Northwest Airlines

Image courtesy of the FBI

Cooper Case Remains a
Complete Mystery

| published September 8, 2016 |

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

Even though the FBI recently closed one of its longest open cases for lack of evidence and lack of progress, a team of self-styled independent sleuths and former FBI agents has filed a lawsuit requesting access to those closed law enforcement files. The case was filed by Thomas Colbert in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Colbert and his team believe they have identified the perpetrator of one of the most famous cold case files in history, and the only American airline hijacking ever to go unsolved.

On the evening of November 24, 1971, a man in dark glasses and wearing a dark business suit hijacked Northwestern Airlines flight 305, en route from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. The flight’s duration was only 30 minutes, and the aircraft, a Boeing 727-100, carried 36 passengers and a flight crew of five personnel.

That night changed aviation history. It started in Portland, Oregon, when a man walked up to the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. He was wearing a dark raincoat, conservative dark suit with a narrow black tie, and carrying an attaché case. He had perky ears, thin lips, a wide forehead, and a receding hairline. He gave his name, Dan Cooper, and asked for a one-way ticket to Seattle, Flight 305. The cost of the ticket was $18.52. He sat in the last row of the plane, 18-C (some accounts say it was 18-E), lit a cigarette, and ordered a bourbon and soda. Shortly after the plane took off, he passed the stewardess, twenty-three year old Florence Schaffner, a note.

The note indicated the man was hijacking the plane. He opened his briefcase and revealed to Schaffner what he suggested was a powerful bomb inside; what she saw in that brief moment was a mass of wiring and several red cylinders. He also handed her a note and told her to deliver the note to the pilot, which she promptly did. The note was never available to investigators as evidence because Cooper took it back after the note was read by the pilot. The pilot read the note and immediately contacted security officials at the airport in Seattle, who, in turn, contacted local police and the FBI.

In short, the note demanded $200,000 cash in random serial numbers, as well as two parachutes. The FBI contacted the airline president, who insisted on meeting the man’s demands in the interest of the safety of the passengers and crew. The money, which the FBI had painstakingly arranged so that law enforcement could track most of the serial numbers, and the two parachutes were collected and then given to Cooper within minutes after the aircraft touched down in Seattle. As part of the arrangement between Cooper, the airline and the FBI, the 727-100 was to be refueled for a flight from Seattle to Mexico City. The flight’s passengers were released and the plane took off again. A short time later, Cooper requested that all members of the flight crew go to the crew compartment up front, where they would remain—in theory—until the plane reached Mexico City.

But not long after the plane left Seattle, and sometime before it passed over Reno, Nevada, Cooper apparently jumped from the aircraft using one of the two sets of parachutes. He left behind the other set as well as his necktie. The flight’s passengers had already been released and all members of the flight crew were located in the crew compartment up front at the time Cooper apparently jumped from the plane.

He has never been identified, nor has law enforcement ever found any evidence that he survived his jump or that he died.

The case of D.B. Cooper is one of the most famous crimes in American history. Although a true story, it has long since entered the realm of urban legend due to its daring nature and because “Cooper” has never been identified or found. In fact, the FBI earlier this summer officially closed its Cooper file and is no longer investigating the matter. Flight 305 is also the only skyjacking in the world that has gone unsolved. Since 1971, the FBI investigated nearly 1,000 suspects. They might as well be looking for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. D.B. Cooper is folklore now. He’s inspired books, movies, safety regulations for airplanes, and treasure hunters. A bar in the northwest even celebrates the anniversary of his heist with a D.B. Cooper look-alike contest. One man, Chuck Brodsky even wrote a song about the hijacking, “The Ballad of D. B. Cooper.”

Cooper remains a mystery through no lack of effort by law enforcement. In the days, weeks and months after the hijacking, police, airline local authorities and the FBI did look for Cooper as part of an extensive search. The Feds scoured the forests the day after the event and for several days after in a dense fog, praying for a parachute tear, a scrap of clothing, a $20 bill, a body, anything. Over the decades, numerous private expeditions and searches have been organized in an attempt to locate Cooper’s remains or any of the ransom cash. One team of treasure hunters even chartered a submarine and descended hundreds of feet into a mountain lake.

Colbert’s team is the latest organized effort seeking to ferret out the true identity of “Dan Cooper.” They believe that their man is Robert Rackstraw, a 72 year-old resident of San Diego. Colbert’s crew say that they have scores of pieces of evidence, including—improbably—DNA matches. The Colbert group wants access to the evidence and paper trails belonging to the FBI so that they can further tie their suspect to the events of November 24, 1971. Colbert and his team publicly identified Rackstraw in a documentary aired on the History Channel two months ago, though the FBI has been largely silent on the claims made in that July 2016 presentation. Some in law enforcement say that Rackstraw had at one time been a person of interest to agents investigating the case, but that there was never enough evidence to proceed with a case against him. In reality, the FBI has looked at hundreds of suspects, but never found any single one which seemed to fit the bill.

