One minute, Dan Cooper was a real man. Of course, “Dan Cooper” may not have been the name on his birth certificate, but his body was corporeal enough as he stood in a Boeing 727-100 on November 24, 1971. A stairway dangled dangerously from the belly of the near-empty airliner flying over southwestern Washington. No one knows whether he leapt confidently off those open steps from 10,000 feet in the air, or maybe closed his eyes and inched downward into the storm outside. But exit he did, and in that moment birthed something new: one of Washington’s biggest legends.

Fifty years later, we call that question mark D.B. Cooper, and there’s nothing person-like about him anymore. The criminal-shaped hole of D.B. Cooper—the initials arose from a reporter’s transcription error—filled with accusation and acclaim, suspicion and swagger, overflowing with America’s runaway imagination. Countless lives have been shaped by the pursuit of one measly criminal who made off with $200,000.

The broad strokes of the crime were familiar enough, taking place in the midst of the golden era of skyjacking. Hijackers captured more than 150 American flights between 1961 and 1972; so common was the practice, and Cuba so often the criminal’s destination, that U.S.-based airliners carried landing instructions for Havana’s airport. Ransoms were so common that Seattle’s Seafirst Bank had earmarked currency for the occasion.

So when passenger 18C flashed what looked like a bomb on Flight 305, en route from Portland to Seattle the day before Thanksgiving of 1971, the flight crew was alarmed but not totally surprised. They complied with the man’s demands, landing the plane at Sea-Tac to trade the passengers for the cash and parachutes he requested. Gathered in the cockpit after taking off again, the crew felt a bump around 8:13pm, just north of Vancouver. They found little trace of Cooper or cash when they landed in Reno two hours later.

Image: Joseph Laney

In those first few days of the Cooper mythos, the world knew him as an ordinary criminal on the run. Law enforcement flew planes southwest of Mount St. Helens, eying the thick forest for a parachute caught in the trees or a drifter holed up in a cabin. An assistant U.S. attorney who happened to be a passenger on Flight 305 told The Seattle Times, “I hope we’ll have a quick prosecution of this case.” But no sign brought law enforcement closer to a figure already morphing from man to cipher.

The past five decades have logged hundreds of suspects, multiple copycats, and a curious obsession from the general public. D.B. Cooper has a way of worming into people’s lives and professional spheres, the very mystery of his identity, motive, and ultimate fate weaving itself out of one century and unfurling into the next.

The Agent: Larry Carr

In the basement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s downtown Seattle headquarters, sometime in the mid-2000s, one agent descends to the file room to dig through old paperwork. He’s lost in administrivia for hours, paging through typewritten reports bound in manila folders with metal tabs.

Special Agent Larry Carr could be Hollywood’s classic G-man. A rectangular jaw centers on a squared-off head, shoulders at near-perfect right angles. But Carr speaks with ease and humor; he’ll joke that his forays into the Cooper files, now almost two decades in the past, took place where the FBI secrets its proof of space aliens.

It wasn’t merely the information that fascinated Carr, the interviews and the evidence reports and the charts of the Victor 23 flight path of Flight 305. He was riveted by even the documentation.

“How did they get anything done?” he wonders of a bureau in the last six months of J. Edgar Hoover’s definitive reign, of formality and typewritten reports. Back then the very layout of an FBI agent’s desk was prescribed, down to the position of the pencils and blotter and phone.

Carr calls himself “a bit more free-spirited” than our standard FBI agent; after all, in 2004 he actually begged to be put on the D.B. Cooper case, a hoary unsolved crime with no new leads. The agent figured he’d make quick work of the then-33-year-old case by using DNA evidence to conclusively implicate one Richard McCoy Jr.

McCoy made delicious sense, his oval face reminiscent of the FBI’s sketch of Cooper. Better, he executed a near-identical hijacking four months after Flight 305. And Carr had something the Hoover-era spooks never did, a DNA lab. Carr eyed the necktie worn by Cooper, a skinny JCPenney-bought clip-on that the hijacker had tossed aside during the crime.

What came next was the FBI version of a “wah-wah” trombone. FBI labs told Carr that the tie was too contaminated; before the era of DNA investigation, too many people had touched it. Plus Carr dug deeper into those yellowed files and realized that McCoy’s alibi was too solid. No “Real McCoy” headlines for Carr.

And yet he remained undaunted. Even as the FBI shifted its main mission to counterterrorism after 9/11, Carr was a criminal specialist who worked bank robberies, crimes usually solved through public tips. If Carr could reignite the case in the public eye, useful Cooper information would flow right to him. “I liken myself to Tom Sawyer having other people paint my fence,” says Carr now. “I could just sit back and drink lemonade.”

