By Bruce A. Smith
Although the DB Cooper case is over forty years-old, the suspects keep coming and one of the enduring mysteries of this case is how many middle-aged Caucasian men didn’t appear for Thanksgiving dinner in 1971.
One of the many gentlemen who missed out on his turkey was Jack Albert Collins, and family lore says he spent the holiday weekend with his younger brother, Romaine “Bud” Collins in unknown pursuits. But Jack Collins’ son, Bradley Scott Collins, feels his father was AWOL from the family because he was out skyjacking an airplane with his uncle Bud.
The story of Jack Collins as DB Cooper came to light in 2013 when Bradley published his short narrative: My Father Was DB Cooper–$200,000 in ransom and a parachute jump to an uncertain fate.
Bradley, who was fourteen in 1971, isn’t sure where his father was on Thanksgiving Day, but remembers that he had departed from the family home in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, the day of the skyjacking. Jack Collins left early in the day and indicated that he was going to visit Bud, who lived in Battleground, Washington, just north of Portland. Jack never called his wife or family during the holiday period, and returned on Sunday only to say that he “was tired.”
Bradley says that initially he assumed that his father and uncle had gone skydiving, as both of them were experienced parachutists. In fact, they were both friends of Cooper suspect, Ted Mayfield. Both brothers were also lifelong pilots, and further intrigue is added by Uncle Bud, who was a 727 pilot for Northwest Orient. However, Bradley doesn’t prove what his father or uncle actually did that weekend, and only offers his “gut feelings” about the two men.
When the skyjacking was taking place, Bradley says that he heard Flight 305 circle overhead as he sold Seattle Times newspapers at the Everett ferry docks, and claims he instinctively knew that his father was performing the hijacking above him. However, Robert99 of the DB Cooper Forum has shown conclusively that the nearest Flight 305 came to Everett was 17 nautical miles south of town, and the cloud cover almost certainly muffled any sound from planes overhead, so Bradley’s inner knowingness must be assumed to be of a mystical nature.
But Bradley says his father was a risk-taker and would entice his younger brother to join in with his escapades, and casts the skyjacking as just their latest adventure.
As a result, Bradley feels his father performed the skyjacking and posits that Uncle Bud was the ground man. Bradley suggests further that Jack landed near the Merwin Dam in Ariel. As sketchy as this may be, Bradley’s instincts were solidified in December 1971, when his father announced that the FBI had interviewed him and Uncle Bud in connection to the DB Cooper case. Apparently, the local mayor, Harve Harrison, and his wife Jodi, strongly suspected Jack Collins of being the skyjacker and had alerted the police.
Although Bradley offers no conclusive proof that his father was DB Cooper, he shares numerous tidbits about his father’s questionable business practices, and intimates that his father engaged in business fraud and money laundering. In fact, Bradley’s father was a kind of wheeler-dealer, and had the nickname of “Jumping Jack Cash.”
In 2009, Bradley began researching his father’s life and embraced his suspicions that Jumping Jack Cash was DB Cooper. As part of his process of discovery, Bradley contacted Curtis Eng at the Seattle FBI, who inquired about DNA samples. However, the results of Eng’s investigation are unknown.
Then in a burst of the muse over a few days in 2012, Bradley penned his story. Besides the DB Cooper association, Bradley also delivered a dramatic account of finding the body of his Uncle Bud in their family home, deceased from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Uncle Bud also left a suicide note, blaming his brother for “interfering in his life.”
During the 2013 DB Cooper Symposium in Tacoma, I interviewed Bradley about his claims. The conversation became contentious, however, when I pushed Bradley for some proof beyond his own personal “gut feelings.” He got angry and stormed away from our meeting. His wife, Robin, attempted unsuccessfully to soothe him, and later asked me to find a way to continue the interview. I told her I was available, but wasn’t going to chase her husband. She lingered in my company hoping that Bradley would return, but he never did. In our few moments together, Robin had little to offer other than to say that Jack had been a very nice guy and had “always been very welcoming to the family.”
