By Bruce A. Smith
Tom Kaye, the leader of the Citizen Sleuths, an investigatory group formed by FBI Special Agent Larry Carr in 2009, has made a major new discovery in the DB Cooper case. He has found specialized diatoms – little aquatic creatures that live in river water – on one of the twenty-dollar bills recovered from the skyjacker’s ransom in 1980.
Kaye’s findings were published this week in the prestigious Scientific Reports. As such, they are triggering a wave of new interest in the DB Cooper case. Further, they reverse or clarify earlier findings about the relationship between the bills and diatoms. Since it is a complex issue, I am posting the full chapter on the work of the Citizen Sleuths to illuminate the broader context of Kaye’s findings.
This chapter comes from the 3rd Edition of DB Cooper and the FBI, soon to be published.
The Citizen Sleuths
The Citizen Sleuths are perhaps the most visible expression of Larry Carr’s efforts to enlist the public in the Norjak investigation. Carr hoped a team of citizen volunteers could be a parallel investigatory arm, providing the Bureau with plenty of free and innovative sleuthing.
The group has been known by a few names since its inception: the “Citizen Sleuth Team,” and the “Cooper Research Group,” but now it calls itself simply, “Citizen Sleuths” (CS). Although Carr left the case in 2010, the CS are still working and gave major presentations at the 2011 DB Cooper Symposium in Portland and at CooperCon 2018 and 2019.
Tom Kaye is the CS leader and a self-taught scientist with many interests and skills. Despite his lack of a college degree Tom is an accomplished paleontologist, with many publishing credits. He has worked as a contract researcher on dinosaur digs for the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, and is also an inventor, reportedly making millions by developing paintball guns.
Kaye was recommended to Larry Carr by a fellow scientist named Georger, a university professor who wishes to maintain some privacy. Hence, I am withholding his complete name and simply using his DZ moniker. Georger was heavily involved in the initial formation of the Citizen Sleuths, but is not an active participant currently.
Nevertheless, Georger has provided some of the basic information on the money. Georger told me that the money found at Tina Bar had three main characteristics: First, it was in a compacted state when found initially; secondly, no diatoms were found on the bills; and lastly, the rubber bands were relatively intact. Georger acknowledged that this suggests that the bills were buried in the sand for a lengthy period of time before discovery.
The compaction adds to the notion that the bills were subjected to a significant degree of pressure, and probably buried at great depth. In addition, the height of the shoreline at Tina Bar had lowered since the time of the skyjacking due to the post-1974 erosion process, leading researchers to believe that it took years for the bills to come close enough to the surface to be discovered. Hence, the bills may have been buried at Tina Bar since the night of the skyjacking, with more sand and weight added during the flooding of 1971-1974.
Carol Abraczinskas is known affectionately as “Abracadabra,” and had been both a professor and science illustrator at the University of Chicago. She is also a leading investigator into the connection between DB Cooper and the Dan Cooper comics. After Larry left the case, Carol seems to have picked up the mantle of discovery regarding the comics and she delivered an overview of the subject at the 2011 Symposium.
Alan Stone is a metallurgist and a key scientist working on the CS team, especially in the electron spectroscopy experiments that were conducted on the tie and money. Alan works at a private metallurgical research firm in Illinois.
The CS further expanded in 2009 just before Carr left the case, and included four associate members for a field trip to the Columbia River Basin, where they conducted experiments at Tina Bar and explored the Washougal watershed. This latter group included Jerry Thomas and the fellow who found the money three decades before when he was a kid, Brian Ingram. In addition, the CS were accompanied by an in-house FBI journalist from Washington, D.C. who would like to remain anonymous.
Also, Geoffrey Gray is mentioned by the Oregonian newspaper as participating in the group’s activities. Additionally, Gray discusses his experiences with the CS in his Skyjack, especially his encounter with one of Jerry’s wayward kids in the hills above the Washougal River. However, Gray is not listed as a member on the CS website, nor does he claim any affiliation.
Kaye is more than just a leader of a group of volunteers and is someone dedicated to a new and bold Norjak investigation. Kaye funded a large part of the Citizen Sleuths activities at the Columbia, according to Jerry Thomas, paying the motel and transportation expenses for Abraczinskas, Thomas, Ingram, and Stone.