And so Carr got permission to do what the FBI is not exactly known for: share its secrets. In 2007, the bureau released a flurry of details of their investigation. Redacted suspect names litter the NORJAK files—the investigation named for “Northwest hijacking.” A 1973 report to the acting director of the FBI notes, “There are currently 588 suspects, 236 of whom have been eliminated.”

Carr’s Tom Sawyer insouciance led him to the natural arena for crime solving in the mid-2000s: the internet. A skydiving website called Dropzone—home to sports-
related public forums—hosted a thread about Cooper’s infamous jump. Soon it garnered thousands of pages of theories and questions, infighting and skirmishes; your classic online forum. Carr made a profile—username “Ckret”—and joined the fray in September 2007.

It took Carr only two months to reveal his true identity. He answered questions on Dropzone and debated theories and minutiae, like the angle of the plane’s flaps. Or why, among the parachutes provided, Cooper selected an advanced military-grade parachute.  In one of his first 2007 posts he profiled Cooper: “He was also a ‘know-it-all.’ The type of person who would learn a few facts and then become an expert on the subject. One of those people who has just enough knowledge to be dangerous.”

Dredging the Columbia River in 1982 as Brian Ingram (center), the boy who found $5,800 of marked $20 bills there two years earlier, looks on.

Over the course of 14 months Ckret posted 522 times on Dropzone. He got to know the regulars, made jokes, spitballed what a D.B. Cooper reality show would entail. Crucially, Carr was convinced that a scientist outside the FBI could analyze one of the only pieces of evidence ever found after Cooper’s jump: $5,800 in twenty-dollar bills unearthed in 1980 by an eight-year-old boy on a Columbia River sandbar just north of Vancouver. The serial numbers matched the cash given to Cooper, but the worn bills offered no answers to how they got there. “It has not added up yet, but I am waiting,” wrote Ckret in a 2008 post.

But nothing, not the fast-pitched discussion on Dropzone, not even the citizen scientists Carr let study the D.B. Cooper evidence, offered him workable leads. In July 2016 the investigation was functionally shelved. 

Carr doesn’t think the Cooper case will ever be solved. He’s sure the man died on November 24 moments after he jumped out of the plane, given the weather, the dark of the night, and a leap that took deft skydiving skills under the best of circumstances.

“I kind of apply Occam’s Razor to this,” he says now, the 50th anniversary falling a year before his retirement. “Whatever is the simplest explanation.” Still, he gets the draw. The Robin Hood mystique of it all. “You know, no one died. No one got hurt. It’s a mystery.”

The Theorist: Bruce Smith

In a Washington town so small it barely rates a label on Google Maps, a self-described “out of shape, grumpy”  journalist named Bruce Smith dances outside the Ariel Store Pub. The settlement of Ariel, about 30 miles north of Portland, boasts little more than a post office and a Pacific Power facility for the dam that creates Lake Merwin. And, of course, this gritty little bar, a no-frills tavern.

“D.B. Cooper, Where are You?” reads a red poster on the  ceiling. After all, estimates put his landing zone nearby. For decades the weekend after Thanksgiving meant D.B. Cooper Days, when bar owner Dona Elliott hired the same country band every year and hosted a Cooper lookalike contest.

Smith knew all the regulars, so deep were his ties to the oddball circle of amateur Cooper hunters. He can picture the old general store during 1971’s ground search—“dozens of FBI agents running around in their $400 suits and Italian shoes in the mud.” But by 2008 the annual event was a chance to dance and drink Black Butte Porter in the November drizzle. A party.

“We talk about the old days, we crack jokes, we make fun of each other. We get angry and spittle starts flying,” he says. There was Marla Cooper in attendance, sure her uncle L.D. was the true culprit. Geoffrey Gray, who wrote the bestseller Skyjack in 2010. Robb Heady, a copycat who successfully jumped out of a Boeing 727 but was soon apprehended. All Cooper, all the time. “Like being a kid in a toy store on Christmas Eve,” Smith says with a sigh.

Smith arrived in Washington state in the 1990s as a follower of Yelm’s J.Z. Knight and her metaphysical teachings; he’s always quested for answers. While working as a journalist in Eatonville, he stumbled upon the Cooper case and got hooked; now self-employed at his own Mountain News website, he chronicles the Cooper world.

Smith took to the same Dropzone forum frequented by Special Agent Carr. “It was the Cheers tavern, online, for me,” says Smith, a digital hangout for theorists—mostly men, he notes, despite the fact that true crime is hugely popular with women. Cooper, somehow, is a guy thing.

Smith pores over FBI inconsistencies. Where did the left-behind Raleigh brand cigarette butts end up? Who, exactly, sourced the parachutes given to the hijacker? For a keen observer with boundless imagination, Cooper is a choose-your-own adventure episode of The X-Files.

