By Bruce A. Smith
The FBI is arguably the world’s best investigatory organization. So, why can’t they solve the DB Cooper case?
I asked former SA Gary Tallis that question, and his reply surprised me: “Because they haven’t found a body. If we had a body, all the answers would follow.”
But what happens to an investigation when there isn’t a body? Add to that conundrum, how should the FBI proceed when they have so little tangible evidence? It’s not an easy job, I admit. Losing evidence doesn’t help, either. But large bureaucracies have screw-ups, lose stuff, and have less-than-adequate agents sprinkled throughout the organization, even at managerial levels. So, after their 46 years of investigating DB Cooper, how did they do? And what can happen from this point forward?
Scanning through the issues, we can identify particular people, places, and events that have been problematic. Some items might have resolution, some might not. But first, let’s talk about the Bureau’s successes:
What the FBI did right:
I say the Bureau did all the basics fairly well – securing the airliner and airport perimeters on the night of the skyjacking, interviewing airport employees to ascertain where Cooper came from and when, and debriefing the passengers at Sea-Tac and the crew in Reno. Later, the FBI did what it does so well – a massive, blanket investigation of person’s named Cooper, skydivers and SOG troopers who could have done the jump, and all those lovelorn fellas that got thrown under the bus by their broken-hearted ladies.
The dig at Tina Bar was conducted adequately, in general, as all evidence indicates that the search was done thoughtfully and comprehensively. Yes, they could have taken more pictures, especially of the shards.
Larry Carr’s actions are stellar, as well. Establishing the Citizen Sleuths was superb, as was his posting on DB Cooper chat rooms.
But there is room for improvement. High on the list is lost evidence or poorly collected evidence, such as the fingerprints. Here’s a specific list:
Deficiencies in the Investigation
1. Cigarette Butts
– Where are they?
– If lost, is anyone looking for them?
– Were they processed for DNA analysis, as indicated by case agent Larry Carr?
– If so, where is the paperwork?
2. Clip-on Tie
– Why did it reportedly enter the Seattle evidence cache four days after the hijacking?
– Where was it for that time?
– Was the chain of custody broken?
– What does it mean that no one involved in the evidence retrieval in Reno, specifically Tina Mucklow, Red Campbell, Jack Ricks, John Norris, and Alf Stousland, could remember the tie when questioned in the 1980s by Bernie Rhodes?
– To what extent, if any, did the FBI follow-up on the Citizen Sleuth’s discovery of titanium and rare earth minerals on the tie, beginning in 2009? Why isn’t that a priority now?
3. Reno, fingerprints
– Who conducted the fingerprint search aboard 305?
– How many prints were obtained in that search?
– Why weren’t the “In-flight” magazines gathered into evidence?
– Have any reconstructions of the fingerprints been undertaken?
4. Reno, behaviors of FBI agents
– What caused the memories of the agents on evidence retrieval to be forgetful, fuzzy or in conflict with each other?
– Were these agents “victims of some strange post-hypnotic suggestion,” as Bernie Rhodes has written?
– Did MKULTRA play a part in Norjak?
5. Ground Search
– Why was the ground search of LZ-A called off on Monday, November 29, 1971? Afterall, the ground teams only covered one square mile out of dozens potentially.
– Why did Seattle FO tell FBI HQ that there was too much snow on the ground to continue, when there was no snow reported in the LZ-A by local officials.
6. SOG and 727s
– What was the complete role of 727s in the Vietnam War?
– Were they used to deploy soldiers into combat?
– Did any combat units utilize techniques similar to those of DB Cooper, ie: jumping from a 727 with flaps at 15, gear down and locked, etc.?
7. Money Retrieval
– How many shards of money were found at Tina Bar?
– Where are they, currently, especially the larger ones in the 2-3-inch category?
– Did the FBI find part of DB Cooper’s briefcase at Tina Bar, as reported by PIO Dorwin Schreuder?
– Why was the money found in a highly compressed state?
– What kinds of follow-up were done along the Columbia River, i.e.: fishermen interviewed, other sites dug-up, etc.?
– What does the discovery of springtime diatoms on the money mean?
8. Richard McCoy
– What was he doing in Las Vegas on November 24–25, 1971?
– What was he doing there on November 2–3, 1971?
– How did he learn the details of hijacking an airplane?
– What was his relationship with “Dan Cooper?”
