In the early 1970s, you could walk onto a jet with a pistol in a shoulder holster or with a bag of carry-on dynamite and settle back in your seat to smoke a Camel. Many people did1. On Thanksgiving Eve, 1971, Dan Cooper was one of them, using the lax security to pull off the perfect ransom crime—maybe.
He was around 45 years old and called himself Dan Cooper. He was about six feet tall, trim, and wearing a business suit, a skinny tie with a mother-of-pearl tie clip, and a homburg hat. He carried a raincoat and a briefcase. He had brown eyes, short brown hair, and a tan. Most importantly, he paid $20 cash for a one-way ticket to Seattle-Tacoma Airport from Portland International Airport, aboard a 727 flown by Northwest Orient.
A few minutes after takeoff, Cooper handed a stewardess a piece of paper. Figuring it was a pickup note2, she tucked it away unread. The next time she passed, Cooper said quietly, 'You'd better read that. I have a bomb,' and gestured toward his briefcase.
The note, which Cooper requested back so that it wouldn't serve as evidence, demanded $200,000 in $20 random, non-sequential bills and two sets of parachutes to be delivered to the plane upon landing, with 'no funny business'. When the note was returned, he added that the plane should not land until the money and equipment were ready to be brought on board. He also cracked open his briefcase, revealing a tangle of wires and two sticks of what might have been dynamite.
Evidence suggests that Cooper paid attention to the most minute details of his plan. 10,000 $20 bills weigh only 21lb. More weight might endanger a parachute jump; higher denominations would be more difficult to launder.
For a while the authorities on the ground considered providing dummy parachutes that wouldn't open. Cooper would 'splatter' and they would collect the money and dispose of a criminal at the same time. But because Cooper requested two sets of parachutes (each set consisted of a parachute and a backup), they were afraid he intended to take an innocent hostage with him. So Cooper got his two serviceable parachutes.
Back on Board
Cooper sat with Tina Mucklow, another stewardess, and drank a bourbon and water, which he politely offered to pay for. Mucklow described him as 'thoughtful and calm'. She said that 'he seemed rather nice'.
When the money and parachutes were ready, Cooper ordered the plane to land and taxi to a remote, well-lit area on the field. He ordered the lights in the plane dimmed to prevent any long-range attempt to dispose of him, and ordered that no vehicle should approach the plane. An airline employee carried the four parachutes and courier bag of bills to the aft stairwell. When everything was on board, Cooper allowed his fellow passengers to disembark. Then he graciously requested that meals be brought on for the crew.
Cooper used the cabin phone to give the flight deck their marching orders. He wanted to go to Mexico City, but agreed to a refuelling stop in Reno. He ordered that the plane fly at 10,000 feet, wing flaps set at 15 degrees, airspeed of no more than 150 knots (172 mph). He ordered that the cabin not be pressurised. He said he'd use his wrist altimeter to ensure that his directions were followed.
Here again, Cooper showed his attention to detail. That he knew the wing flap angles at all suggests serious research or prior familiarity with jets. The 727 was a small plane, and able to fly at slow speeds at low altitudes, something that larger, faster jets could not do. Skydivers need slower speeds so they don't encounter too much wind when they jump. 150 knots was acceptable for an experienced jumper. Additionally, the slow speed and altitude stymied the F-106 fighter jets that the FBI sent to follow the plane; the military jets were built to fly at over a thousand mph at much higher altitudes.
Cooper also knew that the cabin need not be pressurised at 10,000 feet. Not pressurising the cabin prevented a turbulent exchange of air when he opened the aft stairway. The aft stairway was out of the way of the engines, so Cooper wouldn't be buffeted or sucked in when he jumped out. That Cooper knew the aft stairway could be opened at all—Mucklow did not—further displayed his careful research and planning3.
Cooper also ordered a full refuelling, which he knew should not take more than 15 minutes. When it did, he demanded an explanation. The refuelling crew stopped dragging their heels. At 7:46pm on a cold and rainy Thanksgiving Eve, the plane took off from Seattle and headed to Reno.
Cooper ordered Mucklow into the cockpit with the flight crew and told them not to exit until ordered. At 8pm, the cockpit instrument panel warned that the aft stairway was open.
'Anything we can do for you?' the pilot asked helpfully over the intercom.
'No!' was Cooper's curt reply.
At 8:24 the jet dipped, suggesting that the stairs had been lowered. The plane was over the Lewis River, 25 miles north of Portland, Oregon.
Cooper used the cords from the second set of parachutes to bind the bag of money to his torso. He wore his suit jacket, raincoat, hat, and street shoes, the last two of which must have blown off in his descent. It was a dark and stormy night—the air temperature was around seven below zero (Fahrenheit), it was raining, and the plane was going around 195 mph. Below, there was nothing but wilderness and prickly fir trees.
