By Bruce A. Smith
The FBI is arguably the world’s best investigatory organization, but they couldn’t solve the DB Cooper case. Why not?
I asked former SA Gary Tallis that question at the 2011 Symposium 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? Further, how should the FBI have proceeded when they had so little tangible evidence? It wasn’t an easy job, I admit. Losing evidence didn’t help, either. But large bureaucracies lose stuff, and have less-than-adequate staff sprinkled throughout their organizations, even at managerial levels. So, after 45 years of investigating DB Cooper, how did they do?
In general, the FBI did many things very well, such as swarming PDX immediately following the skyjacking. But there were obvious failures, clearly, like losing evidence. Specifically, the lost material includes the cigarette butts, the mid-sized money shards found by Dorwin Schreuder’s team, and hair strands pulled off the head rest.
Other failures include the botched fingerprint retrieval in Reno, and the subsequent confusion surrounding this critical evidence. In addition, the lack of photographs or documentation of the parachutes is a major blunder.
Similarly, the absence of any substantive follow-up search of the Columbia River environs after the money find is noteworthy. Where were the interviews with fishermen, boaters, and property owners? These kinds of inquiries are the FBI’s wheelhouse, so their decision not to pursue them is a mystery. Also, is the Bureau’s failure to interview ATC Cliff Ammerman. Not gathering his important perspective has hampered their efforts to verify the flight path.
Along those lines, the National Crime Labs’ (NCL) announcement in 1971 that the tie offered no significant findings is preposterous since the Bureau had access to electron microscopes at that time. What Tom Kaye and the Citizen Sleuths have found in the past few years could have been unearthed years earlier if the Bureau had truly conducted a comprehensive investigation.
Another failure was the FBI’s slow response to unfolding events. No fly-overs for at least thirteen hours? No boots on the ground for forty-hours? No large-scale ground search for five months? No road blocks or check points on the night in question? Disappointing.
As for the positive aspects of the Norjak investigation, there were many, and it’s important to itemize what the FBI did right. Initially, the Bureau did all the basics well – maintaining passenger safety, securing the airliner and physical evidence, 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. This includes the interviewing of airport employees to ascertain where Cooper came from and when, the hundreds of skydivers and special forces troopers in an effort to screen for suspects, along with all those forlorn fellas who had been 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 Internet chat rooms.
Overall, the FBI’s Norjak investigation falls into distinct phases. The Initial Period lasted for several years, and featured a full-court press from the Bureau. In 1972, the FBI’s new director, L. Patrick Gray, gave Norjak the highest priority, writing “this case is to be vigorously pursued in all facets,” in his memo 164-81-3913, dated 9. 15. 72.
The FBI’s reach was massive: interviewing SOG troopers returning home from Vietnam, chasing copycats and ex-cons, and investigating skydiving centers, such as Elsinore. Add their tramping through the woods of Amboy searching hundreds of out-buildings and wood sheds in early December 1971, or interviewing cabbies, hotel clerks, and waitresses in Portland in the days following the hijacking. They even interviewed middle-aged men named “Cooper” nationwide, which may sound naive to some, but it does show the scale of the search.
However, by 1976 the Bureau’s momentum began to fade as the FBI realized they had very little critical evidence. But they had investigated 810 suspects, clearing 780, as per 164-2111, dated 2. 5. 76. As a result, Phase Two emerged, where the FBI sought to generate some investigatory traction by adopting unusual measures, even desperate ones.
The FBI held a pow-wow that summer in San Francisco that included agents from Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas and San Francisco, along with top brass from Washington, D. C. Discussions concluded that their Norjak investigation was stymied. Worse, the Bureau felt that if DB Cooper was apprehended they didn’t have a strong case to convict. Simply, they didn’t trust their ten eye-witnesses – the three flight attendants, the two NWO gate and ticket agents, and the five passengers – due to variances in testimonies and sketches. In fact, the FBI decided officially not to show any more pictures to its eye-witnesses unless there was no other means to exclude a suspect, 164-81-7319, dated 1. 25. 77.
In addition, the FBI had no physical evidence other than the aftstair placard – remember this was before the money find at Tina Bar – and the 60-ish fingerprint samples from Reno were thought to be too smudged or too limited in scale to be legally probative.
In addition, they had lost confidence in their original LZ-A of Amboy, and determined the jump zone was ten miles further south, in the area of Hockinson, Washington. However, they didn’t tell anyone, apparently, nor conduct a search, as no one in Hockinson knew about their status in the Cooper investigation when I questioned townsfolk in 2019.
Hence, by the mid-1970s the FBI decided they needed DB Cooper to make a confession, as is described in a memo titled: “DB Cooper-19823.” To gain that confession the FBI considered offering DB Cooper an immunity deal while insisting on the return of the $200,000. The Bureau pondered announcing this arrangement as part of the annual Cooper extravaganza in November 1976, and began tasking agents to contact local media outlets. However, the FBI never followed through for reasons that are unknown.
This malaise lingered until the money find in 1980 at Tina Bar, which triggered Phase Three. After the initial push – digging for days at the beach and obtaining an analysis by Dr. Leonard Palmer – this momentum eventually floundered as well, partially due to Ralph Himmelsbach’s retirement two weeks after the money retrieval. His successor, Dorwin Schreuder, continued the passivity, though, as he told me he did not initiate any investigatory efforts in Norjak and only waited for the public to bring the Bureau leads.
