DB Cooper suspect, Ted Mayfield, killed in aviation accident

by Bruce A. Smith

Long-time DB Cooper suspect, Ted E Mayfield, was killed Friday, August 28 in an aviation-related accident at his home in Sheridan, Oregon. He was struck on his arm while hand-starting an Air Coupe prop airplane and died of his injury at the scene.

Mayfield was 79.

Mayfield was well-known in the DB Cooper case as the leading suspect in the early days of the DB Cooper investigation. FBI officials have stated that Mayfield was fingered by at least six callers the night of the hijacking, November 24, 1971, but was soon cleared from the suspect list.

Despite the official position, many researchers continued to feel that Mayfield was an important suspect, and his status was re-examined by two Portland investigators, Daniel Dvorak and Matt Meyers, in 2006.

Mayfield’s death was quickly reported in DB Cooper chat rooms on the Internet, and on Sunday August 30, I spoke with Ted Mayfield’s daughter, Gwen in Sheridan as his family gathered at his home.

Gwen confirmed that Ted died from an accident with his airplane. She gave me details, and also a commentary on the family’s interaction the night of November 24, 1971. First, his death.

Gwen said that Ted died Friday, about 2:30 pm. He was hand-starting a plane located in his backyard and the prop caught, nearly severing his arm. Gwen said that Ted “just wanted to listen to the engine.”

Because Ted had been taking a blood-thinning medicine called Warfarin, he bleed out within minutes.

“There were a lot of people around, and the paramedics were on the line, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do,” Gwen told me.

Despite the family tragedy, Gwen eagerly shared her memories of the night DB Cooper stole his airplane.

“I was living in Bellevue at the time with my mother, and the skyjacking was all over the news. I told my mom, ‘I gotta call Dad and see what he thinks!’

“I called my father and he was sitting right at his desk. He told me that the FBI had already called him looking for parachutes and that he had told them to call Earl Cossey. Then he said that he had to hang up because the FBI had just arrived and they wanted to go through his records. He sounded very casual the whole time. Now, does that sound like someone who had just hijacked an airplane?”

Gwen and I also discussed the DB Cooper case.

“I have a theory on what happened to skyjacker,” she said. “I think that when he opened the stairwell doors the air rushed out and pulled him into the stairway, where he hit his head and fell down the stairs unconscious. I don’t think he ever opened his chute and that’s why his body has never been found, and the money was scattered down by the river.”

Again, I countered, “Then what happened to the bomb, the briefcase, the other parachute – all the stuff that wasn’t found on the plane at Reno?”

“Well, you have your opinion and I have mine, and we can argue all day long if you want to!” she said. “I’m just as bull-headed as my father,” she added playfully, but firmly.

We both laughed.

Gwen also told me her perceptions of her father.

“He was a good man, benevolent. He was a man of good will.”

I countered and said that a lot of people had a different view of her father.

“We can argue about that, too,” she said.

Even though Mayfield’s daughter has fond memories of her father, the public record indicates the man was much different.

Ted Mayfield had many run-ins with law enforcement during his life, and had been arrested in 1977 for flying a stolen airplane across state lines. In addition, he was also arrested for armed robbery in his youth, a hold up that occurred in the Oregon City area.

In 1994, Mayfield was convicted and incarcerated for five months for the negligent homicide of two of his skydiving students at his Pacific Parachute Center in Sheridan. Later, Mayfield was found to have been indirectly responsible for the death of 13 other skydiving students due to faulty equipment and training.

Similarly, Mayfield had lost his pilot’s license and rigging certificates on multiple occasions for safety violations, most recently in 2010 when he flew a plane from the Eugene airport without proper credentials and blatantly failed to follow safety protocols on take-off.

His criminal background also put him on the FBI’s radar screen before the Cooper skyjacking, as he had a prior altercation with FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, the special agent who headed the DB Cooper investigation in Portland. Apparently, two members of Mayfield’s staff violated safety protocols at Aurora airport where Himmelsbach parked his own private airplane and Mayfield held skydiving classes. Himmelsbach was a former WW II fighter pilot, and reported the infractions. Soon, friction developed between Mayfield and Himmelsbach.