Another fellow to miss Thanksgiving in 1971 was Robert Lepsy, of Grayling, Michigan. However, Lepsy missed more than a family gathering, and vanished completely in 1969. The Lepsy story was brought to light in 2014 by Ross Richardson, an inquisitive scuba diver who loves exploring the sunken wrecks embedded in the Great Lakes surrounding his home (www.michiganmysteries.com). In fact, Ross’ moniker at the DB Cooper Forum is NMIWrecks, which stands for Northern Michigan Wrecks.
Nimi Wrecks, as he is belovedly known at the Forum, is our primary source of information on Lepsy, and he has included the Lepsy-as-Cooper saga in his collection of secretive crimes from Michigan, titled: Still Missing—Rethinking the DB Cooper Case and Other Mysterious Disappearances. Nimi also told his story to Brent Ashcroft, a TV journalist at WZZM in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Ashcroft did a full treatment on the Lepsy story for the Cooper Anniversary in 2015. The piece went viral, going nationwide within a week.
Here is what we know of Richard Lepsy. When he disappeared on October 29, 1969, he was 33 and the manager of Glen’s Market, a small, rural grocery in Grayling, Michigan. That day he never returned from his lunch, and later that week his car was found abandoned sixty miles away at the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan. The keys were in the ignition and the car was unlocked. A half-pack of cigarettes was found on the dashboard.
The Michigan State Police (MSP) and local police investigated, but discovered only a handful of clues, including $2,000 found missing from the grocery store safe. Also, some locals claimed that Lepsy had a girlfriend, and the MSP discovered that individuals resembling Lepsy and the girlfriend had been seen boarding a plane at the airport where the car was recovered. The pair were later rumored to have made their way to Mexico, and ultimately, the cops did not think Richard Lepsy was a “missing person,” but had voluntarily left his life in Michigan for a romantic escapade south of the border.
As a result, the local media did not cover the story, and never picked-up on the skyjacking angle two years later when DB Cooper made his jump. In fact, the official silence in 1969 was so complete that Ashcroft reported the original Lepsy files have vanished, which now adds an intriguing wrinkle to this mystery.
In 1986, Lepsy’s family appeared on the Sally Jesse Raphael TV show and poignantly described their search for Richard. Lepsy’s wife, Jackie, appeared to still be in shock, and as a result, his daughter Lisa did most of the talking. Currently, Lisa is advocating for the DB Cooper connection, and numerous news outlets carried her story as their 2015 DB Cooper Anniversary piece. However, there is no substantive reason to connect Richard Lepsy to the DB Cooper skyjacking. Lepsy had no known skydiving experience, nor any special awareness of 727s or flying. He was not a pilot. Additionally, he was only 35 years-old in 1971, and had only a passing resemblance to the sketches of DB Cooper.
But there are some similarities. Lepsy was six-foot tall and about 180 pounds. He had black, thinning hair and brown eyes, and as a native Midwesterner he spoke with no discernible accent. Like Barb Dayton and Dan Cooper, Richard Lepsy preferred wearing loafers.
In 2011, Lisa Lepsy entered her father’s DNA in the NAMUS database, the National Missing and Unidentified Person System, but no leads have been forthcoming.
Further, Richardson says that he does not know if the FBI has explored Lepsy as a suspect. But as part of his 2015 story on Lepsy-as-Cooper, Ashcroft contacted Ayn Dietrich-Williams at the FBI’s Seattle office and asked her directly if Richard Lepsy was being investigated. Dietrich-Williams demurred, and would only say:
“…it would not be appropriate to discuss whether or not we considered Lepsy as a subject… we are not still actively looking for information… when tips come into us, we assess each one, and if credible, pursue the lead accordingly.”
But when I asked Dietrich-Williams, she was even more obtuse:
” Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on the ongoing case, which includes disclosing whether or not someone has been considered a subject.”
