By Bruce A. Smith
On Wednesday, November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, a middle-aged man named Dan Cooper – but who was later to be known as DB Cooper – hijacked a Northwest Orient 727 airliner as it departed Portland International Airport in Oregon. After landing in Seattle, the skyjacker exchanged the thirty-five passengers for $200,000 in cash – all twenties – and four parachutes. Cooper later used one of these chutes to make his escape via the plane’s unique internal stair system.
DB Cooper has never been seen since. We also don’t know who Cooper was or if he survived, and nothing has ever been found of the skyjacking. No parachutes, no body or clothes, nor any of the money except for $5,800 that a young boy found eight years later buried on a Columbia River beach. Adding to the intrigue, no one knows how the money got there or when.
The DB Cooper case is America’s only unsolved skyjacking despite hundreds of FBI agents hunting for Cooper, and their investigation has been termed “Norjak,” an amalgam of Northwest Orient Airlines hijacking.
But now the FBI seems willing to affirm that failure, since they officially closed the case on July 8, 2016.
When they terminated, the FBI claimed they had exhausted all credible leads and had collected all available evidence. But did they? Records show that they lost vital evidence over the years, and other tantalizing discoveries from citizen sleuths, such as pieces of titanium and other exotic metals detected on the necktie DB Cooper left on the plane, have never been commented upon publicly by the FBI. As a result, we don’t know how extensively they were examined by the Bureau, if at all.
Nevertheless, the FBI has declared that if anyone finds a twenty-dollar bill from the skyjacking, or has Cooper’s parachute, they want to know about it. So, the case is still “open,” in a back-door-kind-of-way.
As an investigative journalist, I am not satisfied with the FBI’s closure. Nor are many other journalists and dozens of citizen sleuths conducting active investigations. Some have even made breakthrough discoveries in the field, especially at the site of the money find. This book is a compendium of what I have observed in these multifaceted investigations, and it’s both a portrayal of an original, bold crime, and an exploration of the FBI’s investigation.
Yet, to evaluate the actions of the FBI accurately, it is necessary to understand the skyjacking. Cooper’s actions were straightforward.
On Thanksgiving Eve, DB Cooper commandeered Flight 305, an NWO 727 inbound to Seattle. He used a bomb in a briefcase for persuasion, and at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) he released the thirty-five passengers in exchange for the money and four parachutes – two main chutes and two reserves. After refueling, Cooper ordered the pilots to “fly to Mexico City,” and forty minutes later he jumped into the chilly November rains of southwestern Washington with his money in a sack tied around his waist. Since nothing substantive of the crime has ever been found and the skyjacker’s identity is still unknown, it seems as if DB Cooper came from “nowhere” and returned there when he jumped.
The skyjacking has amazed the world because it is history’s most daring act of skypiracy. Hundreds of airplanes had been hijacked prior, but they had been political and no one had done it strictly for the money. More dramatically, no one ever had jumped out of the plane on their getaway. In fact, DB Cooper revolutionized skyjacking because he was the first to exploit the unique design feature of the Boeing 727, an internal stair system that could be lowered in flight and used to make an escape.
The night of the skyjacking every FBI agent in the Seattle office, over thirty men, were deployed on the case securing the grounds of Sea-Tac, interviewing the passengers, or monitoring the actual hijacking via radio with the Seattle Center FAA tower. Several hours later, a dozen FBI agents and two-hundred local police awaited Cooper’s plane in Reno, Nevada when it landed for another refueling.
The next day, Thanksgiving, the FBI deployed the majority of its Seattle agents to Sea-Tac and the Portland airport (PDX) to gather evidence about Cooper. As a result, they had to out-source the actual ground search to local county sheriff’s departments. This effort was fragmented and slow to develop since the FBI and NWO weren’t certain where to look for Cooper. This occurred because the flight path and time of Cooper’s jump were hard to pinpoint, possibly due to the technical limitations of the radar systems in use.
Nevertheless, deputies from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office were tasked with combing the lands identified as the optimum choice for Cooper’s landing zone—Ariel and Amboy, Washington, an area 100 miles south of Seattle and 30 miles north of Portland. However, they didn’t enter the woods until Friday afternoon, giving Cooper a 40-hour head start over his pursuers. More troubling, the ground team only covered about ten-percent of their assigned area when the FBI canceled the search on Monday, November 29, 1971.
