainy and he was jumping into a wilderness area wearing a trench coat and street shoes, carrying the money and his briefcase. He has never been found. Nor has his body.

The Seattle Times, Nov. 25, 1971

A few days later a letter from Cooper or someone else was received by authorities: 

The Oregonian, Nov. 30, 1971

In the fall of 1973, a Portland paper offered a $1,000 reward for the first person to bring in a $20 bill with a serial number from the list of twenties the FBI had released. They had filmed all the bills to get this information. The reward was never claimed. None of the bills have circulated since 1971. 

Dallas Morning News, Nov. 23, 1973

 Six years later in 1979 a placard from the plane about the operation of the rear stairs was found:  

The Seattle Times, Jan. 17, 1979

And in 1980, some of the money was found along the Columbia River. The rest, which has a 2011 purchasing price equivalence of over $1 million, has never turned up. This past summer it was reported in The Telegraph of London, UK, that the FBI are now investigating an individual who has been dead for 10 years. He had not previously been under suspicion. They are hoping to find fingerprints to compare to those taken from the cabin of the plane back in 1971. They also have some DNA evidence from a tie clip of Cooper’s which they can compare to the suspect, if they find any of his DNA.   Here’s the key paragraph from the July 30, 2011 Telegraph story, “The 40-Year Mystery of America’s Greatest Skyjacking.” Ayn Dietrich, described in the article as “a former analyst with the bureau who is now tasked with handling inquiries about the Cooper case,” is speaking to Alex Hannaford, the Telegraph’s reporter:

 “You’re the first to know this, but we do actually have a new suspect we’re looking at. And it comes from a credible lead who came to our attention recently via a law enforcement colleague.” I’m stunned. Dietrich says she can’t tell me much more, but like all the Cooper sleuths I’ve met over the past few days, I too have become a little obsessed with the case. “The credible lead is somebody whose possible connection to the hijacker is strong,” she says. “And the suspect is not a name that’s come up before.” Dietrich says agents have sent an item that belongs to him for testing at the forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia. “We’re hoping there are fingerprints they can take off of it,” she says. “It would be a significant lead. And this is looking like our most promising one to date.”

D.B. Cooper was not merely a successful criminal, assuming he survived the jump. He became a folk hero. Within a week or so, tee shirts were for sale with the slogan “D.B. Cooper – Where are you?”  

The Oregonian, Dec. 2, 1971

Later that December a bowling alley advertised a cash prize tournament with the tagline “D.B. Cooper didn’t get all the money in the northwest.”  

The Sunday Oregonian, Dec. 12, 1971

I don’t know why Cooper would have been viewed in this positive light. I’m guessing that it was the fact his crime was seen as successful—relatively nonviolent, if stressful for the passengers and crew. The victim was a corporation and in the late 1960s and early '70s corporations were often cast as the villain by members of the counterculture. One of the interviewees in Hannaford’s story basically says he was “sticking it to the man.” A bar in Ariel, Washington, has been holding a D.B. Cooper Day since 1973 on the day after Thanksgiving . They’ll hold it again this month, on the 40th anniversary of this unsolved crime.

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