By Bruce A. Smith
The 47th Anniversary of the DB Cooper skyjacking was celebrated with a gathering of experts and aficionados to discuss the details of the case, and ponder new evidence and suspects.
On November 24, 1971, DB Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient 727 enroute to Seattle from Portland, and after he jumped from the aft stairs with $200,000 in twenties tethered to his waist, nothing has ever been discovered – neither his identity, fate, or any of his gear or booty. However, $6,200 of ransom money was found on a Columbia River beach in 1980, but that discovery also defies explanation. DB Cooper’s daring-do has been feted every since, and this anniversary was no exception. The DB Cooper heist, known to law enforcement as NORJAK, remains the only unsolved skyjacking in American history. Nevertheless, the FBI officially closed the case in 2016.
Approximately 100 people gathered Saturday, November 2018 at the Edgewater Country Club in Portland, Oregon to share opinions, sell books and DVDs on the case, and network with each other. It was the third such gathering in recent memory, with a major conference in Portland in 2011, and a smaller affair in Tacoma at the Washington State Historical Museum in 2013.
The first half of this year’s conference featured experts in the case illustrating the fundamentals of the case, and revealing new understandings of this iconic mystery.
First to speak was parachute expert, Mark Metzler, known in DB Cooper chat rooms as “377.” Metzler described in detail the differences in construction between military and civilian parachutes, claiming that skydivers using sport chutes such as the Pioneer Steinthal that was found unused on Cooper’s plane when it landed for refueling in Reno, Nevada, must deploy at speeds below 150 mph. However, military parachutes are more rugged, with shroud lines enveloping the entire canopy, and can handle much higher speeds. Cooper’s plane, Flight 305 was traveling closer to 200 mph when Cooper jumped, and thus the military chute that might have been aboard, such as a NB-6 or NB-8 – both emergency parachutes for navy fliers – would have been adequate. Metzler said that the NB-8 would most likely contain a 28-foot C-9 parachute, whereas the NB-6 would contain a 26-foot conical chute.
But the exact nature of the parachute DB Cooper used is shrouded in mystery. The FBI’s technical expert on parachutes, Earl Cossey, says Cooper had a NB-6 or NB-8. However, Norman Hayden, whom FBI documents reveal delivered these back chutes to NWO and owned them, says he only gave civilian Pioneer rigs containing Steinthals. FBI documents and statements by case agents vary greatly on this subject and Cooper World reels, trying to resolve this dilemma. Adding to the struggle Cossey was murdered in 2013, and his death is also unsolved.
Next up was yours truly, talking about the money find at Tina Bar in 1980. I discussed three apparent money finds at this Columbia River beach, about fifteen miles downstream from where the 2018 Conference was held.
The first money find was the iconic discovery of three bundles of twenties by Brian Ingram, the 8-year old kid smoothing a sandy stretch of strand for his family to roast hot dogs. On Sunday, February 10, 1980, his fingers scraped across the top of the bundles and then he dug them out. They were all in severely weathered condition, compressed, and missing the corners and edges. Subsequent examination of the serial numbers revealed that these bills were from the Cooper ransom, and this discovery remains the only incontrovertible piece of evidence in NORJAK.
The second money find occurred three days later when FBI agents from the Portland Division, under the command of SA Ralph Himmelsbach, descended on the beach and started digging in the sand where Brian had found his three bundles. Himmelsbach says his team found shards of money in the original discovery area down to a depth of three feet.
The Public Information Officer on the scene, Dorwin Schroeder, has told many researchers that they found pieces of money stretching over an area 20-feet in all directions from the spot where Brian found his twenties. Schroeder also says that the shards were recovered from depths of 3-4 feet, and some were as big as 2-3 inches across. A KATU-TV video shows these larger pieces of ransom money and their placement into Plasticine evidence envelopes. However, none of these envelopes are in evidence in Seattle, and as far as is known have never been seen in public. The only money pieces in FBI possession that have been witnessed, such as by the Citizen Sleuth Team in 2009 and 2011, are hundreds of itsy-bitsy pieces that look more like dust particles than remnants of a twenty-dollar bill.
Himmelsbach says that all the money recovered at T-Bar went to Seattle, but he retired from the Bureau two weeks after the money find, and his subsequent investigations of the money are unknown. But his PIO, SA Schroeder, took over his skyjacking duties at the Portland FBI office, and he told this reporter that he assumed a passive perspective on the case, only responding to clues brought into the FBI by the public. Thus, it is understood that after the February money find at T-Bar, the rest of the Columbia River river bank was never searched for more money or evidence – not even Cooper’s body.
Into that breach DB Cooper researcher Galen Cook began contacting beach owners near Tina Bar and talked to local fishermen. Cook says that he found two men who were teenagers in 1980, and they say that they fished the river regularly in the T-Bar area. They claim that in January 1980 – one month before the Brian Ingram find – they found dozens of torn corners of twenty-dollar bills laying in the sand about 100 feet downstream from Brian’s spot. This third discovery remains uncorroborated, and thus is highly controversial.