However, Himmelsbach later wrote in his book on the Cooper investigation that Mayfield was “most helpful” in the Cooper investigation, giving the Bureau vital information on local skydivers.

 

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25 Responses to DB Cooper suspect, Ted Mayfield, killed in aviation accident

  1. Suspect’s entry updated at Unsolved Crimes. My sympathy goes out to Mayfield’s family. Well, he was an aviation guy and dying in that manner might not have been the worst way to go.

  2. rthurs666 says:

    Nothing in the past 30 years has caused me to alter my personal opinion of the events. “Cooper” – whoever he was/is – survived the jump but lost the money on the way down. A briefcase is not a good container if you are doing a parachute jump. It probably either came loose or popped open during the descent. I am pretty sure that “Cooper” walked or more likely limped away from his landing point saying “that was really stupid, I’m not gonna do anything like that again.” he then buried his chute(s) and other stuff near the landing area and went on with his life. Most of the money has rotted away or been eaten by deer, elk or porcupines by now.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Nothing in the past eight years that I’ve researched the DB Cooper case has led me to believe that the briefcase was used to transport the money, or that DB Cooper walked away and muttered that he was never going “to do anything like that again.”

      Just sayin’, Richard.

      Thanks for reading, though!

  3. David J Johnson says:

    Sympathy to the Mayfield family in their loss.

    Whilst there has been much debate about the Cooper “jump”, I still feel not enough thought has been given to the theory that Cooper could have hidden on the plane and melted away in the chaos when the 727 landed?

    Best wishes to Bruce from the UK

    David

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Thanks, David. And YES, I have considered the point you raise about DB Cooper not jumping out the back, but rather, staying on the plane and melting away in the shadows. But what do you think of all the challenges’ he would have had to face, such as I listed and described in the book, and here on the Mountain News?

      I.e.: How would he have sneaked away? – dressed as a mechanic? FBI agent? Reporter? Dog Handler? Or did he wait until the wee hours when the cops were on their third round of coffee and donuts and he slunk away in his biz suit? 4 am???

      How would he have disguised the money bag? What would he have done with all the stuff not found in the cabin, such as briefcase, bomb, reserve chute? Tossed out the back while in flight? Where? Nothing was ever found despite the fact that the laminate card was found in the woods in Washington?

      How would he get away from the airport? Or did he stay on the plane until Boeing Field when it went there the next day for repair?? When exactly, and where, do you think he deplaned?

      • rthurs666 says:

        The fact that some of the money was found in the Columbia River some years later pretty well demolishes the theory that “Cooper” remained on the plane until it landed at Reno. After going to all the trouble to get that money, it seems very unlikely that he would have tossed it out the back and remained aboard. And there are not many places to hide on a 727. Aircrew or ground crew would have found him very quickly unless he had a portable Romulan cloaking deice.

    • Mark says:

      “… hidden on the [727] …”?

      Obviously you’ve never been on a Boeing 727.

  4. David J Johnson says:

    Bruce, I raise the possibility of Cooper staying on the 727 only as a point for debate. There is no evidence that Cooper actually jumped and no evidence whatsoever on the ground that he jumped and landed. In the chaos when the plane eventually landed, there were plenty of opportunities to escape detection.

    I recall you asking my advice regarding the banknotes found in suspicious circumstances at Tena Bar, years later. Certainly those notes had only been in the water around eighteen months – two years at the absolute latest.

    Whether or not he jumped or stayed on the 727, there is no evidence either way – hence my plea to look at all possibilities.

    Best regards,

    David

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Whoa, David, you paint with a VERY broad brush, here. No evidence he jumped? Well, yes, technically, as far as we know, which leads to the question: why don’t we have the evidence needed to decide this issue? Where are the radar signals of a parachutist descending? SAGE should have picked that up, no? Or was it unable? Regular radar systems picked up skydivers, according to skydivers, so how does it happen that we have bupkus on this? Those are the real questions to ask here, I believe, not whether he stayed with the plane.

      Plus you assume there was chaos in Reno? What’s your proof? I believe you are assuming that there was chaos because there were over 200 LE from many different jurisdictions and that is a prime recipe for chaos. But was it in actuality? We don’t have access to this level of documentation – ie: some chaos, medium chaos, total chaos, no chaos.

