DB Cooper – Early Suspects, and the Cooper Vortex

By Bruce A. Smith

Newly released FBI documents have shed new light on the early suspects in the DB Cooper case. Here are some of the latest findings:

Besides the hundreds of confessions, there have been over a thousand suspects investigated in Norjak. Geoffrey Gray pegs the number of suspects at 1,100, and has amusingly shown that a large number of them were the result of romances gone off the rails. Gray intimates that many women thought a felonious accusation was cheaper than a divorce—or better payback. Of note, none of the FBI’s investigations of these suspects are part of their documentation transfer into private hands, nor are any posted at the FBI’s DB Cooper Vault.

However, as we examine Norjak suspects we find something similar to the confessees—a psychological pressure from the families to have their loved one be DB Cooper. It’s a pull so strong that people who would be repelled normally by a criminal investigation actually welcome it. It is as if the fame and glory of Norjak warps people’s judgment, fuzzes their memory, or makes them hungry for money and fame. It’s one more manifestation of the “Cooper Vortex.”

Despite the torrent of leads from angry ex-lovers, the FBI focused more on ex-cons in the early stages of the investigation. Two felons garnered sharp attention. The first was John List, and he was a doozy. List murdered his entire family—his wife, three kids and an 82-year old mother -and he stole $200,000 from his dead mother’s bank account, which generated the initial suspicion from Norjak officials. List was arrested for the murders and theft in 1989 and admitted to these crimes, but he denied any connection to the skyjacking. He died in prison in 2008.

After List, the second ex-con investigated was Bryant “Jack” Coffelt, a long-time criminal who died in 1975, but seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of the Cooper skyjacking. During the late 1940s and early 1950’s, Coffelt served a stint for auto theft in the Atlanta Penitentiary, where he met a former Air Force pilot named James Brown. Coffelt and Brown became best friends and were released in 1952 and 1955, respectively. After their release, Brown followed the straight-and-narrow and became an engineer and started a family. Coffelt in turn, gave up robbery and put his energies towards Big Cons in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

In 1974 Coffelt called Brown and enticed him to go on a road trip to Mount Hood, Oregon to look for DB Cooper’s money. Coffelt also insisted that James bring his 19 year-old son, Byron, since Coffelt was 57 years-old and he felt they needed some young blood to search the wilderness. The elder Brown agreed.

In the summer of 1974, James and Byron left their home in Georgia, picked up Coffelt in his hometown of Joplin, Missouri, and headed to Oregon. Along the way, Coffelt confessed to being DB Cooper. However, he refrained from answering too many questions from the Browns, who were certainly curious, but increasingly felt concerned that they might be arrested for assisting in the skyjacking after-the-fact.

For a few weeks they scoured the eastern slopes of Mount Hood. They found the burnt remnants of a parachute that Coffelt said he had torched with a magnesium mixture upon landing, but they didn’t find the money. Coffelt said he had placed the ransom inside a large plastic bag, then with cords cut from the reserve chute he cinched the top of the container closed, and made a long sling that he looped over his shoulder. However, when his parachute opened violently, the green sack slipped off his shoulder and was lost in the forest below.

As they searched, the tensions between Coffelt and James Brown escalated and Coffelt left abruptly, but not before he told the Browns that he had three accomplices who might be also looking for the money. The next day, two pick-up trucks roared into their campsite west of Friend, Oregon, and the Browns quickly left.

However, in 1983 Byron published a lengthy magazine article about their adventure in the Las Vegan Magazine. He also included years-worth of research on Jack Coffelt and Norjak, and in 1977 made another trip back to Oregon to check-out details of Coffelt’s story. Bryon found the huge searchlight that Coffelt said was manned by one of the accomplices that was positioned in a cabin in the Pine Hollow Resort about twenty miles south of Mt. Hood. Coffelt said that he had instructed Flight 305 to head towards the search light, thus putting him on a predictable flight path. Coffelt also said that he had stashed a jeep in the woods with provisions and medical supplies, but Byron was unable to locate it.

Nevertheless, Bryon was able to confirm from the local Sheriff’s Department that unexplained burnings of hay bales had occurred at the edge of the foothills of Mount Hood during the skyjacking period. That aligned with the story Coffelt told that a second accomplice was burning bales to outline the LZ in the westernmost wheat fields west of Friend. Byron also found several residents of Friend, OR and the Pine Hollow area who remember seeing Coffelt in the area during the 1971-1972 period, when Coffelt said that he had first started looking for his lost loot.

In addition, Byron says he interviewed Tina Mucklow, Florence Schaffner, and passenger George Labissoniere. Florence confirmed the 1974 photos of Coffelt that Byron showed her, exclaiming: “Oh my God! Where did you get those? I never thought I would see that face again. It’s him! My God, it’s him.”

George Labissoniere not only confirmed the 1974 pictures of Coffelt to be DB Cooper, but also an earlier photo from a stint in the Leavenworth Penitentiary. In fact, when Byron showed him the picture, Labissoniere said that the FBI had showed him the same photograph six weeks after the skyjacking. So, the FBI had an eyewitness confirmation to DB Cooper by the end of 1971, but no official records are available to these claims.

Byron also writes that Florence confirmed many strange details of the skyjacking that Coffelt told the Browns in 1974, but are in stark contrast to the official narrative, such as Cooper wearing white gloves during the skyjacking, and putting on hiking boots before he jumped. Florence also claimed that she, not Tina, spent the majority of time during the skyjacking with DB Cooper. Byron also says that Tina confirmed the Coffelt details when he spoke with her in 1977 in San Diego.

