SEATTLE – It was 30 years ago Saturday that D.B. Cooper jumped from a hijacked, Seattle-bound jetliner with $200,000 in ransom money strapped to his waist, never to be heard from again.
His escapade remains the only unsolved skyjacking in the United States. The FBI has received thousands of tips, but investigators have nothing to go on.
There’s no suspect, no leads – and nothing to prove who Cooper was, or where he went.
“He’s our Jesse James and Billy the Kid,” said Jerry Thomas of Jefferson County. Thomas is a retired Army infantryman who has searched the backwoods of southwestern Washington for any trace of Cooper.
Cooper apparently parachuted somewhere over Cowlitz or Clark counties. He’s beaten the best crime fighters in the country, earning him folk hero status among some.
On Saturday, the tiny town of Ariel will throw a party for Cooper for the 27th straight year at the Ariel Store, the town’s main bar.
Cooper’s case inspired some copycat attempts and prompted new airport security measures nationwide.
“It’s with me,” said Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI agent who worked the case for eight years until retiring in 1980. “I don’t lose any sleep over it, but if I had my druthers, it would be solved.”
In a book he wrote about the case, Himmelsbach says, “Here’s a little guy all by himself who reached up and tweaked Uncle Sam’s nose and took $200,000 from a major corporation.”
Many who have studied Cooper’s actions of Thanksgiving Eve 1971 are certain he died trying to escape. They have reason to believe that, too. The weather was bad with heavy rain; Cooper jumped over a dense forest of pine and Douglas fir; he was dressed in a suit and loafers; and one of the two parachutes he used was defective.
But his story is fascinating.
On Nov. 24, 1971, a thin man in his 40s calling himself Dan Cooper showed up at the Northwest Orient Airlines ticket counter at Portland International Airport. He paid $20 cash for a one-way flight to Seattle departing at 4:35 p.m. He then waited 50 minutes to board the Boeing 727. He took a seat near the back of the plane, and had the row to himself.
Soon after takeoff, Cooper handed a note to a stewardess and said he had a bomb on board. He let her peak into his briefcase at wires and red sticks that seemed to be explosives. He then demanded $200,000, four parachutes and “no funny stuff.” At 5:40 p.m., the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and authorities met his demands.
Then, he ordered the plane back into the air and to fly toward Mexico via Reno at no more than 10,000 feet. He later jumped, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
In 1971 and 1980, the FBI conducted extensive searches for Cooper, collecting 1,200 files and looking into countless leads with no luck. About six inquiries still come in to agents each month, but most are just filed away.
What authorities know about Cooper is that he smoked Raleigh cigarettes, drank whiskey and was familiar with aerodynamics.
Only some of his ransom money – a bundle of $20 bills – has turned up. A child digging in a sand bar on the north bank of the Columbia River west of Vancouver found the money in 1980. The serial numbers had been recorded by the FBI.
“The fact that it’s the only unsolved hijacking keeps it high profile,” said FBI agent Ralph Hope of Seattle, the latest agent in charge of the case. “It will remain that way until we know the individual could not be alive.”
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