The next speaker was Tom Kaye, the head of the Citizen Sleuth Team (CST). Kaye discussed the particles found on the tie reportedly left behind by DB Cooper, in particular the recent discovery of 100,000 rare earth minerals and other exotic or unusual chemical deposits.
First was a history of the initial examination by the CST using their electron microscope. They found hundreds of particles, and most prominent was pure titanium.
“In 1971, titanium was not common,” said Kaye, “and was not used in sporting goods as it is today, and was found mostly in aviation applications, such as Boeing’s SST.” But the SST uses titanium alloys, so the CST explored the titanium mining and extraction process to see where pure Ti could be found in quantity and how it might land on a thin, black tie.
Kaye and his CST found that titanium is extracted from “titanium sand” and was selectively removed by two different chemical processes. One, the Kroll Process, uses chlorine and the other, the Hunter Process, uses sodium to “suck out” the titanium from the sand.
However, the CST also found large amounts of mineral salts on the tie, and the sodium process leaves NaCl residues, which is the primary component of salt. Surprisingly, the sodium process is only used in one manufacturing plant, RMI, which is located in Illinois. Kaye and the CST thought that RMI might be the site where DB Cooper worked long enough as an engineer or manager to adsorb titanium and salt on his tie, but officials at RMI said they had no employees resembling the DB Cooper sketch working in the pre-skyjacking period.
Seemingly at a dead end, the tie investigation took a dramatic turn in 2015 when the Travel Channel interviewed Tom Kay for an Expedition Unknown episode on DB Cooper. During the resulting conversations, the host of the show, Josh Gates, decided to contribute the monies to examine the tie at a state-of-the art laboratory, the McCrone Institute in Illinois.
The McCrone labs used a high-end ASPEX 3025 SEM electron microscope to examine the tie particles. Kaye says they found additional Antimony, Cerium, Cerium Lanthanum, and other phosphors, and Barium, plus cutting tool and match-head residues, and elements of gold and platinum, presumably from the tie clip of other jewelry use with the tie. Also, the NaCl was an industrial type of salt, and not the kind of table salt found on French Fries. In addition, they also found a substance called “frit,” which is a powder used to fuse glasses together, and shards of stainless steel, but not regular steel.
Taken in sum, Kaye offered this analysis:
The phosphors, ceriums and antimony are indicative of cathode ray tube manufacturing. The cutting tool residues also suggest a manufacturing environment, as does the stainless steel and frit. Kaye said that the primary location for these kinds of elements would be the Tektronix plant in Portland, which was the leading manufacturer of oscilloscopes in the country in 1971. Lastly, the match head residues indicate a heavy smoker, and the tie itself suggests a manager or engineer.
“This is the hottest lead in Cooper World,” Kaye pronounced.
As for the afternoon, the bulk of the time was dedicated to a rendition of suspects by their leading advocates. Peter Rouse, a resident of Astoria, Oregon, spoke about the connection between Norman DeWinter and Robert Rackstraw. Although highly personalized – Rouse talked about his personal involvement with DeWinter – he offered no new information on Rackstraw as DB Cooper.
But many Rackstraw advocates were in attendance, including Russ and Kristy Cooper, the residents of Portland who informed Tom Colbert of the possible DBC burial sites in LaConner, WA where the money and parachutes might be found. The Coopers and other individuals from that retrieval effort, such as Jim Erwin, were in the audience and spoke informally during the conference.
Bradley Collins, who has written a book claiming his father was DB Cooper, was also in attendance, but did not speak publicly. Nevertheless, he was active in smaller groupings.
Next on stage was Vern Jones, the publisher of the Walter Reca story, penned by Carl Laurin. Jones offered a detailed and authoritative description of the Reca saga. Jones also established a wonderful bonhomie with the audience and other DBC experts by saying, “I know that much of what I am going to tell you is going to rub you the wrong way, such as the flight path. I acknowledge that, and we want to be transparent about it, but it is the Walter Reca story as told by Carl Laurin. It’s what we’ve got.”
In essence, Walter Reca was a rough fellow and part-time thief who was an expert skydiver. In 1971 he decided that it was “Better to be Dead than Poor,” and stole NWO Flight 305. The Reca story has him landing in Cle Elum, WA, due east of Seattle and a long ways from the Victor-23 air corridor that DB Cooper was supposedly following south of Sea-Tac airport.
Later, Reca was absolved of this crime and recruited into a contract position for an unnamed intelligence agency of the United States Government. After a period of training where his “head was sculpted” Reca performed off-the-books operations, including assassinations, in 34 countries worldwide. Jones’ presentation of Reca’s passports was fascinating, with stamps and official certifications overflowing from the pages in dozens of languages.
Jones’ presentation was highly professional and well-received, even if widely doubted.
Lastly, Conference host and organizer, Eric Ulis, delivered his up-to-date analysis of Sheridan Peterson as the leading suspect for DB Cooper. New revelations included the secret bank account Peterson had in Singapore, and the fact that his second wife – with whom he lived in Nepal and was his primary alibi – was not dead as he had reported to the FBI, but rather, was still alive according to Peterson family members that Ulis has contacted in the past few weeks.
