DB Cooper exhibit a worthy display of the skyjacking mystery

by Bruce A. Smith

The Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma has opened a long-term exhibit on the DB Cooper skyjacking case, and it is a solid effort to educate the public on its fascinating intricacies.

 In 1971, the infamous skyjacker, DB Cooper, stole an airplane and hijacked 42 passengers and crew.  He escaped with $200,000 in a daring parachute drop out of his 727, and vanished. Nothing has ever found except a $5,800 bundle of ransom money discovered eight years later buried on a sand bar on the Columbia River. Plus, Cooper’s identity is still unknown.

 The WSHM exhibit is now stepping into this true-crime mystery and opened a major exhibit of the case, called Norjak by the FBI. The show runs until early January, 2014.

 In general, I found the exhibit to be a solid and reasonable presentation of the Norjak saga, with one proviso – it is a very narrow perspective and ignores or minimizes very important aspects of the case, such as the recent investigations into the titanium found on Cooper’s tie, DNA testing, and the presence of the secretive figure known as Al Di, even though the intriguing DB Cooper letters that Mr. Di has allegedly “decoded” are mentioned.

In addition, plenty of juicy aspects of the case are avoided. There is no mention of any of the confessions or any discussion of the suspects. There is no Marla Cooper and her Uncle LD; no Jo Weber and her DB Cooper-confessing husband, Duane; and no Barb Dayton, the Puyallup woman who also confessed – in her case to a group of Thun Field pilots – and had reverted to her male persona to do the job.

Nor are any of the controversies discussed, such as rigger Earl Cossey’s claim to own the parachutes, or his murder last April in Woodinville.

What the exhibit does have is rock-solid evidence from the early days of Norjak, especially the time-line. I found that very informative, particularly that DB Cooper spent 16 minutes in the lavatory, from 5:43 to 5:59 pm while the passengers deplaned at Sea-Tac.

However, there are a few inaccuracies that need to be corrected or clarified. The mock-up section of the rear of Cooper’s Northwest Orient 727 is incorrect. In the row of seats central to the hijacking, Row 18 is incomplete. A life-sized Cooper is sitting in his proper seat of 18E, but seats across the aisle, 18 A, B, and C, which was occupied by Bill Mitchell of Seattle – a major witness to the skyjacking – is not presented although Rows 17 and 16 are.

Also, the briefcase/bomb in seat 18 F is not correct. It is a naugahyde gym bag and not a cloth or soft leather attaché case. Plus, there is no paper sack or burlap bag that Cooper hand-carried aboard Flight 305.

Along those lines, the audio presentations are not effective. In the above section of the exhibit there is a ten minute re-enactment of the cockpit transmissions to Seattle Center and they are hard to follow. Not only is the over-arching context missing, the volume is inadequate to hear easily and most visitors pass through this section quickly.

Similarly, the volume is too low at other stations giving glimpses of the media coverage the day of the skyjacking.

Of course it was good to see Norman Hayden’s parachute again, and I was surprised to see two of my Mountain News photographs – one, the manufacturing label of the Pioneer rig, and the other of the packing card signed by Cossey – presented by the WSHM. They hadn’t asked for permission to use these photographs, and when I alerted them to that fact they assured me they would correct the error.

 However, they did give me a credit for assistance on the last section of the exhibit, for which I am grateful.

I also saw hints of my book, Sky Thief – A Report on the DB Cooper Skyjacking Investigation, in certain places. The exploration of the DB Cooper letters and the overview of the parachutes seemed to be lifted out of the book, and I had a sense that whoever shaped the themes of the exhibit had read my book closely.

The section on the FBI and NWO officials was top-notch, with a healthy round of “who’s who,” replete with pictures and descriptions of their roles in the case.

Cooper sleuth Mark Metzler’s authentic twenty dollar bill is on display, but the WSHM’s presentation on the ransom money find is surprisingly weak. There is very little information shared about what was found and where, and no speculations were offered on how the money got there.

 Nor was there any hint of Metzler’s insightful contributions on the nature of the parachutes or how to best exit a 727 safely.

In a separate section there was a short section of the National Geographic documentary featuring Tom Kaye, the leader of the Citizen Sleuths investigatory team, and it illustrated his thoughts on how the money reached Tina Bar by falling into the Lewis River. But it failed to mention Kaye’s highly controversial Propeller Theory – a speculation that the money and Cooper’s body landed in the Lewis and got wrapped around a propeller shaft of an in-bound Columbia River freighter and carried upstream to its deposition site. Nor did the WSHM offer any other explanations on how the money arrived at its destination, such as the idea that it washed down from the Washougal River basin, upstream from Tina Bar.

