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