SEATTLE What to make of D.B. Cooper after all these years?
That wasn't his real name, of course, as everyone knows. Or maybe everyone doesn't know, not 36 years after the man hijacked a Boeing 727, demanded $200,000 in cash and four parachutes from Northwest Airlines, ordered the plane to fly from Seattle to Mexico City and, somewhere over southwestern Washington, bailed out with the money, never to be seen again.
It is perhaps the most famous unsolved case in FBI history.
Larry Carr knows a great deal about Cooper, but he does not know who he was.
Carr, 40, is an FBI special agent in the Seattle field office. He is the coordinator of the Puget Sound Violent Crimes Task Force and specializes in investigating bank robberies.
But last May, intrigued and challenged by the saga of the mysterious D.B. Cooper, he volunteered to take over the moribund case and try to breathe new life into it.
This has earned Carr endless ribbing from his colleagues.
"Everyone laughs at me," Carr says. "'You solved the D.B. Cooper case yet? Ha, ha, ha.' But what if I do? Nobody ever considers that possibility."
Carr began to sift through the enormous case file and soon made a decision that has guided him ever since: He would treat this case, code-named Norjak, like a bank robbery.
"This is nothing more, when you break it down, than your basic bank robbery, except it was at 10,000 feet," Carr says. "He walks in, he makes a demand, he gets the money and he leaves."
One of the keys to investigating a bank robbery, Carr says, is to involve the public. Give the case a high profile, use the news media to publicize it and hope that leads to useful tips.
That is what Carr is doing now, trying to "reinvigorate" the Cooper case.
A year to 18 months into their investigation, FBI agents began to question some of their key assumptions about the hijacker and shifted their focus. The early investigators, Carr says, "spent a ton of energy looking at every sky-diving school, every flight school, vast amounts of resources in that direction."
But after stepping back and re-evaluating the evidence, investigators concluded Cooper was probably not an ex-paratrooper or a skilled sky diver. He knew something about airplanes but was no aviation expert.
He was certainly not a master criminal who meticulously planned the daring hijacking. There was an almost comic haphazardness to his adventure. Borrowing a phrase from the "Seinfeld" television series, Carr says "He yada-yada-yada'd the jump."
The hijacker could not have arranged for help on the ground or hidden a vehicle in the woods to escape in, as some Cooper sleuths have speculated, because he had no idea where he was when he jumped and apparently didn't care. He was also probably not a chain smoker or heavy bourbon drinker, two other popular staples of Cooper case lore.
These have been some of the FBI's working assumptions for years. But this was a case of air piracy, not bank robbery, so the bureau largely kept them to itself. For all the public knew, D.B. Cooper was still probably a chain-smoking ex-paratrooper who was smart enough to plan and execute what may have been the perfect crime.
The name mix-up
Northwest Flight 305 from Portland, Ore., to Seattle was hijacked at midafternoon Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving. The hijacker claimed to have a bomb in his bag. Within hours, news agencies reported that authorities were looking for a man named D.B. Cooper in connection with the crime.
Ralph Himmelsbach, a special agent in the FBI's Portland office, was assigned to the case. The hijacker bought a ticket using the name Dan Cooper, and one of Himmelsbach's first steps was to send agents to the Portland Police Bureau to check their records.
Himmelsbach says there was no Dan Cooper in the police files, but there were several entries, most involving disorderly conduct incidents, for a D.B. Cooper.
That night, a wire service reporter asked the records clerk what the FBI had been doing there. The clerk told him they were looking for a D.B. Cooper in the hijacking case, Himmelsbach says.
The agency flashed the news, and although it issued a correction the next day, it was too late. The unidentified hijacker would forever be known as D.B. Cooper.
A deathbed claim
It's always been a process of elimination.
In 2001, the FBI obtained a DNA sample from a narrow, black clip-on tie the hijacker left on the plane and later compared it with DNA from personal items belonging to Duane Weber, a Florida man who died in 1995.
Weber became a leading suspect in 2000 after his widow, Jo, was quoted as saying he told her "I'm Dan Cooper" just before his death. But the DNA samples didn't match, Carr says.
Carr considered the DNA a real breakthrough and thought it would be easy to use the sample to confirm the hijacker was Richard McCoy Jr.
McCoy was convicted of hijacking a United Airlines flight over Colorado four months after the Northwest hijacking. The United hijacker demanded four parachutes and $500,000 in cash, which were supplied during a stop in San Francisco, and he bailed out of the 727 over Utah.
McCoy, an avid sky diver who escaped from prison in 1974 and was killed in a shootout with an FBI agent, remained a leading suspect. But as he studied the case file, Carr concluded "there's no way it could be McCoy."
