by Bruce A. Smith
A Japanese TV film crew has been in the area this week, and on Thursday they interviewed me on the topic of DB Cooper – the legendary skyjacker who parachuted into the night air over western Washington in 1971 with $200,000 and has never been seen since, plus, his identity is still unknown.
The TV crew is filming scenes for their show, “Amazing Stories,” which has been running in Japan for ten years. They are doing a one-hour special on DB Cooper that will aire later this summer, but only in Japan.
They contacted me after reading a lot of my Cooper writings posted at the Mountain News and viewed me as a neutral historian – someone who wasn’t pushing a suspect or scenario.
I was very impressed with their knowledge of the case. The producer, a young woman named Yuki, conducted the interview. She is exceptionally well-read on the case, having read both FBI agents Ralph Himmelsbach’s and Russ Calame’s books.
In fact, they had wanted to interview Calame as well, but their budget wouldn’t stretch for a flight to Utah and another day of filming. They also passed on interviewing Ralph Himmelsbach, who lives in Oregon, for reasons they never disclosed.
The crew got up at 3 am in NY City Thursday morning, flew cross country, filmed “B-roll” stock at Sea-Tac and got to my place by 3 pm. After about two hours with me, they headed south to Portland and Tina’s Bar, the Ariel Tavern, Lake Merwin and the Washougal River, all of which they will film Friday.
When I told my friend and fellow writer at the Mountain News, Judy Spiers, about the interview, she thought everyone might enjoy reading the following synopsis of the transcript, particularly learning of the kinds of questions they asked. I certainly enjoyed talking about the case.
So, here it is. It consists of the list of questions they emailed to me, and an brief account of my responses.
Thanks a lot! I really appreciate it. I’ll call you when we are around. But I guess we’ll be there by 2pm.
Here’s the list of the questions. Thanks for your patience.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if there’s any questions you don’t have answers.
Q1. At the time of the Cooper case, airlines and airports didn’t do much to prevent hijackings, such as ID check, security, etc. Why was it?
BAS: Airline execs thought increased security would be bad for business – more expense, increased fear of flying by passengers, etc.
Q2. When Cooper ordered the flight plan to the pilots, he specified that the landing gear remain down, in the takeoff/landing position, and the wing flaps be lowered 15? degrees. What was the reason for that?
BAS: Cooper’s plane, as per his instructions, was flying at its slowest speed possible to maximize conditions of a safe jump – he insisted they fly no faster than 200 mph. The lowered landing gear slowed the plane down, and the extension of the wing flaps to 15 degrees gave them the needed lift to stay airborne.
Q3. Cooper opened the aft door of the flight 305 during the flight, and he jamped out of the door. Is it easy or possible to open the door from inside?
BAS: Yup, just lift the lever. But Cooper didn’t know that – one of the few things he didn’t know about jumping out of a 727. And yes, his flight was originally known as Northwest Orient Flight 305.
Q4. Why did FBI think Cooper has died?
BAS: From what I gather via FBI Special Agent Larry Carr’s numerous TV appearances and similar sources, the Bureau now believes the jump to be very risky – it took place at night, in the rain, wintertime cold, over mountainous terrain, lots of trees, it was dark, Cooper couldn’t have known exactly where he was, etc. Further, the FBI presently seems to be trying to portray DB Cooper as a fool, i.e.: he was not dressed properly for a jump, e.g.: no boots, was wearing loafers and a thin coat, and probably had no goggles or gloves, etc.
Nevertheless, many commandos – especially guys in the US 5th Special Forces from Vietnam – indicated to me the Cooper jump was not only immensely doable, it was done with frequency in Vietnam.
Q5. How did FBI profile Cooper?
BAS: Initially as a master criminal. Over time that changed and by Himmelsbach’s retirement in 1980, Cooper was characterized as a sleazy, rotten crook that acted foolishly, and probably was a burnt-out ex con with nothing to live for. Eye witnesses pegged Cooper as about 45 years old – he was not your typical thief.
More specifically, the FBI thought he was ex-military and probably ex-Airborne because he used the military chute that was provided and not the civilian sport chute.
Now, however, the profile seems to be pretty wide-open.
Q6. Did Cooper leave any physical evidence on the flight?
