by Bruce A. Smith
This posting begins my online publication of my book on DB Cooper, the unsolved skyjacking case that took place in 1971 and today still ranks in the top-ten of American true crime mysteries.
Titled The Hunt for DB Cooper – The Resurgent Investigation into America’s only Unsolved Skyjacking, it follows my investigation that began in August 2008 when I met Cooper authors Ron and Pat Forman at an air show held at Thun Field, outside of Tacoma, Washington.
One of the key elements of my subsequent research is that I am an open-sourced journalist, which means that I share my findings openly and often on the Internet, primarily at my home base here at the Mountain News-WA, but also in the pre-eminent DB Cooper chat room known as the DropZone (http://dropzone.com/ ) and called the DZ by its denizens.
Traditionally, most writers hold onto their material and force the world to buy their book to discover their goodies, but the Internet has changed that format. Information is now exchanged freely around the globe, creating what some call “crowd-sourced research.” That has become my style of investigation and writing, and I assure you that I have gotten as good as I give.
Woven throughout my writing are gems from Cooper sleuths such as Wayne Walker, who maintains the venerable DB Cooper website known as http://n467us.com/ where he is known as “Sluggo,” and I also depend heavily upon noted attorney Galen Cook, who has followed the case since the early 1970s, and “Snowmman,” the secretive genius of the DZ.
I also lean heavily upon the work of Geoffrey Gray, in particular his 2011 book on the case: Skyjack – The Hunt for DB Cooper. Geoffrey is a stellar journalist and writes regularly for New York Magazine, becoming ensconced in the Cooper story in 2007 when he penned a story about suspect Kenny Christiansen. For Skyjack, Geoffrey was able to have access to many FBI files on the case – the only journalist I know to obtain that distinction, so his writing is singularly important. However, it may have come at a price as the timing of his book uncannily matches a news leak from the FBI touting LD Cooper as “the most promising lead” in the case.
Nevertheless, what follows here is the opening chapter of my Cooper book. Others will follow in the days and weeks to come. Despite my positive relationship with open-sourced sleuthing, I post my book with some trepidation – for I am trying to sell the book to a regular publishing house. Hence, I wonder if I am sabotaging that effort by giving everything away for free.
However, my efforts to obtain a literary agent have gone for naught despite a year-long vigilance, and my queries to publishers have produced zilch. So, in a way, I am returning to the familiar confines of my Internet neighborhood. Perhaps I will find an agent and publisher the same way I found so much of the nitty-gritty about Cooper – here in the open fields of crowd-sourcing.
I’ve learned to trust the process, and I feel that there will be a market for my book once all the chapters are complete. I believe in books – the paper and the binding, the feel of the pages and the ability to have the whole thing together in one hand-held sum without the need for a Kindle, lap-top or hard drive to deliver all the known truths of this fascinating case.
My experience shows that the open-source process will refine the findings – thus the book will sparkle. It’s like baking bread. Start with good flour – this posting – then knead it and bake at 350. Yum.
So, here we go.
Chapter 1 – Introduction
922 people have reportedly confessed to being DB Cooper, the skyjacker who jumped out the back of a Boeing 727 in 1971 with $200,000 strapped to his waist. He has never been seen since, nor is his identity known.
It’s a case filled with missing evidence, missing witnesses and even a missing FBI agent, and it is a top-notch true crime tale.
Adding to the intrigue, the moniker “DB Cooper” isn’t even the name the skyjacker used when he bought his $20, one-way plane ticket in Portland, Oregon, heading to Seattle. Signing for his boarding pass he penned “Dan Cooper,” but an enterprising Associated Press reporter later heard that the Portland PD were looking for a known criminal in their area in conjunction to the skyjacking, a “DB Cooper,” and the name stuck.
The FBI has investigated over 1,100 suspects, but one of the many compelling mysteries of the case is why so many people have confessed to the crime. Are Americans that loony? Or are there that many lonely people who long for fifteen minutes of fame?
As astounding as these figures are, the FBI adds to the bewilderment by refusing to confirm the actual number of confessions. When asked they hedge, claiming they can’t reveal specific information in a still-open investigation.
Hunh? This is a top secret national security issue? C’mon – the caper happened forty years ago!
But the Bureau won’t budge. They refuse to confirm or deny the 922.
The truth is, I don’t think they know, and maybe they don’t care. The Public Information Officer (PIO) I spoke with at the Seattle FBI office, Ayn Dietrich, wasn’t even born when DB Cooper hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305. In fact, one of the Seattle FBI agents that I interviewed for this book, Bob Sale, is now retired and he began his FBI career after Cooper jumped. So, it’s ancient history for some.