However, the FBI had launched an aerial search over the Ariel-Amboy area, known as Landing Zone-A (LZ-A), at daylight on Thanksgiving morning, and had flown intermittently throughout the remainder of the holiday weekend. But these attempts were hampered by the fog, rain, and clouds so typical of the Pacific Northwest. Finally, after a massive one-day aerial surveillance of the entire flight path from Seattle to Reno on November 29, the FBI terminated all operations in LZ-A, citing the lack of any promising leads or evidence coming from the resources already devoted to the search for DB Cooper.
Nonetheless, the FBI resumed its ground search in LZ-A four months later in March 1972, when hundreds of soldiers and dozens of FBI agents returned to the fields and woodlands around Ariel. They searched for eighteen days in March and another eighteen in April, but they found nothing pertaining to the skyjacking.
Other mysteries abound in Norjak. The FBI’s top witness, flight attendant Tina Mucklow, disappeared from public view for over 30 years until discovered by researchers in 2010. In addition, Tina had spent twelve of those years in a cloistered convent in Eugene, Oregon, but even as she re-entered the world in 1991, she steadfastly refused to discuss the skyjacking. When I approached her in 2011 to discuss the case, she slammed the door in my face.
Additional aspects of the case are still shrouded in dispute, such as the flight path and what kind of parachute DB Cooper used. Bizarre elements have also surfaced, such as the seemingly inexplicable fact that over 900 people have confessed to being DB Cooper.
As for my entree into the Cooper saga, I did so in a curious manner. Initially, when Cooper hijacked his airliner, I was a 22-year old college student on Long Island, NY, and throughout my life I was aware of his iconic status in American folklore. But I’d never paid him much attention. After relocating to Washington, though, I found that DB Cooper was big news locally, and became reacquainted with the story when I covered an air show for the Pierce County (WA) Dispatch newspaper.
In August of 2008, while perusing dozens of vintage aircraft gathered at Thun Field in Puyallup, Washington, I was elated to see a beautifully restored Fairchild 24. This single-winged plane from the 1930s was the “Rolls-Royce” of private airplanes in its day. I loved building model airplanes when I was a kid, and the first balsa wood job I made was a Fairchild. Now, for the first time I was seeing one for real.
Sensing my appreciation, the owner, Ron Forman, approached and we started talking. After a few minutes in the broiling sun, Ron suggested we retreat to the shade under the Fairchild’s starboard wing. We camped in his lawn chairs, drank ice-cold cokes, and schmoozed.
After a few minutes I saw a book near his chair titled, DB Cooper… something… Legend… something… Death.
“Are you into DB Cooper, Ron?” I asked.
“Heck, yeah!” he replied. “My wife and I just wrote that book!”
For the rest of the afternoon Ron regaled me with his story. “Besides the Fairchild, my wife and I have a Cessna 140, and for years we’d fly on the weekends with a few other 140 pilots here at Thun Field. One of the pilots, Barb Dayton, confessed to being DB Cooper during one of our coffee breaks when we were arguing about the Cooper skyjacking. Our book is about her life and how she did the skyjacking.”
“Barb? I thought DB Cooper was a guy!” I roared.
“Yeah, he was, and Barb also told us that she was the first person in Washington State to get a sex-change operation. Before 1969, she was Bobby Dayton.”
So right at the beginning, I knew the DB Cooper story was going to be a wild ride.
As Ron continued, I learned that Barb/Bobby was a skydiver and an exceptionally skilled pilot. In addition, she was an explosives expert and daredevil, and had worked aboard Vietnam-bound ammunition ships in the 1960s before her “gender-reassignment surgery.” One night in Saigon, Bobby killed a Viet Cong sapper with his bare hands during a late-night sneak attack. Bobby had also fought in World War II with indigenous head-hunters in the jungles of Borneo against the Japanese. Bobby had even been chased by a grizzly in the Yukon while panning for gold.
Wow, what a story, I thought, and Ron and I spent the rest of the day talking about Barb and Cooper. From what I’ve gleaned, it seems Barb did the skyjacking to prove to herself that she still had cajones.
“Barb would tell us all these incredible stories that we only half-believed,” said Ron. “But when she died in 2002, my wife and I started checking everything out and it all proved true except the DB Cooper confession, which we haven’t confirmed, yet. For that we need a DNA analysis from the FBI, but they won’t give it to us. They won’t even return our phone calls or emails—not a single one!”
I found such resistance troubling. Doesn’t the FBI want to hear a confession from DB Cooper?
So, I decided to see what was wrong with the Bureau. Plus, I wanted to learn more about the remarkable Ms. Dayton. Ron educated me on the basics of Norjak, arming me with the contact information for many of the individuals discussed in this book.