      You say you offer the possibility of staying on the plane for debate. Okay – then debate it! How did Cooper melt into the crowd? Give us the scenario! Then we can look for evidence to support the hypothesis, because we are shooting in the dark right now. But let’s sstart with what we do know.

      So you are saying – for debate, of course – that Cooper UNTIED the money bag from his waist that Tina says she saw, and then did something else with it. Okay. But at some point we have to start assigning PLAUSIBILITY factors to every scenario. Then we have to put a time line to it. When did he do all of whatever he did? Then we have to account for other phenomenon, such as the pressure bump and the oscillation. Did Cooper walk down the stairs, jump up and down to trigger the oscillations, then he crawled back up and then hid himself? Okay. But then how did the stairs then bounce back and cause the pressure bump?

      C’mon. You gotta start coming up with some rebuttals, other than saying there isn’t any evidence for this or that.

      Yes, thanks for the info on the bills. I remember that you worked with money in the past and have professional knowledge of the factors affecting the money at T-Bar.

      Bruce

      • David J Johnson says:

        Bruce, I think we have to “paint with a very broad brush”, because we simply have no firm evidence either way: that he jumped, or that he hid on the 727 and slipped away in Reno.

        The pressure bump experienced on the aircraft could have been from throwing the case, or jumping on the stairway. As you say there is no radar or sighting of a jump from the aircraft.

        Regarding the search of the 727 at Reno. There were FBI agents, sheriffs officers and local police: they cannot of known each other and could have just assumed they were from another agency.

        We cannot come-up with rebuttals, because the evidence is just not there with either scenario. The case is just full of assumptions. Any theory is worthy of discussion and debate.

        For what it is worth I believe he jumped and got away with the crime – but that is a personal opinion – just as every other theory in this case.

        Best regards,

        David

      • rthurs666 says:

        SAGE would not have picked up a single person wearing a civilian parachute unless the parachute had a homing device incorporated in it or he was wearing suit of armor. As the system worked at the time, the SAGE computer at 25th NORAD Division at McChord taxes information from a number of different radar sites and presents it on a console at McChord. It is designed to track metal objects like airplanes and missiles which move laterally over terrain. A silk parachute and a human body would not move fast enough to be tracked. The “blip” on the radar would have been edited out of the computer display or dismissed as a bird or hot air balloon which NORAD does not track.

      • Mark says:

        According to a private investigation group, who’s name escapes me at the moment (sorry)…

        The rubber bands around the money found on the banks of the Columbia couldn’t have been in place more than about 2 years. I believe the money was planted to throw off the FBI.

        One of the only “firm” details is that there was some sort of pressure bump around 8:13pm that night. I leave that vague, because it is possible that it was a minute or two sooner. I’ve also read in some accounts that the direction could have been off by as much as 45 to 60 degrees, depending on who you listen to. If that’s the case, and I’m just spitballing here… but if that’s true, it’s no wonder that no one was able to pinpoint the landing site.

        Also, let’s keep in mind that the government only searched for about 7 days, stating “we’re just looking for a hole in the ground and that can wait until spring.” Seems to me that they weren’t terribly interested in him, and assumed right away that he died.

      • rthurs666 says:

        I think I have mentioned this before, but SAGE radar would not pick up a target as small and containing so little metal as a man descending on a parachute. SAGE was designed to track planes and missiles, not parachutists. Some military parachutes are equipped with transponders, which would have been detected, but the model that Cooper was using did not have one.

  5. brucesmith49 says:

    Thanks for the explanation, Dick.

  6. Roland says:

    All interesting stuff here, but since I’m a former airline pilot who flew the 727, I’d like to clarify something for you.

    Pressurization was not a factor in his jump. The only way Cooper could have attempted the jump was to open the rear door which would not open unless the plane was depressurized. Once he had the door open the rear tail section would have already been depressurized since that section is never pressurized to begin with – it is aft of the pressure vessel. When he opened the stairs there would have been a rush of air into the tail section, but since there was not vacuum, he wouldn’t have been sucked out. If he know anything about the airplane (he probably did) he would of known to hold on to something while opening the stairs.