BAS: Clip-on tie, six cigarette butts, one glass used for his bourbon and water, and the cut-up reserve chute. Cooper asked for and received four parachutes – two “back” chutes, which were the mains, and two “front” or reserve chutes. The two back chutes were very different. The military one was an emergency pilot’s rig, and round. The other was a rectangular skydiving rig that was very maneuverable. Cooper was seen by the flight attendant who was held hostage, as wearing the old, round military chute.
What happened to the other reserve chute, or the bomb he had in a briefcase, or the paper sack he brought onboard is unknown – all that stuff apparently went out the back of the plane with Cooper somehow, because it was not found on board when the plane landed in Reno for refueling and got searched by an army of FBI and law enforcement.
Q7. What kind of investigation and manhunt did FBI do right after the incident?
BAS: From what is public knowledge, primarily from Richard Tosaw’s and Himmelsbach’s books, the day-after search was a hybrid affair of local law enforcement, FBI, and borrowed helicopters from timber companies searching in the area around Ariel, Washington. Plus, Himmelsbach flew on 305’s flight path from Portland south to Reno. My sense of the ground search in Ariel was that it was rather superficial and not well-organized. I think they were just looking for a parachute, something easy to find, so they just gave everything a quick once-over.
The more thorough search took place five months later in the spring. Hundreds of soldiers from Fort Lewis provided the bulk of searchers, led by about two dozen FBI agents. The reason given for the lengthy delay was too much snow, but whether there was snow on the ground or not, I do not know. I have been in the search area on Thanksgiving Day weekend, – Cooper skyjacked the plane the night before Thanksgiving in 1971 – and I didn’t seen a flake of snow, even in the higher elevations, so I wonder about the long delay. To me, snow on the ground would be a useful tracking environment. You could see where DB Cooper went.
Q8. How did public see Cooper? What did they think about him?
BAS: DB was almost universally perceived as a hero, and he still is. He beat the system, he beat the man. Movies, songs, T-shirts and more. 40 years later, even Japanese TV film crews are talking about DB Cooper!
Bruce Thun, the head of Thun Field in South Hill, told me that all the skydivers he knew were shouting the day after, “Why didn’t I think of that!”
Q9. Are there any examples of them?
(In Q8, they are expecting answers like, people see him as a hero.)
BAS: Ariel, the center point of the FBI’s ground search in 1972, has a festival every year to celebrate DB Cooper. It’s well-attended.
Q10. Do you know the copycat cases that happened in the following year?
(If you have any specific number of the copycat cases in 1972, please include that as well.)
BAS: In his book, Himmelsbach says there were something like 18 more DB Cooper-style skyjackings in the year or two afterwards. Four made it to the ground with their money. One turned himself in after a month on the run, and the rest screwed up once they were on the ground, such as Richard McCoy in Utah. His was a well executed skyjacking but his end-game was poorly planned and performed, which got him arrested a day or so after the skyjacking.
I wouldn’t call them copycats. In my view that is an incorrect perspective. There is evidence that Richard McCoy was not a copy cat, and was in training for his jump before Cooper’s skyjacking. According to Richard Tosaw in his book, McCoy began advanced skydiving training in the early fall of 1971. McCoy also had a PTSD experience – he did two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot – during that time, which landed him in a hospital. However, he was released after a few days and returned to work. I wonder if the hospitalization was related to the skyjacking
Q11. Why does Mrs. Jo Weber believe that her husband, Duane Weber, was Cooper?
BAS: As I understand Jo Weber’s story, in 1995 her husband Duane confessed to being DB Cooper from his hospital bed about five days before he died of kidney disease. Jo’s been on a quest ever since and has found possible evidence, such as Duane’s writings in books about DB Cooper, which supports her contention that Duane was Cooper. Most notably, she had an extraordinary road trip with him in the fall of 1979 through the areas of Portland and the Columbia River that convinced her Duane was Cooper. In fact, Jo claims that at one point Duane told her that a particular trail near Lake Camas in Washington is where DB Cooper came out of the woods. She says that when she challenged Duane as to how he knew that, he replied, “Maybe I was his ground man.”
Q12. Why did FBI rule out Duane Weber?
BAS: It is my understanding that they have conclusively ruled out Duane Weber based on DNA.
Q13. Why did FBI suspected Richard McCoy as Cooper?