But there does seem to be possible federal involvement, even if the connection is a bizarre one. In 1993, Lisa Lepsy, now grown and living in Tennessee, was visited by two gentlemen dressed entirely in black. They said they were insurance agents, and barged their way into Lisa’s home. They aggressively asked her about her father, and demanded to know if she had any knowledge of his whereabouts.
One man gave her his business card. His name was Charles J. Mitchell, and he claimed to be the “Director of Special Activities” of the John Hancock Insurance Company, based in Lisle, Illinois. But Lisa had no information to give them, and they left. Subsequently, Lisa called John Hancock and inquired about these “Men in Black.” Lisa says the insurance company had no knowledge of any Charles Mitchell or a “Special Activities” division, and certainly did not authorized the visit.
As a result, researchers wonder if the intrusion was a heavy-handed interrogation by drug enforcement officials exploring a cold case, trying to establish a drug trafficking link to Dick Lepsy’s disappearance twenty-four years earlier.
Another individual who has gone missing is the previously mentioned Melvin Luther Wilson, the father of DB Cooper researcher Vicki Wilson. Mel vanished from their Minneapolis home just a few weeks before the Cooper skyjacking, on September 15, 1971. Wilson was facing federal counterfeiting charges when he disappeared, and earlier had pulled stretches at San Quentin and Leavenworth in the 1950s and 1960s.
In addition, he had at least two wives and separate families. Further, when he left his first family in 1956, he also cut all ties to his mother, who was living in their family home in Oakland, California.
Vicki was a daughter of his second family, and was seven years old when Mel left her and her brother and sister, and her mother. Vicki has launched an intense campaign to understand her father’s disappearance, and she and her sisters were featured on Unsolved Mysteries.
In 2011, Vicki entered her DNA into the NAMUS data bank on behalf of her father. However, a lack of a death certificate for her father has thwarted her attempts to enlist the help of the US Marshal’s Service, the FBI, and the Secret Service in learning of his fate. Vicki is frustrated by their lack of assistance and says that she has received “zero cooperation.” Ironically, calling attention to the possibility that Mel Wilson might be DB Cooper has raised his public profile and seems to be aiding her efforts, which echoes the experience of Lisa Lepsy.
Additionally, Vicki has been embraced by many DB Cooper sleuths, and actively posts at the DB Cooper Forum. In 2012, she spoke with DB Cooper case agent Curtis Eng, who simply asked: “So, why do you think your father is DB Cooper?”
Despite Eng’s apparent cynicism, Vicki says that he had “not ruled out” Mel Wilson as a suspect, even by July 2016 when the FBI closed Norjak.
Vicki is certainly an avid follower of the Norjak story, and besides her many pithy commentaries on the Forum, she attended the 2013 Symposium and has shared the good times at Ariel. In fact, Vicki and her daughter Nicole were guests of Sailshaw at one of his Cooper salons in April 2013. In addition, Vicki Wilson is one of the few DB Cooper researchers who was hoping Marla Cooper’s Uncle LD was the skyjacker. “Then, at least I’d know it wasn’t my father,” she told me.
As for being the skyjacker, Mel Wilson is a reasonable suspect. He was 44 years old in 1971, and was six-foot and 180. Additionally, Bill Mitchell, one of the primary witnesses to the Cooper hijacking, says that Wilson possesses a facial feature unique to the skyjacker—a fold of skin under the chin that Mitchell calls a “turkey gobble.” However, Wilson has no known skydiving skills nor aviation experience, and few researchers consider him a strong candidate for DB Cooper.
In 2017, the influence of the many Cooper documentaries, the DB Cooper Forum, and focus upon the particles on the tie began to bear fruit. First to cross my radar screen was a suspect named James Klansnic, who was brought to me by the young-but-impassioned researcher, Derek Godsey.
Derek stumbled upon Klansnic while scanning an old issue of “Hydraulics and Pneumatic Magazine.” He spied a photograph of Klansnic kneeling under the fuselage of a 727 in an article written by Mr. Klansnic that detailed aspects of the 727’s aftstairs, flaps, and rotor settings. Looking more closely, Derek noticed in the pix that Klansnic was wearing a thin black tie. The winds of the Cooper Vortex immediately gained speed and a new suspect was launched.
