Why you should care
Because deals with the devil are often devilishly undone.
D.B. Cooper leaped from the Boeing 727 he had hijacked on Nov. 24, 1971, with a military parachute and $200,000 in ransom money strapped to his body. He vanished into the mist of a frigid Pacific Northwest night and instantly transformed himself into an American folk legend. “Dan Cooper” has since been the singular target of one of law enforcement’s all-time greatest manhunts. He also might have been the man who was like a second father to my younger brothers.
Ron Terry served as a paratrooper during the Korean War and was later stationed in Guam instructing Vietnam-bound troops in the fine art of assault parachuting. He became one of the first civilian sport parachutists in the U.S. With thousands of jumps under his belt, he wowed crowds as a stunt pilot and skydiver at air shows. He also opened a skydiving school and was a flight instructor, aircraft salesman and mechanic, accomplished farmer and building contractor.
Then, out of nowhere, he told her, “I buried the money on my property in Saratoga.”
In the late 1970s, Ron was flying DC-3s and Cessnas under the radar and across the Mexican border smuggling untold tons of marijuana into the U.S. He ended up serving five years in federal prison after his fingerprints were discovered on an aeronautical map inside a downed aircraft loaded with 1,000 pounds of Columbian Gold. Upon release, he found himself a prime suspect in the D.B. Cooper case — his background and recent stint in the joint fit the FBI profile to a T.
My mom met Ron through mutual friends in the shady underworld of the San Francisco Bay Area before he was hired to fly by the Mexican Mafia. They reconnected shortly after he was released from prison, at a pivotal point in both of their lives when they were attempting to sever entanglements with unsavory characters and former partners in crime. Together, they were able to go straight and stay straight.
The ex-convict was to become a role model and stand-in dad to my two younger brothers. They spent summers flying around the country and traveling in his motorhome. They visited nearly every haunted spot in California, prospected for gold on public (and not-so-public) land and even flew the route taken by D.B. Cooper. “This is where I jumped from the plane,” Ron quipped. “I landed somewhere over that way.” My brothers couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, though it seemed like he was. At the time.
Our longtime friend never straight-out denied being the elusive fugitive when the subject came up, which I always found intriguing; Ron would simply brush it off or make a joke out of it. We often ribbed him and referred to him as D.B., but it never got under his skin. I wish I had taken it more seriously, sat him down and had a heart-to-heart about it. I robbed myself of being able to look him in the eye and ask, “Did you hijack that damn plane?” I think I would have known whether or not he was lying.
Ron was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the mid-1990s. It progressed rapidly and he volunteered for an experimental brain surgery to treat his shaking and stuttering. The surgery appeared to be a success, but then the symptoms returned. He was crushed when he lost his driver’s license, devastated when he was no longer able to fly. He stubbornly continued to jump, though; he lived for it. Ironically, the former marijuana-smuggling felon was later treated with medical marijuana.
Toward the end, Ron confided in my mom more than ever. Initially it was all about regrets: not being a better dad to his kids, his five failed marriages, years wasted partying too hard and the like.Then, out of nowhere, he told her, “I buried the money on my property in Saratoga.” My mom asked, “What money?” “The D.B. Cooper money,” he replied. She was taken aback, and he was never more serious: “I buried it under a tree next to the creek. It was there all that time and I couldn’t touch it, it was useless. Then a big storm came and washed it away.”
Ron had my mom drive him to his old property, where he pointed out exactly which tree he was talking about. Still, she wasn’t sure what to believe. Was he losing his mind? Was he messing with her? She thought she should ask more questions but didn’t. A week went by. A month. And then nearly a year. Then, when Ron’s health went into rapid decline, he was unexpectedly relocated to Reno by the VA. By the time my mom put a little more weight on the confession, he was gone.
Parkinson’s beat Ron Terry on March 30, 2014. Not long before his death, two FBI agents showed up to conduct an interview with him. They leaned on him the same way they had over the previous 30 years, but this time there was a greater sense that they were wrapping things up. Sure enough, two years after Ron died, Special Agent in Charge Frank Montoya Jr. officially closed the D.B. Cooper case.
There will be some D.B. Cooper aficionados who will discount my friend in favor of their own personal favorite suspect. Internet sleuths will find some minute thread to pull and raise questions. That’s all well and fine, but, as for me, I have only one question: Who’s up for a treasure hunt?