I’ve got great news – my book, DB Cooper and the FBI, is now available at Amazon as a Kindle e-book.
The cost is $6.99, and I should see about 4 bucks of it in 90 days. But it is my understanding that folks can read it for free for a few days or through a Kindle system program, but you’ll have to examine the fine print on the Amazon page for exact details.
This project began in 2008 when I interviewed Ron and Pat Forman at a Thun Field air show for the Dispatch. They told me about their friend Barb Dayton, who had confessed to being DB Cooper in 1978, and the story grew to an investigation of the FBI.
Thanks to all for your support.
Below is the opening chapter:
DB Cooper and the FBI
A Case Study of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking
An Introduction to DB Cooper and the FBI’s investigation
The DB Cooper skyjacking is a stunning true-crime mystery. In 1971, a man known as DB Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient airliner and after exchanging the passengers for $200,000, he parachuted into the night skies north of Portland, Oregon. He has never been seen since.
Additionally, we don’t know who Cooper was or if he survived, and nothing has ever been found of the skyjacking—no parachutes, no body or clothes, nor any of the money except for $5,800 that a kid found eight years later buried on a Columbia River beach.
Adding to the intrigue, no one knows how the money got there or when.
The DB Cooper case remains the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of the United States. Nevertheless, hundreds of FBI agents hunted for Cooper along with scores of local police. This investigation has been termed “Norjak” by the FBI, an acronym of Northwest Orient Airlines hijacking.
Besides being a whodunit, the Norjak investigation also gives us a view into the workings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and shows us that the FBI is a closed shop. The Bureau only tells us what they want us to know, and only when they want us to know it.
Thus, determining the facts beyond the headlines and cursory press releases has been difficult. Currently the FBI has clammed-up on Norjak, which makes the federal investigation a mystery as well.
This dynamic is troubling since it is increasingly evident from the work of open-sourced sleuths that the Norjak investigation is flawed. Arguably, it has been compromised or even corrupted, possibly sabotaged by political pressures.
Most damning is the FBI’s loss of its most valuable piece of evidence: the eight cigarettes butts Cooper left on the plane, which contains his dried saliva and is the ideal substance to reveal the skyjacker’s DNA.
Worse, the butts were not secured in the evidence locker at the FBI’s Seattle office, which is the “Office of Origin” for Norjak and should have been the repository for such important artifacts. Rather, they were stored in Las Vegas due to a bureaucratic turf battle.
Worst though, the cigarette butts went missing only after their true value was realized. Adding to this disaster, the documentation of the saliva findings is also missing.
Similarly, a Norjak FBI agent, Jeremy Blauser, vanished shortly after his assignment to the case in 2008.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the investigation is the murder of Norjak’s parachute expert, Earl Cossey.
Cossey was a key figure in assessing Cooper’s skydiving abilities for the FBI, but over the years Cossey told plenty of lies and half-truths to the public. Now many wonder if he was killed because his deceitfulness puts the FBI in a critical light.
In addition, the red warning flags flying over the FBI’s investigation are many. Besides a missing cop and a dead consultant, they include seemingly minor aspects of the case, such as the Bureau’s inability to pinpoint Cooper’s exact landing area, or why they delayed their major ground search for five months.
Yet, to evaluate the actions of the FBI it is necessary to fully understand the skyjacking.
Cooper’s actions were straightforward.
The day before Thanksgiving, DB Cooper commandeered Flight 305, a NWO 727 inbound to Seattle. He used a bomb in a briefcase for persuasion, and at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport he released the thirty-six passengers in exchange for $200,000 and four parachutes. After refueling Cooper ordered the pilots to fly to Mexico, and forty-five minutes later he jumped into the chilly November rains of southwestern Washington with his money in a sack tied around his waist.
Since nothing substantive of the crime has ever been found and the skyjacker’s identity is still unknown, it is as if DB Cooper came from nowhere and returned there when he jumped.
The hijacking has amazed the world because it was history’s most daring and brazen act of sky piracy. Hundreds of airplanes had been skyjacked prior, but they all had been political and no one had done it strictly for the money. Plus, no one had jumped out of their plane for their getaway.
Since then, thousands of journalists and arm-chair sleuths have sought to solve the Norjak puzzle, seeking at least an inkling of who DB Cooper was. Author Geoffrey Gray calls it “The Hunt for DB Cooper,” and that’s a worthy title: The search is primal, visceral and impassioned. One researcher told me that he puts himself to sleep at night thinking about the hijacking, and I frequently write in the wee hours myself. In fact, spittle flies across the room whenever my fellow investigators and I discuss the case.