Derek investigated everything he could find on Klansnic, and his belief that he had found DB Cooper soared. Derek learned that Klansnic was a former Boeing engineer and WWII USAAF bomber pilot. In fact, Klansnic was shot down over Austria and bailed out successfully with his crew, spending over a year in a German POW camp. Hence, Derek was convinced that Klansnic had sufficient parachute experience and survival skills to be DBC.
In addition, Derek discovered that Klansnic had been stationed at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington during the war, and had settled in a Seattle suburb afterwards.
Of course, Derek considers Klansnic to be a near-perfect match for the sketch of DB Cooper. Despite what Derek considers to be “divine intervention” in his pursuit of DB Cooper and finding James Klansnic, the Klansnic family is not happy with Derek and his efforts to engage with them on this subject.
Nor is the Cooper Community enthralled with Derek Godsey. Nevertheless, there is one more DB Cooper suspect on the books.
Another impassioned-but-long-shot attempt to discover DB Cooper is the work of Bill Rollins. Although Bill is a retired engineer, pilot and inventor living in New Hampshire, he has never been to Cooper Country. Nevertheless, the winds of the Cooper Vortex are strong, and he is emotionally invested in the case.
Bill began by pondering how DB Cooper could get to PDX undetected and also get away without being noticed. He came up with an elaborate, but elegant, hypothesis.
Bill speculates that DB Cooper arrived in Portland with an RV camper atop a pick-up truck, towing an Alumacraft fishing boat that sported an inflatable Zodiac inside. Bill says that DB Cooper camped in the environs of Tina Bar for a while – possibly Tina Bar, fishing and blending into his surroundings to the point where he wasn’t particularly recognizable to anyone.
Then DBC towed his Alumacraft to the boat launch ramp at the Merwin Dam, and secured the craft to a tree. Next, DBC returned to T-Bar, inflated his Zodiac and motored up to PDX, beaching adjacent to the runways, which were very close to the river and unfenced in 1971. Walking through the brush, he passed the tarmac and runways, and reached the terminal. Next, he stole an airplane.
Bill says the bright lights atop the Merwin Dam were sufficient for DBC to know when and where to jump. Upon landing, he eventually rediscovered his Alumacraft and sailed down the Lewis River to the Columbia. There, he turned left and headed another six miles to Tina Bar. Then he pulled his boat out of the water, stashed his money in a hidden compartment in the RV, and drove away. Never to be found.
Slick, yes, but true? Who knows, but Bill adds another dimension to his story – he weeps when he tells it, and one night he nearly brought me to tears with his soulful telling. That passion has led him to write a book: The Elusive DB Cooper.
It has also led Bill to dig deeper and discover who DB Cooper might be. Again, using his inner sense of truthfulness, Bill has decided that DB Cooper is Joe Lakich, the father of Susan Germaine Giffe, the woman who died in the 58 November skyjacking travesty.
58 November is the term given to the hijacking attempt by her husband, George Giffe, in October 1971 that was thwarted by the FBI in Jacksonville, Florida. The plane, originally hijacked in Nashville, Tennessee had stopped for refueling on its way to the Bahamans. But the FBI refused to allow a refueling, and shot-out the tires of the aircraft. In response, the skyjacker killed his hostage – his estranged wife, Susan Giffe – and the pilot, Brent Downs. Then he turned the gun on himself.
In response, the pilot’s widow, Janie Downs, sued the FBI for their responsibility concerning this wrongful death. The court did not find the FBI liable, however.
As a result, Bill Rollins feels that the FBI’s responsibility for the death of his daughter is the “grudge” that DB Cooper had which led him to hijack Flight 305 a few weeks later.
In 2018, the son of the murdered pilot, Andy Downs, produced a documentary on these events titled: “Fatal Hijacking of 58 November.”