– Why does the Seattle FO accept McCoy’s alibi that he was home with family on Thanksgiving, refuting the findings from Salt Lake City FBI agents?
– How did he get that $6,000 in late 1971 that funded his family’s trip to North Carolina?
9. Radar Findings and Flight Path Issues
– Why is the Flight Path still in doubt? Why was Cliff Ammerman never interviewed by any FBI agent?
– What did SAGE radar record the night of November 24, 1971?
– Why do the Seattle transcripts have over one-dozen redactions?
– Did the F-106s and the T-33 following Flight 305 have any radar findings of Cooper or his jump? If not, why not?
– Why did NORAD tell Major Dawson to “back off” the F-106s, and pull out the chaff?
10. Earl Cossey
– What was the true role of Earl Cossey in the Norjak investigation?
– Did he actually own the “back” parachutes delivered to the hijacker, as he claimed?
– Did Cossey influence the FBI’s perspective that Cooper was an inexperienced skydiver?
– Why did the FBI flip-flop on their assessment of Cooper’s skills?
– Why was Cossey murdered? Why is that crime still unsolved?
11. Care of Evidence
– Why weren’t pictures taken of the parachutes?
– Why weren’t pictures taken at Tina Bar of the shards, and the specific activities of the money retrieval, like the beach slope, the actual location, close-ups of shards buried at three-feet, etc.
12. Suspects: Unanswered Questions –
– Why was Robert Rackstraw dismissed as a suspect in 1979 after the FBI arrested him in Paris, France on his return to the United States from Iran.
– Did E. Howard Hunt, or someone like him, play a role in Norjak?
12. What was the full impact of the DB Cooper skyjacking?
– Did it affect national politics?
– Did it enhance the efforts to federalize airline safety?
13. Would the FBI be willing to participate in a public debriefing of Norjak?
– Will the FBI send agents such as Larry Carr and Curtis Eng to CooperCon 2021 to anchor a panel discussion assessing the FBI’s investigation?
Lastly, why aren’t these questions enough to re-open the case? How can the FBI reasonably walk away from Norjak with this amount of outstanding doubt?
We may always have the issue of a cover-up, of a federal conspiracy to keep the public knowing the truth of Norjak. Certainly, there have been numerous instances of sloppy police work; systemic deficiencies within the FBI, such as Hoover’s rigid model of case management; and problematic decision-making. But does that mean there is an actual attempt to prevent us from knowing the truth of DB Cooper?
I don’t know. I have no direct evidence that supports a cover up. But Norjak does seem compromised. Is it true that the FBI ran out of credible leads and examined all available evidence by 2016 when they closed the case? If so, they should be able to answer all the above questions.
Besides these specific concerns, perhaps the greatest issue in Norjak is the failure of leadership. This issue has impacted the case in every dimension. At times, no one seemed to be in complete command of Norjak—certainly not in the early stages of the investigation. Farrell was in charge of Seattle-based activities, Manning on the ground near Ariel, Mattson in Portland and later Himmelsbach; and then Campbell and his Las Vegas-based crew in Reno.
But why didn’t Charlie Farrell jump on a plane and fly to Reno to ensure the proper retrieval of evidence, thus minimizing the predictable bureaucratic turf battles that followed?
Additionally, Farrell and his team worked in secrecy. The public knows little of his work. Farrell is reported to have penned a 300-page account of his experiences in Norjak, and Geoffrey Gray says he has read it. But my efforts to obtain access to a copy have been met by resistance from the Farrell family.
Similarly, the Norjak case agent at the time of the money find, Ron Nichols, remains totally silent on the money find, shards, and their documentation. More disturbing, why didn’t Nichols jump in his car and drive the three hours to T-Bar to supervise the money recovery? Further, why did his boss appear at T-Bar three days into the dig, Seattle ASAC Jack Pringel?
Nichols’ failures are coupled with the stonewalling from Himmelsbach on the money controversies, making the whole situation unacceptable.
If Norjak was too big a case for a single agent, why wasn’t a Task Force developed? True, a quasi-force was formed in 1975 when they met in San Francisco and determined the jump zone was ten miles south of their initial estimates. But why wasn’t this group formalized to continue a joint, comprehensive investigation?
Another example of poor supervision was the care given to the evidence stored in Seattle. Before being shipped to HQ in 2016, the main pieces were stored loosely in a cardboard box that looked like it once held knickknacks from someone’s attic. Concerns over the chain of custody pepper Norjak as well, such as the clip-on tie being torn apart by the Citizen Sleuths. It appears they were able to review physical evidence without any FBI agent present, although Alan Stone refutes that assumption.