But I encountered some of the same obstacles Ron had discovered. Although I was never able to speak with the original Norjak case agent, Charlie Farrell, due to his passing in 2007, I did contact Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI’s chief skyjacking investigator in Portland where the hijacking started. But Himmelsbach refused to discuss the case with me unless I paid him $600. In lieu of speaking with Himmelsbach, I read his book, NORJAK: The Investigation of DB Cooper; and I spoke to him briefly in 2011 when I simply drove up to his house and begged for answers to a handful of questions.
More unyielding was Himmelsbach’s counterpart in Seattle, Norjak case agent Ron Nichols—the fellow in charge of the case when the money was found, and Farrell’s successor. Nichols has been totally unresponsive to my phone calls, emails, and letters.
But I did speak with one active Norjak official, Special Agent Larry Carr, the Cooper case agent from 2007–2010. My twenty-minute interview in 2008 was memorable because he bullied me throughout our conversation with derisive comments and interruptions. However, I did receive plenty of valuable information.
Organizationally, I have also been rebuffed. Prior to 2016, the Bureau denied me access to all files and evidence, although it had opened at least a few of its doors to other private citizens, such as Gray, researcher Tom Kaye and his group of Citizen Sleuths, and attorney Galen Cook.
Fortunately, after the closure in 2016, official FBI documents are increasingly finding their way into researchers’ hands since ownership of all Cooper case files has transferred to the public domain. The FBI remains the gatekeeper to these documents, but they no longer exercise the same informational control. An estimated 70,000 files have been put into the public’s hands since 2016 – often selectively, however.
My Freedom of Information Affidavit (FOIA) to the FBI in 2016 was denied, as have other FOIAs from numerous journalists. But academicians who have received documents via their FOIAs have been forwarding their files to certain journalists, most notably Thomas J. Colbert, and he in turn has been funneling them to public research outlets, such as the DB Cooper Forum.
This treasure trove consists of memoranda, summary reports, and most importantly, the 302 field reports from FBI agents. These latter documents are often raw and in conflict with each other, but they are the quintessential source of information in the DB Cooper case.
The FBI has established a “Vault” on their website, where one can read highly redacted versions of these files. However, the organization of the records is poor, and navigating them is difficult, particularly if one is looking for information on a specific subject.
Ironically, the FBI closed their Norjak investigation just as DB Cooper had become resurgent in the public’s mind due to technological advances, especially the advent of the Internet and the use of DNA to evaluate suspects. Plus, a multitude of deathbed confessions have added to the list of Cooper candidates.
Nonetheless, during the years before the Bureau terminated Norjak, the FBI’s blockade of the Cooper case files was troubling because it was increasingly evident from the work of the independent citizen sleuths that the FBI’s Cooper investigation was flawed. Arguably, it was compromised or even corrupted, possibly sabotaged by political pressures.
The most damning fact is the FBI’s loss of its most critical piece of evidence—the eight cigarettes butts Cooper left on the plane. These items contained his dried saliva, which was the ideal substance to reveal the skyjacker’s DNA. Worse, the butts were not secured in the evidence locker at the FBI’s Seattle office, which should have been the repository for such important artifacts. Rather, they were stored in Las Vegas due to an apparent bureaucratic turf battle. Worst though, the cigarette butts apparently went missing only after their true value was realized. Case agent Larry Carr acknowledged that the butts “had been processed in 2003,” but subsequently lost. Adding to this disaster, the written scientific findings of the “processing” are also missing.
Similarly, a Norjak FBI agent, Jeremy Blauser, vanished shortly after his assignment to the case in 2006. Since he was based in Los Angeles, this raises the question if a second, “shadow,” investigation was being conducted alongside the official one being run by Carr in Seattle.
Also troubling, the evidence found on the necktie DB Cooper supposedly left behind – in particular shards of titanium, bismuth, and several rare earth metals – have not been investigated by the FBI, apparently. Fortunately, this evidence is being examined by the private scientists who found them, a group of citizen sleuths recruited by Carr in 2009.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the hunt for DB Cooper has been the murder of the FBI’s parachute expert, Earl J. Cossey. Cossey was a key figure in assessing Cooper’s skydiving abilities for the FBI, but over the years Cossey told plenty of lies and half-truths to the public. Now, many aficionados wonder if he was killed because his deceitfulness placed the FBI in an unfavorable light.
The problems within the FBI’s investigation are many. Besides the missing cop and a dead consultant, red flags include seemingly minor aspects of the case, such as the Bureau’s inability to pinpoint Cooper’s exact landing area. Also, basic police procedures were not followed, such as establishing road blocks or check points in Cooper’s suspected landing zone on the night of the skyjacking.
