D. B. Cooper is the name attributed to a man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the United States on November 24, 1971, received US$200,000 in ransom, and parachuted from the plane, vanishing without a trace. The name he used to board the plane was Dan Cooper, but through a later press miscommunication, he became known as "D. B. Cooper". Despite hundreds of leads through the years, no conclusive evidence has surfaced regarding Cooper's true identity or whereabouts, and the bulk of the money has never been recovered. Several theories offer competing explanations of what happened after his famed jump, which the FBI believes he did not survive.
The nature of Cooper's escape and the uncertainty of his fate continue to intrigue people. The Cooper case (code-named "Norjak" by the FBI) remains an unsolved mystery, and along with Malaysia Airlines Flight 653 is one of the world's few unsolved cases of aircraft hijacking.
The Cooper case has baffled government and private investigators for decades, with countless leads turning into dead ends. As late as March 2008, the FBI thought it might have had a breakthrough when children unearthed a parachute within the bounds of Cooper's probable jump site near the town of Amboy, Washington. Experts later determined that it did not belong to the hijacker.
Despite the case's enduring lack of evidence, a few significant clues have arisen. In late 1978 a placard containing instructions on how to lower the aft stairs of a 727, later confirmed to be from the rear stairway of the plane from which Cooper jumped, was found just a few flying minutes north of Cooper's projected drop zone. In February 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram found $5,880 in decaying $20 bills on the banks of the Columbia River.
In October 2007, the FBI claimed that it had obtained a partial DNA profile of Cooper from the tie he left on the hijacked plane. On December 31, 2007, the FBI revived the unclosed case by publishing never-before-seen composite sketches and fact sheets online in an attempt to trigger memories that could possibly identify Cooper. In a press release, the FBI reiterated that it does not believe Cooper survived the jump, but expressed an interest in obtaining his identity.
On Wednesday, November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving in the United States, a man traveling under the name Dan Cooper boarded a Boeing 727-100, Northwest Orient (now known as Northwest Airlines) Flight 305 (FAA Reg. N467US), flying from Portland International Airport (PDX) in Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. Cooper was described as being in his mid-forties, and between 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) and 6 feet (1.83 m) tall. He wore a black raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, a black necktie, black sunglasses and a mother of pearl tie pin. Cooper sat in the back of the plane in seat 18C. After the jet had taken off from Portland, he handed a note to a young flight attendant named Florence Schaffner, who was seated in a jumpseat attached to the aft stair door, situated directly behind and to the left of Cooper's seat. She thought he was giving her his phone number, so she slipped it, unopened, into her pocket. Cooper leaned closer and said, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb." In the envelope was a note that read: "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."
The note also provided demands for $200,000, in unmarked $20 bills, and two sets of parachutes—two main back chutes and two emergency chest chutes. The note carried instructions ordering the items to be delivered to the plane when it landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; if the demands were not met, he would blow up the plane. When the flight attendant informed the cockpit about Cooper and the note, the pilot, William Scott, contacted Seattle-Tacoma air traffic control, who contacted Seattle police and the FBI. The FBI contacted Northwest Airlines president Donald Nyrop, who instructed Scott to cooperate with the hijacker. Scott instructed Schaffner to go back and sit next to Cooper, and ascertain if the bomb was in fact real. Sensing this, Cooper opened his briefcase momentarily, long enough for Schaffner to see red cylinders, a large battery, and wires, convincing her the bomb was real. He instructed her to tell the pilot not to land until the money and parachutes Cooper had requested were ready at Seattle-Tacoma. She went back to the cockpit to relay Cooper's instructions.
