by Bruce A. Smith
The passenger who sat nearest DB Cooper was a twenty-year old college student named Bill Mitchell. As Cooper sat in the middle seat of Row 18 on the starboard side of the aircraft, Mitchell sat across the aisle in the comparable seat.
Last week Bill spoke with the Mountain News, and it is his first appearance ever in a public forum.
However in 2013, Mitchell gave a detailed account of his hijacking experience to the Washington State Historical Museum research team, and they have provided public access to an audio tape of their interview with Bill.
But at this point, Mitchell is the only person aboard DB Cooper’s Flight 305 who is talking directly to journalists. In recent years, flight attendants Tina Mucklow and Florence Schaffner have refused to speak publicly about the hijacking, and Ms. Mucklow hasn’t spoken in public for nearly 40 years for reasons that are unknown.
In short, Mitchell says that the doesn’t remember much about Cooper, but he does recollect being surprised by the cute stewardesses paying so much attention to an old man who looked “geeky,” had “bad hair,” and a distinctive fold of skin under chin that Bill calls a “turkey gobble.”
Why aren’t they paying any attention to me? he wondered.
Mitchell also says that Cooper had a smaller build than he. Bill stands 6’2,” and weighed 225 pounds in 1971. This comports with the recollections of the flight attendants, who put Cooper at six-feet tall and about 170-180 pounds. They also pegged Cooper to be in his mid-40s.
Bill has been reclusive since the hijacking and never gave any interviews to media. However, researchers have been seeking him with growing intensity, and in the past few years he has granted a handful of interviews to persistent investigators, such as Galen Cook.
However, those who speak with Mitchell protect his privacy fiercely, and neither Galen nor the staff at the Washington State Historical Museum would share Bill’s contact information, nor pass on any requests from me.
Nevertheless, I knew that Bill lived in the Puget Sound area, so I tried independently to contact him. However, after calling a dozen Bill Mitchells I gave up.
However, in September 2104, a fellow Cooper sleuth and friend, Vicki Wilson, made contact with Bill in an effort to find out if her father, Mel Wilson, was in fact DB Cooper.
Vicki’s father has been missing since September 1971, and her request apparently softened Bill’s resolve. In late summer he spoke with Vicki and reviewed her materials, but his analysis was inconclusive.
When I heard that outcome I emailed Vicki and asked if she would intercede with Bill on my behalf. She agreed, and kindly passed on my contact information. One day in December Bill called me. Here is the gist of our phone call.
December 1. 2014
I spoke with Flight 305 passenger Bill Mitchell, today, and I found him to be a charming fellow with a delightful sense of humor. But first I had to receive his phone call:
“Hi. This is Bill Mitchell, DB Cooper’s best friend,” he announced on my message machine. “I thought you might like to talk about something that happened 43 years ago.”
He left his phone number.
So Vicki’s intercession has been successful. It felt sweet because she and I had spent a solid day looking for Bill during the 2013 Cooper Symposium, and had spent a Sunday evening in an Auburn Starbucks seeking anyone who knew the reclusive passenger from Flight 305. Vicki, of course, was mostly concerned about her missing dad, but I just wanted to meet the guy who had sat –almost next to – DB Cooper
“Be nice to him,” Vicki entreated me when she sent me an email confirming that she had told Bill about me.
I promised I would be a perfect gentleman, and I trust I was. Here’s what we talked about:
“43 years was a LONG time ago,” he said.
I agreed, and told Bill that I was as interested in hearing of his experiences in the Norjak saga past and present as I was to learn about his “best friend.”
We rambled across a range of topics, starting with what he remembered from 1971.
“I didn’t agree to the first sketch,” he said “When Vicki showed me a picture of her father the only thing I could tell her was that DB Cooper had that ‘jugular’ thing, and so did her father.
“You mean the ‘turkey gobble’ fold of skin under his chin?”
“Yeah. I remembered that; not sure it was any help to her.”
“I also remember being upset that Tina was paying SO much attention to that older guy.”
I laughed and commiserated with Bill. “Yeah, Bill, I still have a crush on Tina, too.”
“Really?” Bill laughed as well. “Have you ever met her? I’d like to meet her someday. I think it would be interesting to talk with her, to hear what she went through that day.”
Bill and I talked a bit about Tina and my escapades with the Mucklow clan. Then he launched into a description of his many emotions and feelings about the guy in Row 18, seat E.
