The Hunt for DB Cooper – Interview with Nick O’Hara, the FBI agent who shot skyjacker Richard McCoy

 

by Bruce A. Smith 

Retired FBI agent Nick O’Hara spoke with the Mountain News this week concerning his role in the slaying of Cooper-esque skyjacker, Richard McCoy.  McCoy hijacked a jetliner five months after DB Cooper, and used techniques nearly identical to Cooper’s to parachute over the skies of Provo, Utah with $500,000 in a duffle bag strapped to his body.

 McCoy was later apprehended by the FBI at his home outside of Salt Lake City and the money recovered.  However, McCoy later escaped twice from federal custody, and in 1974 he was gunned down in a shoot-out with FBI agents, who had been staking-out his Virginia Beach residence.  A few minutes later the FBI also apprehended McCoy’s escape partner, Melvin Walker. 

 Both Walker and McCoy were on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted List at the time of this incident.

 Nick O’Hara, the agent who shot McCoy, has been reported by others as saying, “When I shot Richard McCoy I also shot DB Cooper.”

 That quote was uttered by two authors in Utah writing about the McCoy skyjacking, titling their work:  DB Cooper – The Real McCoy.

Those authors were Russ Calame, the Special Agent in Charge of the Salt Lake City office of the FBI whose teams originally collared McCoy, and a federal court probationary officer named Bernie Rhodes, who was involved in the McCoy trial and conviction.

 At the time of the McCoy hijacking – and for many months after – the FBI strongly suspected that Richard McCoy was also DB Cooper, and that the McCoy skyjacking was a second effort to parlay more money. 

 Calame and his team of investigators discovered many facts that point to McCoy being involved in the DB Cooper skyjacking, such as credit card receipts for gas outside of McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada the night of the Cooper skyjacking, and a collect call McCoy made to his home in Salt Lake City on Thanksgiving Day.

 However, the Seattle FBI field office moved away from supporting the notion that McCoy was Cooper, or that McCoy had any involvement in the Cooper skyjacking case.

 Nevertheless, Russ Calame still holds to his conviction that McCoy was Cooper, and he has many supporters. 

 Seeking more information on these issues, the Mountain News contacted Mr. O’Hara, and we spoke by phone on April 10, 2012:

 “So, when you shot Richard McCoy did you really kill DB Cooper, too?” I asked.

 “Well, Russ Calame and Bernie Rhodes say I did,” he answered with a chuckle.

 Nick, as he addresses himself, is a well-spoken, confident, and youthful-sounding retired G-man.  He told me to give him specific questions and he queried me on what kinds of information I most wanted.  I was not surprised to learn in the interview that he was the case officer for the McCoy-Walker capture, and he struck me as a man comfortable with command.

 “But was McCoy really Cooper?” I pressed.

 “I don’t know,” Nick said simply.  “All I can really tell you is that we caught the two guys we were looking for that night.”

 Later, Nick characterized Melvin Walker as a “really hardcore” criminal, an outlaw who was “a real bad guy.”  However, when I asked him about McCoy he was more circumspect.

 “McCoy was smart – I’ll give you that – and I don’t know where he made a left turn…but he certainly jumped out of an airplane and became a legend.”

 After a little banter about the DB Cooper case, Nick returned to the McCoy-is-Cooper dynamic.

 “McCoy could be Cooper – there’s a pretty darn good chance,” Nick said, and he launched into a recitation of the many aspects Calame and Rhodes identify in their book that point to McCoy’s involvement.  Nick listed specifically how McCoy instructed the pilots in a fashion similar to Cooper, and how his knowledge of the airplane and his overall conduct during the skyjacking resembled the original hijacker.

 We continued with an exchange of the finer details of this scenario.  As we were talking I felt that Nick had come to realize that I knew a great deal about the case and in particular the Calame/Rhodes book, so I took my questioning a little deeper.

 “What do you think of the information shared by Bernie and Russ in their book having to do with the evidence retrieval in Reno?” I asked.  “Specifically, what do you think of their comment that the FBI agents they interviewed for the book ‘seemed to be acting under the influence of a post-hypnotic suggestion.’”

