The Hijacker Who Disappeared Into Thinnest Air
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his legendary crime changed air security.
By Eric Pfeiffer
Vanished Without a Trace: Our take on some of history’s enduring mysteries.
He boarded a 727 Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle on Nov. 24, 1971. But instead of getting off with the other passengers, he leapt from the plane and into history, with $200,000 in $20 bills strapped to his body.
D. B. Cooper both never existed and still walks among us today, depending on whom you ask. The man of mystery never really went by “D. B.” Instead, he checked in under a presumed alias: “Dan Cooper” (the alias was later misreported in media outlets). Even Walter Cronkite would later misstate his name on air as “D. A.,” and his segment offers some of the only footage of the crew involved in the hijacking.
I think a lot of us wish we could do something this ballsy.
Matt Love, author
By all accounts, Cooper was a gentleman hijacker. After passing a ransom note to flight attendant Tina Mucklow, Cooper continued to sip on bourbon and smoke. Allegedly, he even offered Mucklow some of the ransom money. “He seemed rather nice,” the 22-year-old told authorities. That kind of suave demeanor and his decidedly 1950s attire — dark suit and matching tie with a mother-of-pearl pin, loafers and horn-rimmed sunglasses — flew in the face of early ’70s culture. His look had a blogger speculating in 2010 that Mad Men’s Don Draper would turn out to be the skyjacker in the series finale.
There’s something to that theory. In 2010, I wrote an award-nominated screenplay, The Lives of D. B. Cooper, which described the character as bearing a strong resemblance to Jon Hamm, the actor who played Draper. It was far from the first time Cooper made his way into pop culture. He’s been the subject of folk songs and a cheesy 1981 cop comedy starring Robert Duvall; Robert Stack tried unraveling the case in one of the better episodes of his iconic Unsolved Mysteries. In more recent years, both National Geographic and Decoded host Brad Meltzer have taken entertaining but fruitless stabs.
So, why the “lives” of D. B. Cooper? “NORJAK,” as the FBI officially labeled the incident, is the only unsolved case of skyjacking in American history. And because of that, Cooper’s tale has generated 40 years of conspiracy theories, fan fiction and FBI investigations that keep running dry. They’ve investigated nearly a dozen suspects, ranging from a Mormon Sunday school teacher–cum–copycat hijacker to an elderly con man who made a deathbed confession.
In November 2015, yet another theory made headlines when a Michigan man theorized that former grocery store manager Robert Richard Lepsy was Cooper. Lepsy allegedly wore the same mother-of-pearl tiepin and had a fondness for the same style of loafers. He disappeared two years before the hijacking and hasn’t been seen since. Whether this latest so-called suspect has any real connection to the case, it’s easy to understand why so many people want to believe someone they knew was Cooper.
Without hurting anyone, Cooper “jumped out of an airplane at 200 miles an hour and into the woods with $200,000 he’d extorted from the government,” says Matt Love, an author who has written about leads in the Cooper case. “I think a lot of us wish we could do something this ballsy.”
While the FBI hasn’t closed the case, the agency says Cooper probably died after jumping on that stormy night. In fact, in 1980, an 8-year-old named Brian Ingram found a bundle of deteriorated cash along the banks of the Columbia River while camping with his dad. The serial numbers on the bills matched those of the ones that the FBI had given Cooper. But, as skeptics pointed out, and the FBI acknowledged, money left out in the open and exposed to the elements would surely have deteriorated into sludge.
Every year, the proprietors of the Ariel Store in Woodland, Washington, throw an anniversary party for the criminal. Revelers show up in D. B. Cooper costumes, and a rock band cranks out tunes. The late Donna Elliott, owner of the Ariel Store, speculated that the hijacker had attended the gathering: “I’m positive he’s shown up himself,” she said.
Those who idolize Cooper might be more reserved in their praise if they knew that he’s one of the primary reasons the FAA made airports beef up security. In 1971 you didn’t even have to show an ID to board a plane, and the only ones disrobing were those trying to make it into the even more mythical mile-high club. Yet Cooper’s legend remains larger than life, with seemingly everyone trying their hand at cracking a mystery that refuses to be solved.
- Eric PfeifferContact Eric Pfeiffer