On January 30, 2011, I interviewed Ralph Himmelsbach, the now-retired FBI agent who had been the lead agent for the Bureau’s Portland, Oregon office in the DB Cooper case. Mr. Himmelsbach, a career FBI agent, served as Portland’s lead Cooper investigator from the time of the skyjacking on November 24, 1971 until his retirement from the Bureau in April, 1980.
Ralph is very easy to find, suggesting that he is comfortable with his public persona., and in addition he has a book for sale on the skyjacking titled, NORJAK: the Investigation of DB Cooper.
Nevertheless, my interview with Ralph would not have happened without the encouragement from a Cooper investigator named Jerry Thomas.
Since Ralph’s contact information is readily obtained via Google, he was the first person in the Cooper case that I contacted, in 2008. That was after learning of the exploits of Cooper-confessee Barb Dayton from her biographers, Ron and Pat Forman, along with hearing indications of a FBI cover-up.
As a result, I was itchin’ to put the Bureau’s feet to the fire and I think Ralph sensed that immediately. Whatever his reason, though, he declined my request for an interview.
However, his rejection was delivered graciously, which left a pleasant taste in my mouth concerning Ralph personally. Some time later, with my knowledge of the case growing, along with a desire to write a more comprehensive treatise, I asked Ralph again for an interview.
Nevertheless, he turned me down a second time.
During this period, however, I was in frequent conversation with Jerry Thomas, who told me that he considered Ralph a second father. Further, Jerry indicated to me that he had Ralph’s utmost confidence regarding the Cooper skyjacking and that he, Jerry, could speak for Ralph on details of the case.
In this light, I asked Jerry how I could get an interview with Ralph, and I suggested that since I had been turned down twice maybe I should just drop-in on Ralph someday.
“I’m sure that would be fine with Ralph,” Jerry told me. “He’s a great guy.”
Steeled with that reassurance, I stopped at Ralph’s home in Woodburn, Oregon on my way to Eugene to visit the Carmelite Monastery as part of my corresponding quest to discover the whereabouts of Cooper hostage, flight attendant Tina Mucklow.
I was also curious to learn more about Woodburn since Barb told the Formans she landed in hazelnut groves there after parachuting from Flight 305.
Woodburn, about 25 miles south of Portland, is on the northern end of the Willamette Valley, (pronounced Wil-LAM-et), a profoundly flat region that stretches south for 100 miles to Eugene. Like bookends, my Cooper journey framed the premier agricultural lands of the Pacific Northwest, and say what you will about Barb’s confession, the girl sure knew how to pick an LZ, which, for the uninitiated, is skydiver lingo for “landing zone.”
As for Ralph, he lives on 40 acres just east of the Pudding River, and his flooded, muddied land looked just like the river’s name-sake. His expansive house, a mini-mansion really, sits on a hillock in the middle of his farm lands, which I later learned are leased to a local tulip grower. Driving down Ralph’s narrow half-mile driveway through these fields made me feel like I was negotiating a causeway and crossing a moat.
This medieval feel is further enhanced when one arrives at Ralph’s compound. The house is elegantly designed with multiple stories and has several surrounding out-buildings. Coupled with the exquisite stone and chrome interiors it looks like the home of a modern-day, Moorish squire.
I was just getting out of my pick-up when Ralph marched out of his house to find who had just entered his kingdom. He had a grim look on his face, so I evoked the magic of Jerry Thomas immediately.
“Ralph,” I called out. “My name is Bruce Smith and Jerry Thomas said it would be okay if I just dropped-in on you to talk about the DB Cooper case. I hope that’s okay.”
Ralph was now upon me. After hearing Jerry’s name he brightened considerably.
“You’re a friend of Jerry’s?” he asked.
I shrugged, slightly.
“Well, sure, c’mon in. We can talk for a few minutes but I’m in the middle of putting the laundry into the washer, so let me finish that first.”
Ralph is clearly in his 80s, but looks fit and trim. His grip is strong and he walks easily without any noticeable hitch. He stands about 5’10,” weighs about 185, and his voice is clear and strong. I explained my relationship with Jerry as we walked towards the front door.
“I’ve talked with Jerry a bunch on the phone and we’ve emailed each other a lot, but we’ve never actually met.”
We got to the front door and Ralph opened it.
Handing him my business card I said, “I’m a newspaper reporter and we’ve talked before, Ralph. I called you a couple years ago.”
“Ah, yes, I remember. We exchanged a couple of emails, too,” he said.