As a result, I turned to an old hand, Ralph Himmelsbach. Ralph is now well into his 80s and was the Cooper case agent for the Portland, Oregon field office during the 1970s. He didn’t run the whole Cooper case, which was handled by the Seattle office. But Himmelsbach was close to the action and has certainly become one of the more visible faces of the FBI’s investigation, having written a book about the skyjacking, titled, NORJAK: The Investigation of DB Cooper.
In fact, Ralph coined the term for the case, “NORJAK” by splicing the name of the airline, “Northwest Orient,” with “skyjacking.”
Pretty slick, I thought. Simple but clever, and short.
Hence, I traveled to Ralph’s home in central Oregon to ask him how many guys have confessed to NORJAK.
“I don’t remember if that is the exact number, but it was a lot,” Ralph said.
Ralph then shared his perspective on why so many people have confessed to the skyjacking, saying that each had an individual motive but most were ex-cons in state prisons. Ralph posed that most state prisons are crummy places and he surmised that the Cooper confessions were an attempt by the confessees to gain entry to a federal prison by coping to the federal crime of sky piracy, adding that federal penitentiaries generally had better accommodations than state facilities.
“These ex-cons were looking for an upgrade?
“Yeah, you could say that – an upgrade,” Ralph said, chuckling.
But many confessees aren’t felons in prison looking for a better deal. In fact, there have been several death-bed confessions by regular citizens, and some of them have helped launched what is now a resurgent investigation into America’s only unsolved skyjacking.
The first death-bed confession to become widely known came from a Florida man named Duane Weber, who made his claim in 1995, nine days before his death from kidney failure.
Sitting up in his hospital bed, he told his wife Jo that he was Dan Cooper, and he drew out the penultimate syllable so that it sounded like Dan Coooooper.
Jo says she didn’t know what her husband was talking about, and as a result looked quizzical. Duane became angry at her for her lack of recognition and exploded, “Oh, fuck it. Let it die with me!”
Duane and Jo, as was their marital custom, did not explore the issue any further.
However, a year or so later Jo had a series of strange occurrences that triggered her curiosity. One happenstance occurred when she sold Duane’s van and discovered that he had another identity as a “John C. Collins,” and had lived a life of mystery and crime. In fact, Duane and John C. Collins both had extensive criminal histories, doing a total of sixteen years for a variety of robberies and small-time crime, and Jo’s husband had even been exonerated as John C. Collins and released from his incarceration in a Missouri state penitentiary.
Researching further, she discovered that “Dan Cooper” was the actual name that the skyjacker used when he purchased his plane ticket on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, 1971.
Back in those days, airline passenger manifests had last name and a first initial, so when the skyjacked airliner finally landed at Sea-Tac to trade the 36 passengers for four parachutes and the ransom money, the feds were left looking for a solo guy named “Cooper, D.”
The FBI agents immediately called the Portland police and said they were looking for a criminal named “D. Cooper,” asking the cops if they had any crooks in town that might hijack a jetliner.
“We have a small-time burglar by the name of DB Cooper,” Portland PD replied.
“Go pick him up,” the G-man instructed.
Standing next to the Portland detective was the reporter from the Associated Press, who told his editor that the cops were looking for a DB Cooper in connection with the skyjacking, which was true but misleading.
Later, the FBI strenuously tried to correct the public’s perception, and that the real name of the skyjacker they were looking for was “Dan Cooper.” But soon even the FBI was calling the skyjacker DB Cooper.
Jo Weber doesn’t known her husband’s reasoning for telling her that he was Dan Cooper, and she had been diligently researching the truth of her husband’s life ever since his passing. As a result, she is now one of the major figures in the resurgent DB Cooper investigation, and has been an active player in Internet chat rooms, most notably the DropZone, a web site for skydiving enthusiasts that is now the central discussion site for all things DB Cooper.
The DZ is not a place for the timid or weak, as it is peopled by many strong personalities – including some very crude ones. In fact, the DZ is like a biker bar in cyberspace, but Jo holds her own; and for those who can tolerate its occasional lack of good taste the site is an invaluable source of information. In fact, if not for the DZ and the many Cooper sleuths that I have met there, this book would be markedly different and certainly less substantive.
But Duane is not the only confessee that has drawn attention from resurgent sleuths. A Pierce County, Washington pilot named Barb Dayton has also confessed, and two of her friends that she told, Ron and Pat Forman, have written a book about Barb and her claims, including the fact that she was the first man to have gender-reassignment surgery in the state of Washington. Hence, Barb had been Bobby Dayton, a tough, smart pilot who was so fearless that he was reckless.
Barb’s confession is powerful and her life is undeniably remarkable, as it includes fighting in the jungles of the Philippines during World War II against the Japanese as part of a guerrilla unit composed of head-hunting Moro tribesmen.