Following Cooper's demands, the jet was put into a holding pattern over Puget Sound, while Cooper's demands for $200,000 and four parachutes were met. In assembling the cash demands, FBI agents followed Cooper's instruction for unmarked bills, but they decided to give bills printed mostly in 1969 (although some were older or newer), that mostly had serial numbers beginning with the letter L, issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The agents also ran all of the 10,000 $20 bills quickly through a Recordak device to create a microfilm photograph of each bill and thus record all the serial numbers. Authorities initially intended to obtain military-issue parachutes from McChord Air Force Base, but Cooper said he wanted civilian parachutes, which had manually operated ripcords. Seattle police were able to find Cooper's preferred parachutes at a local skydiving school. Meanwhile, Cooper sat in the airplane, drinking bourbon whiskey and soda. Tina Mucklow, a flight attendant who spent the most time with the hijacker, remarked Cooper "seemed rather nice," and thoughtful enough to request the crew be brought meals after the jet landed in Seattle. However, FBI investigators for the Cooper case claim the hijacker was "obscene," and used "filthy language." At 17:24, airport traffic control radioed Scott and told him that Cooper's demands had been met. Cooper then gave Captain Scott permission to land at the flight's intended destination, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) near Seattle, Washington. The plane landed at the airport at 17:39. Cooper then instructed Scott to taxi the plane to a remote section of the tarmac and also dim the lights in the cabin to deter police snipers. He instructed air traffic control to send one person to deliver the $200,000 and four parachutes, unaccompanied. The person chosen, a Northwest Orient employee, drove to the plane and delivered the cash and parachutes to flight attendant Mucklow, via the aft stairs. A few minutes after his demands were met, Cooper released all 36 passengers and attendant Schaffner via the aft stairs. Pilot Scott, flight attendant Mucklow, First Officer Bob Rataczak and flight engineer H.E. Anderson were not permitted to leave the aircraft.
The FBI was puzzled regarding Cooper's plans, and his request of four parachutes. The agents wondered if Cooper had an accomplice on board, or if the parachutes were intended for the four crew members who were still on the plane. Up to this point in history, nobody had ever attempted to jump with a parachute from a hijacked commercial aircraft. While the plane was being refueled, an FAA official, who wanted to explain to the hijacker the legal consequences of air piracy, walked to the door of the plane and asked Cooper's permission to come aboard the plane. Cooper promptly denied the official's request. A vapor lock in the fuel tanker truck's engines slowed down the refueling process. Cooper became suspicious when the refueling had still not been completed after 15 minutes. He made threats to blow up the plane, upon which the fuel crew promptly tried to speed up the job until completion.
Immediately upon takeoff, Cooper asked Mucklow, who had previously been sitting with him, to go back to the cockpit and stay there. Before she went behind the curtain that separates the coach and first-class seats, she watched him tie something to his waist with what she thought was rope. Moments later in the cockpit, the crew noticed a light flash indicating that Cooper attempted to operate the door. Over the intercom, Scott asked Cooper if there was anything they could do for him, but the hijacker replied curtly, "No!"
The crew started to notice a change of air pressure in the cabin (an "ear popping experience"). Cooper had lowered the aft stairs and jumped out of the plane never to be seen again. That was the last time he was known to be alive. The FBI believed his descent was at 20:13 over the southwestern portion of the state of Washington, because the aft stairway "bumped" at this time, most likely due to the weight of Cooper being released from the aft stairs. At the time Cooper jumped, the plane was flying through a heavy rainstorm, with no light source coming from the ground due to cloud coverage. Because of the poor visibility, his descent went unnoticed by the United States Air Force F-106 jet fighters tracking the airliner. He initially was believed to have landed southeast of the unincorporated area of Ariel, Washington, near Lake Merwin, north of Portland, Oregon (). Later theories based on a variety of sources—including testimony on weather conditions from Continental Airlines pilot Tom Bohan, who had been flying 4,000 feet above and 4 minutes behind Flight 305—placed Cooper's landing zone as much as 20 miles farther east, but its precise location remains unknown.
