by Bruce A. Smith
In 2009, the FBI announced that it had located a parachute that was found buried in Amboy, Washington, in the heart of DB Cooper’s purported jump zone.
Reportedly, a landowner near Amboy was grading a road and the blade snagged an edge of the parachute and pulled it from its decades-old hiding place.
At that time, the Bureau ruled out the parachute as being part of the Cooper skyjacking, using the analysis of their sky diving expert, Earl Cossey.
I spoke with Coss shortly after the announcement, and he told me that the parachute found in Amboy was not from Flight 305 as it was too large at 34-feet in diameter, and that it was a cargo chute. Further, he said that the canopy was made with silk and not the nylon which comprised Cooper’s canopy. He also said it was a WWII vintage parachute.
However, Cossey nor the FBI revealed how a cargo chute ended up buried in a field in Amboy, Washington.
Seeking answers from the FBI, I contacted Seattle PIO Ayn Dietrich several times, and eventually she gave me her stylish but predictably evasive response:
“Since it is an open case I can’t give you any specifics…but I can tell you that we did look into it (the Amboy chute)…I can also tell you that it is not a lead we are pursuing at this time….and no, I can’t tell you if we still have it (the parachute) in evidence.”
It is widely reported that the FBI feels the Amboy chute was an artifact of a WWII aviation incident, where a fighter pilot bailed-out successfully near Amboy in the wintry skies of December 1945 during a training mission.
However, the manufacturing tag on the parachute lists 1946 as its production date.
I also called Cooper sleuth Jerry Thomas, who has extensive contacts with the FBI, most notably former Cooper case agent Ralph Himmelsbach. Jerry told me that the Amboy chute was an old WWII parachute that was purchased by an unknown Amboy homeowner and used as a backyard plaything for kids to make a fort out of, and to be used as a picnic shelter during a summer rainstorms.
Compounding the confusion, Cossey did tell some journalists that the newly found Amboy chute was Cooper’s parachute, most notably a reporter from the Oregonian. The writer was very upset when Cossey later recanted his statement, and Coss told me that his deception was “an April Fool’s joke.”
More disturbing though, Coss also told me that when he delivered his findings to the FBI, the Bureau had told him to “keep the information quiet for a few days.” Cossey told me that he thought the FBI wanted to “milk” some media attention from the discovery.
Cossey also characterized the FBI as being “stupid” in its Cooper investigation, a dismissive attitude that Coss has towards others including this reporter, and presently Mr. Cossey does not return my phone calls seeking further clarification.
Further, Earl Cossey’s veracity has been questioned ever since August 2011, when Geoffrey Gray’s book “Skyjack” was published. Coss has long claimed that he provided the parachutes used in the skyjacking, but Gray disputes that notion. Gray wrote that he discovered in FBI files that the Cooper chutes were delivered to Northwest Orient Airlines by a Renton, WA business man named Norman Hayden – and not Cossey – despite the furious claims Coss now makes otherwise.
As a result, Cossey’s statements on the Amboy chute are now suspect, and many investigators are re-examining the original 2009 findings, most notably Seattle author Robert Blevins, whose writings on the subject can be found at the DropZone DB Cooper skyjacking forum. www.dropzone.com/ .
To clarify these issues I traveled to Amboy on May 12, 2012 in the company of fellow Cooper sleuth Meyer Louie.
Our first stop was the Ariel Tavern in Ariel, Washington to talk with owner and DB Cooper historian Dona Elliott. Meyer and I also met Dona’s son Bryan Woodruff.
Dona told us a simple but shocking story. She said the Amboy chute was a smokejumper’s parachute left over from an aerial deployment during the Yacolt Burn of 1946.
Further, she pointed out the kitchen window and said that the parachute had been found on the leeside of the nearby hill, just south of the tavern.
On a related note, Dona told us that former FBI Cooper case agent from the Portland field office, Ralph Himmelsbach, has been to Ariel at least three times to talk with her, but due to his fiercely held opinions she called him a “grumpy old fart.”