Culturally, millions champion DB Cooper as a man who beat the system – a master criminal who perpetrated a mind-boggling crime, completely outsmarting “Da Man.”
For its part the FBI has investigated over 1,100 suspects. Officially, the case is still open although it’s “inactive” according to the Bureau’s public information officer in Seattle, Ayn Dietrich-Williams.
The night of the skyjacking every FBI agent in the Seattle office, over thirty men, were deployed on the case: securing the grounds of Sea-Tac, interviewing the passengers, or managing the actual hijacking via radio through the Seattle Center FAA tower.
Several hours later, two-hundred FBI agents and local police awaited Cooper’s plane in Reno when it landed for another refueling.
Although the FBI launched a ground and aerial search immediately after the hijacking, it was suspended after a few days. Five months later, in April 1972 the ground search resumed and hundreds of soldiers and dozens of FBI agents scoured the fields and woodlands around Ariel, Washington, deemed the most likely landing spot for DB Cooper. But after two weeks of tramping in the woods they found nothing.
As a youth I’d been aware of Cooper’s iconic status in American folklore but I’d never paid him much attention. In 1971, I was living in New York and attending college, and DB Cooper’s exploits paled in comparison to my efforts to get into medical school and finding a girlfriend.
After re-locating to Washington, however, I became reacquainted with the story while covering a local air-show for the Pierce County (WA) Dispatch newspaper.
Perusing the dozens of vintage aircraft gathered at Thun Field in Puyallup, Washington in August of 2008, I was elated to see a beautifully restored Fairchild 24. It is a single-winged plane from the 1930s and was the “Rolls-Royce” of private airplanes for its day. When I was a kid I loved building model airplanes, and the first balsa wood job I made was a Fairchild. Now, for the first time I was seeing one for real.
Sensing my appreciation the owner, Ron Forman, came over and we started talking. But after a few minutes in the broiling sun, Ron suggested we retreat to the shade under the Fairchild’s starboard wing. We camped in his lawn chairs, drank ice-cold cokes, and talked airplanes.
After a few minutes, though, I saw a book by his chair that was titled, “DB Cooper…something…Legend…something…Death….”
“Are you into DB Cooper, Ron?” I asked.
“Heck, yeah!” he replied. “My wife and I just wrote that book!”
For the rest of the afternoon Ron regaled me with his story:
“Besides the Fairchild my wife and I have a Cessna 140, and for years we’d fly on the weekends with a few other 140 pilots here at Thun Field. One of the pilots, Barb Dayton, confessed to being DB Cooper during one of our coffee breaks in some airport when we were arguing about the Cooper skyjacking. Our book is about her life and how she did the skyjacking.”
“Barb? I thought DB Cooper was a guy!” I answered.
“Yeah, he was, and Barb also told us that she was the first person in Washington State to get a sex-change operation. Before 1969 she was Bobby Dayton.”
So right at the beginning I knew the DB Cooper story was going to be a wild ride.
As Ron continued I learned that Barb/Bobby was a skydiver and an exceptionally skilled pilot. In addition, she was an explosives expert and daredevil, and had worked aboard ammunition ships before her “gender-reassignment surgery,” sailing between San Francisco and Saigon. There, Bobby killed a VC sapper with his bare hands during a late night sneak attack.
Bobby had also fought in WW II with indigenous head hunters in the jungles of Borneo against the Japanese. Bobby was even chased by a grizzly in the Yukon while panning for gold.
Wow, what a story, I thought.
Ron and I spent the rest of the day talking Cooper. From what I gleaned about Barb it seems she did the skyjacking to prove to herself that she still had cajones.
“Barb would tell us all these incredible stories that we only half-believed,” said Ron, “but when she died in 2002 my wife and I started checking everything out and it all proved true except the DB Cooper confession, which we haven’t confirmed yet. For that we need a DNA analysis from the FBI, but they won’t even return our phone calls or emails, not a single one!”
I found such resistance troubling. Doesn’t the FBI want to hear a confession from DB Cooper?
So, I decided to see what was wrong with the Bureau. Plus, I wanted to learn more about the remarkable Ms. Dayton.
Ron educated me on the basics of Norjak, arming me with contact information for many of the individuals involved with the case.
But I encountered some of the same obstacles Ron had.
Ralph Himmelsbach, former FBI agent and chief skyjacking investigator in Portland where the hijacking started, is now retired. Yet, he refused to discuss the case with me unless I paid him.