“DB Cooper was romanticized. All my friends and me, we, um, looked at him as ‘beating the man’ – y’know. But he had six sticks of dynamite and was sitting next to me!…I wasn’t, like angry, but more like puzzled. But you have to remember; when people called him a hero he also had a bomb and was threatening to blow me up.
“When I went home that night and was just sitting around watching the TV, my dad said, ‘The way they’re building this guy up – there’s going to be a million copy cats.’ And there was – not a million – but a lot.”
I asked Bill about the FBI and his experiences participating in their investigation.
“You could tell that the veteran FBI agents had the holiday weekend off, because when I got off the plane all the agents I talked to were the young guys.”
I asked Bill if he remembered the names of any agents.
“Nah, not really. It was 43 years, ago, remember!”
Bill continued and told me he went back to college after the Thanksgiving weekend. At school, he saw FBI agents two-three times per week for a year and a half, reviewing at least 10 pictures per visit. Surprisingly, Bill was a little anxious about the visits.
“You have to remember, in Eugene, even then it was hippie-dippie ville, and I was, um, a sophomore and not in a fraternity yet, but in the dorm, and there was um, a lot of drugs around. I told the FBI that I didn’t do any drugs, but I was concerned that some of my friends, or guys in the dorms, might get into trouble with the agents coming around so much. So, I asked the FBI about that, and they said, ’We don’t worry too much about that.’”
As Bill reflected, he mentioned that most of the agents he dealt with in Norjak were based in Eugene. He vaguely remembered Ralph Himmelsbach, the agent who went on to fame as an author about DB Cooper, but Bill acknowledged that he didn’t have any direct dealings with him. When I mentioned the actual Norjak case agent Charlie Farrell, or his Seattle colleagues Special Agents John Detlor and Sid Rubin, Bill had no recollection of them whatsoever.
“But all of the agents I met were impressive,” he reassured me.
Bill discussed the events at Sea-Tac in detail, especially his dealings with the FBI, who recommended that Bill discuss the case with caution and prudence.
“You’re one of the prime witnesses they reminded me,” Bill said.
Bill added that he wasn’t particularly frightened, but wished to be wise. Hence, he decided not to talk with media and maintained a low public profile.
“The FBI said, ‘Look, we don’t know who this guy is or where he is, but he threatened to blow you up along with the plane, so use good judgment in deciding who to talk with.’…They recommended that I not talk to the news reporters, so I didn’t.”
Bill said that a lot of media has called him through the years, but he has refused them all.
Besides protecting himself and his privacy, Bill was further discouraged from talking to the media by the widespread inaccuracies they were reporting.
“It was a long time before I read a newspaper article that I felt was true to what I knew…I was amazed that so many stories got the facts wrong – that was one of the reasons I wasn’t too eager to talk to journalists.”
Bill added that he figured Tina Mucklow went through the same kind of treatment.
“I’d love to talk with Tina and see what she went through.”
When Bill landed at Sea-Tac he was tired and eager to connect with his father, who would take him home for a good meal.
“It was supposed to be a 37-minute flight, but it took three and a half hours. Plus it was dark and rainy when we landed – and way out on the tarmac – you could hardly see the terminal.
“I had been moved up to first class by the flight attendant who looked like she was in charge, and she also looked stressed. I moved up, but I really didn’t want to. I was happy to just stay in back and sleep. I moved up, but I forgot my coat. Instead of going back the flight attendant got my coat for me.”
Bill said that he remembers seeing a bag come aboard, which he later learned was the money, and he saw the parachutes.
“But I still didn’t think that we were being hijacked.”
Later, as he descended the stairs to the tarmac he heard someone call out and an FBI agent answered, “Yes, you’ve been hijacked.”
“That was the first I knew of it,” Bill said.
He had more to tell me:
“We started walking towards the terminal, which was a long ways away. Then a bus came and we got on. Then the FBI started calling names from a list, and they called my name first, ‘Bill Mitchell.’ I said, ‘Here,” and then they called ‘Dan Cooper’ and there was nothing. No one answered. So, we realized that was the skyjacker.
“Then I realized that the FBI had three and a half hours to investigate me. I wondered if they had been suspecting me since they had called my name first. I had paid for my ticket in cash, I was a 20-year old college student from Eugene….did they think I was the hijacker?”
At this point I asked Bill about some of the notables of Cooper World.
“Do you remember Galen Cook? I think he’s interviewed you several times.”
“The guy from, um, Alaska?”