As for Joe Lakich being DB Cooper, Bill Rollins’ evidence is thin. Other than a lifetime’s worth of familiarity with electronics and an engineering degree, there is nothing substantive to tie Lakich to Cooper.
Another suspect to appear recently is William Smith, advocated by an individual who is known to me but chooses to call himself “Anonymous” in public because of his status as an active-duty US Army intelligence analyst. This fellow has nothing to do with the “Anonymous” who penned a highly controversial op-ed piece in the New York Times in 2018 claiming that he was a senior White House official who was keeping President Donald Trump from doing anything really stupid or dangerous.
Nevertheless, our Anonymous caught the Cooper bug in 2015 or so when he read Max Gunther’s book, DB Cooper – What Really Happened. The book is a tantalizing smorgasbord of Cooper clues and speculations, topped off by the claims that the “facts” of the case were supplied by a woman named “Clara.” She phoned and wrote Gunther several times about the DB Cooper case, declaring that she was living in a cabin in LZ-A and had discovered DB Cooper hiding on her property, nursing a sprained ankle.
Clara says she took care of Cooper and eventually fell in love with him. Together, they laundered the money in Atlantic City casinos, eventually settling into a comfortable middle-class life in suburban New York.
Gunther was a noted fiction author and true-crime writer, and when his DBC book was published in 1985, it was given a fair amount of credibility based upon his reputation. FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach acknowledged that he was aware of the book, but he told reporters that he thought most of Gunther’s book was “filler.” Subsequently, DB Cooper – What Really Happened was increasing considered to be pure fiction by the current era by most DB Cooper aficionados.
But Anonymous wondered if any of it was true. He linked Gunther’s DBC character, “Dan LeClair” to the actual DB Cooper suspect Dan E. Clair, who was a skydiver at the famous Ellsinore Skydiving Center in California, renown as the site of alleged CIA recruiting, and a favored locale for many DBC suspects.
When I last spoke with Anonymous, circa 2017, we discussed the value of contacting Max Gunther’s children and learning if they had any of their father’s notes on his Cooper book. Unfortunately, Anonymous didn’t feel comfortable with that task and supposedly enlisted the help of another DB Cooper researcher and author, Marty Andrade.
However, no further inroads were made along this angle, as far as I know.
But by 2018, Anonymous was touting a New Yorker named William Smith as DB Cooper. Anonymous felt that Smith’s railroad connections made him a strong candidate, as Anonymous and many in the Cooper orbit felt that railroad tracks, or even riding the rails, would be a means of escape for DB Cooper.
Further, Anonymous felt that the downturn of the railroad industry in the 1960s and 1970s would be a plausible “grudge” and resulting motivation for DBC to steal an aircraft.
Again, the ties are thin, other than a general similarity to the sketches, and intriguing speculations on motive and getaways.
One of the strangest and most intriguing suspects to be presented by Cooper sleuths in recent years is E. Howard Hunt. In 2019, Nat Loufoque wrote a book, D.B. Cooper – Examined, Identified, and Exposed, in which he posits that the infamous Watergate burglar was also DB Cooper. Loufoque offers the logical conclusion that if Hunt burgled the Democratic HQ’s in DC AND also burgled Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to get dirt on the guy who released the damning Pentagon Papers, why not skyjack an airplane to give President Richard Nixon the political ammunition he would need to federalize airline safety?
More importantly, though, Loufoque offers more than idle speculation, and delivers the most substantive analysis of the sketches that I have seen in print. Loufoque interviewed Roy Rose, the FBI artist who drew both Composite A and B, and reveals that the second sketch, “B,” was performed a year after the “A” sketch. Loufoque suggests there was plenty of internal dissent on which sketch was a better likeness, in particular that Tina Mucklow was strongly opposed to Composite B.
As for E. Howard Hunt being DB Cooper, I find it a major stretch. But Loufoque’s research is interesting at the least, and more can be learned about his investigations at the Cooper Vortex podcast.