Cooper's brazen crime still celebrated

Published Nov. 27, 1994|Updated Oct. 8, 2005

It is generally conceded that D. B. Cooper is dead. But as in any unsolved mystery, there remains, unanswered, the nagging question, "What if?"

D. B. Cooper, many will remember, is the mystery man who, on the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, stepped up to a Northwest Airlines ticket counter in Portland, Ore., and asked for a one-way ticket to Seattle.

He checked no luggage, but carried a briefcase. He went directly to the boarding gate.

The plane was a Boeing 727-100 with an 89-passenger capacity. But this flight carried only 36, and Cooper chose a seat in the back row. Only a few feet behind him was the rear door and stairs that could be lowered from the plane. A flight attendant sat on the folding seat in the rear of the plane, awaiting takeoff.

Cooper handed her a note, telling her he had a bomb in his briefcase and intended to hijack the plane. (The "bomb," authorities discovered, was highway flares with wires attached.)

By then the 727 was airborne. He ordered the attendant to write down his demands and take them to the captain: $200,000. Used bills in a knapsack. Two back parachutes. Two chest parachutes. After refueled passengers go free. No police. Takeoff from Seattle by 5.

Cooper was assured that his demands would be met. Other passengers were oblivious to what was going on. Upon arrival in Seattle the money and parachutes were brought onto the plane and the craft was refueled. The passengers then were allowed to disembark.

By the time the plane took off _ 2{ hours later than his 5 p.m. deadline because of refueling problems _ Cooper had a military parachute on his back and tied the money bag to his waist. He asked the flight attendant to go to the cockpit and to turn out the cabin lights.

A short time later the crew felt a burst of pressure and knew that Cooper had lowered the back stairs and leaped from the plane.

This was unexpected since he earlier had mentioned going to Mexico. It later was theorized that his reference to Mexico was intended to fool authorities.

It was calculated that his probable landing zone began at Woodland, Wash., and extended about 20 miles south to Portland on the Columbia River.

Paul Soderlind, who at the time was Northwest Airline's director of flight operations-technical, flew the same plane in a re-enactment after it was returned to Portland. The radio conversation with the crew during Cooper's flight had been interrupted by the pressure bump when he jumped, and by lowering the aft ramp _ and another pressure bump as the ramp slammed closed _ so the plane's position at the time of the jump could be quite accurately calculated, Soderlind said.

An intensive search went on for days with no results.

It was not until eight years later that the first _ and only _ break in the case came. An 8-year-old boy found $5,800 of Cooper's loot on a beach along the Columbia River near Vancouver Lake.

Brian Ingram and his family were on a picnic, and Brian's father asked him to smooth out a place for a fire. Brian began leveling the sand, but there was one bulge he couldn't get out. Finally, he pulled out a packet of $20 bills. Two others were buried beside the first. The Ingrams called the FBI, and the serial numbers matched the money delivered to Cooper.

Officials believe the money floated down river, but Cooper's bag was never found. An agreement between the Ingrams, the FBI, Northwest Airlines and its insurer allowed Brian to keep $2,760 of the money.

The most widely accepted theory about Cooper's fate is that he parachuted into the Columbia River, and with the 22-pound money bag tied to his waist was unable in the frigid river water to extricate himself from the parachute.

Whatever his fate, he has not been forgotten. D. B. Cooper has achieved folk hero status, particularly in the Northwest.

He has made a mark elsewhere in the country as well. For several years, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina there was a restaurant and bar called D. B. Cooper's. The legend on its cocktail napkins read, "Drop in on us sometime."

The Cooper story also was recounted in a film, The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, in 1981. And a retired FBI agent, Richard Tosaw, made a second career of searching for Cooper, telling his story in a book, D. B. Cooper, Dead or Alive? Tosaw came to the conclusion that Cooper landed in the Columbia River and that his body long ago decomposed. That theory is supported by Soderlind.

Tosaw believes Cooper went down in the Columbia "like a greased anvil." As for the recovered money, he theorizes that those three packets had been in Cooper's pocket: that he had taken them from the bag before jumping because he had offered the flight attendants a "tip," holding out some $20 bills. His offer was refused.

But it is in the little community of Ariel, Wash., near the spot where camp was set up for the Cooper search, that his memory looms largest.

Each year, on the anniversary of Cooper's jump, Ariel _ which consists of a rustic general store and adjacent tavern _ throws a D. B. Cooper party for the world. And it has attracted people from far away. "A woman from Australia came to one of the early parties," said Dona Elliott, owner of the store and tavern. "And she came back for the 20th anniversary party."

Tosaw says he has plans for the 25th anniversary in 1996. "We're going to have a big search party," he says, "including a diver from England who has been involved in the search for Glenn Miller's plane. I believe that bag is still snagged on the river bottom."

Tosaw believes the continuing interest in Cooper results from his inventive way of doing things. "There was a Rube Goldberg flavor to it," he said. "It was sort of like robbing a bank, then stepping outside and shooting yourself off in a rocket."

Ariel is now celebrating Cooper's disappearance for a 23rd year. There are parachute jumps, music, beer drinking and _ today _ a D. B. Cooper Look-Alike Contest. Included in the music are repeated renditions of the ballad, D. B. Cooper, Where Are You?

Elliott says last year's party was hampered by a freezing rain, but she expected about 450 people this weekend.

And if D. B. Cooper should happen to be among them, there's some beer money waiting for him. "People who want to buy him a beer give us the money, and we just hang it on the wall," Elliott said. She estimated there's about $12 in the Cooper pot right now, which should be enough to give me a good start on the story of his life for the past 23 years.