Initial Findings of the Citizen Sleuths
The Citizen Sleuths spent two major periods of time perusing the FBI files and evidence: first in 2009 under Larry Carr’s tutelage, and then in August 2011 under the administration of Curtis Eng. Echoing the fact that little physical evidence has been found in Norjak, the CS reported that the Bureau’s evidentiary collection was “sparse.” Nevertheless, the CS focused initially on two items—the money and the tie.
Regarding the money they asked some refreshing questions. In particular, the CS posed whether the microscopic analysis could tell the story of where the bills had been prior to discovery, particularly if diatoms and other biological or chemical residues were embedded in the bills. The answer to those questions has been inconclusive, but certainly the CS raised the big red flag of why some of the bills in the FBI’s collections are so discolored. In fact, a few bills are virtually black in color. Why?
The CS say the discoloration is due to the silver nitrate compounds used by the Bureau to test the bills for fingerprints. But one would think that would be obvious to a seasoned FBI agent and a blackened bill wouldn’t need any separate analysis, which begs a second question—why did the FBI encourage the CS to bother with the blackened bills? That question remains unanswered.
Also unexplained are curiously large amounts of silver strands impregnated in the fibers. Georger told me that the CS had found these unusual amounts of silver, but this finding has not been confirmed nor clarified by Kaye.
Further, the CS put a few twenties under microscopes to look at the biological residues from aquatic creatures, such as diatoms, and to examine the curious little holes puncturing the bills. Kaye told me that the diatoms could function like a biochemical fingerprint, leaving unique signatures that could reflect the bodies of water the bills passed through on the way to Tina Bar. It was a very ambitious and thoughtful endeavor; however, it didn’t reveal much information.
“We didn’t see any diatoms on the money,” Kaye wrote me in September 2009. Further, Georger told me in 2013 that Kaye’s findings indicated the money was buried deeply into the sand and didn’t have any contact with the surface waters, which is where diatoms live. However, Kaye has reversed his perspective on diatoms not being present on the bills in 2020, and that issue will be discussed shortly.
Further, Pat Forman has told me that Tom Kaye had told her the money had mineral residues on it, and had intimated that the bills had spent some time in a damp environment south of the Columbia River in northern Oregon. Pat felt this validated her belief that Barb had stashed the money for several years in an agricultural cistern in Woodburn, Oregon, about 50 miles south of the Columbia, and close enough to the surface for diatoms to thrive.
However, I have not found any corroboration on this claim. Although my relationship with Tom Kaye is strong, the CS has gone “black” with frequency. So, the question of what Kaye told Pat Forman and what mineral markers may have been detected, if any, has not been answered.
In addition, Kaye stated in his presentation at the Portland Symposium that he thought the money did not float to Tina Bar. One reason he gave was that the bills seemed to have been stacked for a long period of time:
“The money we examined was sort of adhered to the other bills in the stack and when they were separated, in some places a stack of bill chunks came with a single bill. You could see that the bills were all lined up one below the other when they were buried.”
In contrast, Kaye said that his floatability survey conducted on the Columbia in 2009 indicated that bundles of money “fan out” when immersed in the water.
The CS also made ancillary inquiries, such as questioning the manufacturer of the rubber bands wrapped around the three bundles of twenties. Tom Kaye says that the original manufacturers of the rubber bands claimed the bands would only last in the wild for three or four months. Yet, according to Brian Ingram the bands were intact when he picked the bundles out of the sand and only crumbled after handling.
“So, this is in conflict with the idea that the bills were rolling down the river for seven years,” Kaye told a reporter from KGW-TV during the 2011 Symposium in Portland.
Further, the CS website reveals some troubling information about the FBI’s treatment of the money shards found at Tina Bar:
” …the money… fragments recovered from Tina Bar were examined (and) contrary to popular reports there were only a few fragments in plastic boxes and no indication that there was a quantity of fragments found or any information on exactly where they were recovered. ”
So where are the money shards that were recovered by Himmelsbach and his crew? Are the tiny shreds in the little plastic boxes deposited in Seattle all that the FBI found? The feds aren’t saying.
Continuing, the clip-on tie was examined twice by the CS. First, in 2009, they took many “sticky tape” and “stub samples” for examination by scanning electron microscopy. Initially, they were looking for pollen spores and chemical residues, and during the second visit in 2011 the tie was “thoroughly sampled using a variety of techniques including ultra-violet (UV) laser florescence and forensic vacuum for high density particle collection.”