“No, never any emails, but I’ve sent you a snail mail packet on what I’ve been working on.”
Ralph waved his hands indicting, no matter…
We walked into his gorgeous home.
“Your house is beautiful, Ralph,” I declared.
“Thanks. We like it,” he replied.
Heading towards the open-spaced kitchen Ralph introduced me to his wife Joyce, who was chopping celery for a family dinner.
“This is a friend of Jerry’s,” Ralph called out.
“You’re a friend of Jerry’s?” Joyce said joyfully, “It’s wonderful meeting you.”
“A pleasure meeting you as well,” I intoned.
Joyce and I bantered in the kitchen as Ralph headed to the washing machine.
“You sound like you’re from Back East,” she quipped.
“Yup, New York,” I said. Just got back this week after spending three months there taking care of my mother. I think my accent really deepened from being back there.”
Joyce smiled and talked about her own upbringing in Massachusetts.
“Yeah, my family’s got that whole ‘paahk-tha-caah-in-Haavaahd-Yaahd thing,” she said, laughing.
After a few moments she begged-off from any more socializing since “the kids” were expected shortly for a Sunday dinner. I saw four place-settings at a small, round table adjacent to the kitchen area.
Ralph returned and ushered me into the nearby living room area, motioning me to sit in a large, blue leather recliner. He stretched out in the adjoining couch, also made with the same luscious turquoised-toned leather.
“So what are your questions?” he posed.
“How well do you know Jerry Thomas?” I answered.
“Very well, “Ralph replied. “He was my primary source for investigating the topographical area of where Cooper jumped. Jerry grew up there, and he knows the area very well. Plus, he was an Army Special Forces instructor. He’s got a great background and I knew I could rely absolutely on the accuracy of his reports.” After a pause he continued, “I knew we were getting good information from him on the area.”
Ralph paused again, and then added, “I’ve searched the area many times myself, from the air and on the ground.”
I was surprised Ralph never said the name of the area directly, so I asked.
“Are we talking the Washougal watershed area?”
“Yes,” Ralph stated.
“How long have you known Jerry?” I continued.
“Oh, we, ah, go way back,” Ralph replied.
“Did you know him at the beginning of the Cooper investigation, then?”
“Oh, no. I guess I’ve known Jerry for about ten years.”
“How did he come to join your investigation?”
“He volunteered. He initially contacted me and offered to ‘help in any way,’ particularly with any ground searches in the area.
“Ralph, it is my understanding that Jerry has posted on the DropZone web site that he knew Cooper suspects Richard McCoy and Sheridan Peterson in Viet Nam. Is that true?”
“We’ve never discussed that.”
“Speaking of suspects, I understand that 922 individuals have confessed to being DB Cooper. Is that true?”
“I don’t remember if that is the exact number, but it was a lot.”
Ralph then shared his perspective on why so many people have confessed to the skyjacking, saying that each had an individual motive but most were ex-cons in state prisons. Ralph posed that most state prisons are generally pretty crummy places and he surmised that the Cooper confessions were an attempt by the confessees to be charged with the federal crime of sky piracy and thus be placed in a federal penitentiary, which usually has better accommodations than state facilities.
“These ex-cons were looking for an upgrade?
“Yeah, you could say that. An upgrade.” Ralph chuckled.
Warming to the subject of suspects, Ralph launched into a soliloquy on Cooper. Since Ralph is the guy who has called Cooper a “rotten, sleazy criminal” despite the fact that the crew members describe DB as a gentleman, I was not surprised that Ralph’s tone was dismissive.
“You have to remember that Cooper was a copycat,” he began.
Ralph re-iterated numerous details of the early extortive skyjackings, with the first being conducted by a fellow named Gaylord aboard an Air Canada flight out of Great Falls, Montana two weeks before Cooper’s caper.
Without missing a beat, Ralph gave me a summary of the third skyjacking attempt, one carried out by a young man named McNally over Peru, Indiana.
In all these recountings I was impressed by Ralph’s memory and cognitive abilities.
He may be eighty-something, but he’s still pretty sharp, I thought.
Ralph seemed to especially relish talking about skyjacker number four, Richard McCoy.
“With each new skyjacking, the skyjackers improved their techniques,” said Ralph, echoing fellow FBI agent Russ Calame’s evaluation of McCoy’s effort. (Calame was the Special Agent in Charge of the Salt Lake City FBI office and the G-man who collared McCoy for his skyjacking in April, 1972. Calame is also co-author of the book: DB Cooper – The Real McCoy.”)
