By Bruce A. Smith
I went to see skydiving legend Ralph Hatley last week in Eagle Creek, Oregon, traveling in the delightful company of Cooper aficionados Bob Sailshaw and his wife, Michele, (who drove and paid for the gas!)
Ralph is a respected member of the Northwest skydiving community, and has known many of the principals of the DB Cooper case. He is friends with Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI agent who headed the Portland Field Office’s Norjak investigation.
Hatley also competed in skydiving contests opposite Earl Cossey, the highly controversial parchute rigger who was the FBI’s technical expert on parachute issues in the DB Cooper case.
Ralph is a robust looking 77-year old guy, with a big pot belly, a big smile, and twinkle in his eye. Yes, over the phone he seems like a curmudgeon, but in person he keeps that side of his personality under wraps.
Simply, Ralph was a charming and informative man to chat with over lunch. However, he is also a man who is cautious and reserved. When we approached controversial topics, such as the role of Earl Cossey in Norjak, he rebuffed many of my questions behind a façade of “I don’t remember,” or I don’t know.”
Hence, we had to warm up to our topics while eating a lovely meal in bucolic Estacada, Oregon.
At first, Ralph provided some background, historical points and factoids:
He grew up in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, and his great-grandmother walked barefoot along the Oregon Trail with her family.
Ralph said that he joined the military in 1953 at 16, and served in the 82nd Airborne. He also claimed that he flew DB Cooper’s 727 after Northwest had sold it to a cargo company, and he flew a run to Salt Lake City with a friend who was also the pilot in command. Ralph has a commercial pilot’s license, but he is not rated for a 727, so he back-tracked during the conversation to restate his position, “I was invited to fly the plane.”
Ralph also knew many of the Army’s skydiving Golden Knights in Europe, but he did not know Ted Braden, the commando expert thought by many in the Special Forces to be DB Cooper.
Ralph went to Gresham High School along with Ted Mayfield, another Cooper suspect. Ralph even taught Mayfield how to skydive. Ralph not only confirmed the allegation that Ted had been arrested for armed robbery, but he also gave us the details.
Hatley told us that Ted had been a delivery driver for the 7-UP bottling company, and knew the work schedules and cash flows of the grocery stores that he serviced. As a result he knew to rob them on Sunday nights when the till was at its fullest. Ralph said that Ted got caught, “the first time,” when he was robbing “Mr. G’s Market” in Oregon City.
As for DB Cooper, Ralph told us that “there was nothing difficult about that jump.” He also said that he had told the FBI that the skyjacker was an experienced skydiver “even before they gave him the money.”
Ralph described many encounters with FBI agents throughout the early stages of the investigation, and joked that he told one agent that he in fact knew a skydiver named Dan Cooper in Moses Lake, but he was only 20 years-old and wore glasses.
He was also interviewed by Jules Mattson, the Portland SAC, and over a lunch Ralph delivered a photo of the “Century Skydivers of Vancouver,” an elite group of local jumpers. Later, a special investigator from the San Francisco FBI office asked for an interview with Hatley and grilled him on the photograph. Ralph toyed with the G-man, and then in pique of disgust told the guy, who was named Special Agent Bond, that he was the person responsible for giving the photo to Mattson originally.
Ralph was hard to pin down on the question of what parachutes were used and who owned them, but he did say that if he was Cooper he would want to use a chute that had a fresh rigger’s card, and one that matched the documentation on the rigging pins so that he would be sure he would have a “fresh chute” free of any electronic devices or tampering by the FBI.
Hatley also discussed his relationship with Earl Cossey, whom he described as a good friend. He said that he had beaten Coss in many skydiving competitions, “But he beat me a few times, too.”
However, he hadn’t seen Coss in about ten years, and has never met Coss’ kids, who are now middle-aged adults.
Ralph characterized their friendship as mostly surrounding skydiving. As we began to discuss Coss’ murder and the theories that he was killed by a poker player who knew he carried large sums of cash, Ralph surprised us by saying that Coss was only an average poker player and that he had to “save his ass a couple of times from getting the shit kicked out of him.”
Hatley also told us that the rental houses that Coss renovated – which supposedly made him a fortune and fueled his gambling – had originally been “embezzled from his mother.”
So, Ralph knew about the alleged shady side of Earl Cossey, and agreed that Cossey could be provocative. But he also honored his friend by recalling how beloved Coss was by his students in the middle school where he taught.
Beyond these perspectives, Ralph didn’t have anything more to offer on the murder of Earl Cossey.
As for the Amboy chute, Hatley said that Coss had indeed called him about the matter, but only spent the time bad-mouthing the FBI and ragging on their inept handling of Norjak. Ralph shared many of the same opinions.
“The FBI only has tunnel vision” he told us.
After a solid hour of chatting, Ralph suddenly announced: “I’m going to tell you something that’s going to blow your asses out of the water.”
He proceeded to tell us a story that occurred in the 1977-1978 time period.
Ralph said he was contacted by his attorney one day out of the blue. The lawyer said that he had a client who was looking for a “go-between” with the FBI, and wondered if Ralph would agree to carry his requests to the Bureau. Ralph agreed.
The attorney said that his client had knowledge of the identity of DB Cooper and wanted to “come out of the cold.” The client was looking for a promise of immunity from prosecution.
Ralph contacted his friend at the FBI, Special Agent Ralph Himmelsback. Himmelsbach said he was willing to hear the offer, but wanted to see a DB Cooper $20 bill before he would proceed with anything substantive.
Hatley relayed the information to the attorney, who responded that his client also wanted immunity for committing murder.
Again, Hatley relayed the information.
Himmelsbach replied that he would need to involve the District Attorney in the jurisdiction where the murder had taken place. Again Hatley and the lawyer exchanged messages.
The murder apparently took place in Washington, and Hatley told us that Himmelsbach had contacted the Washington state authorities, who turned down the murder-immunity deal.
Subsequently, client’s offer to reveal the facts of the case was withdrawn.
However, Hatley told us that he got the full story on the attorney’s deathbed. He also said that the client is also deceased.
This is what Ralph told us that he learned:
Hatley told us that the attorney was Jim Leubke of Portland, Oregon, and that the client was a man whom Hatley knew. In fact, Hatley knew the client’s wife as well, who was a teller at a local savings and loan bank. Even though Hatley refused to tell us the name of the client, he shared the details:
The client was part of DB Cooper’s ground team, who all conspired to kill DB Cooper for the money. They buried Cooper’s body on the slopes of Mount St Helens before it blew in 1980, and the fate of the money is a bit murky. Hatley said he was told that the wife “got rid of it when she realized it was hot.”
However, the client also told the attorney to tell Himmelsbach that he “would see some of the money before he retired.”
Since this was taking place in 1978, it appears that it predates the money find at Tina Bar in February 1980 and Himmelsbach’s retirement a few months later in April.
Despite not revealing the name of the client, Ralph said that Himmelsbach knows the name of the client, and in fact Hatley says that he told his FBI friend everything about the story.
“If you get Ralph Himmelsbach to tell you the name of the client, I will confirm it for you, but I’m not going to tell you outright.”
We all – Sail, Michele, and I – pushed Hatley for the name, but he wouldn’t budge. However, he did relent a bit and told us that the client was also responsible for another murder, one that occurred in the Sandy, Oregon area. Hatley said, “He got away with that one.”
Bruce A. Smith