by Bruce A. Smith
Yes, I’m part of the resurgence, caught up in the swell like a giddy newbie.
That’s not to say I had never heard of DB Cooper and his skyjacking, for I had, but I was 22 years-old at the time Cooper hijacked his airplane. I had just returned to college at Hofstra University after a couple of years ski-bumming and hitch-hiking, so I had other things on my mind other than paying attention to a hijacker snatching a plane, even if DB was the first guy asking for something other than a free pass to Cuba. In fact, I didn’t realize that DB Cooper was the first to extort an airline for money until I joined the Hunt in 2008.
My entry was quite simple: I stumbled into it while writing an unrelated story for a newspaper.
At the time, I was a full-time reporter for a small weekly in southern Pierce County, Washington called The Dispatch, and while I covered a local air show in the summer of 2008 I met a pilot and his wife who had just written a book about DB Cooper.
In that hot August sun they were quite eager to talk about their story: a biography of a fellow pilot named Barb Dayton, who had confessed to being DB Cooper. We spent an afternoon discussing it, sitting in the shade provided by the starboard wing of their restored 1934 Fairchild airplane.
The authors are Ron and Pat Forman, and they tell in their book: The Legend of DB Cooper – Death by Natural Causes, the wildest Cooper tale ever imagined – that DB Cooper was a woman who had the first sex change operation in Washington, in 1969, and then reverted to her male persona to do the job.
I have learned it is also the most compelling of all the Cooper confessional stories for it delivers the most detailed description of how DB Cooper did the caper, including his/her motive.
But what fascinated me the most, as I listened to the Formans, was how many red flags of inconsistency popped up regarding the FBI’s investigation, starting with the fact that no one in the Bureau would talk to the Formans even though they offered a detailed confession from their friend.
I was also disappointed to learn that my editors had no interest in this intriguing DB Cooper story, and only relented to my urgings when I promised to cover the story from the angle of local authors write about DB Cooper.
As a result, I could cover their book signings and public presentations, but nothing about the actual skyjacking. However, I continued to learn more about the case even though I didn’t write about it, and began to gather the Cooper literature – first Himmelsbach’s book, then Calame’s and Rhodes’, and then Tosaw’s work. Then I scoured the Internet and found the DZ and Jo Weber.
By November, the Formans told me that they were going to Ariel, Washington for the annual celebration of DB Cooper Daze, held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at the Ariel Tavern. The Formans said they were attending because they had just been contacted by Edge West Productions for a National Geographic documentary on the skyjacking, and the outfit would film them in Ariel as part of a larger shoot on the whole Cooper story. I was ecstatic, and decided to attend.
My editors also began to get enthused – local authors getting filmed for a National Geographic special – Holy Cow!
So, as long as I didn’t get too woo-woo about the sex change thing they were good for copy, and I headed down to Ariel.
The Edge West production was quite professional and very exciting to witness. In a nearby Ariel home they filmed Ron and Pat, Barb Dayton’s daughter Rena Ruddell, and a couple of fellow-pilots who knew Barb. Later, they all came down to the Tavern, which has a side room that is ideal for quiet chats and beer.
As a reporter I interviewed Phil Day, the executive producer of Edge West, and many of his crew. Further, I had a lengthy converation with Phil’s teen-aged daughter, who was tagging along with Daddy and had plenty of time to listen to me spiel about the FBI and their canard that DB Cooper was too stupid to have survived the jump. The young girl must have talked later to her dad because in the midst of buying me a beer Phil turned the camera in my direction and began asking questions. Thus, I became part of the documentary, being the bright-faced guy loudly proclaiming that “DB Cooper was one tough-assed dude.”
I said a few more things, but they must have fallen to the editing floor, as did all of the film about Barb Dayton for reasons that will be discussed elsewhere. But I was hooked.
This was also the time that I first met Geoffrey Gray, along with his exceptionally cute friend from Seattle. I asked Geoff point-blank if he thought Kenny Christianson – the guy he had written about in New York Magazine – was DB Cooper. Geoff stated that he didn’t believe Kenny was DB, a position he seemed to be a bit less definitive about in his 2011 book, Skyjack.
Nevertheless, a journalistic bond was formed with Geoffrey that exists to this day. Geoffrey also reassured me that he did not feel threatened by my research, and that “The Cooper story is big enough for all of us to write about.”
I was very thankful for that note of acceptance.
Over the next few months I wrote four pieces on the Formans and their initiation into the ways of Hollywood. On a fiercely cold day in January, Edge West came up to Tacoma and conducted several days of filming at Thun Field, the air strip in Puyallup where the Formans had first met Barb. I covered the shoot, and also learned that the manager of the airport, Bruce Thun, was an avid DB Cooper aficionado. In fact, Bruce had many pertinent pieces of information about the early days of the FBI’s investigation.
Bruce revealed that the Bureau’s agents swarmed over Thun Field in the days of the holiday weekend. In particular, they were asking about one young skydiver in particular who had a girl friend in Oregon. Apparently the skydiver was not at home in Puyallup nor at his girl friend’s as planned. Did Bruce – or anyone at Thun Field – know where he was?
Bruce didn’t know what had happened to the skydiver, and he was perturbed at the FBI as well.
“How did they know that kind of stuff?” he asked me. “How did they know that some kid who skydived at a small field in PierceCounty has a girl friend in Oregon and that he didn’t make it for Thanksgiving? How do they know this much stuff about people?”
Bruce seemed disappointed that I didn’t have any satisfactory answers for him, and I just speculated that Thun Field may have attracted both “tree-top flyers” and anti-drug scrutiny from the feds.
Through his life-long association with aviation and aviators, Bruce has many contacts with people connected to the case. Besides Barb and the Formans, Bruce has met Earl Cossey, the rigger, and important Boeing engineers involved in the development of the 727 aft stairs and the secret protocols for parachuting.
Yet, even Bruce didn’t know that a 727 could be jumped.
“The day after DB Cooper jumped, everybody around here (Thun Field) was saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of that!’” he told me laughing.
After two years of following the Norjak story at a bit of a distance, my tenure at The Dispatch came to an end as my editors sold the newspaper to a corporate entity who didn’t desire my services after their leaving.
After a short hiatus from journalism, I formed the online news magazine, The Mountain News-WA, in 2010 and pursued the DB Cooper story rigorously. A heart attack in February 2012 distracted me slightly, but by the end of the year I was back in the saddle.
However, as I healed money became very tight and I had to live exclusively upon my social security. In addition, I needed food stamps. Under these conditions I was no longer able to keep a vehicle running, so my Hunt depended upon buses, phones, and the Internet.
But here I am; and here is your story, dear readers.
© 2013 Bruce A. Smith
An excerpt from my forthcoming book: The Hunt for DB Cooper – The Resurgent Investigation into America’s only Unsolved Skyjacking.