    Just wanted to interject an little aviation knowledge into the discussion.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      You are correct, Roland. Or at least I agree with you. I tried to explain some of this to Ted Mayfield’s daughter, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. Her denial was extreme, and oddly, matched completely by others. Some of her family’s friends contacted me and said flatly that they do not believe one bit of Ted’s criminal history that I wrote about. They denied the airplane heist, the armed robbery, the culpability in skydiving deaths, bad behavior at airports and on runways that cost Ted his pilot’s certificate, and lastly, all responsibility for losing his rigging credentials.

      They do acknowledge that Ted was incarcerated for the students’ deaths, but they say that Ted was framed, and imprisoned without due process.

      • Roland says:

        Go figure. There is no point in talking to someone who chooses to have their head in the sand or elsewhere less comfortable.

      • rthurs666 says:

        As a reporter, you know that denials are par for the course when family members and close friends are questioned about a suspect’s criminal history or bad behaviour. You will usually get the “The Ted Mayfield I knew would NEVER do something like that.” or “The people at {fill in the blank} are just out to get him.” Talk to his friends and his enemies, but don’t believe either without evidence. As for hiding on the 727, there’s no way you could hide anything much bigger than a rabbit on a 727, let alone a bag of loot.

        Dan Cooper’s remains may well be in bits and pieces in some secluded forest area. But unless it was deliberately buried, it would not have lasted long in the woods Beas, coyotes, etc. will have eaten the good parts and scattered the bones within a couple of years. Paper money will have been eaten by deer, porcupines etc. or composted with the fallen leaves.

        I, myself, have responded to stuff found after many years, like an ejection seat with associated bones found on Fort Lewis (bones turned out to be elk bones); a USAF fighter wreck on a hill near Buckley which turned out to be a known crash that was marked on the maps, but on the wrong hill; a B-57 canopy which turned up in a farmer’s field in Eastern Washington (we never figured that one out). So the fact that “Cooper’s” body, briefcase and parachutes have never been found proves absolutely nothing.

      • Mark says:

        Reminds me of a lot of the post-JFK discussions. Some people may have stressed to her that she “toe the party line” in order to avoid making waves. I have no knowledge of Mayfield’s criminal accounts, but I am willing to believe that they did happen. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been mentioned in the first place. Same for responsibility as a skydiving instructor and everything else.
        As for a lack of due process, I cannot honestly comment. It does make me wonder if she’s hiding information.

  7. Carol Bracken says:

    My heartfelt sympathy to Gwendy – I am an Australian who did my student licence at Sheridan – I thought I was trained well and did not see any untoward unsafe practices there – Ted was most hospitable and I knew Gwendy when she was only young – I visited in 1973 – overall over the years I did approximately 500 jumps – I am so painfully sorry that this man has been lost. RIP Ted – I remember u doing your 4000th jump when I was there.

  8. Evelyn Rasmussen says:

    Forget the RIP Ted! As the neice of my beloved Uncle Lee Perry who died on his first parachute jump because Mr. Mayfield gave him a faulty parachute….my family has NO sympathy for the man! Lee Perry was the 13th man to die because of Mayfield’s neglect. RIH Ted Mayfield.

    • Lisanne Dickenson says:

      In complete agreement with the above post. There are 13 families who are STILL grieving over the loss of loved ones. The fact that his family denies his culpability in their deaths doesn’t surprise me as he himself never took any responsibility. He continued to break the law and cause tragedy even after being “shut down”. When my family faced him in court to say our peace, he simply smirked at us. Such heartbreak…all caused by one man who apparently felt that he was above the law. I always felt that he didn’t receive a real punishment for his crimes because of his suspected involvement in the DB Cooper case. I dislike that I feel NO sympathy for Mr. Mayfield….but quite honestly, I’m glad he was finally stopped. No more needless deaths now.

  9. Jeff Ceballos says:

    Ted.. You are truly going to be missed at the BBQ. We have a great team to try to carry on your legacy my friend. The whole team is going to pancake breakfast in your honor. I wish you could be there buddy.
    Jeff

  10. Rod Plapp says:

    I took my one and only jump at PPC in march of 73.Abner was my jump instructor and mentioned a female fatality.Anyone know how to find the list of fatalities there?

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