Byron also writes that Coffelt told him in 1974 that he threw out $5,000 worth of bills before he jumped because they didn’t fit into his plastic green bag. Coffelt said that he tossed the bundles out the door somewhere around a dam on the Columbia that he could see by its lights. Byron assumes those are the bundles that Brian Ingram found eight years later at Tina Bar.

But the whole narrative is too hard to swallow, and suggests that Jack Coffelt was conning the Browns, or that Byron Brown added his own con to Jack’s initial one. Currently Byron Brown is impossible to locate, and Florence and Tina aren’t talking at all.

Additionally, Coffelt was dismissed by the FBI, according to Ralph Himmelsbach. “We were certain that Coffelt was not Cooper, and that an opportunist was trying “to score,’ without any basis in fact,” wrote Himmelsbach in NORJAK, giving early notice to the presence of the Vortex.

However, one early suspect has lingered to this day, Ted Mayfield, who enjoyed a revival in 2006 when two Oregonian sleuths, Matt Meyers and Dan Dvorak, drew sharp attention to him.

Mayfield was former Special Forces, a skydiving champion and pilot. He also owned a skydiving school, the Pacific Parachuting Center.

In addition, Mayfield had an impressive criminal history. In 1994, he was convicted on two counts of negligent homicide stemming from the deaths of a pair of his skydiving students. Equally troubling is a report that Mayfield’s Pacific Parachuting school had thirteen skydiving fatalities during his tenure. Further, he had been found guilty of transporting a stolen airplane across state lines, and along the way he lost his parachute rigging certificate from the FAA for packing improprieties. In 2010, Mayfield got pinched again for flying without a proper license. Lastly, as a young man Mayfield had been convicted for the armed robbery of a grocery store,

According to Ralph Himmelsbach, Mayfield had been such a bad egg that he was allegedly fingered as DB Cooper by six different callers to the FBI on the night of the hijacking. In fact, written notes from NWO’s George Harrison reveal that Mayfield was targeted while Flight 305 was still winging its way to Reno.

More impressively, Mayfield was already well-known to Himmelsbach because the FBI agent had a “run-in” with some of Mayfield’s skydiving staff at the Aurora State Airport.

This small airport southeast of Portland is where Himmelsbach parked his private plane, and at issue was the failure of Mayfield’s people to comply with proper taxiing procedures and causing unsafe conditions.

Astonishingly, Mayfield called Himmelsbach the night of the skyjacking to offer his assistance, making Himmelsbach, in effect, his alibi. However, the agent also turned to Mayfield for some level of assistance in the Cooper investigation. In his book NORJAK, Himmelsbach praised Mayfield for being “most helpful,” although it is not clear what contributions Mayfield made to the FBI. But later Himmelsbach did describe Mayfield as assisting him in identifying certain skydivers being put forward as Cooper suspects. Himmelsbach specifically stated that Mayfield was helpful for his “comments that night, and other conversations we had later when he assisted us in the investigation.”

But such pronouncements make me curious. Why did Himmelsbach maintain a relationship with an ex-con like Mayfield, particularly since he already had bad business with him? Couldn’t Himmelsbach get a more trustworthy skydiver to identify local jumpers? Seeking answers, I called Mayfield at his Oregon home in November 2009. When I identified myself however, he hung up on me, but not before saying, “No thanks. I always get wracked over the coals every time when I talk about this stuff.”

Digging more deeply, I interviewed a Seattle-area skydiving official in 2013, Bill Jeswine, the former manager of the Issaquah Sky Sports Center. Jeswine told me that he was summoned to help run the Pacific Parachuting Center when Mayfield went to jail, and he described the conditions at the facility as “horrible.”

But the similarities between Mayfield and DB Cooper were all behavioral. Physically, Mayfield was too short and had little of Cooper’s bodily characteristics. Specifically, Mayfield was in his twenties—much too young to be the skyjacker. In addition, his attitude was so pugnacious that in YouTube clips he walked with a strut reminiscent of Danny DeVito’s character in “Other People’s Money.” Surely, the passengers and flight attendants would have noticed such a prominent personality trait.

Sadly, Mayfield died in August 2015 from injuries suffered while working on a vintage aircraft at his Sheridan, Oregon airport. He was 79 years old.

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7 Responses to DB Cooper – Early Suspects, and the Cooper Vortex

  1. Eric Ulis says:

    DB Cooper’s biggest “tell”

    • FLYJACK says:

      Eric brings up a good point about the lack of clothing, but as usual he gets the facts wrong.

      Cooper initially demanded the airstairs lowered inflight, it was later changed during negotiations with the crew so that rules out Seattle as his destination. Eric knows this but ignores it.

      Not having a change of clothes and his initial demand for airstairs to be lowered inflight suggests he didn’t plan to jump in the cold/wet PNW but further South in better weather. The decision to land in Reno changed his plan.

  2. Darren says:

    Great article Bruce!

  3. brucesmith49 says:

    Thanks, Darren. This is just a draft article, really. I’m still working on it for the 3rd Edition.

  4. Eric Ulis says:

    I told Bruce that those of us who live in Arizona don’t wear pants–prefer shorts–until December. Our daytime temperatures are still hitting 105+.

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