Dona said that she feels DB Cooper survived his jump and landed on the shore of the Columbia River, just north of the Portland Airport, and that he escaped with his money – minus the $5,800 found at Tina’s Bar in 1980 – by walking through the brush of the no-man’s land bordering the airport, and then flying home.
She also told us the weather the night of the skyjacking was “terrible,” and that it was rainy and cold with a cloud layer so low it was difficult to see.
She also said she heard the plane fly over her home in Amboy, just off Hayes Rd, where she was baking pies for her family’s Thanksgiving Day feast the next day.
“It sounded like a plane about to crash – it was that low,” she said. I remember saying to myself, ‘What a night for a plane to go down.’”
Both Dona and her son said that they regularly heard planes flying overhead as they approach Portland airport, about 25 miles due south.
However at the time of the skyjacking, Dona didn’t know what was going on until she turned on the TV at about 9 pm and heard the news.
Dona also told us that Flight 305 had two passengers named “Dan Cooper,” the moniker used by DB Cooper when he purchased his ticket at the Portland airport. Dona said the second Dan Cooper was a resident of St. Helen, Oregon, and was not related to the skyjacker. The skyjacking Dan Cooper was mis-identified as “DB Cooper” by an Associated Press reporter covering the hijacking, who discovered that the FBI and the Portland PD were investigating a local burglar named DB Cooper in conjunction with the skyjacking.
Dona was unable to tell us who discovered the parachute in Amboy, but she did say the family had five daughters and lived on Spurrel Road, just off Pup Creek Road.
Amboy is like a sister city of Ariel, and the two rural townships are separated by the Merwin Dam and Merwin Lake, which is quite lengthy. As a result, the hilltop that Dona pointed out was just a stone’s throw away from her tavern, but it took an hour’s drive to reach it by circumnavigating around the Merwin reservoir and the towering mountains that surround it.
The Ariel-Amboy area is actually a dividing line between the rugged terrain of the Cascades Range and the rolling hills of the I-5 corridor. West of Ariel-Amboy the land is dotted with farms and pastures, whereas east of Ariel-Amboy the land is quite steep and forested.
Dona told us the area had numerous fire towers back in the logging days, which was a question we carried to her on behalf of Jo Weber, the widow of Duane Weber.
Jo claims that her former husband confessed to being Dan Cooper in 1995, and in 1979 Duane took her on an “Incredible Journey” through the Columbia Basin and the Ariel area. Along the way he recounted many incidents from his past, including “burying something behind a tower that had a light on it that could be seen for miles.”
Meyer and I didn’t see any fire towers, but there were plenty in the area in 1971 according to Dona and Bryan.
More to the point, though, once we got to Amboy, Meyer and I couldn’t find anyone who knew the people who discovered the parachute or where it was found.
We found Spurrel Rd, about four miles east of Amboy and talked with long-time resident Diane Lawrence.
“I’ve never even heard of any ‘Amboy chute,’” she told us. “I read in the newspapers something about DB Cooper and a parachute, but I thought it was way east of here.”
Meyer and I drove along Spurrel Road and spoke with several other residents. A young man on a riding lawn mower professed ignorance of the Amboy chute.
“I’ve lived on this road for twenty years and I’ve never heard of it,” he told us.
Devoid of information, Meyer and I headed back to Amboy and the magnet of Nick’s Bar and Grill in the center of town.
Lonny Tremblay and his friend Kathy also could not tell us where the Amboy chute was found, but they did confirm that the area was rugged and that DB Cooper could have remained hidden for a long time.
“I used to work in real estate and I know it’s easy to get lost around here,” said Kathy. “No one will find you.”
More confusing, every waitress had a different perspective on the Amboy find, but they all agreed it was Big News for a while.
“We had TV trucks parked out front for a week,” said one. “It was great for business!”
Exhausted, I sat down for a beer.
“I know about the parachute,” said a young man sitting to my right. “But I can’t tell you where it was found or who found it. They don’t want any publicity.”
Two waitresses gathered around us and chimed in saying that was true – that no one in Amboy wants to have satellite trucks parked on their property for a week.
Between sips and reassurances that I would keep the information as confidential as possible, the gentleman told us those parts of the story he trusted us to know.
