by Bruce A. Smith
In earth-shaking developments, Marla Cooper, the young woman from Oklahoma who has claimed her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper was the infamous skyjacker DB Cooper, announced Thursday evening that the FBI’s Cooper case agent, Curtis Eng, had told her that he will be shutting down the case.
In an exclusive interview with the Mountain News on December 1, Marla further declared that Mr. Eng had also told her he is “convinced” her uncle is DB Cooper.
Presumably, Eng’s purported conviction is at the root of his alledged decision to close the case, as FBI case agents generally have a wide latitude in handling their responsibilities.
Ms. Cooper said that she met with Mr. Eng at the FBI’s field office in Seattle on Wednesday, November 30, and the case agent supposedly made these remarkable admissions at that time.
The FBI has not confirmed these announcements, however.
Ms. Cooper has been in the Pacific Northwest recently to continue her investigation into her uncle’s past, and most notably to speak at the DB Cooper Symposium in Portland last Saturday on the 40th Anniversary of the DB Cooper skyjacking.
DB Cooper jumped out of an airliner on the night before Thanksgiving in 1971 with $200,000 and has never been since, nor has his identity been publicly revealed by the FBI – although that happenstance may be changing with Ms. Cooper’s statements.
In addition, Ms. Cooper revealed that Mr. Eng had obtained new fingerprints of LD Cooper and had sent them to the FBI crime lab at least four months ago.
“He (Eng) told me that he will be closing down the case after the findings are reported regardless of whether they find a match or not,” she said.
Marla said that on two other occasions since her uncle became a suspect the FBI’s crime lab has taken close to six months to process evidence. She stated, “The FBI does not consider this case a ‘priority,’ but I am hopeful the findings will be released late this winter.”
Earlier, in August, 2011, the FBI had announced that they not found a match in fingerprints or DNA between DB Cooper and samples obtained prior from Ms. Cooper’s uncle, with an old guitar strap being the source of LD’s fingerprints and DNA coming from a family member. At that time, the FBI had seemingly dismissed LD as a suspect despite having once characterized Marla’s uncle as a “most promising” suspect.
Nevertheless, it now seems that the FBI still considered Lynn Doyle Cooper a viable suspect and continued their investigation of him.
Also during this period, the Bureau announced that LD Cooper had died of natural causes in 1999.
Ayn Sandalo Dietrich, public information officer for the Seattle office of the FBI, told the Mountain News in November 2011 that the DB Cooper case was “open” but “not active.”
Even though Ms. Cooper says Eng does not feel the need to have fingerprint confirmation, she said that Eng had told her that if the fingerprints do match, “that would be enough to convict.”
Marla added that she felt the FBI would close the case due to a preponderance of evidence, saying, “Curtis Eng told me that he sees no reason to pursue any further leads.”
When asked specifically why she thought Special Agent Eng was convinced that her uncle was the skyjacker, she said that Eng had obtained confirmation of Cooper’s identity from the flight crew when the FBI had shown them pictures recently of her uncle. However, in our interview Thursday evening, December 1, Ms. Cooper was not able to say which members of the hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305 had made the identification.
Nevertheless, at the symposium, Ms. Cooper had said that Mr. Eng had told her previously that the FBI had shown photographs of her uncle to Tina Mucklow, the flight attendant kept hostage on board by the skyjacker. Marla further stated that Eng had reported Mucklow saying, “This is the closest picture of all the ones you’ve shown me over the years.”
However, Ms. Cooper seemed to backtrack from that comment in her follow-up interview Thursday.
Nevertheless, she also indicated that Mr. Eng held his belief due to a preponderance of her uncle’s behaviors.
“There were so many things about my uncle’s life – he had no contact with his family after 1972 – vanishing like that.”
Ms. Cooper also stated that her own demeanor had added to the confidence of Mr. Eng and other law enforcement officials, such as Arden Dorney, a retired Oklahoma Highway patrolman who had helped build her case and presented it to the FBI two years ago, which ultimately triggered the federal investigation.