 Next to the looping NG documentary was a brief discussion of the Citizen Sleuths (CSs) and the only mention that I saw of Special Agent Larry Carr, the innovative FBI agent who created the CSs and actively sought the input of interested citizens and reporters. With only a handful of sentences it described his efforts, although the role of the Internet chat room called the DropZone was mentioned.

More troubling, the exhibit seemed to lose its focus at this point, as it offered very disjointed information on current air safety issues, such as the development of the TSA. I found these elements to be incongruous and poorly developed. The exhibit should have focused strictly on DB Cooper and leave the secondary issue of safety in the air travel industry to another exhibit at another time.

However, the working model of a Cooper Vane, the device installed on all Boeing 727s after Cooper’s skyjacking to thwart any addition skyjackers from opening the aft stairs in flight, was wonderful. Nevertheless, it needed better signage, as it took me about five minutes to explain how it worked to other viewers.

Similarly, the effort of the exhibit to portray the nature of air travel in the early 1970s was a dud. The models of airport construction and accompanying pictures and signage were meaningless. Along those lines, the mannequins adorned with 70s’ era uniforms of a flight captain and a flight attendant were uninspiring. If the docents and museum staff wore vintage costumes of the 1970s, it would have been delightfully entertaining.

 Further, the staff was impressively uninformed about Norjak, but they were exceptionally friendly. To their credit, they delighted in hearing the many stories from Cooper aficionados in attendance.

 Another failure of the exhibit is to develop dynamic lectures or presentation from experts in the case. The WSHM posted a flyer announcing that there are six Cooper-tie ins, but only two are specific to Norjak –  author Geoffrey Gray’s personal presentation on Friday, November 29, and a “Cooper Symposium” the following day, November 30.

Also, the poster that WSHM uses to advertise their Cooper exhibit has a major flaw: their picture of DB Cooper has him hanging from his parachute harness wearing a black tie. In reality, Cooper left his tie on the plane and it is now a critical piece of evidence, especially as the main source of DNA samples of Cooper.

 However, the docents cheerfully revealed the mistake to me.

 Despite the gaffs and missing elements, I loved the exhibit and recommend it to both researchers and the general public. It is a worthy effort, even if it does seem to foster the FBI’s one-sided perspective on the story – that Cooper was inept and most likely died in the jump.

 I believe that current revelations are successfully challenging that notion. Along those lines, I have finished wiring my book on DB Cooper, and if any Mountain News readers would like an electronic copy of Sky Thief – A Report on the DB Cooper Skyjacking Investigation, I would be happy to send you one via email.

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6 Responses to DB Cooper exhibit a worthy display of the skyjacking mystery

  1. Josh Magill says:

    I’ll read it. Send it my way.

  2. The main reason the exhibit does not feature many of the things Bruce mentioned is because their focus is on the hijacking itself, and not the hunt for him later. This is the one weakness of the exhibit, because the one thing that makes the D.B. Cooper case unique IS the hunt for the hijacker, i.e. it is the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history. In fact, the story of the hunt, the many suspects, the evidence that followed, the annual celebration in Ariel, and other things, are actually a bigger story than the hijacking itself.

    I have read Bruce Smith’s book. It is solid, and I would recommend it to anyone who is either a Cooper fan, or simply has an interest in the case. There are not that many books out there on the Cooper hijacking, unlike say…Amelia Earhart…another unsolved mystery. The books about Earhart are many and legend. On Cooper, maybe a half-dozen or so.

  3. David J Johnson says:

    Bruce, Would love to receive a copy of your book, when you have the time. Regards – as ever, David

  4. Meyer Louie says:

    Bruce, it was a pleasure touring the exhibit with you — your deeper insights into some of the displays were most helpful. Your knowledge of the case is second to none. I continue to learn so much from you.
    I see Blevins left a reply above — he says “the story of the hunt, the many suspects, the evidence that followed, the annual celebration in Ariel, and other things, are actually a bigger story than the hijacking itself.” What a ridiculous statement — again!! This is the first time I’ve read anything written by Blevins in weeks. Hopefully, it will be the last — I see not much has changed when it comes to him.
    We have some good things Cooper coming up — October and November, of course. I look forward to it all. It should be a good time. Be well.

    • Excuse me, Meyer Louie…but weren’t you permanently banned from the biggest thread on DB Cooper (Dropzone.com) for making personal attacks? Just saying. And my statement that the ‘story of the hunt, the many suspects, the evidence that followed, the annual celebration in Ariel, and other things are a bigger story than the hijacking itself…’ is self-evident. See my upcoming book ‘Cooperland’ for details on that. Comes out in June 2014. Have a great day.

  5. CL says:

    I would love to read a copy of your book if the email offer still stands.

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