Like Carr, Smith has a profile of the mysterious criminal: ex-military, likely special forces. Perhaps someone trained in covert operations during the Vietnam War, someone who would select the trickiest parachute of the four available. Was he a well-trained soldier with a grudge after being shipped back to the states, or perhaps one put up to the task by the CIA?

Smith’s thoughts are wilder than some, tamer than others. His book D.B. Cooper and the FBI pokes at the government’s failures, from sloppy evidence supervision to witnesses left unquestioned. Since Carr’s release, much of the formal investigation has become available to civilians and he thrills that the “FBI does not have the full control over the storyline.” Cooper belongs to everyone now.

And he will until the case is solved—which Smith thinks will happen. He points to technological progress in processing evidence, but also metaphysical advancements that recall his days with J.Z. Knight. “Psychic sleuthing,” he says, will allow a person to “penetrate through and transform time and space” to solve crime. Remote viewing as law enforcement. Someday soon, he thinks, someone, maybe even him, can go back in time and actually observe Dan Cooper disappear into the dark night.

The Scientist: Tom Kaye

In the basement of his Arizona home, Tom Kaye fixes his eyes on his screen, lit with what looks like a closeup of a matted shag carpet. This is a twenty-dollar bill magnified 5,000 times by one of the few privately owned electron microscopes in the country. Kaye thinks individual atoms on the weathered bill can tell him something about when it jumped out of the airplane with D.B. Cooper.

From an early age Tom Kaye—born Thomas Kotsiopoulos, Thomas G. Kaye professionally—saw the world through a researcher’s eye. He collected snakes and mice in the brambles along the railroad tracks, the wildest part of 1960s Chicago. But somehow the “sciencey, geeky kind of kid” didn’t fit the academic mold, and he matured into a businessman and inventor.

A late-1980s round of the nascent game of paintball left a welt on his forehead so pronounced it looked like a third eye; Kaye immediately designed a full-face mask for the developing sport. Ever tinkering, he created semi-
automatic paintball guns and spring-fed magazines, tools of destruction reimagined as playthings, and earned enough to fund a self-made science career.

Fascinated by astronomy, he bought one of the biggest non-professional telescopes in the country, its mirror a meter wide. He went to Wyoming to hunt dinosaur fossils and ended up supporting digs for the elite Field Museum of Chicago, even though he initially knew as much about the creatures as the average kindergartner—“long necks and stuff like that.” He showed Field Museum students where to find fossils; they taught him paleontology.

Tall and thin, gregarious and curious, Kaye fancies himself a classic gentleman scientist, a modern-day Charles Darwin or Benjamin Franklin. But his accomplishments are hardly vanity; his resume of scientific publications—including the lofty Nature—would be respectable for anyone, muses Dr. Matthew Carrano, curator of Dinosauria of the Smithsonian. The paleontologist counts Kaye as a friend and colleague: “He is a serious intellect.”

Which put Kaye in the sights of the Dropzone forum posters who helped Agent Carr land a civilian to study the Cooper cash. New technologies could reveal something about how the money ended up on the shores of the Columbia, but the FBI wasn’t prioritizing lab time for decades-old cold cases. A paleontology fan on the forum suggested the unconventional self-trained scientist—and his very available electron microscope.

Kaye knew that no professional scientist would want to be associated with a pursuit he casts as “kind of razzmatazz, you know—ancient alien, chasing-a-conspiracy-theory type of thing.” He, on the other hand, didn’t have a reputation to lose.

At that time Kaye was an unpaid research associate for the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, supporting himself on its fossil digs, a Seattle link that convinced Carr. The agent passed three of the Cooper bills to Kaye, who painstakingly separated samples the size of pencil erasers. He coated each with a thin layer of gold to conduct electrons through the material and settled in for long hours of analysis.

Though his personal electron microscope dates back to the mid-’80s, the amateur scientist keeps the creaky instrument running. As he scanned the bills, Kaye analyzed what atoms they contained. “It’s like treasure hunting in its own way,” he says. Silver atoms promised a juicy clue—until Kaye learned that FBI fingerprint dust used to contain silver nitrate. He purchased nitrate-sensing strips used in swimming pool maintenance to confirm the hunch.

Kaye’s meticulous nature so impressed Carr that he handed over the skinny JCPenney tie abandoned on the plane. After pieces of the cheap clip-on went through Kaye’s electron microscope, what looked like a new breakthrough emerged: traces of titanium.

“Today titanium can be found everywhere from your key chain to your golf club,” says Kaye—but that wasn’t the case in Cooper’s day. One exception: In the 1960s, Boeing tried  to build an entire airplane made of titanium, the supersonic 2707 to rival the Concorde. A project scrapped in 1971.