 “I have no clue as to that,” Nick told me simply.

 I pressed on.

 “Do you have any thoughts on what they wrote about the tie – that none of the FBI agents involved in the evidence retrieval in Reno remember seeing the tie?”

 “You mean the tie left on the plane?”

 “Yes, the one that was supposedly left by DB Cooper, and which is now the major source of DNA material used for comparison to Cooper skyjacking suspects.”

 “DNA, the tie?  That’s very speculative – it’s been handled by so many people, so that’s a long shot,” Nick replied.

 Again we bantered, and focused on Bernie’s account of his interview with the FBI agents regarding the evidence retrieval.  Then, Nick shocked me with a revelation.

 “Bernie and I became very good friends after the case.  In fact, I’ve just come back from spending a week with him in Florida.”

 I immediately dove into a discussion of where exactly Bernie lives and the difficulties many other journalists and I have had in contacting him.  I asked Nick if he could make an intercession on my behalf.

“The best way would be for you to ask Russ to ask Bernie,” Nick said.

 Hmmmm.  “Okay,” I said, after a pause.

 Even though Nick and I weren’t exactly bosom buddies on contacting Mr. Rhodes, I continued:

 “Could McCoy be involved in the Cooper skyjacking even if he isn’t DB Cooper?” I asked.  “Could there have been a team?  There were so many skyjackings done in a similar fashion.  Could Cooper and McCoy have been coached?”

 “If there was a team, I would say it would have been McCoy and his wife.  She was an accomplice in his skyjacking – going out into the desert to pick him up.  We know that; it’s a fact,” Nick said.

 With this decisive judgment on McCoy’s wife I shifted my attention to her.

 “How did you know where to find McCoy that night in Virginia Beach?” I asked.  “Russ and Bernie infer that you were tipped-off by McCoy’s wife – that she snitched on him.  Did she?”

 “The source of our information is highly confidential – only a few FBI agents know how we learned of McCoy’s whereabouts, and I am sworn to secrecy.  So, I won’t tell you – I haven’t even told Bernie and he keeps asking me – even after all these years, and I’ve never told him.”

 I joked about the inviolability of the Bureau Brotherhood.

 “I made a promise not to divulge, and when you make that kind of promise you don’t divulge, ever.”

 We talked of the many Cooper-esque skyjackings and the many angles of the investigation, such as McCoy’s wife.  In the course of the conversation Nick said he was confident that all of the skyjackers were “independent contractors’ and not part of a group effort, despite the powerful evidence uncovered by Russ and Bernie.

 “But I’ll tell you this,” Nick concluded.  “Walker told us he and McCoy were thinking of doing another skyjacking, and when we went through their house we found plenty of gear that supported that idea – disguises, money and equipment.  They were preparing.”

 As we said our goodbyes, Nick again surprised me, and said he was going to contact a friend of his from the FBI who lives in Salt Lake City and is a firm believer that McCoy is Cooper.

 “I’ll have him give you a call – would that be okay?”

 “You bet, Nick.  Thanks.”

 Two minutes after we hung up, my phone rang again.  It was Nick.

 “I called the number I had for my friend – actually, it’s the number for his brother and it’s a dead number.  So, it’s gonna take me a little longer to get a hold of my friend.  But don’t worry, I’ll get him in touch with you.  I won’t forget about you!”

©  2012  The Mountain News-WA

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12 Responses to The Hunt for DB Cooper – Interview with Nick O’Hara, the FBI agent who shot skyjacker Richard McCoy

  1. brucesmith49 says:

    The following comment comes from Pat Forman, co-author with her husband Ron, “The Legend of DB Cooper – Death by Natural Causes,” which chronicles the life of their friend, Barb Dayton. Barb had the first sex-change operation in Washington, in 1969, and later confessed to being DB Cooper.

