The Hunt for DB Cooper – Who was Cooper? What is known

by Bruce A. Smith

Although the DB Cooper skyjacking ranks in the top-ten of American true crime mysteries, and nothing of DB Cooper or his heist has ever been found except a bundle of $5,800 found 8 years after the hijacking, here is what we know about DB Cooper:

 First, we know for sure that his name was not DB Cooper, since the initials were a result of a miscommunication between a reporter and a Portland police detective.

 In reality, the man known to us as DB Cooper introduced himself to the Northwest Orient Airlines ticket counter in Portland as “Dan Cooper,” and that is the name that the ticket agent, Dennis Lysne, wrote on the skyjacker’s boarding pass.

 The man calling himself Dan Cooper was a male Caucasian in his mid-to-late 40s, or possibly even early 50s, which is very old to be conducting rigorous – and inventive – criminal activity.

 Cooper was wearing a dark brown or black suit, white shirt and thin clip-on black tie.  Over this he wore a lightweight black raincoat.  He wore loafers or some kind of slip-on shoe that might have come to his ankles.  He may have been wearing a set of thermal underwear beneath his business attire. 

 The detailed physical descriptions given by the passengers vary, but there is a general consistency in their accounts: 

 Cooper’s hair was dark brown or black and short, and parted on the left side.  It may have been wavy in the manner that is called “marcelled.”

 He was identified as having “dark, piercing eyes,” that flight attendant Florence Schaffner declared were brown.  He may have had a square jaw, or a saggy chin.

 He was about six-foot tall or maybe six-one.  Some fellow passengers thought he might have been five-ten.  Cooper was trim and was estimated to be about 175 pounds.  He also had an olive complexion, leading some to believe that he might have been of Mediterranean heritage.

 Below are the specific physical descriptions given to the FBI by the two people who sat next to DB Cooper, as posted on the Dropzone web site.  Flight attendant Tina Mucklow reported:

 “W/M, mid 40’s, 5-10″ to 6′, 180 to 190 lbs, medium to dark complexion, medium build, dark straight hair with narrow sideburns to mid ear parted and combed back, dark plastic wrap-around sunglasses, dark top coat, dark brown suit possibly with a thin black stripe, brown socks, brown ankle length pebble grain shoes, not the tie type, he had a low voice with no accent, she did not see scars, marks or tattoos, the man did not have on any jewelry she could see.”

 The other flight attendant, Florence Schaffner, reported:

 “W/M, mid 40’s, 6′, 170-175, average build, brown eyes, straight black hair medium length and parted on the left side, olive skin, black business suit, white shirt, thin black tie, black overcoat, black shoes, black briefcase, dark framed sunglasses with brown lenses, no scars marks or tattoos, he had a normal calm voice and appeared to be of Latin descent.”

 In addition, Cooper carried a cloth-like brief case and toted a brown paper bag according to a DZ post by Larry Carr.  The sack was also reported to be a burlap sack. 

 Cooper also carried aboard a pair of wrap-around sunglasses and a knife, reported by “Citizen Sleuth” Carol Abraczinskas to be a “pocketknife,” that he used to cut parachute cords.  He wore no hat.

 The ticket agent, Dennis Lysne, said Cooper stood off by himself in the passenger waiting area, staring out the window until the boarding call was issued for Flight 305.  In general, Cooper looked and acted like a business man heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

 But he did attract some attention, and NWO gate agent Hal Williams reported that one of 305’s passengers stood out from the rest – a guy dressed all in black and who looked like a “lone wolf,” according to Geoffrey Gray in Skyjack.

 Since Cooper spoke with no discernible accent, some investigators believe that he might have been raised in the Midwest.  Although he had no visible tattoos, scars or distinguishing anatomical features that are known publicly, it is rumored that the FBI knows of a small scar on Cooper’s hand that it has not revealed to the public.

 Further, he smoked Raleigh cigarettes, and left eight aboard the plane.  The flight attendants said that his fingers were discolored from the tobacco smoke, suggesting that he was a heavy smoker.  Also, he wore no rings or any jewelry.

 Most reports say that Cooper drank a Bourbon and water during the two and one-half hour wait over Sea-Tac.  However, Richard Tosaw writes that Cooper had two drinks.

 FBI agent and author Ralph Himmelsbach describes Cooper’s behavior as desperate and crude, but the flight attendants describe Cooper as mostly calm and thoughtful – a “gentleman” one recalled.  Also, Himmelsbach writes in his book that some passengers described the skyjacker as “relaxed.”

 When Cooper received the money he apparently acted “childlike,” according to FBI agent Larry Carr on the DZ.  Carr says that Tina and Flo report that Cooper even jumped up and down.

 However, Cooper is widely reported to have become agitated when the refueling process stretched out further than the customary time of 30 minutes.  He supposedly shouted and banged the seat in front of him, according to Tosaw and others.

 Nevertheless, during calmer moments Cooper used a singular colloquial expression, “funny stuff.”  At the beginning of the refueling he had warned the crew not to attempt any “funny stuff or I’ll do the job.”

 Tosaw reports that Tina thought Cooper was going to blow up the plane as they experienced the refueling delays.

 Besides knowing the specifics of refueling a 727, Cooper possessed a deep knowledge of the plane and possibly parachuting:  He knew the requirements for flying a 727 so that a parachute jump would be successful, and that was highly classified information in 1971.

 Oddly, Cooper did not seem to know how to lower the aft stairs, and he kept flight attendant Tina Mucklow on board to assist him in deploying the stairway.  This suggests that where ever Cooper had learned the metrics of jumping from a 727 he had never opened the aft stairs by himself.

 However, Cooper was familiar with avionic terminology, and properly identified the intercom system as an “interphone,” and the stairway used by airlines to load passengers on the runway as an “airstairs,” according to Tosaw.

 His use of a bomb was considered by the FBI to be a “game changer,” and thwarted any effort to rush him from different directions.  In his book and in conversation Himmelsbach clearly states that the bomb was much more effective for Cooper than having a gun as a defensive weapon.

 Cooper’s choice of destinations – “Mexico City or anywhere in Mexico” – is widely believed to be astute, as it put him in the air corridor known as Victor 23 and over predictable terrain.

 On the ground at Sea-Tac, Cooper’s insistence that the fuel trucks be positioned to the port side of the plane gave him optimum visibility of events outside the plane, according to Russ Calame, another FBI agent who has penned a book on the case. 

Cooper’s choice of seat 18 E was also viewed as optimal for monitoring events in the plane during the hijacking.  Similarly, his crowd control was successful, and he had the passengers in the rear of the aircraft moved forward without incident. 

 His use of the flight attendants as couriers kept the cockpit crew at a distance, and minimized his exposure to eye witnesses.  Cooper wisely kept his original hijacking note.  He even pocketed from the ashtray an empty paper match cover he had used to light a cigarette.

 Cooper also demonstrated a familiarity with the area, noting that McChord Air Base was only 20 minutes from Sea-Tac and correctly identified the lights of Tacoma from the air as they circled over Puget Sound.

 Cooper also insisted that meals be brought aboard for the crew, even though they never ate them, and according to Bill Rataczak the German Shepherds brought aboard in Reno to search for the bomb ate the food before doing any sniffing.

 According to Tosaw and Gray, Cooper also brought several tablets of Benzedrine to keep the crew alert.

©  2013  Bruce A. Smith

An excerpt from my upcoming book:  The Hunt for DB Cooper – The Resurgent Investigation into America’s only Unsolved Skyjacking.

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