By Bruce A. Smith
From the 3rd Edition of DB Cooper and the FBI – A Case Study of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking, due to be published in early 2021.
On the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, DB Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient 727 airliner just after leaving Portland International Airport in Oregon. Upon landing in Seattle, the skyjacker exchanged the thirty-five passengers for $200,000 in cash and four parachutes, and later used one of those chutes to make his escape via the plane’s unique internal aftstair system.
DB Cooper has never been seen since, and nothing from the hijacking has ever been found except for a few bundles of ransom money found buried in 1980 on a Columbia River beach, located on the outskirts of Vancouver, Washington.
To this day, no one knows DB Cooper’s fate or identity.
The DB Cooper case is the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of the United States. But now the FBI seems willing to affirm that failure forever, since they officially closed the case on July 8, 2016.
The FBI claims they have exhausted all credible leads and collected all available evidence. But did they? Records show that they lost some evidence over the years, and other tantalizing finds, such as pieces of titanium and other exotic metals detected on the necktie DB Cooper left on the plane, have never been commented upon publicly. So, we don’t know how intensively they were examined, if at all.
As an investigative journalist, I am not satisfied with the FBI’s press releases and bromides, and certainly not their silence, As a result, I have continued digging into this story. This book is a compendium of what I have found, and it is both an analysis of a bold crime and an exploration of the FBI’s investigation. Simply, these pages are as much about the FBI as they are DB Cooper.
Further, I feel this is a story for our times because it shows how law enforcement truly functions. Unfortunately, the FBI is not as effective as portrayed on TV. The heroes of Hollywood’s cop shows do not exist in the main, and the FBI is a huge bureaucracy that has trouble solving innovative crimes, especially if they involve multiple jurisdictions.
Adding to bureaucratic turgidity are the impacts of politics and budgetary restraints. Competing national security agendas seem to have played a role in the DB Cooper case, as revealed by the Bureau closed the case citing the need to address terrorism and drug trafficking.
In that kind of atmosphere, the FBI does not welcome probing journalists, which adds to the fog that envelopes the DB Cooper case. I have only been able to speak with one active-duty FBI official, the case agent Larry Carr in 2008.
Other principals of the saga are also mute, particularly the crew, which further veils this drama.
Nevertheless, the DB Cooper story has captured the attention of the world. Many consider Cooper to be a folk hero for “Beating Da Man,” seemingly getting away with a pile of money and leaving the FBI in his dust.
In addition, interest in DB Cooper has become resurgent due to technological advances, especially the advent of the Internet. The use of chat rooms, emails and Google allows many journalists and private sleuths to investigate the case with authority. Plus, DNA testing has virtually re-opened the case, while DB Cooper-related deathbed confessionals have added to a plethora of suspects.
Perhaps the most important development is the FBI’s official closing of the case because that transferred ownership of all Cooper case files from the government to the public domain. The FBI remains the gatekeeper to these documents, but they no longer exercise the same informational control. Since 2016, an estimated 70,000 files have been put into the public’s hands – often selectively, however. My Freedom of Information Application (FOIA) requests to the FBI have been denied, as have other FOIAs from numerous journalists. But academicians who have received documents via their FOIAs have been forwarding their files to certain journalists, most notably Thomas J. Colbert, and he in turn has been funneling them to research outlets, such as the DB Cooper Forum.
This treasure trove consists of memoranda, summary reports, and most importantly, the 302 field reports from FBI agents. These latter documents are often raw and in conflict with each other, but they are the quintessential source of information in the DB Cooper case. They are called “302s” because that is the number of the “form” the agents use. Individually, each 302 also received a second numerical designation, such as “302-164-81,” and where possible I cite these identifying numbers. Also, the term “302” has become a short-hand means of describing a federal document, and I often refer to a file as a “302,” even though it may be a summary report or memo.
Regardless, “Da Man” may have wanted to put the story to rest permanently by closing the case, but that is clearly not happening. Many want to keep searching for the truth, and this book is intended for those intrepid folks.
Welcome to the hunt, my friends.