On the first assay, the CS found significant amounts of pollen on the tie, specifically Club Moss spores. These are commonly found in herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines. Conversely, no pollen residues from other plants were found, which was a disappointment since the CS had hoped to get geographical markers from this line of investigation.
More telling was the discovery of titanium fragments on the tie, suggesting that the tie—and most likely DB Cooper—had been exposed to metal filings sometime shortly before the skyjacking. In 1971, titanium was considered a “strategic” metal and used primarily in military aircraft and some civilian aircraft, especially in the mock-ups of the SST, the Super-Sonic Transport being developed by Boeing at their Renton, Washington facility. However, close analysis has revealed that the titanium shards were actually pure titanium, and that is even rarer than the alloyed version.
At the 2011 Symposium, Alan Stone said that in 1971 there were six sites that could be considered as a place Cooper might have visited: four are in the United States, and one each in the UK and Japan. In addition, Russian processes some raw titanium sand. Intriguingly, one American candidate is a titanium foundry in Albany, Oregon known as the Oregon Metallurgical Corporation, or Oremet. Did Cooper work there? No one seems to know.
Similarly, DB Cooper researcher Bob Sailshaw reported on the DZ that pieces of titanium alloy and pure titanium were available in scrap tote-boxes located in the alleyways of the 9-101 building at the Development Center in Seattle. These boxes are next to the shop where innovative aspects of the SST were developed, such as heat-resistant paints. Hence, Sail, a Boeing engineer for over 30 years, wrote to me and said:
“A person looking through a tote-box could have easily picked up small machining and dust particles on their tie as it hung down into the tote-box while scrounging for free items. That lab had experimented with flame-sprayed metal, even pure titanium, on leading edge parts for high temperature protection. Sheridan Peterson (a prime suspect) worked in the ‘Manuals and Handbooks Group’ that had office space in the same building on the 2nd floor and right above the research lab in the late 1960’s.”
In addition, the CS found other bits of metal—in particular two microscopic shards of aluminum in a spiral form, as if from a drill bit. The CS also found traces of stainless steel and magnesium, plus exotic metals like bismuth. As a result, the CS feel strongly that Cooper may have worked at, or visited, a highly specialized metal fabrication plant before his skyjacking. Despite the assortment of metal shards, the CS focused primarily on the titanium: “Of all the particles examined on the tie, the titanium particles were the most distinctive.”
Kaye seems to have vacillated about where Cooper might have picked up the titanium, and initially I thought he had suggested the SST manufacturing program at Boeing. But later, when I asked him to clarify this issue, he told me explicitly that it was not Boeing: “The only connection of pure titanium to SST manufacturing at Boeing was the fact that when Boeing scrapped the SST project it collapsed the titanium industry.”
But Sailshaw, a retired Boeing engineer, strongly refuted Kaye’s perspective:
Boeing was working with all forms of titanium in the experimental shop, including pure titanium to flame-spray on leading edge components. Pure titanium does not have the strength of alloyed titanium, but has better high-temperature characteristics. I think Boeing was possibly the only place the tie could have got the pure titanium machining particles. Kaye’s ‘not Boeing’ is just a bad conclusion.
One element that can be clarified is Geoffrey Gray’s contention that the titanium found on the tie was a raw form of titanium called “titanium sponge.” Kaye has widely refuted that claim, saying Gray jumped-the-gun as the CS were in the early stages of examining their discovery, ultimately realizing that the initial findings may have been in error due to contamination coming from match-head residues of chlorine and sulfur mixed into the sample from the tie.
Nevertheless, the issue of metal particles on DB Cooper’s necktie exploded in January 2017 when the Travel Channel released their DB Cooper documentary called “Cracking the DB Cooper Case” as part of an Expedition Unknown broadcast. After interviewing Tom Kaye about the titanium, EU host and executive producer, Josh Gates, decided to procure financing for additional testing.
Testing Expands with Financing from Hollywood
Once Gates arranged for the funding, Kaye revisited the twenty “stubs” from the tie that the CS had collected in 2009. These stubs are small metallic disks that have a sticky bottom and can pick up tiny bits and pieces from the surface of the tie. Kaye delivered them to McCrone Labs of Chicago for analysis. Even though Kaye had used electron microscopes in 2010, he was only capable of scanning his samples manually. Nevertheless, he was able to detect the titanium and bismuth among his sample of 700 particles.
