By Bruce A. Smith
Nearly one-hundred DB Cooper enthusiasts gathered Saturday, November 23, to hear from investigatory experts in America’s only unsolved skyjacking – and to share their own theories and offer opinions.
Drawn to the Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver, Washington, for formal presentations from authors and researchers, they also re-grouped at local eateries to celebrate their participation in the Cooper community – a place they call the Cooper Vortex – co called because the many mysteries of the hijacking are so fascinating that aficionados are sucked into reading, researching, and discussing DB Cooper as if powerful winds keep them transfixed.
The beautifully restored Art Deco Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver is an ideal site to dig further into the DB Cooper mystery. The city sits directly across the Columbia River from Portland’s International Airport (PDX) where the skyjacking took place forty-eight years ago, and is also the nearest urban center to where DB Cooper is thought to have landed after he jumped from his Northwest Orient 727 on the night of November 24, 1971 – the day before Thanksgiving. Nothing from the skyjacking has ever been found – no body nor the briefcase with a homemade bomb inside, and none of the four parachutes Cooper received as part of his ransom deal with the FBI along with 200,000 dollars in twenties. We still don’t know who DB Cooper was or where he came from. Yes, $6,000 or so was discovered in 1980 along the Columbia River, just downstream from the Kiggins, but no one knows how the money arrived at its location, or when.
After welcoming remarks by CooperCon 2019 host and organizer, Eric Ulis, podcast impresario Darren Schaefer delivered a smooth and comprehensive overview of the case. Based upon his one-hour interviews with many of the notables in the Cooper investigation, Schaefer has a keen view of Norjak, as the FBI calls the DB Cooper skyjacking, and he placed everyone on equal footing regarding the fundamentals of the case.
After Schaefer, veteran Cooper investigator Mark Metzler, offered his analysis of the parachutes and the survivability of the jump, saying if Cooper pulled his ripcord while descending the aft stairs of the jetliner, he would have been pulled safely off the stairs and the chutes successfully deployed.
Metzler is also a former criminal attorney and shared his view that the FBI would be unlikely to get a conviction if authorities ever found DB Cooper due to the mishandling of the evidence. The Bureau has lost much of its evidence, most notably the eight cigarette butts recovered from the plane when it landed in Reno for re-fueling sans Cooper, along with money shards found at Tina Bar in 1980. In addition, the fingerprints retrieved from the plane are suspect, along with the three bits of DNA found on the clip-on tie that Cooper apparently left behind on the plane.
“If the FBI ever arrests someone for the skyjacking, I’ll defend them pro bono and I can guarantee that I’ll get them off,” Metzler told the audience.
Next on the program was a re-play of last year’s stellar presentation on the particles found on that tie given by Tom Kaye, the chief of the Citizen Sleuths, a private group of DB Cooper investigators organized by the FBI in 2009. Most notable were shards of high-grade stainless steel, pure titanium, and various rare earth minerals. Also noteworthy is the fact that the funding for this research came from Josh Gates of the Travel Channel’s very popular “Expedition Unknown series.
After the science and hard facts, the audience was treated to a “Jeopardy-like” quiz contest conducted by Mr. Ulis and this author, Bruce Smith.
Smith then followed with a presentation of the many conspiracies engulfing the case. No, the skyjacking was not an inside job perpetrated by pilot Bill Rataczak in a Cooper look-alike ruse, nor was DB Cooper the United Airlines pilot Don Burnworth, who claimed that his ex-wife, an alleged Mafia princess, got her daddy to find an exact DB Cooper physical match to her ex-husband to frame him for the skyjacking and thereby regain full custody of their two young daughters. Smith also described the possibilities of the involvement of secret commandos, such as from MAC-V-SOG, conducting a rogue operation, and the shadowy influences of the government’s MKULTRA mind-control programs – a nefarious effort conducted by the CIA and military in the years surrounding the Cooper hijacking.
Perhaps the highlight of the day was hearing from Catherine Scott, the daughter of Captain William Scott, the skipper of DB Cooper’s plane. Catherine was sixteen at the time of the hijacking, and gave the audience a wonderful view of her stoic father. “He was very quiet, but when he spoke everyone listened,” she said. Catherine also described her father as a solid, steady, by-the-book kind of guy, and never a push-over. She also revealed that her father rarely spoke of the incident, neither privately nor publicly, until later in life. Captain Scott was a member of the American flight crews who flew the “Burma Hump” in WW II, flying DC-3 cargo planes from India to allied Chinese forces battling the Imperial Japanese army, and with those colleagues Scott felt most comfortable and began sharing his Norjak stories at veteran reunions.