As a news reporter I have long known that law enforcement is leery of the media. In effect, the police merely view us as a way to distribute their side of the story to the public, and they rarely discuss complex cases with journalists. Adding to the silence has been the FBI’s policy of refusing to send an agent to professional Norjak gatherings, such as the DB Cooper Symposium in Portland, the 2013 “COOPER” Symposium in Tacoma hosted by the Washington State Historical Museum, and the now-annual CooperCon gatherings organized by private resear4cher Eric Ulis and held in Portland since 2018.
More troubling, for the duration its Norjak investigation the FBI withheld critical information from some agents and between field offices. At times, it even appeared as though no one was in charge of the DB Cooper case, and it was mostly an “every-man-for-himself” type of operation. Part of that was due to the nature of how J. Edgar Hoover had structured his FBI in the 1970s.
Allegedly, Hoover gave field agents cash bonuses for solving high-profile cases, which motivated investigators to become very competitive, and thus highly selective with whom they shared information. In addition, case agents were given a lot of administrative leeway and ran their investigations like a fiefdom, a practice that continues to this day. This compartmentalization extended to how field offices interacted with each other, and as a result, the Bureau has struggled to solve complex cases that involve multiple jurisdictions. This modus operandi continues to exist in the current era, as we saw in 9-11 when the FBI had trouble “connecting the dots,” as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice famously reported.
Specifically, three main FBI offices shared investigatory responsibilities for Norjak: Portland, where the skyjacking began and some of the ransom money was later found; Seattle, where the ransom exchange took place and the on-going skyjacking was managed; and Las Vegas, which supplied the agents for the evidence retrieval in Reno, and where selected items were stored, such as the cigarette butts.
Later, as a dozen Cooper copycats began hijacking airplanes, other jurisdictions became involved in the Cooper investigation, particularly Salt Lake City when Richard McCoy hijacked a commercial flight in April 1972. At the time, McCoy was considered a prime suspect for the DB Cooper skyjacking also, so a fourth field office landed solidly into the Norjak mix.
In addition, the case is huge, filling rooms with documents. So, it is understandable that the record-keeping became untidy. But the Norjak information has been so disorganized, contradictory, or confusing that Cooper case agents appear befuddled when they appear before a TV crew. Case agent Larry Carr, who relished speaking publicly about Cooper, routinely presented a haphazard view of Cooper’s actions, or the role Earl Cossey played in the Bureau’s investigation.
Further, it appears from cross-checking Bureau documents that Norjak investigators did not read many of the 302s already in the case files, and relied mostly on anecdotal narratives passed down from case agent to another, much like chieftains revealing tribal lore to young warriors. Additionally, Cooper case agents were rotated every few years, which eroded the continuity of case management. Further, today’s agents don’t have any first-hand knowledge of Norjak and stumble when identifying principals in the case. Before 2016, the mess had been so endemic that the FBI asked journalists for the phone numbers of witnesses to the skyjacking. With such a muddle, rumors of a cover-up engineered by Big Money and Big Power come as no surprise.
Welcome to one of America’s greatest true-crime mysteries. Has there been a cover-up? Frankly, I don’t know.
Could the FBI’s investigation have been squashed by powerful sources claiming “national security” concerns or other geopolitical influences? That is certainly a possibility. Was the FBI just sloppy, overwhelmed, or unlucky? Maybe, but I find those scenarios hard to accept.
Could Cooper have outsmarted the FBI and the feds just don’t want the public to know? That’s too tough for me to swallow, too.
Or did Mother Nature simply stuff Cooper into a tiny hole somewhere in the wilds of Washington along with his parachutes, the money, and a bomb in a briefcase, and no one has found him yet? Possibly, for I’ve seen that anything can happen in nature.
Regardless, I feel this is a story for our times because it shows how law enforcement truly functions. Unfortunately, the FBI is not as effective as portrayed on TV. The heroes of Hollywood’s cop shows do not exist in the main, and the FBI is a huge bureaucracy that has trouble solving innovative crimes, especially if they involve multiple jurisdictions.
Nevertheless, the FBI investigated over 1,100 suspects until it closed Norjak. However, it was also sleepy. For much of its 45-year tenure Norjak was “inactive,” according to the Bureau’s long-standing public information officer (PIO) in Seattle, Ayn Dietrich-Williams, and other PIOs, such as Dorwin Schreuder in Portland.
But even though this book is about the FBI as much as it is DB Cooper, I don’t solve the case or prove a conspiracy. I just offer my findings of who said what and why. It’s also my effort through truth-telling to deliver a measure of justice to the incompetent, the hubristic, and the power-hungry. So, follow me through the details of this astounding crime and come to your own conclusions.