His name was Brian and he said that he grew up next to the property where the parachute was found.
“It was found long before 2009 – long before they told the FBI,” he revealed.
Brian said that he and other kids from the neighborhood cut-off the nylon rope shrouds to use in making weights for their steelhead fishing rigs.
“We’d burn the ends – melt ‘em – and attach weights. They worked great,” he said.
Brian also said that they had tried to pull-up the parachute, but were unable to tug it out.
“It was really buried,” he said,
Initially, Brian said that the parachute was “wadded-up” but later he said that he was spread out underground over a wide area, which is why he and his friends were unable to retrieve it from the dirt. He told us that the landowner was driving a “mini-hoe” one day to widen a motorcycle track, and the blade caught the chute.
Brian said the chute was a “dirty white” color and was not too degraded. He didn’t remember if it was silk or nylon. He did remember the FBI arriving in two “blue and grey” cars, along with several Sheriff’s Department vehicles.
Brian told us that he needed to protect the privacy of his neighbors for more than just a desire to prevent gawkers from being a nuisance, and he inferred that his neighbors had more serious issues to conceal. However, he never told us any specifics.
Nevertheless, he did tell us the property was along Munch Road, about five miles west of Amboy.
However, when Meyer and I toured Munch Road we found no one who knew about the chute or any motorcycle track. However, one homeowner said that he thought something was found on Buncombe Hollow Road, which had been also identified by one of the waitresses at Nick’s.
Since Buncombe Hollow is off Pup Creek Road and is adjacent to the south shore of Merwin Lake, Meyer and I headed there.
“Nope. Never heard of any DB Cooper parachute around here,” said a kind lady selling home-grown eggs on Buncombe Hollow.
Perplexed and tired, we decided to head home.
Surprisingly, at 11 pm that night I received a phone call from a 95-year old woman named “Margaret” that Meyer and I had attempted to visit. Several folks on Spurrel Road characterized her as a local historian and someone we should talk with.
Margaret wasn’t home when Meyer and I stopped at her farm, but I had left a business card asking for contact.
“I was at a fundraiser when you stopped by,” she told me.
Margaret was a vivacious, sharp woman.
“I heard a parachute was found between Ball Mountain and Green Mountain, about three miles east of Amboy,” she told me, but she didn’t remember who found it, specifically. “It was close to Munch Rd, and it was definitely not anywhere near to Buncombe Hollow.”
She also loved discussing DB Cooper.
“I remember the night it happened. The weather as terrible – it was cold and raining very hard.”
She also recalled in great detail the police landing in helicopters on her pastures in the spring of 1972 to conduct their ground search for DB Cooper.
“They looked in our barns, and even in the silo.”
But she doesn’t remember any ground search immediately after the skyjacking, such as during the Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend.
However, the FBI investigated her family during the Cooper search because they found one of the two bodies they recovered during the ground search on a near-by Grist Mill Road property and Margaret’s son was in the crowd of spectators who had watched their operation. Apparently, the FBI photographed the crowd and then investigated all the on-lookers.
That kind of behavior has not endeared the Bureau to Margaret and many of her neighbors, and most of those we spoke to were openly derisive of the FBI and the government in general. Specifically, they despise the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Authority, the federal agencies that built and operate the Merwin Dam.
I lost my home when I was 12,” said Margaret, “when the Merwin Dam flooded the valley.”
Nevertheless, Margaret follows the DB Cooper case closely.
“I’m perplexed by the money find down on the Columbia. That is very unusual.”
Margaret encouraged me to continue my investigations and offered her assistance.
“I love being a historian,” she told me.
Addendum, May 15, 2012:
Despite Dona Elliott’s claims, the Yacolt Burn, the largest forest fire in the history of Washington State, occured in 1902. How a smokejumper’s parachute arrived in Amboy is still being investigated, as is the exact nature of the parachute found in that area.
In addition, the passenger list of Flight 305, as released by the Seattle Times and presented at the DB Cooper Symposium in Portland last November, does not contain a second Dan Cooper.
© 2012 Mountain News