    “I think it’s really exciting that you are getting access to some of the FBI agents from the time. You should be able to get some real insights on what was going back then. I know it’s a long shot because the DNA profile from the cigarettes wasn’t taken until 2000, but perhaps it’s worth asking if they remember this happening. Seems like agents involved in 1971 would have been keeping tabs on the story even after retirement. It would be great to get some insight into why there is no record of this in the NDIS system.”

  2. Dave Brown says:

    Mr O’Hara, If you have read this article I would like to add that a gentleman by the name of Robert Knoss has used your name many times over involving you in a Government cover up, Robert has thrown your name around stating the fact that you and several other “Public figures” were also involved in this cover up, I find these statements to be slanderous/deceptive and damaging to your background in this case.

    • Editor’s note:

      I called Mr O’Hara about the allegations Bob Knoss has made about Nick’s involvement in the NORJAK case. Nick denies them, and says that he does not know Bob Knoss. When I described Knoss’ allegations that O’Hara masterminded the hijacking and recruited Duane Weber to perform the skyjacking all to the purpose of building the political will to intensify airline security, Nick said, “Tell him to have another drink!”

  3. Dave Brown says:

    Thanks Bruce!

  4. Just Jo says:

    Bruce I hope you also told Mr. O’Hara that the wife of Duane Weber (aka John Collins) has denied that Knoss even knew Weber and velhmently objected to the claims of Mr. Knoss as absurd and complete lies. Mr. Weber did live in Va from 1983 until 1987 and pointed out to his wife the location where McCoy died. Mr. Knoss has made her life a living hell for several yrs now and his ridiculous claims may have caused the FBI to dismiss Mr. Weber prematurely.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Editor’s Note.

      I believe “Just Jo” is Jo Weber, widow of Cooper suspect Duane Weber. – BAS

      No, Jo, I did not discuss with Nick the role Knoss says your former husband played in NORJAK.

  5. Serina says:

    Mel was my Great Uncle and although he might have commited some pretty bad crimes in his life, he was a good man with a big heart. I have heard the stores of him and his best friend all my life growing up but by the time i came along that life had long passed him and he lead a normal good life for a long time. He has been truely missed since the day he past.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Serina, I trust that the “Mel” you are talking about is Mel Walker, Richard McCoy’s accomplice. Yes?

      Can you tell us a little more about your uncle?

      • Serina says:

        Yes, Melvin Dale Walker was my Grandmother’s brother on my Mother’s side. I unfortunely only got to see him a few times before he passed away but i got to talk to him on the phone and listen to my Grandmother talk about him. We lived states apart and travel wasn’t cheap. However, the time i did get to spend with him was very fun. He could be very serious or like a big kid, just like all the men in our family. He was generous and would give you anything he had. I knew the things he had done but he wasnt like that anymore. My Mother could give you more i formation than i could, but the man i knew was sweet and loving.

  6. brucesmith49 says:

    Thanks, Serina. I think it’s always best to hear the personal side of folks who make it into the news.

    The change that your uncle was able to manifest in his life – switching from being a hard-core criminal to a religious and generous man – is confirmed by Russ Calame in his book, DB Cooper – the Real McCoy.

    Have you read it? I recommend it. It’s light on details about your uncle, but it’s a fascinating story on Richard McCoy and describes well that fatal night with your uncle in Virginia Beach.

    I understand that your uncle met with Russ Calame. Did he ever tell any stories about how he and McCoy got discovered by the FBI? McCoy’s wife, Karen, is rumored to be the informant.

    • Serina says:

      No, problem. Thank you for asking. Most people dont. Mel passed away around 1997… Sorry a liitle vague on the date at the moment… From a brain tumor. I was brought up that McCoy was D.B. Cooper and didnt realize till later that there were lots of people claiming to be him. Before my grandmother passed she still stood by it. I am not meaning to be vague but there are always things that are just better left unsaid, especially so many years after the fact and when they are memories passed down. It is always intersting to read an article that matches the stories you are told.

      • Serina says:

        All of your comment didnt come through last time. Yes i have read the book but not for a long time now. We have a signed copy. I am not too sure if what i was told should be repeated. I know there was a huge legal battle with Karen and her name being in that book but from what i know she had a hand in it.

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