Peterson, 92, is living in central California. His “lightly fictionalized” account of the Vietnam War, An Idiot’s Frightful Laughter, has recently been published by the Cooperite known as “Snowmman” and was available for viewing at the Conference. It is for sale at Lulu.com, with all proceeds going to Peterson. Ulis and others feel that many of the elements of the DB Cooper skyjacking are confirmed or revealed in Peterson’s book, such as descriptions of harsh parachute jumps. Regardless, it is a searing war account and worthy of a read.
Following the Conference many attendees and presenters flocked to the Victor-23 pub in nearby Vancouver. The wateringhole is chummy craft brewery, with a wall mural depicting a Northwest Orient 727 discharging its passengers, and the good vibes of the Conference continued.
In fact, most of the presenters met there before the Conference. Mark Metzler, Eric Ulis, Tom Kaye and yours truly arrived there early in Friday evening, and met Dirk Wierenga and Dave S, who comprised the video crew from Principia filming the gathering. Vern Jones and his wife Irene joined us in the course of events. A Pilsner called “Skyjacker blonde” was delicious, as was rumored another Pilsner, the “Schaffner,” named after flight attendant Florence Schaffner, but was sold out. Further, the wall mural of Cooper’s 727 is actually a “200” series and not the 100 that Cooper flew, I was informed. The 200 has an aft fuselage door on the starboard side, which the 100 does not, besides the customary ventral aft stairways.
Both Friday and Saturday evenings numerous locals came by and shared a beer with us and the roomful of Cooperites, including podcasters Darren Schaefer, and his editor “Ben.” “Vince” from Olympia hung with us through the night and videoed many presenters and attendees for later broadcast.
On Saturday, I sat with Ron Bertrand, who runs the NW Escape Experience and features the DB Cooper Escape Room, where someone last summer broke in to rob the place and couldn’t get out and had to call 911 to be arrested and “freed,” so to speak.
Rob is a major DB Cooper figure in Portland. Very passionate and informed.
Clyde Lewis, the host of Portland’s Ground Zero Radio, came to the conference at the end of the afternoon and joined us at V-23. There he regaled us with his numerous encounters with DB Cooper suspect, Wolfgang Gossett, who died a few years ago in Depoe Bay, Oregon. Those two gentlemen were entangled in the extreme, with encounters in Utah, Oregon, talk radio, and personal healings. Lewis even lived two block away from Gossett’s last wife. Clyde should write a book about his personal relationship with “Wolfie,” and about Gossett regardless of the DB Cooper angle. Wolfie and Clyde are just two extraordinary, weird, fascinating guys.
Clyde also told us many stories from his Ground Zero radio show, which is broadcast nationally. His tales of research on the fringe, such as MKULTRA, Area 51, and reverse engineering of UFOs at Hangar 18 at Wright-Paterson were captivating. Many Cooperites loved it, as I did, but not all.
Another conferee at V-23 was Dan Wyatt, who runs the Kiggins Theatre in Portland. Wyatt produced a DB Cooper radio show there on Wednesday evening, which folks at V-23 said was fantastic.
One of the eye-catching dimensions of the conference – and the pub – was that half the folks were Millennials, 30-years and younger. I was impressed. They asked lots of questions, too. One woman named Katie asked questions all day and all evening, too. Took notes, too. First time I ever saw a marbleized notebook in a tavern….
Everyone I talked with thought the conference was a success and they now want an annual gathering. Most also want an “Ariel tavern-style” party to accompany the conference. Bryan Woodruff, son of Dona Elliott, the late owner of the Ariel Tavern and DB Cooper Party Hostess, was in attendance at V-23, and voiced support for these ideas.
One of the hallmarks of the conference, and certainly evenings at the Victor-23 pub, was the lack of animosity – the total opposite of the current bickering on the DB Cooper Forum. Some folks came into the conference in a cautious manner, such as Kristy Cooper and her husband Russ Cooper. When Kristy introduced herself to me, I said, “Ah, I have been tracking you two for a long time!”
“Yes, I know,” Kristy replied, with a slight smile. Nevertheless, we talked about working cooperatively in the future, and that might be a possibility. But their leader, Tom Colbert, needs to give the okay for Kristy and Russ to feel comfortable with that arrangement. But she bought my book, so….
As for next year, Eric Ulis says that he is committed to producing another Conference. He also announced that Mark Metzler made a substantial contribution to this year’s Conference, which was free to the public. Details will follows as plans are developed.
Pictured: Eric Ulis, (r), Mark Metzler, (c), Bruce A. Smith, (l). Picture courtesy of Eric Ulis.
Tim Kaye, (l), with Bradley Collins, (r)
NB-8, top, with 727 flight manual, lower
Reserve chute, lower, with flight manual, above
Eric Ulis giving his introductory remarks at the beginning of the 2018 DB Cooper Conference. Edgewater Columbia Country Club, Portland, OR