The FBI says it has a new clue in the search for one of America's greatest criminal folk heroes, a suit-wearing, whiskey-drinking hijacker known as "D.B. Cooper" who in 1971 parachuted out of a 727 with $200,000 in ransom cash and disappeared in the Washington woods.
Mr. Cooper, whose case is still followed by a mass of amateur sleuths and whose daring heist has elicited more than one deathbed confession, has come to represent an increasingly elusive ideal: the debonair Robin Hood who scores his cash in a victimless crime and engineers his own disappearance. The case remains the only US hijacking the FBI has never solved.
"Americans like their criminals suave and sophisticated, and this guy fits the bill," says Stephen Mihm, a folklore expert at the University of Georgia in Athens. "There's something very debonaire about the nature of the hijacking, and it was extremely risky, too, and that combination … is probably more appealing than if he he looked like a Hell's Angel and killed several people along the way. He fits our ideal of a criminal mastermind."
On a blustery Thanksgiving Eve in 1971, a slim man with aviator sunglasses sat smoking and sipping a whiskey in aisle seat 18C on a Portland-to-Seattle flight. When a stewardess came by, he handed her a note that read, in capital letters: "I HAVE A BOMB IN MY BRIEFCASE. I WILL USE IT IF NECESSARY. I WANT YOU TO SIT NEXT TO ME. YOU ARE BEING HIJACKED." When the stewardess slipped the note unread into her pocket, the man said, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."
The plane landed as scheduled in Seattle, where the hijacker managed to get $200,000 and a parachute in ransom for the passengers, and then told the pilots to take off and head for Mexico. En route, he ordered the pilots to descend to 10,000 feet. When a cockpit warning light showed the rear door of the plane had been opened, the pilots asked over the intercom, "Is everything OK back there?"
"No!" the man yelled, and jumped.
In Ariel, Wash., near where the hijacker is believed to have landed, there are still D.B. Cooper festivals and locals call it "Cooper Country." Internet discussion boards still buzz with conjecture and conspiracies about who he was and where he went. There have been 17 books written about the case, including one that's due to come out next month, "Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper."
The man gave his name as Dan Cooper, but he became known as D.B. Cooper after police questioned, but cleared, a Seattle man by that name. Over the years, several suspects have emerged, but the FBI has at least outwardly dismissed the vast majority of them.
But this weekend one FBI analyst, Ayn Sandalo Dietrich, told the Seattle Times that a new object had emerged, attached to a new name, which is now being analyzed at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va. Ms. Dietrich said the FBI is not on the verge of "a big break," but added that it's "our most promising lead."
Until now, the biggest break in the case came in 1980, when a child found a bundle of $20 bills from the hijacking along the Columbia River, just west of Vancouver, Wash. The find seemed to support one theory that Cooper had died from the jump into freezing rain, heavy winds and a temperature of 7 below zero. A body was never found.
"A lot of the outlaw culture has migrated online, so this guy is a blast from the past, maybe the last of a generation," says Professor Mihm. "It's hard to see someone getting away with that now, given all the technologies available to law enforcement. It's just much harder to disappear today the way that this guy presumably disappeared in the woods somewhere."