Himmelsbach’s counterpart in Seattle, Special Agent Ron Nichols, has thoroughly stonewalled me.
Further, the one federal official I did speak with, Special Agent Larry Carr, was adversarial. Carr was the Cooper case agent from 2007-2009, and he bullied me throughout our twenty-minute phone conversation.
Organizationally I have also been rebuffed, and the Bureau has denied me access to all files and evidence, although it has opened its doors to other private citizens, such as Geoffrey Gray.
The current case agent, Special Agent Curtis Eng, declines to discuss the case with me in any form.
Also troubling, no representative from the FBI has attended any of the professional gatherings focused on the skyjacking, such as the DB Cooper Symposium in Portland in 2011, and a similar event held in 2013 at the Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma.
As a reporter I have long known that law enforcement is leery of the media. In effect, the police simply view us as a way to distribute their side of the story to the public, and they rarely discuss complex cases with journalists.
But in Norjak they have stonewalled me while cherry-picking the voices they prefer. This practice is possibly illegal since it runs counter to the Equal Access doctrine. It also raises the question if there is a quid pro quo—if you want access to the FBI’s files then you better write copy that is favorable to the Bureau.
Adding to that concern, I have learned in my newspaper work that the central mission of law enforcement is not to catch criminals or fight crime—if that was the case then half of our country’s cops would be camped on Wall Street. Rather, the primary purpose of the police is to protect the interests of the powerful, and in my view that dynamic is displayed in its full glory in Norjak.
Not only has the FBI withheld information from certain media, it has withheld evidence among its own agents and between field offices. At times it even appears that no one is in charge of Norjak, and is mostly an “every-man-for-himself” type of operation.
Part of that is due to the nature of a large bureaucracy trying to solve crime. Agents are competitive, and therefore selective with whom they share information.
Adding to that dynamic, case agents are given a lot of administrative leeway and run their investigations like a fiefdom.
This compartmentalization also restricts how field offices interact with each other. As a result, the Bureau isn’t very skilled in solving complex cases that involve multiple jurisdictions, as we saw in the 9-11 attacks when the FBI had trouble “connecting the dots.”
In Norjak, three main FBI offices shared the case: Portland, where the skyjacking began; Seattle, where the ransom exchange took place and the on-going skyjacking was managed; and Las Vegas, which supplied the agents for the evidence retrieval in Reno and where it was stored.
Later, as the dozen or so Cooper copycats began hijacking airplanes other field offices became involved in the Cooper investigation, particularly the Salt Lake City office. Therefore, a fourth major player landed solidly into the Norjak mix.
In addition, the case is huge, generating rooms-full of documents. So it is understandable that the record-keeping is a bit sloppy. But the Norjak information seems so disorganized, contradictory or confusing that Cooper case agents appear befuddled. Larry Carr, who relished speaking publicly about Cooper, nonetheless presented a haphazard view of the role of Earl Cossey played in the FBI’s investigation.
Further, it seems that Norjak investigators have not read many of the documents in the case files, and rely mostly on anecdotal narratives passed down from case agent to case agent. Additionally, Cooper case agents are rotated every two years on average, further eroding case management continuity.
In addition, young agents don’t have any personal knowledge of Norjak and they stumble in their efforts to identify principals in the case.
As a result Norjak appears to be in disarray. The mess is so complete that these days the FBI reportedly has to ask journalists for the phone numbers of witnesses to the skyjacking.
With such a muddle it is not surprising there are rumors of a cover-up engineered by Big Money and Big Power.
Welcome to one of America’s greatest true-crime mysteries.
Has there been a cover-up? Has the FBI’s investigation been squashed by powerful sources claiming “national security” concerns or other geopolitical canard?
Or is the FBI just sloppy, overwhelmed, or unlucky? Perhaps Cooper outsmarted the FBI and the feds just don’t want the public to know?
Or did Mother Nature simply stuff Cooper into a tiny hole somewhere in the wilds of Washington along with his parachutes, the money, and a bomb in a briefcase where no one has found him yet?
Even though this book is about the FBI as much as it is DB Cooper, I don’t solve the case or prove a conspiracy. I just offer my findings: who said what and why, at least as far as I can determine.
It’s also my effort through truth-telling to deliver a measure of justice to the incompetent, the hubristic, and the power-hungry.
So, follow me through the details of this astounding crime and come to your own conclusions.
Bruce A. Smith
All Rights Reserved