Whatever the Seattle Division’s perspective was at that time towards the money find remains shrouded in secrecy, since Ron Nichols, the new Norjak case agent after Charlie Farrell’s retirement in 1977, refuses to discuss his investigatory efforts in any manner to this day. Regardless, nothing was found or advanced during the 1980s, so perhaps Nichols has nothing to say.
In addition, the FBI’s top witness, Tina Mucklow, was in her cloistered convent by then, and according to multiple FBI agents her memory was impaired, further dampening federal enthusiasm.
As a result, a second pow-wow was held in San Francisco in 1986. By then the Bureau’s Norjak lethargy was institutionalized. Nevertheless, another “Hail Mary” effort was concocted, pegged to the release of the movie: The Pursuit of DB Cooper. As part of their promotional campaign, Universal Studios announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Dan Cooper. However, it didn’t create any leads, directly.
But Hollywood’s offer did flush-out a suspect. An unknown letter-writer – who signed his offer “sincerely not yours, d.b. cooper” – contacted the Bureau and agreed to surrender, but only if he could keep the film’s million-dollar reward. In addition, he wanted his ensuing prison term capped at just one-year – and he demanded placement in a minimum-security federal prison. Nevertheless, “d.b. cooper” offered to repay Northwest Orient the $200,000 ransom.
However, the FBI declined the offer, as per 164-81-8586.
Entering the 1990s, the Norjak investigation continued to slumber in a sleepy Phase Four, with the FBI reporting that only one lead a month needed follow-up, SE 164A-81, dated 5. 19. 1998. Nevertheless, an effort was launched by the late 1990s to organize the physical evidence. Sadly, the Bureau discovered that all of the material stored in Las Vegas had been authorized by the NCL “to be destroyed,” including the cigarette butts, per SE-164A-81-9288.
At the same time, gadflies like Jo Weber, and citizen sleuths, such as Galen Cook, began stirring the pot, signaling the beginning of Phase Five. This chapter was characterized by a resurgence of interest by the public and joint action by the FBI. By 2003, someone in the Bureau decided to “process” the cigarette butts or gather DNA from the tie, and DNA samples from suspects were now sought. In addition, Galen sued the Bureau in 2004 for access to the Norjak files, and this may be considered to be the “official” starting date for a real partnership between the citizenry and the FBI. Larry Carr’s online contributions in 2008, and the creation of the Citizen Sleuth Team in 2009 can be considered the high points of this period.
After the FBI closed the case in 2016, Phase Six began and continues to this day as the general public, Tom Kaye’s Citizen Sleuths, and private investigators – especially Eric Ulis – hunt for DB Cooper.
But mysteries abound in the FBI’s investigation to this day. Chief among them is what happened in Reno? Who really did the fingerprint search – Reno PD or the FBI crew from Vegas? What caused the memories of these agents to be forgetful, fuzzy or in conflict with each other when they were interviewed by Bernie Rhodes in the 1980s? Were they truly “victims of some strange post-hypnotic suggestion,” as Rhodes has written? Further, did MK-ULTRA play a part in Norjak?
Continuing, why is the Flight Path still in doubt? Why was Cliff Ammerman never interviewed by an FBI agent? What did SAGE radar record the night of November 24, 1971? Why do the Seattle transcripts have over one-dozen redactions? Why did NORAD tell Major Dawson to “back off” the F-106s, and pull out the chaff?
Digging more deeply, what was the 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?
In addition, what was Richard McCoy doing in Las Vegas on November 24–25, 1971? More troubling, why did the Seattle Division accept McCoy’s alibi that he was home with family on Thanksgiving, refuting the findings from Salt Lake City FBI agents? Further, how did McCoy get the $6,000 that funded his family’s trip to North Carolina?
Also, the true role of Earl Cossey in the Norjak investigation must be resolved, along with his murder. Did Cossey influence the FBI’s perspective that Cooper was an inexperienced skydiver?
Lastly the full impact of the DB Cooper skyjacking must be determined. Did Norjak affect national politics? Did it enhance the efforts to federalize airline safety? The Bureau must clarify these critical issues.
In sum, why aren’t these questions enough to re-open the case? How can the FBI reasonably walk away from Norjak with this amount of doubt?
We may always have the aroma of a cover-up lingering over Norjak. Certainly, there have been numerous instances of sloppy police work along with systemic deficiencies within the FBI, such as Hoover’s rigid model of case management. But does that mean there has been an actual attempt to prevent us from knowing the truth of DB Cooper?
There is no direct evidence that supports a cover up, but Norjak does seem compromised. It’s hard to believe the FBI ran out of credible leads and had examined all available evidence as they stated when they closed the case. If so, they should be able to answer all the above questions.
Besides these specific concerns, though, perhaps the greatest issue in Norjak is the failure of leadership. This dynamic has impacted the case in every dimension. At times, no one seemed to be in 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, 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, why didn’t Ron Nichols jump in his car and drive the three hours to T-Bar to supervise the money recovery? Further, why did his boss, Seattle ASAC Jack Pringel, appear at T-Bar three days into the dig?
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 1976 and 1986 when they met in San Francisco. 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, as reported by Geoffrey Gray in SKYJACK.
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 for much of the 45 years, even during the “active” times. Ralph Himmelsbach never interviewed Tina even though she moved to the Portland area after the skyjacking, circa 1979, and then spent decades in Eugene, just two hours south. Is this the 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 Division 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 any FBI agents 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 (in 2010). 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 between the FBI and journalists became seriously strained in 2015 when the FBI developed a new policy for media relations. Simply, the FBI stopped talking to anyone about Norjak unless the contact was specifically authorized prior. 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.