BAS: Many in the FBI felt that Mc Coy was Cooper in the months after McCoy’s skyjacking. Russ Calame and Bernie Rhodes, in their book, DB Cooper – the Real McCoy, indicate there are many compelling pieces of evidence to draw that conclusion. Most notably are the credit card receipts for gas the day of the skyjacking, and a collect call on Thanksgiving Day, the day after the Cooper skyjacking – all from Las Vegas. It blows McCoy’s alibi that he was home having T-Day dinner with his family. Why the Seattle office of the FBI believes McCoy’s alibi, I have no idea. But Calame didn’t buy it and still doesn’t – nor does Himmelsbach, one of many aspects of the case in which Ralph disagrees with the established FBI perspective. Ralph also disagrees with the Bureau’s current view on 305’s flight path during the jump period, the wind direction and speed at that time, and a few other things.
Also, according to Calame, McCoy conducted himself in a similar fashion to Cooper. They both used FAA small plane flight plan stationery as the paper to write their instructions for the cockpit crew during the skyjackings despite the fact that the use of this stationery was not made public by the FBI after Cooper’s skyjacking.
Also, McCoy and Cooper both sat in identical seats relative to the size of the plane – McCoy’s was a newer and longer 727 than Cooper’s, so that they had an optimized view of the activities on the ground during the transition phase of the skyjacking, particularly the loading of fuel and the position of the fuel trucks.. Both Cooper and McCoy orchestrated their operations in a very similar manner.
Q14. Voulunteer team, including Mr.Tom Kaye, has been working on the scientific research on this case, especially the bills found at the river bank in 1980. What kind of conclusion/persumption do they have?
BAS: Tom Kaye and the Citizens Sleuth Team worked with Larry Carr on the case about 2008-2009, and investigated in some very creative and innovative ways, such as trying to determine the biological residues on the ransom bills found at Tina’s Bar. What creeks and rivers did those bills pass through, if any? Were there any diatoms on them, or other aquatic creatures, that would suggest where the money had spent the previous 8.5 years?
Also, Kaye looked at the pollen on the tie; again, to see where the tie had been. The CST also investigated the ransom money, determining that the rubber bands could not stay intact around the money for the eight years. Also, they determined, as I understand it, that the black discoloration of the money was from the silver nitrate the FBI used in searching for fingerprints. Why the FBI hadn’t made that information known prior, I don’t know.
Further, Pat Forman, the wife of Ron Forman – who both live down the road in South Hill – co-authored a book about their friend Barb Dayton whom they say confessed to being DB Cooper. Pat says that Tom Kaye told her that he had done a soil analysis of the ransom bills and had determined the bills had been in soils south of the Columbia River, which supports her writing that says Barb claimed she buried the loot in an irrigation cistern in Woodburn, Oregon for eight years. She also says that Barb said she never spent a dime.
However, I have not seen or heard any definitive conclusions or a written report from Kaye or the CST on any of these subjects. When I last asked Tom about his pollen findings he said he needed more time, and he had already been on the job for over a year. I had asked him a year ago, so, Kaye’s had the stuff for two years or so, now, so, I don’t know what’s going on.
Q15. How did FBI get the partial DNA from clip-on tie? From what, from which part of the tie, etc.
BAS: It is my understanding that the DNA samples are from epithelial cells found on the clip. I believe they are finger tip skin cells. I got that from Larry Carr, the case agent a few years back.
However, Carr acknowledged to me that the FBI doesn’t know for sure that these cells came from DB Cooper’s fingers. They could be somebody else’s, too.
Further, the tie is a suspect piece of evidence. Calame says in his book that none of the FBI agents gathering evidence in Reno saw the tie, nor did they collect it. In addition, Calame writes that the tie did not enter the Cooper evidentiary collection in Seattle until four days after the skyjacking, so where was the tie during those four days? Plus, it has been handled by many agents in the past forty years who had no knowledge of how to protect it from microscopic skin cell contamination.
Is it possible to conduct a reasonable DNA matching test with the sample?
BAS: Yes, I’ve been there. Tina’s Bar is where the $5,800 of Cooper ransom money was found in February of 1972. The sign announcing Tina’s Bar is on the river bank, far from the road. You’d have to get permission from the Fazio family to enter their property and head on down to the river. I spoke with Al Fazio last week and he told me the Columbia is at flood stage and the water is up to the top of its banks. He feels it is too dangerous to go there and film.
However, you can go the County Park a few miles from the Fazio’s, it’s called Frenchman’ Bar, and take pix of the Columbia from there safely.
Many thanks, and I’m looking forward to meeting you soon!
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