by Bruce A. Smith
The first annual gathering of DB Cooper sleuths took place over the weekend at the Hilton Hotel in Portland, Oregon, and participants were engulfed with the enthusiasm generated in the case by the 40th Anniversary of the skyjacking.
On the day before Thanksgiving, 1971, DB Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient 727 while enroute to Sea-Tac from Portland. After refueling in Seattle, where he also received four parachutes and $200,000 in exchange for the release of the passengers, Cooper and the plane’s crew headed to Mexico. Somewhere south of Seattle Cooper jumped from the plane and has never been since, nor has any physical evidence been retrieved other than a plastic lamination card giving instructions on how to open the aft stairwell, and a bundle of $5,800 found eight years later on the banks of the Columbia River.
The DB Cooper skyjacking ignited world-wide interest, which has sustained through the decades, and his hijacking is generally considered to be one of the top-ten crime mysteries of the past century. Further, it is the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of the United States, and the FBI considers the crime to still be an “open” but “inactive” case.
Many private sleuths and investigative journalists have rushed into the vacuum created by the FBI’s inaction, and on Saturday, November 26, they met in a grand conclave for the first time.
Nearly 200 sleuths, media and members of a curious public crowded into the Hilton and heard from a stellar line-up of investigators.
The symposium was hosted by NY Times bestselling author Geoffrey Gray, whose recent book, Skyjack – The Hunt for DB Cooper is a prime example of the resurgence of the case in the hands of private investigators.
Gray had unprecedented access to FBI files and evidence, and was also tapped to join the efforts of a Citizens Sleuth Team, (CST), formed in 2007 by then-Cooper case agent, Special Agent Larry Carr of the Seattle office of the FBI. Carr is now off the case, and public access to FBI documents has been profoundly curtailed in his absence, but Gray and members of the CST delivered vital information.
In addition, other members of the independent resurgence also presented their work, most notably Mark Metzler, a skydiver from California who is featured presence on an important Cooper website, dropzone.com, where he is known by his screen name, “377.”
Metzler directly challenged the FBI’s assumptions about the parachute chosen by Cooper and what the selection means in terms of Cooper’s skills as a skydiver.
“Cooper made the right choice,” Metzler declared, referring to the skyjacker’s selection of a Navy pilot emergency rig known as an NB 8, stuffed with a 28-foot round canopy.
Cooper’s other choice was presumably a “luxury” commercial chute, called a Pioneer, which is thought to have contained a 26-foot canopy.
The FBI and the rigger who packed these chutes, Earl Cossey, had long championed the notion that Cooper picked an inferior chute and in doing so revealed his limited knowledge of skydiving. As a result, the FBI, and in particular Cossey, feel that Cooper did not survive his jump.
But Metzler dispelled these perspectives with facts and solid analysis.
“The NB 8 most likely contained a C-9 round canopy,” said Metzler, characterizing the chute as a “pit bull,” ideally suited for a high-speed exit from a jet aircraft.
Cooper’s 727 was estimated to be flying at slightly over 200 mph when he jumped, whereas the Pioneer, containing a civilian parachute – and the one he reportedly left behind on the aircraft – was designed to open at speeds no higher than 150 mph.
Metzler described how the extra speed would put enormous strains on the civilian canopy, which could have ripped it if it were deployed at 200 mph.
In addition, Metzler said that some reports claim that the flight attendant taken hostage by Cooper, Tina Mucklow, described Cooper as putting on the parachute with ease, indicating that the skyjacker had significant experience.
Most telling, though, was the fact that DB Cooper knew the 727 could be jumped, a fact that few people knew, including skydivers.
“I didn’t know a 727 could be jumped in 1971,” exclaimed Metzler, “nor did the pilots, the flight engineer or anyone at Northwest Airlines operations center!”
As a result, the airline had to call Boeing to learn that what Cooper was demanding – flight with an open door and extended stairs – was even possible. Metzler said such facts must be viewed as evidence that Cooper had knowledge of prior 727 jump operations, which in 1971 were known to very few.