Nearly 2½ hours after take-off from Seattle-Tacoma, at approximately 22:15, with the aft stairs dragging on the runway, the Boeing 727 landed safely in Reno. The airport and runway were surrounded by FBI agents and local police. After communicating with Captain Scott, it was determined Cooper was gone, and FBI agents boarded the plane to search for any evidence left behind. They recovered a number of fingerprints (which may or may not have belonged to Cooper), a tie and a mother of pearl tie clip, and two of the four parachutes. Cooper was nowhere to be found, nor was his briefcase, the money, the moneybag, or the two remaining parachutes. The individuals with whom Cooper had interacted on board the plane and while he was on the ground were interrogated to compile a composite sketch; those interviewed all gave nearly identical descriptions of him, leading the FBI to create the sketch that has been used on wanted posters ever since, where Dan Cooper is described as being of Latin appearance. As of 2008, the FBI maintains that the sketch is an accurate likeness of Cooper because so many individuals, interviewed simultaneously in separate locations, gave nearly identical descriptions.
Despite aerial and ground searches of the projected 28-square mile landing zone in late 1971 and spring 1972, no trace of Cooper or his parachute was found. An exact landing point was difficult to determine, as the plane's -per-second speed in winds varying by location and altitude would make even small differences in timing move the projected landing point considerably. This led the FBI to determine that Cooper could not have known exactly where he would land, and therefore must not have had an accomplice waiting to assist him upon landing. Initial search efforts combined small groups of FBI agents with local Clark and Cowlitz County sheriff's deputies, who probed on foot and by helicopter. Others ran patrol boats along Lake Merwin and Yale Lake. Because months passed with no significant leads coming from anywhere else, the arrival of the spring thaw provided incentive for a thorough ground search, conducted by the FBI and no fewer than 200 U.S. Army troops from nearby Fort Lewis. Teams of agents and soldiers searched the area virtually yard by yard for eighteen straight days in March and for another 18 straight days in April 1972. After a combined six weeks of searching the projected drop zone, one of the most intense manhunts in the history of the northwestern U.S. revealed no evidence related to the hijacking. As a result, it remains widely disputed whether Cooper survived the jump and then subsequently escaped on foot. Shortly after the hijacking, the FBI questioned and then released a Portland man by the name of D. B. Cooper, who was never considered a significant suspect. Due to a miscommunication with the media, however, the initials "D. B." became firmly associated with the hijacker and this is how he is now known.
Meanwhile, the FBI also stepped up efforts to track the 10,000 ransomed $20 bills by notifying banks, savings and loan companies, and other businesses of the notes’ serial numbers. Law enforcement agencies around the globe, including Scotland Yard, also received information on Cooper and the serial numbers. In the months following the hijacking, Northwest Airlines offered a reward of 15 percent of the recovered money up to a maximum of $25,000, but the airline eventually canceled the offer as no new substantial evidence seemed to arise. In November 1973, The Oregon Journal, based in Portland, began publishing the first public listings of the serial numbers with permission from the FBI and offered $1,000 to the first person who could claim to have found a single one of the $20 bills. Later, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offered a $5,000 reward for one of the bills. Despite reported interest from around the country and several alleged near-matches, the newspapers never received a claim of an exact serial number match. In the decade before the Cooper hijacking, local law enforcement and the FBI had solved at least two major crimes—a bank robbery and an extortion—in the Pacific Northwest by tracing money serial numbers. But both cases, which took only weeks for authorities to solve, involved instances of a perpetrator spending the traceable money only days after the crime and in the same general region of the crime, circumstances that in all likelihood did not apply in the Cooper case.
In late 1978, a placard, which contained instructions on how to lower the aft stairs of a 727, from the rear stairway of the plane from which Cooper jumped, was found by a hunter just a few flying minutes north of Cooper's projected drop zone.
