By Bruce A. Smith
This conference was the best one, yet.
CooperCon 2021 was held this past weekend in Vancouver, Washington, and over 200 people attended the festivities. This year’s Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, is the 50th Anniversary date of DB Cooper’s iconic skyjacking – the only unsolved hijacking in the history of the United States.
During the conference, the vibe in the audience was electric, as panel members gave superb expert testimony on the many mysteries that surround the case, especially the money find at Tina Bar in 1980. How the ransom bills got there and when has baffled investigators for decades. However, Tom Kaye gave a riveting presentation on his recent find of springtime diatoms on the interior of several bills. More impressively, Kaye said he did not find any wintertime diatoms at all, as they differ significantly than from the springtime species in both shape and chemical composition.
Principals in the Norjak investigation, as the DB Cooper case is known in the FBI, also gave powerful descriptions of their actions, such as Mary Jean Fryar, who investigated Sheridan Peterson twice. Air Traffic Controller Cliff Ammerman also presented, and reiterated that the F-106 chase planes were miles away from Cooper, and flying above his 10,000-foot altitude. “FAA regulations state that chase planes must be miles behind the hijacked airliner,” he told the audience. Ammerman also gave original information, saying that two A7 jets were dispatched out of Oakland to closely shadow Flight 305 into Reno and fly near enough to the cabin area to ascertain if the hijacker was still on board. They reported that he was not.
These claims were supported by further statements from presenter Dan Gryder, who also said that one of the A7 pilots is still alive. Gryder, an accomplished skydiver and commercial pilot who has flown 727s, said that Flight 305 most certainly adhered to the center line of Victor-23. “They didn’t have GPS or any modern-day navigational equipment. All they had was HSI and DME, so they wouldn’t have strayed from the centerline – it would have been too dangerous.” Gryder also claimed that Cooper must have dumped his briefcase and bomb as it would have been too difficult to skydive with excess gear flapping about his body. Lastly, Gryder announced that he has solved Norjak and will reveal Cooper’s identity by Thanksgiving Day, producing rounds of scoffing and rolled eyeballs. Host Darren Schaefer said succinctly, “C’mon Dan, stop promoting and just tell us.”
As for Darren, he did an excellent job narrating the panel discussions. This was a new dimension this year, and Darren kept the discussions moving and his questions were substantive and timely.
The “Suspects” panel was particularly fascinating as it featured two nieces of DB Cooper – Marla Wynn Cooper touting her Uncle LD Cooper, while Lisa Story sat next to Marla and told the audience about her uncle, Walter Reca.
Marla delivered enormous amounts of anecdotal information on LD, such as covert government involvement in Norjak as part of larger mis-information campaigns engineered by Operation Northwoods, and Gladio I and II. Marla claimed that previous skyjackings and Norjak were black ops designed to distract the American public from the terrors of the Vietnam War, or to strengthen public sentiment against the communist regime in Cuba. However, no subsequent investigation of these programs shows any connection to DB Cooper’s hijacking.
Lisa Story, who was instrumental in developing her Uncle Walt’s written confession and was a kind of family record keeper, was charming and forthright. Asked by Darren how she would feel if DB Cooper was identified and found not to be Walter Reca, Lisa proclaimed, “I’d be pissed!” She added that she had worked diligently on organizing her uncle’s papers while listening to his many stories. We also learned that the family pronounces Peca as “Pea-Ka.” In addition, Uncle Walt had a sizeable business as an illegal arms dealer, and narrowly escaped an ATF sting operation and a follow-up investigation by the Michigan State Police because he was warned by his deceased mother in a dream.
Mark Meltzer continued to dig into the parachute conundrum and said a few things that appeared to be an evolution from past conferences. First, Mark seems to accept that both back chutes came from Norman Hayden and were both Pioneers. However, he felt that both chutes would be military canopies, and would be either C-9s or 26’ Navy conicals. “They were almost certainly C-9s because in 1971 they were plentiful on the used surplus market, whereas Navy conicals were much rarer and thus much more expensive.”
Two of those attendees, however, told the audience that DB Cooper is not all “fun and games” for them because their families were directly threatened. Passenger Bill Mitchell spoke eloquently about his experience and said he could not sleep for several days following the hijacking. “After awhile, though, life kind of got back to normal,” Bill said. “The big problem was that for the next year and a half, at least once or twice a week, FBI agents would come to my dorm room or home and show me pictures. I must have seen thousands of pictures of military guys, paratroopers, and such.”
Catherine Scott, daughter of the captain of DB Cooper’s flight – Northwest Orient 305 – told the assembled that her father was a solid and unflappable guy, steeled by his experiences in WWII flying “over the hump” of the Himalayas into China. “Because of that, he might have been the best man for the job that night,” Ms. Scott said. She also told the audience how difficult it was to be a 16-year old girl and see her mother live in abject fear for the hours of the skyjacking. Scotty’s wife would not learn of her husband’s safety until 1 a.m. that evening.
CooperCon 21 had a few surprise guests, and one, Dave Fudeman, flew in from Washington, D.C. to announce that he was “coming out” and would no longer disguise himself as “Anonymous.” Dave sat on several panels and distinguished him as knowledgeable of the case even though most folks discount his suspect, William J. Smith. Marty Andrade also attended, flying in from Minnesota, and ably contributed to flightpath discussions and the survivability of the jump. Initially, Brett Eichenberger was a stranger to Cooper World, but his presentation on Bigfoot, accompanied by his movie trailer, was a solid contribution to the strangeness of the Pacific Northwest.
As the organizer of CC21, Eric Ulis was constant presence, and rightly received many kudos from the audience and presenters for a superbly run conference. In his closing remarks, Eric assured the assembled that there will be a CooperCon in 2022.
As for video-tapping CC21, that is unclear. Numerous organizations and podcasters recorded sections of the conference, but no broad, definitive documentation was evident.