After Ms. Scott, CooperCon finished with an insightful and comprehensive panel discussion of current research in the case. Vern Jones, owner and founder of Principia Media, gave a synopsis of his recent publishing of the Walter Reca story, as written by Carl Laurin. Jones was followed by Bill Rollins, the author of his newly published, The Elusive DB Cooper – How He Escapes, and shared his perspective on a possible Cooper escape down the Lewis River to Tina Bar.
Eric Ulis also delivered a brief review of his belief that Sheridan Peterson could have been DB Cooper, amplified by Mark Metzler, who has befriended Peterson despite the latter’s often tempestuous nature.
Later at local watering holes, such as the Victor-23 Tavern, Ms. Scott delighted those gathered with tales of her life. Currently, she lives in Annapolis, Maryland and is active with the US Naval Academy. She’s been a swim instructor there for over twenty years, and a coach of their water polo team. In addition, she just bought a two-person rowing scull to have fun and exercise on the nearby Chesapeake Bay. Plus, she’s taking boxing lessons, and is busy with her weekly duties as a “Plebe Mom,” offering new naval cadets a little home cooking during their brief weekly hours of rest and relaxation away from the Academy.
As Ms. Scott flew to CooperCon from Maryland, many at the CooperCon were from out-of-town, such as Arizona, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Michigan and New Hampshire. Thus, the after-hour festivities were well-attended. On the night before the conference, Friday, fourteen members of CooperCon gathered at Von Ebert’s craft brewery in Portland, near PDX. On Saturday, over twenty festavarians hoisted brews at Victor-23, including the DB Cooper Choir, which delivered a boisterous rendition of “Singing the DB Cooper Blues.”
On Sunday, the Road Tour through the FBI’s landing zones was a laid-back excursion through Hockinson, Battleground, and Amboy – all the hot-spots the FBI claimed were likely places DB Cooper landed once he jumped from his Flight 305. In Amboy, we stopped at Nick’s Tavern and were delighted to discover that Nick’s is revitalizing the DB Cooper Daze festivities made famous by the many decades of Cooper revelry at the Ariel Tavern. As it has been for the past forty years, locals and Cooperites will gather – now at Nick’s and not at Dona Elliott’s place – on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year, that’s November 30, and the live music and partying begins at 4 pm.
For those who want more, Kiggins Theater owner, Dan Wyatt, has written a radio-drama based upon the interactions of the skyjacker and flight crew during the hijacking. Titled, “The Flight of DB Cooper,” Wyatt’s piece will be performed at the Kiggins this Wednesday evening, the night before Thanksgiving!
In addition, Rob Bertrand’s “DB Cooper Escape Room” in Vancouver still packs in sizeable crowds on the weekends. Plus, Rob says that he too, is penning a film script on the DB Cooper case.
CooperCon 2019 host, Eric Ulis stands beside Catherine Scott, the daughter of Captain William “Scotty” Scott, the pilot-in-charge of Cooper’s Flight 305. Ms. Scott is holding her father’s Captain’s Hat that he wore the night of the skyjacking. Photo courtesy of Eric Ulis.
The panel of authors and experts at Cooper Con. Left to right: Vern Jones, Bruce A. Smith, Bill Rollins, Mark Metzler, Darren Schaefer, and Eric Ulis. Photo courtesy of Eric Ulis.
Good times at the Victor-23 Tavern in Vancouver. Seated in front, in black, is Rob Bertrand of the DB Cooper Escape Room, and next to him, in red, is Dan Wyatt, owner of the Kiggins Theater. Photo courtesy of Eric Ulis.
Darren Schaefer, the founder of The Cooper Vortex podcast, right, stands besides Norjak researcher Nicky Brougham, (ahem, Broughton), underneath the still-extant signage at the Ariel Tavern a few hours before the beginning of CooperCon 2019. Photo courtesy of Darren Schaefer.
Friday night gathering at Von Ebert’s Pub at PDX. Of note, on far right, in blue, is the Cooper Vortex podcast tech wiz, Russell.
The Vortex knows no age. 10-year old, Noah, the nephew of CooperCon attendee Kyle Pauley, is shown ready to go Trick or Treating this year dressed as DB Cooper. Uncle Kyle said the following of Noah: “He discovered the DB Cooper story over the summer through YouTube videos and became very interested. When his mother told him that his uncle was an enthusiast, he immediately had her call me to discuss theories and landing zones. For Halloween this year, he was adamant that he wanted to be DB, complete with historically accurate money in a briefcase. Each bill is time-period accurate and features Tina Bar serial numbers.” Whew…. Photo courtesy of Kyle Pauley.