By Bruce A. Smith
The fingerprints are perhaps the most convoluted issue in Norjak. To date there is no definitive statement from the FBI that declares how many fingerprints they have, what kinds of fingerprints in terms of palm prints, thumb print, etc., or where they were collected. The confusion over the fingerprints is so complete that we are only learning snippets now, as we read the 302s in 2020. It is akin to reading tea leaves.
In fact, the dearth of information on the fingerprints is so complete that I’ve never written about it before, and this chapter was not included in previous editions of this book. Along those lines, the early works on Cooper barely mention the fingerprints at all, such as Richard Tosaw’s Dead or Alive – DB Cooper, and they fail to declare any specificity as to number, types, and clarity. More troubling information comes from Geoffrey Gray, who, even with his unlimited access to FBI files, was unable to deliver any definitive statement on the fingerprints in his SKYJACK, and in an email to me in 2020 stated: “However many sets there were… we know the quality and origin are… no good or incomplete.”
But the FBI seems to have some fingerprints that it does trust, which it uses to disqualify suspects. So, what does the FBI have on file? Here are the tidbits I have gathered.
Calame and Rhodes, in DB Cooper – The Real McCoy, offered the first – and for decades the only inkling – of what kind of fingerprints the FBI had collected in Reno. They state that 11 sets of fingerprints were retrieved, but were soon found to be too smudged to be of any value. This finding of 11 unusable prints is corroborated by the FBI document 164A-81-8868, (dated 12. 9. 86.) However, this doc also states that these prints were lifted off the ashtray, which suggests that more prints were recovered in other places.
That larger number hovers in the 66-80 range. Larry Carr told me in 2008 that the FBI had 66 sets of prints, which is corroborated by 164-2111, (dated 10. 9. 75), and backed by Himmelsbach in his book, NORJAK.
Similarly, 69 prints are declared by 164-81-7153, (dated 10. 26. 76), and 70 sets are claimed in document SE 164A-81-8767, (dated 8. 14. 84). In addition, a highly redacted 302 announces 77 sets of fingerprints, 164A-81-8816, (dated 8. 13. 85), while the undated SE 164-81-P says “approximately” 80.
In terms of where the additional fingerprints were retrieved, we know only of general areas. Document 164-81-1029, (dated 12. 13. 71), says that the two seats Cooper sat in received heavy attention, along with the airphone on which Cooper called the cockpit to ‘slow the plane down.” Further, the rear door and the surrounding area near the aftstairs were dusted for prints, along with four plastic drinking glasses found in the trash near the back door. It is also believed that the rear lavatory was dusted, as per Summary Report, LV 164-60, page 291, (dated 11. 26. 71.)
Palm prints were also obtained, as per SE 164-81-9260, (dated 3. 8. 79), and it is widely believed these prints were found on the arm rests of seat 18-E, which was removed and examined in Quantico.
As for these fingerprints and palm prints, we now know that they included the “tips, sides, and lower joint areas of fingers,” as per a report from the FBI’s Latent Fingerprint Division, (dated 8. 20. 1976), and again cited in an undated memo, 164-2111. Note: These prints are characterized as “latent” because they do not match any prints on file in FBI data banks.
In addition, fellow researchers at the DB Cooper Forum report that the FBI had been requiring full sets of fingerprint and palm prints of all suspects being investigated in Norjak as early as 1973. As a result, many citizen sleuths feel the Bureau has its greatest confidence in its palm print.
That is disputed by Galen Cook, however, who told me that Larry Carr had informed him in 2008 that the best Cooper print the FBI had was a fingerprint lifted off an in-flight magazine, and was using it as its primary means of dismissing suspects.
Ironically, the issue of magazines is another conundrum, as Calame and Rhodes claim the Reno team did not collect the magazines and were severely chided by the Bureau as a result. Nevertheless, there is another FBI document that suggests a second survey of magazines was conducted after the initial one in Reno – most likely the following day at Sea-Tac – from which clear and clean fingerprints were retrieved. [SE 164-81, page 2, “DB Cooper 8571.” However, this doc states that the magazines were dusted 11. 25. 72, but that is generally thought to be a typo since notes from George Harrison, the NWO official at Sea-Tac working closely with the FBI, describe a thorough search of the aircraft by the FBI when it returned from Reno the day after the skyjacking, Thanksgiving Day.
Along those lines, Larry Carr posted on the DropZone chat room that the FBI had gotten good prints off the magazines. Specifically, Carr stated: “No fingerprints from the airstairs, in fact no fingerprints recovered from the airplane during the first evidence sweep… On a second sweep some magazines were located in the area where Cooper had been. These were processed and a few latents were recovered that are of value.”
However, lifting prints off the magazines is incongruous. When did DB Cooper have time to read any magazines? He had his hand on the bomb trigger for much of the flight – to the degree that Tina had to light his cigarettes. Plus, Richard Tosaw states in DB Cooper – Dead or Alive that Tina told him she never saw Cooper touch a magazine during the skyjacking.
Nevertheless, Tosaw’s statements are also suspect because he told others, such as Bill Rataczak and Galen Cook, that Tina’s memory was exceptionally faulty when he interviewed her in the convent in the mid-1980s. As a result, whatever Tosaw has claimed from Tina must be viewed as less-than-reliable information.
Clearly, the fingerprint issue is controversial. In the view of many researchers, the truth probably lays close to the following scenario: The FBI has a lot of prints, including palm prints, but they don’t know conclusively if any are DB Cooper’s. But they might have DB Cooper’s prints somewhere in their pile. Hence, when a suspect is presented, they check his fingerprints against the whole bunch, and if nothing matches, they rule out the individual.