The Formans have found that every single detail of Barb’s life is demonstrably true, all except the DB Cooper part. For that they need the DNA analysis of DB Cooper that the FBI has obtained from saliva on materials the skyjacker left behind on the plane – a clip-on tie and eight cigarette butts. Strangely, the FBI has not released the DNA profile, and they have also lost the genetic samples that the Formans had given them. Worse, the FBI says they have now lost the primary DNA evidence, the cigarette butts.
Worst, though, is the disappearance of Special Agent Jeremy Blauser, the FBI agent Pat Forman and her attorney spoke with in August 2006 in a federal office building in downtown Tacoma. Blauser gave them a business card that proved he was with the FBI’s LA office, and he announced that he was in Tacoma to assist in the Seattle office’s revitalized Cooper investigation. The FBI’s LA office has confirmed that Blauser was once an agent there, but his whereabouts are now unknown. Agent Blauser’s cell phone number has also been disconnected, and the FBI will not confirm or deny whether Agent Blauser is still with the Bureau. In fact, the Cooper case agent in Seattle Blauser was supposedly helping by talking with the Formans, Special Agent Larry Carr, did not seem to know who Jeremy Blauser was when asked.
Another confessee is William Wolfgang Gossett, and two of his sons claim that he told them in the latter part of his life that he was DB Cooper, making the announcement on Coast-to-Coast radio in 2009. Cooper sleuth Galen Cook is hot on the trail of this suspect, now deceased, and Cooper World anxiously awaits Galen’s book.
In the meantime, I have been privileged to have a partnership with Galen on related matters in the Cooper case, such as finding the actual whereabouts of Tina Mucklow, one of the flight attendants on Flight 305. Tina is the primary witness to the crime because she spent the greatest amount of time with Cooper, including forty-five minutes on the tarmac in Sea-Tac when she was alone with Cooper. But she disappeared mysteriously from public view over thirty years ago. Nevertheless, we now know that Tina spent twelve years as a Carmelite nun in a rural monastery in Oregon during the 1980s, even though the Mother Superior has told Galen that Tina “never really fit in here.”
More intriguing, the $5,800 in ransom money found in 1980 was located on a Columbia River beach known as Tina’s Bar. Perplexingly, Tina was living just upstream in Gresham, Oregon prior to the discovery of the money, and a few weeks later she was admitted into the convent.
Galen and I do not believe that Tina is an accomplice to Cooper, but we strongly feel that if the secret of Tina’s mysterious disappearance and her bizarre cloistering in a convent is known, we’ll be closer to understanding what happened during the skyjacking, and perhaps even know who DB Cooper is.
In 2010, Galen and I found Tina but she refused to talk – slamming her front door in my face. Further, her family, friends and associates steadfastly rebuff any inquiry on the skyjacking and her experiences. Surprisingly, Tina’s brother-in-law, Lee Dormuth, has been a career FBI agent for over thirty years and told me, “I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Dormuth complained to me during my last visit to his home in western Washington – before he too, closed the door in my face – that Jo Weber had spent a good portion of the prior evening on the phone with his wife, Jane Mucklow Dormuth, Tina’s sister, so clearly something is afoot in Cooper World.
But what may be transpiring is unknown. Tina’s old school chum, a Dr. Susan Eisenhower-Turner, a psychiatrist in Media, PA, attracted attention from resurgent sleuths in 2008 when she posted on an Internet blog that she was looking for information on Tina. Dr. ET, as she has become known, got more than she reckoned, such as numerous inquiries from Galen and me.
Galen says that Dr. ET told him that Tina had been severely traumatized by the skyjacking incident, and that she needs to be left alone. Dr. ET has declined all conversation with me, and closed her office door in my face when I went to see her in person in 2010. Nevertheless, I believe her assessment of Tina is accurate. I believe that Tina has been traumatized in some fashion. But by whom?
Nevertheless, what is known is that Tina was the flight attendant that Cooper selected to bring the money and parachutes aboard the aircraft. She was also chosen to accompany him on the getaway flight because Cooper thought he needed a second pair of hands to lower the aft staircase. All told, Tina was in DB Cooper’s company for about six hours.
Why Cooper felt he needed Tina’s assistance with the stairs is unknown, and it is puzzling because he didn’t. Such an obvious lack of knowledge in the workings of the 727 is bizarre because in every other aspect he was an expert.
In fact, the fellow flying the plane when Cooper jumped, co-pilot Bill Rataczak, told me in 2009 that Cooper knew more about the 727 than he or the captain, William Scott, particularly in flying for a parachute jump.
“When he told me to set the wing flaps at fifteen degrees, I knew he was a pretty smart guy,” Rataczak said, adding, “The 727 is the only Boeing product that has a pre-dent (predetermined) setting on the wing flaps of fifteen degrees.”