As Ralph continued on the subject of McCoy’s skyjacking over Provo, Utah, I was surprised to hear him confirm Calame’s conclusion that McCoy was not at his home in Salt Lake City during the Cooper skyjacking. What I found most interesting is that Ralph was willing to hold an opinion in direct opposition to the current view held by the FBI that McCoy was at home for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We did look at McCoy in the Cooper case, but he was in Las Vegas when the Cooper skyjacking took place,” Ralph declared.
I then took a sharp turn in the conversation.
“I’d like to ask you about the flight path when Cooper jumped. Is your current understanding that it was east of Victor-23 and over the Washougal watershed.
“How did you arrive at that understanding?”
“The pilot told me.”
As with McCoy’s whereabouts on November 24-25, 1971, Ralph’s perspective on the location of Flight 305 when DB Cooper jumped is in direct conflict with the current view of the FBI, which says the hijacked plane was flying directly along Victor 23, the navigational corridor designated for commercial airliners that roughly parallels Interstate 5 through Washington and Oregon. As such, the FBI says that Flight 305 flew west of Portland and not east, which would have taken it over the Washougal River basin.
Ralph continued with an animated discussion about the pilot of Flight 305, Bill Rataczak, and I learned many things.
First, Ralph said that Rataczak told him about the easterly flight path nine years after the skyjacking, in 1980 at Ralph’s retirement party from the FBI, which begs the question why the Cooper case agent in Portland never talked directly with the pilot during the earlier portions of the investigation.
“It was the first time I had met Bill,” Ralph added, “and we talked for hours. He flew in just to be at my retirement party.”
Ralph said his meeting with Rataczak led to a friendship that has grown over the years, with the two men exchanging regular emails and sharing frequent phone calls. When I asked Ralph when he had last spoken with Rataczak, he said, “Oh, about ten days ago.”
Further, Ralph told me that Rataczak is very ill with cancer, and his wife also, but worse.
“They’re hospital cases, really, at this point,” Ralph said.
Throughout our 20-minute conversation Ralph was exceptionally friendly and gracious. Nevertheless, shortly after his daughter arrived for the family meal Ralph firmly announced, “This will have to do. Our family’s getting ready.”
We stood and walked to the door. When I asked if he would be open to the possibility of continuing our conversation he seemed circumspect, so I tried another approach.
“Maybe if I called you first, like in a couple of days on my way back from Eugene? Tuesday, maybe?”
“No, not Tuesday. I’ll be busy all day. I’m undergoing a procedure at my doctor’s.”
Ralph described how he was scheduled to receive a spinal injection to relive chronic back pain. I sensed that he wanted the rest of the week free of pesky reporters, so I ceased trying to schedule a follow-up interview.
“Well, I hope the procedure goes well for you,” I offered instead.
At the door, Ralph asked me what publication I was writing for and what angle I was taking on the case.
“I’m lucky, Ralph, I don’t have to prove who DB Cooper is. I just have to write a good story. To that end, I’m taking a comprehensive approach – who the suspects are, how the investigations have gone, and I’ll explore all the mysteries.”
Ralph laughed and we agreed that the case is emergent, but for different reasons. Ralph said that he thought the case was in the public eye because of all the recent media attention, such as the current History Channel documentary on Kenny Christiansen and the National Geographic special of a year ago.
“Half the country is too young to know the case and now the media has to exploit a new market,” he said.
My view that the case is gaining public interest because of the advent of DNA testing and the ability of the public and reporters to delve deeply into the case via the Internet was lost in a babble of goodbyes.
When we reached my pick-up we shook hands and Ralph announced, “I let you off easy today. I usually charge for what I’ve just given you.”
The question of payment for an interview was an issue Ralph had raised during my initial outreach two years prior.
“My offer of lunch is still good, Ralph. If you want to invite Joyce along, I’m good with that, too. Just pick a place and let me know where and when.”
We both laughed. But after the smile faded Ralph didn’t look like he thought a free lunch would be sufficient.
I mused as I drove away. I’ll probably pay what he wants because I need the information.
I hope he accepts monthly payments.
When I called Ralph a week later to schedule a follow-up interview and to discuss his fee, he declined citing fatigue from his health issues.
“But you can call me in the future and maybe we could get together, then, depending on how I feel,” he said.
© 2011 Bruce A. Smith