Specifically, Ms. Cooper touted the fact that she has never changed her story, had passed an FBI polygraph test in early 2011, and had a first-person account of her uncle LD being a bloody mess at Thanksgiving in 1971 – unable to walk and being attended by another uncle, Dewey Cooper.
When asked to confirm or clarify Marla Cooper’s remarks, the FBI was noticeably taciturn. Corresponding in a flurry of phone messages and emails that ran well past usual business hours, Ayn Dietrich addressed the aforementioned topics, specifically: did DB Cooper case agent Curtis Eng meet with Marla Cooper, Wednesday, November 30; is Agent Eng certain that Lynn Doyle Cooper is the famous skyjacker; and is the FBI shutting down the case. Ms. Dietrich replied via email:
“I can confirm that the case agent meets with various people, as necessary to fully pursue investigative leads. We do not divulge the particulars of those meetings, though. I know it must be disappointing that I cannot answer questions you ask me, but I appreciate you understanding that we are not discussing the details of this pending investigation.”
Earlier Thursday, the Mountain News had asked Ms. Dietrich about the positive ID from Tina, and she responded as follows:
“I appreciate your continued interest in gaining an accurate understanding of information you hear. I can only assure you that we continue to pursue credible leads accordingly. This does include testing any additional personal items of Lynn Doyle Cooper that we may be able to secure.”
Reactions to these developments by independent investigators in the case have been of predictable outrage.
Jerry Thomas, a long-time Cooper sleuth and a presenter at the DB Cooper symposium in Portland last week, emphatically stated that Curtis Eng did not have the authority to shut down the DB Cooper case.
“That can not be done at the field office level – the decision to shut down a case must be made at a higher level, such as DC.”
Mr. Thomas has extensive knowledge of FBI procedures due to his twenty-five years’ association with retired FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, the former DB Cooper case agent at the Portland, Oregon field office from 1971-1980.
Mr. Thomas also said that he had called Curtis Eng on Thursday to confirm the statements being attributed to him by Ms. Cooper, and Thomas reported a less than crystal-clear answer from Eng.
Thomas said that when he specifically asked Eng if he thought Lynn Doyle Cooper was the skyjacker, Mr. Eng replied, “Maybe.”
Further, Mr. Thomas reported that Mr. Eng also told him that he (Eng) had decided to stop any further investigation of DB Cooper suspect and long-time federal fugitive, Mel Wilson, in the skyjacking case.
Thomas said that Eng had dismissed Wilson on the grounds that the fugitive’s photographs did not match the FBI composite sketches of DB Cooper. Thomas said that Eng told him, “We’re not going to take it (Wilson) any further.”
Long-time DB Cooper investigator and attorney, Galen Cook, was perplexed by Marla’s statements.
“How can Curtis Eng shut down the case before the fingerprint analysis comes in? How can the case be shut down when an open indictment still exists for DB Cooper!”
Mr. Cook also questioned how extensive the FBI’s survey was of LD Cooper’s picture with the flight crew, stating that Mr. Eng had needed to ask him for the phone number of Florence Schaffner, the other flight attendant who dealt with the skyjacker.
Cook declared: “Why hasn’t Curtis Eng made a public announcement to the press that he has identified the skyjacker and is shutting down the case? Larry Carr (the previous FBI case agent) would have. He spoke to the media all the time!”
To put all of this in a clearer context, here is what Marla Cooper told the audience at the DB Cooper Symposium last week.
By all accounts, Marla’s life – and by extension the Cooper clan – was chaotic and dysfunctional, rift with alcoholism, domestic violence and abuse. In his introduction of Marla, symposium host Geoffrey Gray told the assembly that she had attended twenty-two different schools while growing up. Further, in later remarks with the Mountain News Marla rattled off a number of towns in western Washington where she once lived, such as Centralia and Mount Lake Terrace, finally moving to Oklahoma when she was ten years-old.
What Marla remembers of the fateful night is brief, but specific. When she was eight, her family traveled to Sisters, Oregon to spend Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s house. Her two uncles, Lynn Doyle and Dewey arrived at the grandmother’s in the early morning of Thanksgiving Day.