Nevertheless, these breaks in the chain of custody are serious concerns. DB Cooper aficionado Mark Metzler, an attorney in the Bay Area, offers a cogent view of the matter:
“The FBI has been amazingly cavalier about the handling of physical evidence (in Norjak). It’s not normal practice. As a defense lawyer, when I had my experts examine physical evidence or run lab tests the prosecution enforced strict protocols so that the custody chain was unbroken and fully documented and that contamination or alteration of evidence was prevented.
“Even in minor cases this was how things were handled. I represented a ghetto bar owner who the cops hated. He was arrested for serving alcohol to a minor. It was a major hassle just to get a sample of the drink which was preserved. My lab had to sign for the sample and document its handling at every step. The prosecution wisely only gave my lab a portion of the sample so that they had a control if my findings were later to be disputed. My client got really lucky. My lab tested zero alcohol. When the police lab repeated their test, they found the same thing. Case dismissed.
“It might be that the FBI has some undisclosed evidence that has been very carefully handled and that is highly probative in identifying Cooper, enough so that a conviction could be secured without any other evidence. Cigarette butts might fit this description. It just makes no sense that they would be ‘lost.’
“Peterson, a highly qualified suspect, was ruled out on DNA. Maybe it wasn’t tie DNA but cigarette DNA, which would be more confidently linked to DB Cooper.”
In addition, there was an uncanny passivity to the FBI’s work at times. Ralph Himmelsbach never interviewed Tina even though she moved to the Portland area after the skyjacking for medical treatment and then spent decades in Eugene, just two hours south. Is this a proper handling of a primary witness in a major case? More troubling, Himmelsbach’s book reveals—and Dorwin Schreuder confirms—that for much of the Norjak era the Portland FO had a reactionary stance to the investigation, and only responded to leads as they came in to the office. Similarly, Seattle agents, such as Bob Sale and Sid Rubin, have also indicated that the Cooper case was near-dormant in the Seattle FO between the money find in 1980 and the resurgence in the late 1990s.
Further, did silence on the details of the case really serve the investigation? Why didn’t a single FBI agent attend the DB Cooper Symposium in 2011 or 2013 or the CooperCons in 2018 and 2019? What did that avoidance achieve? What kind of investigatory integrity did that maintain?
At times, it appears that FBI agents don’t talk with one another, either, even when working on the same case. Researcher Galen Cook has a telling story on this subject:
Seems like the NORJAK agents die by the vine, but DB Cooper lives on. The Bureau must hate that. No one ever hears from Carr since he left. He e-mailed me about six months after I started talking with Eng, but Eng wasn’t too enthused that I was still talking with Carr about the case. Led me to believe that the agents aren’t necessarily on the same page, and rather territorial of their own turf, even among other agents.
Part of this non-sharing with fellow agents was fostered by J. Edgar Hoover. As discussed previously, Hoover awarded cash bonuses to agents who busted tough cases, so field agents had an incentive not to share since it could cost them money. Plus, we have the pressures seeping from the mundane area of internal politics: promotions based upon performance, and assignments determined by one’s status within the office.
As for my relationship with FBI agents, when I ask questions beyond their initial set story they balk. I call it the “One and Done” scenario. I get one good interview—usually a recitation of their well-rehearsed narrative—then, nothing. Follow-up phone calls and emails go unanswered. Thus, I strongly suspect that what I was told initially was a spin job, and they don’t want me to scratch beneath the surface.
More troubling, formal communications with the FBI become seriously strained in 2015 when I was informed the FBI had a new policy for communicating with journalists. Simply, the FBI stopped talking to anyone about Norjak unless the contact was specifically authorized. After years of exchanging increasingly opaque emails with PIO Ayn Dietrich-Williams, she finally stated the obvious on December 7, 2015:
“The FBI’s media policy prohibits discussing ongoing investigations unless a release is specifically thought to have potential benefit to the investigation.
“…I understand your continued interest in our investigation and apologize that I will not be able to share additional information to answer your questions.”
Nevertheless, I have not abandoned all hope in the FBI, and I will be providing them with a “Special Edition” of this book, complete with phone numbers and contact information for all of the major figures of the case. At least then, the Bureau will have a comprehensive overview of the case for future investigators to consult.
Of course, they can call me anytime for assistance.