On February 10, 1980, Brian Ingram, then eight years old, was with his family on a picnic when he found $5,880 in decaying bills (a total of 294 $20 bills), still bundled in rubber bands, approximately from the waterline and just below the surface, on the banks of the Columbia River 5 miles (8 km) northwest of Vancouver, Washington. After comparing the serial numbers with those from the ransom given to Cooper almost nine years earlier, it was proven that the money found by Ingram was part of the ransom given to Cooper. Upon the discovery, then-FBI lead investigator Ralph Himmelsbach declared that the money "must have been deposited within a couple of years after the hijacking" because "rubber bands deteriorate rapidly and could not have held the bundles together for very long. However, several area scientists recruited by the FBI for assistance with the case noted their belief that the money arrived at the beach as a result of a 1974 Army Corps of Engineers dredging operation. Furthermore, some scientists estimated that the money’s arrival must have occurred even later. Geologist Leonard Palmer of Portland State University, for example, reportedly concluded that the 1974 dredging operation did not place the money on the Columbia's riverbank because Ingram had found the bills above clay deposits put on shore by the dredge. The FBI generally agree now that the money had to have arrived at the location on the riverbank no earlier than 1974. Some investigators and hydrologists have theorized that the bundled bills washed freely into the Columbia River from one of its many connecting tributaries, such as the Washougal River, which originate or run near Cooper's suspected landing zone.
Ingram's discovery of the $5,880 reinforced the FBI's belief that Cooper probably did not survive the jump, in large part because of the unlikelihood that such a criminal would be willing to leave behind any of the loot for which he had risked his life. Ingram was eventually allowed to keep $2,860 of this money. On June 13, 2008, in accordance with Ingram's wishes, the Heritage Auction Galleries' Americana Memorabilia Grand Format Auction in Dallas, Texas sold fifteen of the bills to various buyers for a total of more than $37,000., the rest of the money remains unrecovered. The serial numbers of all 9,998 $20 bills that the hijacker was given were databased and placed in a search engine for public search.
At various points, several people have been suggested as possible candidates for Cooper, although the case remains unsolved. Over the years, the suspect list has exceeded 1,000 people.
The FBI believed that Cooper was familiar with the Seattle area, as he was able to recognize Tacoma from the air while the jet was circling over the Puget Sound. He also remarked to flight attendant Mucklow that McChord Air Force Base was approximately 20 minutes from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Although the FBI initially believed that Cooper might have been an active or retired member of the United States Air Force, based on his apparent knowledge of jet aerodynamics and skydiving, it later changed this assessment, deciding that no experienced parachutist would have attempted such a risky jump.
On April 7, 1972, four months after Cooper's hijacking, Richard McCoy, Jr., under the alias "James Johnson," boarded United Airlines Flight 855 during a stopover in Denver, Colorado, and gave the flight steward an envelope labeled "Hijack Instructions," in which he demanded four parachutes and $500,000. He also instructed the pilot to land at San Francisco International Airport and order a refueling truck for the plane. The airplane was a Boeing 727 with aft stairs, which McCoy used in his escape. He was carrying a paper weight grenade and an empty pistol. He left his handwritten message on the plane, along with his fingerprints on a magazine he had been reading, which the FBI later used to establish positive identification.
Police began investigating McCoy following a tip from Utah Highway Patrolman Robert Van Ieperen, who was a friend of McCoy's. Apparently, after the Cooper hijacking, McCoy had made a reference that Cooper should have asked for $500,000, instead of $200,000. Van Ieperen thought that was an odd coincidence, so he alerted the FBI. Married and with two young children, McCoy was a Mormon Sunday school teacher studying law enforcement at Brigham Young University. He had a record as a Vietnam veteran and was a former helicopter pilot, and an avid skydiver.
On April 9, following the fingerprint and handwriting match, McCoy was arrested for the United 855 hijacking. Coincidentally, McCoy had been on National Guard duty flying one of the helicopters involved in the search for the hijacker. Inside his house FBI agents found a jumpsuit and a duffel bag filled with $499,970 in cash. McCoy claimed innocence, but was convicted and received a 45-year sentence. Once incarcerated, using his access to the prison's dental office, McCoy fashioned a fake handgun out of dental paste. He and a crew of convicts escaped in August 1974 by stealing a garbage truck and crashing it through the prison's main gate. It took three months before the FBI located McCoy in Virginia. McCoy shot at the FBI agents, and agent Nicholas O'Hara fired back with a shotgun, killing him.
