Tuesday, March 22, 2011

D.B. Cooper

"In today's post 9-11 society, the possibility of an airliner being hijacked by a lone criminal who escapes without ever being caught or positively identified is both deeply disturbing and highly unlikely. But on November 24, 1971, before the days of airport metal detectors and other stringent security regulations, one polite, well-dressed man did exactly that. "

"What's more, his apolitical and 'stick-it-to-the-man' motivations, relaxed threats, and willing release of innocents earned him a community of supporters who deemed him a modern-day Robin Hood. And, at the time, anti-establishment types were in vogue. Thirty-five years later, with no new leads, the FBI is still trying to uncover the true identity of "Dan Cooper," the man behind the only unsolved commercial skyjacking in U.S. history, a man who seemingly vanished into thin air."

"On a rainy afternoon at Oregon's Portland International Airport, a middle-aged man wearing a dark suit with a slim tie and mother-of-pearl tie clip purchased a one-way ticket on Northwest Orient Airlines to Seattle, Washington. He paid $18.52. The name on the reservation was Dan Cooper. After taking his seat in the last row of the Boeing 727 aircraft, he ordered a bourbon and Coke from an attractive flight attendant, 23-year old Florence Schaffner. Then he lit a Raleigh filter-tip cigarette and settled in for the ride. According to the flight staff, Cooper was cordial, tipped generously, and had a smooth demeanor. In fact, when he handed Florence a piece of paper to let her know that he was toting a bomb in his briefcase, she slipped it into her pocket unopened, assuming he'd simply passed along his phone number, as many male passengers before him had done. But Cooper urged her to open the note. The note threatened to blow up the plane if Cooper's demands weren't met:

$200,000 in unmarked $20bills, four manually operated parachutes (two chest and two back), and a fuel truck waiting in Seattle to refuel the plane. "

"Northwest Orient president Donald Nyrop instructed the pilot to cooperate, and the FBI scrambled to meed Cooper's demands, while at the same time preparing to apprehend him. When the plane finally landed in Seattle, Cooper released all 36 passengers and two flight attendants, leaving only himself and four airline employees on board as the plane was refueled. Bags filled with the cash, weighing a total of 21 pounds, were delivered as promised. As the plane left the runway, this time in a heavy storm, Cooper gave the pilot specific instructions: Keep the plane under 10,000 feet, wing flaps at 15 degrees, and speed under 200 knots. He then ordered everyone into the cockpit, strapped the money to his waist, put one chute on his chest and one on his back, opened the plane's rear door, and plunged into the darkness somewhere over the dense pine forests and deep canyons of the Cascades in southwestern Washington."

"The search for Dan Cooper, or any shred of his whereabouts, was on. For several weeks, the FBI scoured miles of forest for a body or any evidence of a landing-successful or otherwise. But the case code named NORJAK, offered investigators precious few clues. They knew that Dan Cooper was an alias. But police brought a man named D.B. Cooper in for questioning shortly after the hijacking and alerted the media, who confused his name with the name used by the jumper. Although D.B. Cooper was quickly ruled out as a suspect, his name would be forever linked with the crime. The FBI also worked with a composite sketch and personality profile of the suspect, based on the flight crew accounts, and-decades later-a DNA sample from his tie (he took it off before he jumped), obtained in 2001. The number of suspects totaled close to 1,000 over 30 years. Many who couldn't possibly have been Cooper falsely confessed to committing the crime, often just before their final breaths. Of the handful of suspects who were seriously considered, Kenneth Peter Christiansen was a favorite. To many, Christiansen seemed to be an obvious match."

"A former paratrooper in the army, Christiansen had extensive sky-diving experience and was accustomed to no-frills equipment and brutal landings. As a retired flight attendant and purser for Northwest Airlines, he was obviously well-versed in airline procedures-plus, he was living in Washington at the time of the crime. He smoked Raleigh cigarettes and collected bourbon. And he supposedly bore an uncanny resemblance to the composite sketch-at lest according to his brother Lyle, who recognized his face while watching Unsolved Mysteries on television. Civilian researchers theorized that Christiansen's motive was retaliation against an airline known at the time for unfair employment practices (mainly against women) and layoffs that led to frequent strikes, which helped to further fuel the Robin Hood syndrome. FBI investigators, however, were not convinced. Deviating form their original assumption that the hijacker was an experience jumper, they ultimately ruled that only a novice would have jumped under those impossible conditions, and without first checking his chutes. (He jumped with one designed for training, which had a sewed-shut reserve chute.) They also contended that Christiansen, who died in 1994, did not resemble the man in the sketch after all and therefore could not have been Cooper. And so the search continues."

"Although, they firmly believe that Cooper could not have survived the jump, the FBI is still determined to get their man, at least on paper. On December 31, 2007, the Bureau revived the 36-year old case by releasing to the press and public details and evidence surrounding the case, including photos of the deteriorating $20 bills ($5,800 total was recovered) that were found on the banks of the Columbia River on the Washington-Oregon border in 1980. (The FBI matched the serial numbers on the bills to those delivered to Cooper, but nothing more came of the discovery.)"

"Immortalized through books, movies, music, airline safety features, and even an annual festival in Cowlitz County, Washington, the man known as Dan Cooper continues to elude capture, if only in spirit."

Most of you have probably never heard of D.B. Cooper unless you are my parents age. His name does come up these days though, as evidenced in his most recent portrayal in the 2005 show "Prison Break." A character in the first season of the show, Charles Westmoreland, is popularly believed to be D.B. Cooper, though he denies that fact. At the end of the season he later confirms the claim.

*D.B. Cooper Update*
I just read in the news that there has been a new person implicated in the search for the identify of the hijacker. A woman named Marla Cooper claimed that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper was the infamous D.B. Cooper. When Marla was eight she remembered seeing her two uncles planning something suspicious at her grandmother's house, then coincidentally flight 305 was hijacked the next day. She remembered seeing her uncle come home the same day with a bloody shirt and claiming that he was in a car accident. Her parents even surmised that he was the infamous hijacker later in life. She also remembered that her uncle, who died in 1999, was obsessed with the Canadian comic book hero, Dan Cooper, to the extent that he had an issue of the comic thumb tacked on his wall. Marla submitted a photo and a guitar strap to the FBI for fingerprinting but the FBI has yet to find any fingerprints on the items. The investigation is ongoing.

Article from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader: Golden Plunger Awards, 2008.

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