But McCrone was able to apply fully-automated scanning electron microscopes, and they found a treasure trove—over 100,000 particles, including many rare earth metals such as strontium, yttrium and barium.
In the Expedition Unknown show these astounding findings were discussed at length. Kaye announced that the rare earth metals, in particular strontium sulfide and barium sulfide, were used in cathode ray tubes of the 1971 era, especially in TV sets and oscilloscopes. Of particular interest, Kaye found that the electronic monitors being developed for the cockpits of the SST, the Super Sonic Transport utilized these exact rarer earth minerals. As a result, Kaye openly speculated that DB Cooper could have been a lab tech or manager involved in the production or testing of SST equipment.
Further, Kaye hailed these discoveries as the most important findings since the money was discovered at Tina Bar.
“This is the most significant evidence to come in the case since 1980,” Kaye announced, adding, “twenty-three out of twenty-six particles we found are used in TV screens.”
Many of these particles are rare earth metals, and along with lanthanum, cerium, and mercury are utilized to produce color in the screen, especially the red phosphors. DB Cooper researchers scrambled to find a connection between these rare earth minerals, titanium, and high-tech monitors found in airplane cockpits, and discovered a Boeing sub-contractor in Vancouver, Washington – Tektronix – involved in that exact undertaking. In response, investigators tore into Tektronix websites and company directories. Many interesting Cooper-look-alikes were found, but no direct involvement of Tektronix employees with Norjak has been forthcoming.
Nevertheless, Chris Ingalls, a Seattle TV reporter for the NBC affiliate, KING 5, and a passionate follower of the Cooper story, caught wind of these developments and interviewed Kaye on the tie particles. Ingalls then produced a news piece that went viral, and by mid-January 2017 this news was circulating world-wide, adding greatly to the premise that DB Cooper was a Boeing employee or a sub-contractor.
However, the problems that had surfaced with the titanium earlier, remained: was the necktie actually DB Cooper’s? After all, maybe the tie came a TV repairman who gave to a Goodwill, and DB Cooper just obtained it from a thrift store.
These questions remain unanswered, but this episode reveals that the DB Cooper story is very much alive, even though the FBI has closed the case and seems reluctant to re-open it. In the midst of the media flurry, Ayn Dietrich-Williams announced: “The FBI is still committed to justice for this criminal incident, but we are not actively investigating at this time and have not requested additional assistance from outside entities.”
Nor has the FBI ever commented whether they did any investigation on the particles discovered on the tie by the Citizen Sleuths. But these findings are important—certainly the most intriguing since the FBI closed the case in 2016—and the financial support from Josh Gates and his Expedition Unknown proves that the public will pay for a continuing investigation of the Norjak case even if the FBI won’t.
Another Evidentiary Break-Through
In 2019, Tom Kaye revisited the diatom question with a close examination of a Cooper twenty provided by the Cooper aficionado known as “377.” Using high-powered electron microscopes similar to those he utilized with McCrone on the tie particles, Kaye explored stub samples from four different spots on 377’s twenty and discovered diatoms, a finding which he had originally discounted in 2009. When questioned, Kaye told me that he and the CS did find diatoms during their initial examination in 2009 of bills provided by the FBI, but they were the most common forms of diatoms and not indicative of any specific location or water body. Since their investigatory interests lay elsewhere, the CS explored the issues of the blackened bills and the tie.
However, when Kaye looked at 377’s bill he found several unique and interesting diatoms – Asterionella and Fragilaria – which triggered a great deal of investigatory interest.
“These diatoms are a spring species,” Kaye said. “They only bloom in the spring, and certainly not in November when Cooper jumped.”
Since the bills only had one season of diatoms on them, Kaye theorizes that the bills were only in the Columbia for a short period of time – a spring of an unknown year – and arrived at Tina Bar months or years after Cooper’s skyjacking.
After exposure to these springtime diatoms, apparently the money got buried and became inaccessible to diatoms, which only live in water or on the wet surface of shoreline sand. Further, since the bills became so compressed, they seem to have been covered by a heavy load of sand, perhaps several feet worth.
In addition, Kaye said that the Fragilaria was only found on one section of 377’s bill – an inner portion – and because of the extraordinary power of the electron microscope they discovered several bits of other bills stuck to the larger twenty, which were covering up the Fragilaria sample. Thus, Kaye speculates that when the bills were exposed to water they also fanned out for a period of time, allowing the Fragilaria to enter more deeply into the wad of bills.
