Saturday, November 05, 2011

FBI's nightmare - D. B. Cooper

The FBI is still searching for D. B. Cooper, the protagonist of the only unsolved airline hijacking in American aviation history. In 1971, this man jumped from Boeing 727, carrying $ 200,000 of ransom money in his bag - and simply disappeared. 

The good guys from the FBI absolutly hate it when someone commits a very serious and very well-known criminal offense and then just – disappears. Then they have to scan the available evidence hundreds of times, year after year, and sometimes they are waiting for several decades only to start the investigation from scratch. Their working motto can be summed up in just one sentence: the suspect cannot be allowed to disappear so that no one can find him. 

Well, one man has done just that. And no one – how about that, FBI guys? –hasn’t found him. Neither him nor his money.

On the eve of Thanksgiving in 1971, a certain Dan Cooper Рprobably a false name Рarrived at the international airport in Portland, Oregon. When he approached the flight counter of "Northwest Orient Airlines", he had with him just a black attach̩ case. He bought a one way ticket on Flight 305 - a 30-minute trip to Seattle, Washington. With the purchased ticket, Cooper entered the "Boeing 727-100" and took seat 18-C, which was near the tail. He lit a cigarette - then, in those happy times, you were allowed to do that - and ordered a bourbon and soda.

According to witnesses, he looked quite relaxed. The witnesses also said that he seemed to be in mid-forties, and about 180 centimeters tall. He was wearing a raincoat under which was a nice dark suit and nicely ironed white shirt.

When the plane took off – around 2:50 pm, local time – Cooper approached the flight attendant Florence Schaffner and thrust a piece of paper into her hand. Beautiful Florence, who was often approached by lonely businessmen, thought that he was just giving her his phone number. Without looking at it, she put the paper into her bag.

Miss, you'd better look at that note.” - Cooper leaned towards her and began to whisper. Decisively, not at all erotic.

On the piece of paper, written in capital letters, it said: “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.”

Schaffner did what he asked of her, and then quietly asked to see the bomb. Cooper opened his black bag just enough for Florence to see a red infernal machine.

I want $200,000 in unmarked 20-dollar bills. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I’ll do the job.” – he said quietly. 

Flight 305's pilot, William Scott contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport air traffic control, and they alarmed the local police and the Feds. Dan Cooper wasn’t nervous and behaved very politely. He ordered another bourbon and soda, paid the bill (while insisting that Schaffner keeps the change) and ordered a good lunch for the crew when they land in Seattle.

At exactly 4:39 pm, Cooper was informed that his demands are accepted. Six minutes later the plane landed. The kidnapper got what he wanted, and allowed all passengers, Schaffner, and another flight attendant, Alice Hancock, to leave the aircraft. He then went to cockpit and agreed details with the pilot and co-pilot:

We’ll fly southeast, toward Mexico City, with a speed below 190 kilometers per hour and altitude below 3,000 meters” – said Cooper. “We’ll land in Reno, Nevada to refuel, so that we can get to Mexico.

At 7:30 pm, “Boeing 727” took off again. Two F-106 fighter jets followed him at a safe distance. At 8:00 pm red light flashed in the cockpit – the sign that the pressure in the passenger compartment has suddenly changed. They offered help to Cooper through the intercom, but there was no response from him. Neither at that point nor in the next two hours.

At 10:15 pm, the plane landed in Reno. It was immediately surrounded with FBI agents, the sheriff, local police officers… After long deliberation, they decided to enter the plane. The crew was all right, but there was no sign of Cooper. 

He jumped from a plane with $ 200,000 in his bag, right into the vastness of the State of Washington. His body was never found. Nor money, of course. The weather was terrible that night, so everyone assumed that he died. No man couldn’t survive that. Especially if no one is waiting on the ground to provide him with assistance, drive him where he needs to…. But, what if he indeed survived?

The story of D. B. Cooper – how he would be called later – is the only unsolved airline hijacking in American aviation history. It is also the only one where no one doesn’t know the identity of the kidnaper, nor his motives. Thanks to that, Cooper became part of American folklore, some kind of Billy the Kid and Jesse James. He is the hero in movies, series, and he is also the guy according to which the main character of the legendary “Twin Peaks” is named. He is a daring thief for whom everyone who has ever heard of him is cheering.

Even those Americans, who have no problem with their state or the law, love such outsiders.