In the hours and days after Cooper jumped into the dark night, police and FBI wasted no time in working to identify the perpetrator of the skyjacking. In Washington, D.C., at the headquarters of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, agents coordinated a profiling campaign. The name “D.B. Cooper” was, of course, a fake. It was not merely a phony name, but a misnomer as well. The “Dan” who paid for the ticket became “D.B.” within hours. The error occurred when a reporter got the wrong first name from a police source shortly before the story hit the wires. However, the name D.B. stuck. It sounded good, even mythic. It made it seem like Cooper’s jump meant something, and it did. For a long time after the hijacking, the public eagerly followed the media reports and many people actually were pulling for Cooper to get away with the deed, considering him a type of Robin Hood character. With the rather common-sounding name and descriptions of his appearance, Cooper could be almost anybody, even one’s own neighbor.

Cooper, in fact, was described as polite and well-spoken, even a gentleman. At one point, he offered to pay for his drinks with a $20 bill and insisted the stewardess keep the rest ($18) as change. He also gave the impression of perhaps being a local, glancing out the window and saying, “Looks like Tacoma down there.” He was a gracious, dapper, everyman.

Agents for the FBI didn’t believe the theory that Cooper was an “everyman.” Agents concluded there were too many specific traits Cooper needed to possess in order to pull off the heist and especially the risky jump. For example, Cooper apparently knew how to parachute, and in tough, cold, dark conditions. Maybe he’d been in the Army. Better yet, they figured, he might have had paratrooper training. He was also obviously familiar with planes—he had demanded the plane cruise at 10,000 feet, with the wing flaps set at fifteen-degrees. And, of course, his comment on the terrain: It looks like Tacoma down there.

His request for two parachute packs meant that he was cautious and risk averse, possibly inspecting them with care to make sure he didn’t fall to his death with a poorly-packed or phony parachute. Law enforcement officials believe to this day that Cooper’s infamous leap that night was not his first time using a parachute.

Authorities also had specific knowledge of what Cooper looked like. They had a detailed sketch that Florence Schaffner, the stewardess, helped create. And there was his personality. Another flight attendant on the plane, Tina Mucklow, described Cooper as “quiet and rather nice.”

“He was never cruel or nasty,” she added, “he was thoughtful, and calm.” Over the years, the FBI showed Schaffner dozens of photos and sketches of suspects in the case. She described every one as “not the man I saw.” Every lead police followed turned, ultimately, into a dead-end. His appearance, in fact—at least based on those famous sketches—only adds to the confounding mystery.

In 1980, some of Cooper’s money surfaced. A boy, 8 year-old Brian Ingram, found $5,800 in decomposing twenties buried in three different bags, on the sandy, muddy banks of the Columbia River. His family was on the site during a camping trip. Brian was raking some dirt to help his father build a small fire. The $20 bills were significantly deteriorated but still wrapped in the same rubber bands used by police on the night of the hijacking. The FBI confirmed the notes were part of the $200,000 ransom paid to Cooper. The notes were arranged in the same order as when they were handed over to Cooper, meaning they had been undisturbed either by the hijacker or someone else. But the fact that the bills were found along the banks of the Columbia River prove little about where Cooper chose to jump; some experts point out that the money could have travelled for miles before getting lodged in the mud. Others have suggested that the $5,800 could have been found by hikers, hunters or campers, then deliberately buried for retrieval later. The poor condition of the cash seems to prove only the obvious: that the money had been exposed to the elements for nearly ten years.

Since then, none of the other, remaining cash has ever turned up despite decades of individual and organized searches, including extensive and exhaustive searches of the areas near where Ingram and his family found part of the money. Police and the FBI also scoured the area where the Ingram bills were discovered, hoping perhaps to find a body, parts of parachutes, clothes, or any other evidence. They found nothing.

From the perspective of someone writing about Cooper, and in terms of urban legend, it seems more fitting that the identity of D.B. Cooper is still a mystery. Somehow, the matter is more compelling and intriguing as long as his true identity and whereabouts are unknown. From an investigatory standpoint, the ultimate fate of Cooper appears to be as dark and cold as the November night into which he jumped.

Related Thursday Review articles:

FBI Closes DB Cooper Case; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; July 19, 2016.

City of Ghosts: Chernobyl and the Evacuation of Pripyit; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; May 28, 2016.