The crew continued on to Reno, not knowing if they still carried Cooper or not. Five minutes after touchdown, receiving no answer over the intercom, they exited the flight deck and found the passenger deck empty except for the mangled remains of the second parachute, his black tie, his tie pin, eight Raleigh cigarette butts, and 66 possible fingerprints.
Nobody has ever heard from Dan Cooper since.
Because of the weather, the FBI couldn't begin a land search until the next morning. Even so, an exhaustive month-long search by ground and air failed to turn up a body, a parachute, or even a homburg. A copycat jump by a stunt artist and a deadfall by a 200-pound sled attached to a parachute failed to land near any evidence that Cooper had been there.
Nine years later, the flight captain casually mentioned that they had been searching the wrong area.
In 1980, a little boy playing in the sand on the Columbia River discovered buried treasure—$5,800 in $20 denominations. The serial numbers all matched those on Cooper's bills. The boy was 40 miles north of the captain's latest estimated landing area. To complicate matters further, a geologist claimed the bills could only have been sitting there since 1974. If so, they might have washed downstream from an original landing site. Extensive searching—including SCUBA diver searches of the riverbed and digging up the banks—failed to turn up any other remnants anywhere else along the river. 14 weeks after the discovery of the bills, Mount St Helens erupted, burning down vast swaths of forest, and obscuring forever any possible evidence.
In 2000, the grandchildren of Elsie Rodgers found a skull in a hatbox in her attic. The Nebraskan grandmother had enjoyed regaling her grandchildren with tales of some time in the 1970s when she found a head near the Columbia River, but none of them had actually believed her. The FBI was unable to confirm it as Cooper's—or anyone else's.
Did he 'splatter' somewhere in the northwestern forest? Did he land safely, launder his money, and retire to a Pacific island? Did he discover that his money was traceable, dump it in the Columbia, and try it again?
The Copycat Crimes
Half a dozen people attempted similar crimes following Cooper's famed exploit, but the most intriguing occurred a mere six months later.
On 7 April, 1972, a nondescript man using the name John Johnson boarded a 727 leaving a stopover in Denver and heading to Los Angeles. The man passed a stewardess an envelope containing a request for two sets of parachutes, $500,000, a refuelling but no other vehicles allowed near the plane, and a landing on a distant part of the tarmac. Following proceedings identical to those at Cooper's hijacking, Johnson requested a flight toward Utah at 16,000 feet and 200mph. An hour-and-a-half into the flight he ordered that the cabin be depressurised. He double checked exterior conditions, slid into the parachutes, and exited by the aft stairs. Nobody found him either, until he bragged to a friend about his foolproof ransom scheme. His name was Richard F McCoy Jr.
The reason McCoy excites Cooper fans is because of his biography. He was a Green Beret helicopter pilot in Vietnam and enjoyed skydiving. He was a student at Brigham Young University, where students commonly wore ties similar to the one Cooper left behind. His tie clasp also matched Cooper's. When asked during interrogation if he was Cooper, McCoy responded, 'I don't want to talk to you about that'.
However, McCoy was 29, while Cooper was described as middle-aged. McCoy left behind numerous handwriting samples and a fingerprint. He also directed the hijacked plane to fly over several Utah towns, the last of which he lived in. Upon landing, he left his parachute in a culvert, bought a midnight snack, and paid for a ride home with the ransom money. McCoy was relatively inept; Cooper was masterful.
The Many Coopers
Many others have claimed to be Cooper outright. Duane Weber died with 'I am Dan Cooper' on his lips. His wife was startled to discover, while going through his belongings, that he was once a John C Collins who had been discharged from the Navy and served a prison term near Sea-Tac Airport. He smoked, drank bourbon, and muttered in his sleep about aft stairways and fingerprints. However, his fingerprints didn't match any of those found on the airplane.
A woman who called herself only 'Clara' claimed to have found Cooper injured in her garden shed near Longview, Oregon, two days after the hijacking. While she nursed his wounds the two fell in love, married, moved to New York, laundered their money in casinos, and lived happily ever after until he died in 1982. She said that he enjoyed skydiving but learned all his aerial know-how from books. The FBI didn't accept this story either, since they failed to trace any of the money.
While looking for suspects who were familiar with the Seattle area, the FBI investigated one DB Cooper, who later was cleared of any potential guilt. A mistaken reporter used DB's name in an article, and the misnomer stuck. The audacious daredevil who parachuted out of a 727 and into fame, never to be seen again, will forever be known as DB Cooper.
And the legend lives on. False Coopers pop up sporadically as false leads; the FBI says it could fill a 727 with the paperwork it has accumulated on his case. But that's not what has made him a legend. It is simply that an intelligent man, with a bit of forethought and a pinch of charm, stymied the authorities, and did it with panache. For many, DB Cooper is evidence that it is possible. For others, he is evidence that no matter how clever you are, crime doesn't pay.