“There couldn’t be a more perfect story. That Cooper was an engineer or manager on the supersonic transport project, he got this stuff on his tie,” says Kaye. “Now he’s broke and needs some money, does the hijacking, walks away with 200 grand.” It paints a great picture if you stop right there, a dramatic caper set in Seattle’s iconic ’70s doldrums. Did the last person out of Seattle...jump out a plane?

“Turns out that’s all bullshit,” continues Kaye. He kept digging and discovered the Boeing 2707 was to be made of an alloy, not the straight titanium he’d found. Kaye knew you can’t quit asking questions when the answer is good.

He hung around the Cooper case for more than 10 years. In the Dropzone and a different forum that succeeded it, he stood as a kind of scientific expert among amateur investigators. The FBI invited him and a few other “citizen sleuths” to view the entire physical evidence archive for the case.

Bills unearthed in 1980 match the serial numbers of Cooper’s ransom.

Eventually, another twenty-dollar bill made its way onto Kaye’s electron microscope; this one had been kept by the youthful finder back in 1980 and sold to a Cooper enthusiast. This time, Kaye found something new: diatoms, single-celled organisms encased in silica. He identified the hairpin shapes on the money as a specific diatom, Asterionella formosa—a life-form absent from the Columbia River near Thanksgiving. The found money had been submerged in water at some point, but it would have been during summer.

The finding blew apart many beloved theories, like that Cooper had landed on the banks of the Columbia and stashed some of his cash for later. But for every possibility it eliminated, says Kaye, “It doesn’t lead you to Cooper either.” Kaye’s research on using diatoms to establish seasonality earned him yet another scientific paper.

Kaye did more work on the tie, finding rare earth elements yttrium and strontium, used in making televisions, but that hardly produces a suspect. Agent Carr, for his part, thinks the tie has been contaminated too much during the 50 years of investigation to ever conclusively narrow the case. The only thing it points to, dismisses Carr, is “some guy in middle management.”

Will the case be solved? Maybe, thinks Kaye. But he’s not in this to win, like the people he’s met on the forums. He sees the act of chasing Cooper as a way to feed law enforcement new evidence techniques.

Despite the range of out-there theories he hears about D.B. Cooper, Kaye considers it very different from, say, looking for Bigfoot, where “you’ll never make any progress because it’s not there.” Cooper, on the other hand, “is actually there, he’s actually a person, he actually did it.” Twelve years from first dipping a toe in the mystery, Tom Kaye admits he’s still wading in.

 

We don’t know much more about “Dan Cooper” than the flight crew did in 1971, when they felt a bump from the cockpit and surmised that the mysterious skyjacker had jumped. Dan Cooper is probably gone forever.

But D.B. Cooper keeps showing up. Countless documentaries have traced the case, making appearances on the History Channel and National Geographic and HBO. Leonard Nimoy profiled the case in his 1970s oddities program “In Search Of,” and Robert Duvall starred in a movie about Cooper in the 1980s. Just this summer, the first episode of the Marvel Universe TV show Loki cast the historic event as a superhero prank.

The 50th anniversary of the tantalizing mystery will be marked by new documentaries and renewed fervor over this suspect or that one. The Ariel Store Bar, shuttered in recent years, won’t host its usual Thanksgiving weekend party. But a D.B. Cooper Con in Vancouver on November 20–21 packs a roster with notables: Brian Ingram, who found the cash as a boy, and Flight 305’s second officer. A Cooper podcaster, a retired FBI agent, even Marla Cooper. Tom Kaye and Bruce Smith. (Larry Carr has been officially invited.)

Given that the stewardesses who spoke to Cooper put the hijacker in his mid-40s, the culprit is now an elderly man, his fortune long spent. Or he has died of prosaic causes, his one-day exploits disconnected from a life built of its own dramas.

Or, of course, the man who called himself Dan Cooper crash-landed in the Washington wilds on November 24, and the mossy depths of the Northwest forest have since claimed his body, breaking down the brash criminal and his black suit into unremarkable earth.

The amorphous D.B. Cooper, on the other hand, fluid and fascinating, lives on.


Face Off 

The FBI estimates that the number of people it investigated is in the hundreds—and among amateur sleuths, the suspects number reaches the thousands, at least. Some of the most notable:

Kenneth Christiansen
A purser for Northwest Orient and former paratrooper; favorite suspect for Geoffrey Gray, whose 2010 book Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper became a bestseller.

Richard Floyd McCoy Jr.
A helicopter pilot who successfully completed a similar skyjacking a few months after Cooper but was arrested and killed while being apprehended after a prison break.

Lynn Doyle Cooper
An Oregon man whose niece, Marla Cooper, has claimed he was guilty; she remembers L.D. and his brothers plotting something and returning home bruised around the time of the hijacking.

Suspect photos public domain / courtesy FBI.

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