For one thing, McCoy didn't match the physical description supplied by two Northwest flight attendants, Florence Schaffner and Tina Mucklow. Carr puts great credence in their virtually identical descriptions because they spent more time with the hijacker than anyone else but had little interaction themselves and were interviewed separately Schaffner in Seattle, where the hijacker released her and the passengers after getting the money, and Mucklow in Reno, where the 727 landed with her and three flight crew members.
There was another problem: McCoy had Thanksgiving dinner with his family in Provo, Utah.
"For McCoy to have been D.B. Cooper, he would have had to have had help on the ground, because there's no way he could have pulled off the hijacking, bailed out over the wilderness, landed and got back to Provo for Thanksgiving dinner," Carr says.
But the hijacker could not have arranged for help on the ground because he didn't know where he was when he jumped. He did not dictate the aircraft's route. His only instructions to the flight crew were to fly nonstop to Mexico City at 10,000 feet with the wheels down, flaps set at 15 degrees and the aft stairs extended beneath the tail section.
The most recent suspect was Kenneth P. Christiansen, the subject of a 5,000-word article a month ago in New York magazine.
Christiansen, who died in 1994, was a Northwest flight attendant based in Seattle. In 2003, his brother, Lyle Christiansen, a retired postal worker in Morris, Minn., began writing to the FBI under the name Jon Komlatley, Carr says.
To Lyle, Kenny was a prime suspect: He looked a lot like the FBI sketch of the hijacker that was based on eyewitness descriptions. He had been a paratrooper, was a heavy smoker and collected empty bourbon bottles. It all seemed to fit.
Carr recently announced that Kenny Christiansen was not a viable suspect.
Like McCoy, Christiansen didn't match the physical description. Schaffner and Mucklow said the hijacker was from his mid-40s to 50s, 5 feet 10 to 6 feet 1, 175 to 185 pounds, with brown hair, brown eyes and olive skin. Christiansen was 5-8, 150 pounds and had hazel eyes and a pale complexion.
Based on the number of cigarettes recovered on the aircraft and the one drink the hijacker had (and partly spilled), Carr says the FBI concluded long ago that he was probably a less than pack-a-day smoker and not a heavy drinker.
Carr has one other reason for discounting Christiansen: his training as a paratrooper. An experienced sky diver wouldn't attempt a jump in the weather conditions that night, which included freezing rain, poor visibility and winds about 15 mph.
The hijacker demanded four parachutes (two backpacks, the main chutes; and two chest packs, which were reserves) but did not specify models suited for such a risky venture. He left one main and one reserve chute on the plane.
'In no way prepared'
"The whole thing is, I believe D.B. Cooper died the night he jumped," Carr says.
"In no way was he prepared for the violence when he hit the air. I think what happened was he jumped, panicked and once panic set in, well, he never opened the (main) chute. The mere fact that he went ahead with the jump with the equipment he had, with the information he had, says he was in no way prepared for it because no expert, no one with knowledge, would have done it that way."
There remains the troubling fact that, after 36 years, there has been no trace of a body in the woods or the two missing parachutes. In 1980, a boy found $5,800 in tattered $20 bills near the Columbia River, part of the cash given to the hijacker.
In another indication that this was not a carefully planned caper, the hijacker did not specify the denominations he wanted the cash in, Carr says. He could have substantially reduced the weight and bulk of the cash by demanding $100 bills; instead he got $20s.
Carr's only explanation for the lack of new physical evidence is that something freakish must have happened that night. Maybe the hijacker and the two parachutes fell directly into a hole deep in the Cascade woods.
This is not very satisfactory, but Carr says his belief is bolstered by a knowledge of human nature culled from years of law enforcement experience.
"Something of this magnitude just does not go unsolved," he says. "If D.B. Cooper had lived, knowing what we know about human nature, he would have told someone. If one person knows the secret, we're going to solve it."
He also doesn't want it to end this way. "There is no one who wishes they were wrong more than I do," Carr says. "I hope I'm wrong about everything."
Carr's hope is that renewed attention to the case will produce useful new information. There is a whole generation of people who have never heard of D.B. Cooper, he notes, and a vast array of scientific knowledge and technology unavailable in the 1970s.
In one of his flights of fancy, Carr imagines a hydrologist, using the latest technology, tracing the flow of the money found near the Columbia back to its point of origin, where searchers find human remains and the remnants of a parachute.
Or maybe someone new to the D.B. Cooper case will think about an odd uncle, something a little strange about him, and point the FBI toward a new suspect.
Edward Walsh is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at [email protected].