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40 years later, skyjacker's identity still a mystery

By Gene Johnson

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 26 2011 7:27 p.m. MST

A helicopter takes off to scour the area where hijacker Dan Cooper might have parachuted into with $200,000 in ransom money, in Woodland, Wash., on Oct. 28, 1976.

Associated Press File Photo

SEATTLE — It's been a rich year for students of D.B. Cooper, the mysterious skyjacker who vanished out the back of a Boeing 727 wearing a business suit, a parachute and a pack with $200,000 in ransom money 40 years ago.

An Oklahoma woman came forward to say Cooper may have been her uncle, now deceased. A new book publicized several theories, including one that Cooper was a transgendered mechanic and pilot from Washington state. A team that includes a paleontologist from Seattle's Burke Museum released new findings this month that particles of pure titanium found in the hijacker's clip-on tie suggest he worked in the chemical industry or at a company that manufactured titanium — a discovery that could narrow the field of possible suspects from millions of people to just hundreds.

Nevertheless, no one's been able to solve the puzzle, or even determine whether Cooper survived his infamous jump.

"This case is a testament in a way to our enduring fascination with both a good mystery and a sense of wonderment — mystery because we still don't know who this guy was, and wonderment that a guy could do something this bold — or stupid," says Geoffrey Gray, whose book, "Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper," came out in August.

On Nov. 24, 1971, the night before Thanksgiving, a man described as being in his mid-40s with dark sunglasses and an olive complexion boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He bought his $20 ticket under the name "Dan Cooper," but an early wire-service report misidentified him as "D.B. Cooper," and the name stuck.

He sat in the back of the plane and handed a note to a flight attendant. She was so busy she didn't read it until after takeoff: "Miss, I have a bomb and would like you to sit by me."

He opened his briefcase, displaying a couple of red cylinders, wires and a battery, and demanded $200,000 in cash plus four parachutes. His demands were granted at Sea-Tac, where he released the 36 passengers and two of the flight attendants. The plane took off again at his direction, heading slowly to Reno, Nev., at the low height of 10,000 feet. Somewhere, apparently over southwestern Washington, Cooper lowered the aircraft's rear stairs and dove into a freezing rainstorm — a jump so daring that even some of the police who scoured the area reportedly said they hoped he got away.

No sign of Cooper has ever emerged, but a boy digging on a Columbia River beach in 1980 found three bundles of weathered $20 bills — Cooper's cash, according to the serial numbers.

A few events are planned for Saturday to mark the anniversary, including a Cooper symposium (huntfordbcooper.com/ ) at a Portland, Ore., hotel, where sleuths will present their latest findings and theories — and serve as jurists for a Cooper-themed poetry contest.

Carol Abraczinskas, a scientific illustrator at the University of Chicago, said she plans to present the results of her three-year study of the French comic "Dan Cooper," a series about a test pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force which may have been the source of the hijacker's pseudonym.

In one issue from 1963, she noted, the character boards an airliner wearing a dark suit and a mask over his eyes and sits in the back of the plane. He demands to be given a briefcase that's in the cockpit, and then, wearing a military parachute, he jumps out of the plane — over a wooded area, at night, in the rain.

"I'm looking at this as, are these comics a possible blueprint for the hijacker?" Abraczinskas says.

The cartoon was published in French Canada and in Europe and was never translated into English. That raises questions about whether the hijacker was a francophone, she said.

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