Here is a little guy who all by himself hijacked an airliner and got away with $200,000 of a big corporation's money, tweaked Uncle Sam's nose and has gotten away with it” - Ralph Himmelsbach evaluates today, a retired FBI agent, and one of many who, having given up looking for Cooper, wrote a book about his unsuccessful mission.

This case is probably still open because Cooper managed to embarrass one entire organization. The sum he took as ransom is not huge, even for standards at the time of the hijacking.  No one died, and no one was even hurt in his campaign - except FBI’s pride, something that this organization never publicly admitted.

In 2008, the Feds once again began to dig through the memory of Dan Cooper. 

Would we still like to get our man? Absolutely.  And we have reignited the case.” - said a senior FBI official, and invited general public to visit the official website of the Bureau, where are, for the first time, uploaded sketches of Dan Cooper as he looked on that day, and how he would look today, 40 years later. There are also several 20-dollar bills that one boy found in 1980.

In these forty years, FBI has investigated more than 1,000 people and had, at one point, a list of ten suspects. Eventually, none of them completely fit Cooper’s description, or had a very good alibi. The case is now in the hands of agent Larry Carr, who is born in Seattle and was only four years old when  Cooper went on his mission, from which he emerged as a winner or a dead man, or maybe both.

The choice is yours, and there are plenty of versions. If you believe to a taxi driver who collects his customers from San Diego airport, D. B. Cooper was a gambler who died from cocaine overdose in California 15 years ago. If you believe to a persistent real estate agent, D. B. Cooper was her late husband, a heavy smoker and a former prisoner, who told her his most kept secret as he lay dying in Pensacola hospital. If you believe the FBI, D. B. Cooper died on that very night.

The best “lead” the Feds ever had was a Vietnam veteran named Richard McCoy. Just a few months after the famous November of 1971, he tried to imitate Cooper, but this time over Utah. Everything went according to plan - a bit gluttonously, he demanded $ 500,000 instead of "modest" 200,000 that D.B. Cooper took.  But when he jumped from the plane, he was caught and arrested. He was convicted, but he didn’t served his sentence for very long, because, in 1974, he was killed by prison guards for allegedly trying to escape.

In 1991, former FBI agent Russell Calame wrote a book in which he brought “strong evidence” that Cooper and McCoy were the same person. His former colleagues were not so convinced in his story, mainly because the descriptions given by both aircraft flight attendants did not match.

Then there is the Lyle Christiansen, Minnesota resident who spent years trying to convince the FBI that Cooper was, in fact, his deceased brother, Kenneth Christiansen, a former paratrooper. From 2003 and onwards, he regularly sent letters to the Feds, bringing new evidence that would substantiate his thesis. FBI never believed him. Just like they eliminated Duane Weber, who said on his deathbed that he is, in fact, Cooper. However, DNA tests showed that he was lying.

Mr. Carr, who is now in charge of the investigation, will say that a lot of things happened on that November, but that only a fraction from what was later told is actually the truth. In the first place, he actually doesn’t believe that Cooper was still alive when he fell on the ground.

We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper” – says agent Carr. We concluded after a few years this was simply not true. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky. He also missed that his reserve 'chute was only for training, and had been sewn shut—something a skilled skydiver would have checked.

If everything went according to his plan, Cooper would have landed somewhere in the Cascade Mountains, a mountain range of western North America  and southern west of Canada, where the highest peak is  about 4,300 meters above sea level. That part of America is far away from civilization, but not that much far that it is necessary more than 40 years for someone’s body to be found.

What is interesting is that, in 1980, near the Columbia River, a boy found a bundle of 20-dollar bills - the same ones that Cooper received on that November afternoon at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. But there was only $5.800 - What about the rest?

Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the $5,800 in ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream. Or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle.” – said Carr.

If investigators find just a bone that belongs to Dan Cooper, that will be enough for them to close the case with DNA analysis. But, as long as there is no body, the thought that he is still alive somewhere – or that he was alive for many years after 1971 – and that he is enjoying the Caribbean sun and drinks cocktails while watching movies and reading books about himself, will not disappear. And even agent Carr doesn’t want to write off this possibility.

If he's alive today, he'd be about 85 years old. Maybe one day I'll be sitting at my desk and I'll get a call from an old man who says, 'You're not going to believe this story'”.

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