In 1991, Bernie Rhodes and former FBI agent Russell Calame coauthored D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy, in which they claimed that Cooper and McCoy were really the same person, citing similar methods of hijacking and a tie and mother-of-pearl tie clip, left on the plane by Cooper. Neither Rhodes nor Calame were involved in the original Cooper investigation, but Calame was the head of the Utah FBI office that investigated McCoy, and eventually arrested him for the copycat hijacking that occurred in April 1972. The author said that McCoy "never admitted nor denied he was Cooper." And when McCoy was directly asked whether he was Cooper he replied, "I don't want to talk to you about it." The agent who killed McCoy is quoted as supposedly saying, "When I shot Richard McCoy, I shot D. B. Cooper at the same time." The widow of Richard McCoy, Karen Burns McCoy, reached a $120,000 legal settlement with the book's co-authors and its publisher, after claiming they misrepresented her involvement in the hijacking and later events from interviews done with her attorney in the 1970s.
In July 2000, U.S. News & World Report ran an article about a widow in Pace, Florida, named Jo Weber and her claim that her late husband, Duane L. Weber (born 1924 in Ohio), had told her "I'm Dan Cooper" before his death on March 28, 1995. She became suspicious and began checking into his background. Weber had served in the Army during World War II and had later served time in a prison near the Portland airport. Weber recalled that her husband had once had a nightmare where he talked in his sleep about jumping from a plane and said something about leaving his fingerprints on the aft stairs. Jo recalled that shortly before Duane's death, he had revealed to her that an old knee injury of his had been incurred by "jumping out of a plane."
Weber also recounts a 1979 vacation the couple took to Seattle, "a sentimental journey," Duane told Jo, with a visit to the Columbia River. She remembers how Duane walked down to the banks of the Columbia by himself just four months before the portion of Cooper's cash was found in the same area. Weber related that she had checked out a book on the Cooper case from the local library and saw notations in it that matched her husband's handwriting. She began corresponding with Himmelsbach, the former chief investigator of the case, who subsequently agreed that much of the circumstantial evidence surrounding Weber fit the hijacker's profile. However, the FBI stopped investigating Weber in July 1998 because of a lack of hard evidence.
The FBI compared Weber's prints with those processed from the hijacked plane and found no matches. In October 2007, the FBI stated that a partial DNA sample taken from the tie that Cooper had left on the plane did not belong to Weber.
On December 31, 2007, the FBI issued a press release online containing never before seen photos and fact sheets in an attempt to trigger memories or useful information regarding Cooper's identity. In the fact sheets, the FBI withdrew its previous theory that Cooper was either an experienced skydiver or paratrooper. While it was initially believed that Cooper must have had training to have performed such a feat, later analysis of the chain of events led the FBI to reevaluate this claim. Investigators said that no experienced paratrooper or skydiver would attempt a jump during a rainstorm with no light source. Investigators also believe that, even if Cooper was in a hurry to escape, an experienced jumper or paratrooper would have stopped to inspect his chutes.
On March 24, 2008, the FBI announced that it was in possession of a parachute recovered from a field in northern Clark County, Washington, near the town of Amboy. A property owner was in the process of making a private road with a bulldozer when the blade caught some cloth, and his children pulled the cloth until the canopy lines appeared. Earl Cossey, the man who provided the four parachutes that were given to Cooper by the FBI, examined the newly found chute and on April 1, 2008 said that "absolutely, for sure" it could not have been one of the four that he supplied in 1971. The Cooper parachutes were made of nylon, unlike the new chute that was recovered which is made of silk and most likely made around 1945. The FBI later made a press release confirming Cossey's findings. Investigators reached their official conclusion after consulting Cossey and other parachute experts. "From the best we could learn from the people we spoke to, it just didn't look like it was the right kind of parachute in any way," said FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs. Further digging at the site in southwestern Washington turned up no indication that it could have been Cooper's.