Further, Cooper was one of the few skydivers who knew that the aft stairs of a Boeing 727 could be lowered during flight. He also knew the metrics required for flying the plane safely during a jump – landing gear down and locked, speeds no faster than 200 mph, and an elevation no higher than 10,000 feet with cabin pressures off.
Cooper’s knowledge of the 727 is now considered to be uncanny because in 1971 it was classified information, known only to selected Boeing officials and within commando operations in Vietnam.
In fact, several commanders of elite 5th Special Forces troops in Vietnam, especially in the top-secret unit known as MAC-V-SOG, (Material Assistance Command – Vietnam – Special Operations Group), have told me that the Cooper jump has all the earmarks of a SOG operation. Further, they identify one of their troopers as Cooper, Master Sergeant Ted B. Braden.
In addition, their covert activities in Vietnam have been de-classified recently, so the soldiers from MAC-V-SOG have been released from their oath of secrecy. As a result many of them are writing about their experiences, including Major John Plaster and Master Sergeant Billy Waugh.
The information they are sharing has helped fuel the resurgence. One intriguing fact is that Braden had strong personal and professional ties to General John Singlaub, the officer known for his dealings in the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s and other covert operations.
Further, Braden went AWOL from Vietnam in 1968 and was soon apprehended in the Congo by officials believed to have been CIA. However, in 1969 Braden was sprung from his subsequent incarceration in the stockade at Fort Dix by a personage no less than the Army Chief of Staff, General Harold K. Johnson.
Another Cooper suspect from the Vietnam War is a unique character named Sheridan Peterson. “Petey” has been investigated twice by the FBI in the Cooper skyjacking. In 1971, the Bureau conducted an extensive investigation of Petey because, on paper, he’s the ideal Cooper suspect.
Petey is smart and fearless, and has all the Cooper physical characteristics: he’s 6’-6’1” tall and weighs 170 pounds; plus, he’s fit and carries himself in a professional manner.
Further, Pete was a crack skydiver, and had been a top-notch smokejumper in Montana during the 1950s. In addition, he had worked for Boeing in the technical department during the 1960s, and had advanced knowledge of many of the engineering details of Boeing aircraft, including the 727.
In addition, while at Boeing Petey had performed a skydiving stunt wearing a business suit with a fifty-pound sack of flour strapped to his legs – all elements of the Cooper jump that continue to mystify investigators as DB Cooper jumped into the cold, rainy November skies wearing only a simple business suit and thin raincoat. In fact, it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit when Cooper leapt out of his aircraft at 10,000 feet. Further, the $200,000 weighed nearly twenty-two pounds and is considered by experts to have been a severely destabilizing element during a free-fall.
In terms of his personality, Petey can be contentious and has a long history of challenging authority. He was incarcerated by the FBI for a short time in Mississippi during the mid-1960s for his work in the Civil Rights movement. Later, he was dismissed from his duties as a US State Department refugee liaison for native South Vietnamese and “invited” to leave Vietnam by the US Ambassador due to his allegations of American combat atrocities and his strong advocacy for the refugees under his care.
Then in 2002 with the advent of DNA testing, the FBI came knocking on Petey’s door a second time, asking to take a swab of his saliva. Partly because the two FBI agents were good-looking women, Petey complied. In fact, he regaled them for two hours with tales of his exploits in Vietnam, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and Papua New Guinea.
One of the FBI agents, Mary Jane Fryar, now a real estate agent in Santa Rosa, California, told me that Petey was the “most fascinating suspect” she had ever interviewed during her FBI career.
But apparently Mary Jane smelled a rat – or at least a quirky, retired intelligence officer – because she came back a second time, claiming she needed fingerprints. However, she used her additional interview time to grill Petey about his extensive travels throughout Asia, hop-scotching between political hot spots without a plausible means of support.
Whether Sheridan Peterson is DB Cooper, a retired CIA agent, or just a free-spirited individual with a bad attitude, though, none of it is the key point. The stories of Petey and the other suspects, such as Barb Dayton, reveal how the DB Cooper case has returned to the front burner of public awareness through the availability of DNA testing.
Genetic testing was unknown in 1971, so Cooper could not have prepared for how the feds might capture him forty years later by matching DNA samples, such as from a cigarette butt left on the plane. DNA could be DB Cooper’s Achilles Heel, and his possible downfall.
However, the eight butts Cooper smoked have now been lost, apparently, according to an FBI agent code-named “Ckret” posting on the DropZone in 2008, and later identified as Cooper case agent Larry Carr. Nevertheless, DNA evidence still remains a major aspect of the resurgent investigation.
Along with DNA and the abovementioned dynamics of inquiry, other forensic tools are coming into play, especially remote viewing – one of the primary tools of the military’s psychic spying program, such as their Stargate Program – making the DB Cooper investigation truly resurgent.
© 2012 Bruce A. Smith