Further, Cooper knew – and dictated – the necessary metrics to allow a safe 727 exit, specifically: cabin unpressurized, gear down, wing flaps at 15º, and speeds not over 180 knots (about 205 mph) and at a height not to exceed 10,000 feet. The altitude limit insured that the crew could not render him hypnoxic or even unconscious by flying higher without pressurization.
Metzler also revealed other information about the jump-ability of the 727 that is not widely known. He presented a short video clip that showed jumpers parachuting from the aft stair well of a 727 while flying over Thailand during the Vietnam War.
In addition, Metzler described once-secret Boeing files that revealed the capacity of the 727 to perform as a jump ship, claiming that skydiving officials seeking FAA clearance to use a 727 for skydives in the 1990s had examined over 10,000 pages of Boeing documents on test flights of the 727 used as a parachuting platform and the safety and dynamics of flying with an open door and deployed stairs.
Metzler also examined the parachuting challenges of a jump at night with a twenty-one pound bag filled with twenty-dollar bills. Metzler said that the bag would most likely be positioned on Cooper in an asymmetrical fashion and could have made him unstable while in a free-fall. Since he couldn’t see the horizon in the dark, Cooper very possibly would enter a spin and either black out and crater in a “no-pull,” or become tangled in his parachute lines and crash.
To prevent that from happening, Metzler said that the most effective way to leave a 727 would be to jump as demonstrated in the aforementioned military exercise. In the video, paratroopers were seen deploying their chutes via a static line while exiting the 727 and letting the parachute slowly enter the slipstream in a horizontal, flapping fashion, or “squidding” as it is known to skydivers. This way Cooper would have avoided a free-fall and the dangers of an uncontrolled spin.
The lack of steerablity of the chute packed in the NB 8 was also challenged, and many claim that choosing a military rig that could not be steered versus one that might, such as the Pioneer, was foolish. However, Metzler noted that some military C-9 chutes of that era did have limited steerability by means of a system called a “four-line release,” but he doubts that Cooper could have activated the system in the dark even if his chute had it.
“The lack of steerablity could actually be an advantage,” declared Metzler, adding that the safest way to enter an unknown area in the dark would be the straight down descent of a C-9 canopy. Metzler said that the forward speeds of steerable chutes today can reach 40 mph, but only 10-20 mph in 1971.
“Why take a chance on flying into something?” he asked.
Members of the Citizen Sleuth Team also delivered some earth-shaking revelations, but not from the podium in formal remarks.
Brian Ingram, who as an eight-year old boy found the $5,800 worth of ransom money buried on a Columbia Riverbank, gave testimony that also directly challenges long-held FBI perspectives on the case – but he did so while riding in the elevator with this reporter.
When asked if he saw money shards along the tide line as reported by the FBI, or pieces of money anywhere else on the beach besides the spot where he found the three bundles of twenties buried under an inch or two of sand, Mr. Ingram replied, ”I didn’t see a thing.”
Once in the lobby, Brian continued, and said that when he and his family found the $5,800 they scoured the rest of the beach hoping to find more moolah.
“We went looking everywhere, and kicked all around in the sand,” he said, adding that they spent a good deal of the remainder of the day walking the beach and digging in the sand.
The fact that the Ingram family didn’t see any shards of money on the tide line, or pieces buried within a few yards of the three bundles directly refutes testimony from the FBI.
The Public Information Officer (PIO) on the money retrieval, Dorwin Schroeder, says that they found “thousands of shards buried down to a depth of three feet in a thirty-yard circumference from the money find.”
Further, Special Agent Michael McPheters told the Mountain News that he was on the retrieval team and recovered several pieces of money on the surface of beach at the tide line, and also by digging with a shovel down to a depth of a foot or so in the area of the tide line.
Author Ralph Himmelsbach and Cooper case agent in the Portland office has written in his book: Norjak: The Investigation of DB Cooper, that his team found money shards as deep as three feet along the strand at Tina’s Bar.
