by Bruce A. Smith
Editor’s Note: With all the interest in the DB Cooper case generated by the 41st anniversary a couple of weeks ago, I thought it worthwhile to reframe the opening chapter of my forthcoming book, “The Hunt for DB Cooper – The Resurgent Investigation into America’s only Unsolved Skyjacking.”
On the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper approached the Northwest Orient Airlines counter at the Portland, Oregon airport, and for $20 he bought a one-way ticket to Seattle aboard Flight 305. The man was soon to become known as DB Cooper, and he skyjacked the 727 jet aircraft as it became airborne. Later, he parachuted from the jetliner with $200,000 tethered to his body, and not only has he never been seen since, his identity is still unknown.
Adding to the mystery, not a single shred of definitive physical evidence has ever been found – not his parachute or any trace of his remains– not even a piece of clothing. Not a single twenty-dollar bill from the ransom loot has surfaced except for a $5,800 bundle discovered eight years after the skyjacking buried along the banks of the Columbia River that the FBI admits was deposited there years after the hijacking and via means still unknown.
Further, the primary witness to the skyjacking, flight attendant Tina Mucklow, disappeared from public view for over thirty years – only being discovered in 2010 after dogged private investigatory work, and even now she steadfastly refuses to talk with the media or any member of the public.
Astonishing, Ms. Mucklow spent 12 of her 30 years in an Oregon convent, even though the Mother Superior allegedly told a fellow investigator, Galen Cook, that “Tina never really fit in here.”
Compounding the perplexities are bunglings by the FBI, such as losing the prime DNA samples – the eight cigarette butts that DB Cooper smoked aboard the airplane – along with enormous doubts about the clip-on tie, which may also be a source of DNA that he allegedly left aboard the aircraft. Worse, the fingerprint team apparently botched the job during the evidence retrieval in Reno, where the plane landed for refueling during Cooper’s getaway.
In addition, we have a missing FBI agent, as Jeremy Blauser, who was active in the case in 2006, is now missing, and the Bureau can not say where he is or what happened to him, only that he was a regular field agent based in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, he was known to be working the Cooper case out of a Tacoma, WA federal office.
Clearly, mysteries abound in the DB Cooper case, and it consistently ranks in the top-ten of true American crimes. The FBI has investigated over 1,100 credible suspects, along with the 922 individuals who have confessed to being DB Cooper, including at least one fellow on his death-bed, so the Bureau has been determined in its work.
Yet, the case seems as intractable as it was forty years ago. Nevertheless, the investigation has become resurgent in the past several years because of new technology, and many feel we are getting closer to knowing the truth of the DB Cooper case, the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of the United States.
Most notable in the resurgence is the availability of DNA testing. Suspects can be evaluated more comprehensively than ever before, and the impact is so enormous it is as if the case has been re-opened anew.
The second most important contributor to the resurgence is the Internet, its ubiquitous nature allowing private researchers, journalists and investigators to uncover vast new sources of information and to share them with each other. Truly, this book could not have been written forty years ago. In fact, the success of the resurgent Cooper case validates open-sourced sleuthing via the Internet, and establishes a new kind of partnership between law enforcement, journalists and citizen sleuths.
Seizing that opportunity, an innovative FBI agent named Larry Carr actively sought the public’s help when he became the Cooper case agent in 2007. Carr helped form a chat room on the skydiving web site known as the DropZone that has been an invaluable site of informational exchange, and he drew selected members from that forum to become part of his Citizen Sleuth Team. The CST, led by scientist Tom Kaye, has in turned produced remarkable new evidence and analysis, including the heralded find of titanium shards on Cooper’s tie, and strange chemical and biological artifacts on the ransom bills, which might indicate what bodies or water the twenties floated through on their way to Tina’s Bar, the beach where they were found in February, 1980.
The confessees also include a number of death-bed confessions, in particular one by a long-time con man Duane Weber, who told his wife, Jo, that he was Dan Cooper just days before his death from renal failure in 1995. Jo, in turn, has become an investigatory zealot to learn the truth of her deceased husband, and her posts can be found daily at the DZ.
Similar confessions have fueled copious amounts of research from concerned family members and eager journalists looking to crack the case. Kenny Christiansen is one such suspect, and his life has spawned two research books, “Skyjack- The Hunt for DB Cooper” by Geoffrey Gray, and “Into the Blast – The True Story of DB Cooper,” by Robert Blevins and Skipp Porteous.
Perhaps the most intriguing confession, though, is by a woman named Barb Dayton, who confessed to a pair of fellow pilots in 1978 that not only was she DB Cooper, but also she was the first person in Washington state to have a sex-change operations – having been Bobby Dayton until 1969. Ms. Dayton’s associates, Ron and Pat Forman, later wrote a book about their remarkable friend, “The Legend of DB Cooper – Death by Natural Causes.”
Besides the torrent of confessions, we now have declassified information from Vietnam that clearly indicates that DB Cooper had all the skills common to a Special Forces trooper, particularly those members of the ultra-secret commando group known as MAC-V-SOG, commonly referred to as the Material Assistance Command – Vietnam – Special Operations Group.
In fact, two officials with MAC-V-SOG, SgtM Billy Waugh and Major John Plaster claim that DB Cooper was one of their guys, and have announced that they and many others in the Special Forces think that Cooper was Sgt Ted Braden, a rouge soldier who went AWOL from Vietnam in late 1966 and had significant connections to the CIA and Pentagon brass. In particular, Braden was captured in the Congo by US-backed operatives weeks after leaving Vietnam, and was shipped back to the states to await a court-martial at Ft Dix, New Jersey. However, one of the officers in charge of his incarceration told me that Braden left Dix a free man, dressed in all of his military finery, upon the direct order of the Army Chief of Staff, 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 connection to 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 with an olive complexion, and he weighs 170 pounds. Plus, he’s fit and he 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.
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 skydiving 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 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 is unknown, as he resists all contact from me.
As for Cooper, he too, brought mystery to the skyjacking:
The fellow flying the plane when Cooper jumped, co-pilot Bill Rataczak, told me in 2009 that Cooper knew more about the 727 than either he or the captain, William Scott, especially regarding the question of flying the aircraft with the aft stairs deployed.
Further, Cooper was one of the few skydivers on the planet who knew the metrics required for flying the plane safely during a parachute exit: landing gear down and locked, speeds no faster than 200 mph and with the wing flaps set at a sharp angle, and an elevation no higher than 10,000 feet with the cabin pressures off.
“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.”
Cooper’s knowledge of the parachuting dynamics of the 727 is uncanny because in 1971 it was classified information, known only to selected Boeing officials and within commando operations in Vietnam.
© 2012 Bruce A. Smith