“Vaguely. I do remember a book that was on sale at the exhibit in Tacoma. I didn’t recognize it when I saw it.
“Skyjack? ‘The Hunt for DB Cooper,’ by Geoffrey Gray?”
“Maybe. My name was in it, but I don’t remember talking to anyone about it.”
“You didn’t talk with Geoffrey?”
“I might have, but I don’t remember. But, somehow my name got in that book. But I do remember Jo Weber. She called me several years ago. She’s a wacko. She sent me all these pictures of Duane (Weber, her husband.) Now, remember that Duane’s ears are HUGE, and I would have made fun of them – so what I told Jo was: ‘I know for a fact that I would have remembered those huge ears.”
Another interesting piece from Bill was his account of being filmed by a British TV show called “Greatest Crimes.” Boeing refused to allow them to film aboard one of their 727s, so they shot inside a 727 that is parked in the backyard of an aviation aficionado in Portland.
“It was weird!” Bill said with a laugh.
Bill also enjoyed recounting his getaway from Sea-Tac.
“All the passengers were sitting in the VIP lounge at Northwest and the FBI was asking us what we remembered about the guy in the back of the plane. I was just sitting there and being quiet. When they got to me I said, ‘Well, I was sitting next to the guy,’ and then they all got in my face!”
At the same time, Bill’s father was waiting for him in the parking lot at Sea-Tac.
“I called him from Portland just before I got on the plane and told him it was just a 37 minute flight, so I’d see him soon. But it took three and a half hours!”
Bill said his Dad waited at first in his car and heard about the hijacking on the radio. Then he moved inside the terminal to the Northwest counter, where the waiting families were becoming agitated.
“They brought all the families into a room and told them, ‘Yes, it was a hijacking.’”
Bill’s Mom was home cooking “her baby boy’s favorite dinner,” and was watching the TV. She saw the news coverage, especially the fire boats in Elliott Bay waiting to retrieve wreckage in case the plane exploded over the water.
“She was going nuts,” Bill said.
At one point, Bill’s Dad went back into the public area and was standing next to a fellow wearing NWO mechanics clothes. When the individual’s walkie-talkie started crackling, he reached inside and revealed that he had a machine gun slung over his shoulder.
“It was kind of crazy,” Bill shared, “But my Dad is an ex-Marine, so he wasn’t too fazed by anything.”
As the “guy who sat next to Cooper,” the FBI kept him longer than any other passenger. As a result, a scrum of 200 reporters waited for him to exit.
“My Dad was waiting for me, just outside of them, so I told the FBI I had to leave that way. The recommended that I chew on a ham sandwich, take a bite as I leave the room and keep chewing as I walked past the reporters. They pushed me out the door and the light bulbs flashed and everybody started shouting. It was just like in the movies. But a State trooper barged ahead and cleared a path for me. I kept walking right through them, and after we got past the first line of reporters it lightened up, and I just walked over to my Dad. We just walked out of the terminal and went home.”
Mom had a turkey dinner waiting for Bill, and life returned to near-normalcy.
“I went back to college after the weekend – Sunday or Monday – and I told my circle of friends. But really, everyone in Eugene knew about it. But I didn’t talk about it publically….I turned down all the media requests.”
Ironically, Bill did write an essay about his experiences – but in Italian!
“I had an assignment in Italian class, to write a story in Italian, so I wrote about the hijacking. When my teacher read it she pulled me aside and said, ‘Is this for real?’”
Later, after the Richard McCoy hijacking, Bill got a surprise call from two Newsweek reporters. They had obtained a photograph on McCoy immediately after the skyjacking and located Bill through a family friend. They showed the photo to Bill who told them the likeness didn’t match his recall of Cooper.”
However, the next day two FBI agents showed up with a picture of McCoy and were really miffed that two Newsweek reporters had preceded them.
“So who tipped off Newsweek?” Bill asked me.
I asked Bill if he ever tries to figure out DB Cooper’s identity or fate.
“Well sure. I mean, I worked for Boeing for 35 years, so we talked about it a lot. But most of FBI agents I’ve talked with told me they figure Cooper died in the jump. But everything was so well planned….”
The first sketch developed of DB Cooper by the FBI, known as “Composite A” (above) depended heavily upon the recollections of the flight attendents. However, Bill Mitchell says that he disagreed with that rendition. As a result, he was asked to develop a second sketch, which is now known as “Composite B.”
Composite B, above, developed in 1972
Bruce A. Smith
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