However, as the conversation with Brian continued and spilled into dinner we were joined by fellow Citizen Sleuths Carol Abraczinskas and Tom Kaye.
Abraczinskas told us that when she and the CST were examining the evidentiary collection, she found two small, plastic bags that were labeled as money-find collections, and that each bag held a small plastic container the size of a matchbox. Each of these small plastic boxes, at most 2-inches-by-2-inches and about a half-inch in depth, were filled with itsy-bitsy pieces of money – but none possessed shards at the size described by the FBI, which claims the shards were as large as 2 inches by 3 inches and some even contained serial numbers.
Nevertheless, Abraczinskas seemed to indicate that the FBI was at least partially correct in its characterization of finding pieces at the beach, but Mr. Ingram leaned over into this reporter’s ear and said clearly:
“Yes, but it was probably just the bits and pieces left over from their handling of the bills. They took the money from me right away and began peeling the bills apart, and when they had them separated they put them into folders. But when they were handling the bills they began to deteriorate and crumble. I bet that’s what they collected – the crumbled bits and whatever flaked off.”
From his considered position as a paleontologist and dinosaur bone gatherer, Tom Kaye did not seem impressed with FBI’s dig on Tina’s Bar.
“To me it seemed like they just dug a big hole on the beach and said they found a few pieces in it.”
Further, there does not seem to be any evidentiary record as to what shards where found where, and at what depth.
Nevertheless Kaye and Abraczinskas described the overall dig at Tina’s Bar as extensive. Carol said that Brian found his money on a Sunday and that the FBI continued searching the sands until Saturday, but didn’t find anything past Wednesday.
Kaye and Abraczinskas also said that the Bureau did make an effort to organize their search in an orderly fashion, developing a grid pattern with as series of trenches that were twenty-feet wide and six inches deep.
However, Al Fazio, the guy on the backhoe doing the digging, adamantly declares that the FBI didn’t find a single piece of money at any depth, or at any location.
“All there was were little pieces of money that washed-up along the tide line,” Mr. Fazio had told the Mountain News in the summer of 2010. “The FBI didn’t find anything buried in the sand.”
Also delivering bits and pieces were South Hill, Washington authors Ron and Pat Forman. Instead of money shards, though, the Formans delivered an earnest and heart-felt rendition of the incremental confession of their friend, Barb Dayton, who claimed to be Cooper during a series of conversations in 1978.
In nervous and sometimes halting tones, the Formans described how their friend and fellow Cessna 140 pilot shared tidbits of the skyjacking. In equally dramatic and shocking terms Barb also revealed that she had once been a man, named Bobby Dayton, and in 1969 had been the first person in Washington state to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Thus, she reverted to her male persona to do the skyjacking.
Barb’s tale and the Formans’ account is perhaps the most detailed description of how the Cooper skyjacking could have been performed – and it certainly gives a sharp examination of the kinds of emotional and psychological circumstances that would compel someone to risk death, and similarly threaten a plane full of passengers and crew.
The Formans’ book is titled: The Legend of DB Cooper – Death by Natural Causes, and was written after Barb died in 2002 of pulmonary disease. Never fully believing their friend, the Formans waited until Barb’s death before digging into the story. Once they started, though, they were ably assisted by Barb’s family, most notably Barb’s daughter Rena Ruddell, who attended the symposium and bravely answered many awkward questions from the audience.
In addition to telling their story to a roomful of Cooper aficionados at the symposium, the Formans also spent considerable time in front of TV cameras and microphones, and were filmed for NBC’s Today Show and other news outlets.
The Formans’ account of the Barb Dayton story has been told in the Mountain News at length, and for more information see:
Also, a comparative analysis of Barb Dayton’s claims and the known facts of the case are presented in:
Tomorrow: “The Symposium, Continued:” Tom Kaye and the Flight Path; Carol Abraczinskas and the Dan Cooper Comic Books; and Marla Cooper’s account of her fantastic story about her uncle, LD Cooper.
© 2011 The Mountain News – WA