Marla says that she only saw LD sitting in the car when her uncles arrived at the grandmother’s, and he didn’t get out. She says they then left quickly.
At the symposium, Marla said that LD was bloodied and bruised, and was apparently unable to walk. In later comments, Marla said that a cousin told her that Dewey had to carry LD into the home of his girlfriend, a woman nick-named “Wink” whom Dewey reportedly married soon afterwards.
In the course of these events, Marla says she was told that LD had hijacked an airplane. She also learned that Dewey had been his accomplice on the ground, picking him up in Washington and returning together to the family homestead in Oregon. Later, the two brothers left the house.
The last time Marla saw Lynn Doyle Cooper was at Christmas the following year, when she was nine. Her family left the Pacific Northwest during the next year, relocating first to New Mexico and then settling in Oklahoma when she was ten.
As for LD, he disappeared from his family in 1972. Marla has sought information about these missing years and has learned much from cousins and family members, whose memories have been re-awakened by her public announcements last summer that placed her on the front page of newspapers around the world.
Marla learned that LD remarried and had a daughter, whom the FBI discovered and retrieved a DNA sample to compare to their DB Cooper stock. Subsequent analysis did not reveal a match.
Marla also learned that Uncle Dewey had worked at Boeing on the assembly of the 727, and from that experience she believes that he learned of the aircraft’s capacity to be a jump platform.
However, there is no corresponding evidence showing that LD Cooper had any skydiving experience. Further, Marla told the symposium that she believes LD was able to triangulate the summits of Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens so that he could jump in the Ariel area and be picked-up by Dewey.
Also, family members told her that Dewey had been questioned by the FBI in the DB Cooper skyjacking case early in their investigation, and that immediately upon release from the FBI Dewey grabbed his family and relocated to British Columbia, not even pausing at home to gather clothes.
Marla also began to remember long-buried memories, and she recalls a pair of powerful walkie-talkies that her two uncles possessed in 1971, and also that she had later broken the antennae of one of them.
However, it seems that Marla had largely forgotten the 1971 Thanksgiving Day episode until her father, Donald Cooper, reminded her in 1995 that her two uncles had hijacked an airplane long before.
“But my life was chaotic then, too – I was going through a divorce and raising three boys – so I didn’t pay much attention to what my father was saying,” Marla said.
Adding to the emotional load, her father passed away a month later, again driving her memories into the shadows.
They surfaced again in September 2009, when her mother, Grace Hailey, began talking about Uncle LD being DB Cooper. This time the memories stuck, but then her mother “clammed up.”
However, Marla’s interest was now fully engaged, and she sought answers from her family – and from within herself. A chance conversation with a business associate about “vanishing uncles” led her to an association with Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Arden Dorney. Fascinated by her account, Dorney then turned to another retired OHP officer, an undercover cop who is so secretive that Marla still does not know his name.
These two officers expanded Marla’s investigation and compiled a dossier so compelling they sent it to the Seattle FBI, which then sat on it for months, according to Marla.
Frustrated, Dorney and his partner threatened the FBI with exposure on Fox TV, and the Bureau commenced an investigation. They soon located LD’s hidden family, obtained the DNA sample from his child, and determined that Lynn Doyle had died of pulmonary disease in Eugene, Oregon in 1999.
Marla says that the FBI has been investigating her uncle for nearly two years, and their efforts culminated in June 2011 when PIO Ayn Dietrich told British journalist Alex Hannaford that the Bureau had its “most promising lead” in nearly forty years. Hannaford published that tidbit in the London Sunday Telegraph on Saturday, July 30, and the news exploded on the wire services. ABC TV obtained an exclusive interview with Marla shortly thereafter, and the “LD Cooper-is-DB Cooper” story was common knowledge within a few days.
The flap over LD-as-DB seemingly faded once the FBI announced that LD’s fingerprints and DNA samples didn’t match their evidentiary collection for the skyjacker, but Marla’s comments of the past few days have completely reversed that situation, and once again the world wonders if the DB Cooper case is coming to a close.
© 2011 Mountain News – WA