With a laugh, Tom Kaye concedes that these findings make the money find even more mysterious, as they certainly disprove the Washougal Wash-Down theory, and impugn the possibility of burial by DB Cooper. Unless, of course, DB buried his money the night of the skyjacking and when he came back for his loot – in the springtime of some year – he dropped these three bundles inadvertently into the river and lost track of them, only to have them re-buried at Tina Bar before they picked up any more diatoms.
In other matters, one important finding of the CS is what they didn’t see—they never examined the Amboy chute, the buried parachute unearthed in 2009 from Cooper’s LZ-A. This is confounding, as I have not spoken substantively with anyone who knows definitely where it was found or even where it is stored presently.
Other problems were created by the presence of the CS themselves. The CS were apparently left unsupervised in the evidence room in Seattle, although Alan Stone said at the Portland Symposium in 2011 that Larry Carr was present with them in 2009. However, none of the pictures taken of the CS include Carr, which is odd considering that he loved media attention. As a result, the evidence may be considered legally compromised.
More disturbing is the disassembling of the tie reported in Gray’s book, SKYJACK. In this account, the CS decided to pull the tie-knot apart and look at its fibers more closely under an electron microscope. Were they authorized to man-handle the evidence in such a fashion?
Fortunately, the information gained by the CS couldn’t be controlled by the Bureau. The CS functions separately and has independent access to media. Frankly, the CS has been more forthcoming than anyone in the FBI, and I’ve learned volumes about the money find by talking to CS members. Tom Kaye and Abracadabra are quite chatty in person, and I was astonished to learn that they could not find any evidence of the larger money shards found at Tina Bar in 1980.
Lastly, did the FBI really fail to conduct a biochemical microscopic investigation of the necktie and money in their own investigation? Certainly, the FBI had electron microscopes and spectrographic instrumentation in 1980, so, it’s hard to fathom why the feds didn’t conduct some kind of analysis akin to the CS. But if they did, where are their findings? This raises the question of whether the Citizen Sleuths are truly that, or are they actors in a political show? In response, Georger, offers this rebuttal:
“(N)obody that I know of has ever contended that the FBI did not conduct its own finger printing and some analysis of some bills, but that was clear back in 1980 when methods were different than they are today.
“The difference in technology and methods in 1980 vs. today was more than enough reason alone to justify a more modern analysis, by somebody.
“The prior analysis done by the FBI in 1980 was commensurate with technology of that era, and their needs then. The new analysis extends the work previously done using newer technology to try and address issues Larry Carr and others posed in 2008.
“I don’t see any conflict. The new work dovetails with the previous work the FBI did by extending the data base collected in 1980.”
Georger also sheds a sharper light on the relationship between the FBI and the Citizen Sleuths. “You have to remember, we (the CS) went to work for the FBI, not the public.” (Emphasis added)
In effect this makes the Citizen Sleuths more beholden to the FBI and their organizational agendas than any public interest. Thus, the Citizen Sleuths are more accurately described as “FBI auxiliaries.” Along that line, Georger fiercely defends the ability of the Citizen Sleuths to protect the chain of custody in the evidentiary collection. “The Citizen Sleuths are trained professionals,” Georger told me. “They know how to preserve evidence and operated in a very careful manner. Plus, they were under the direct supervision of the case agent.”
Georger also offered his observation that the Citizens Sleuths may be doing a better job at preserving the chain of custody than the Bureau has done for the forty years. Specifically, until 2016 the Bureau kept the tie and other evidence in open, clunky cardboard boxes, and the money fragments in loose paper file folders.
There are more troubling questions, though. Georger impeded my questioning by asserting he couldn’t discuss a particular issue or person due to confidentialities that seemed obscure to me. One example was the Amboy chute.
“I could find it, but I’m not at liberty to say,” Georger replied. Suppressing this information, while important to him, clearly demonstrates a less-than-free exchange and is suspect. But, at least Georger was addressing the subject and I was grateful because Tom Kaye and Carol Abraczinskas weren’t at that time.
Regardless, the bills, the diatoms, and the particles on the tie continue to be examined by the Citizen Sleuths. In particular, Tom Kaye’s investigations of the tie particles are on-going, and have become a highlight of the annual CooperCons held each year in Portland.