The mystery of D.B. Cooper still endures

  • By Casey McNerthney Seattle Post-Intelligencer
  • Sunday, November 25, 2007 11:56pm
  • Local NewsNorthwest

Little remains of D.B. Cooper, the man who hijacked a commercial airplane for $200,000 and leaped into the unknown from the plane’s back stairs 36 years ago.

But the bulk of what he did leave behind is in a decades-old cardboard box in the FBI office in downtown Seattle.

A boarding pass from the Nov. 24, 1971, Portland-to-Seattle fight bears the name Dan Cooper, handwritten in red ink and all capital letters.

Next to it are a few deteriorated bills and a pink parachute discarded after Cooper cut its strings to secure the money. A padded envelope protects his tie — a black JC Penney clip-on — from which authorities gained a partial DNA sample.

But in the 36 years since his jump, the FBI has gained little more hard evidence — save about 20,000 documents, mostly from dead-end leads. Still, the story has become local folklore, and intrigued amateur sleuths as well as agent Larry Carr, who asked to be the case investigator earlier this year.

It is the nation’s only unsolved hijacking.

On that 1971 flight to Seattle, Cooper opened a black briefcase for a flight attendant, showing her wires, a battery and red sticks. “I have a bomb,” he said.

He allowed the 36 passengers aboard to get off at Sea-Tac Airport in exchange for $200,000 and four parachutes, but the pilots and an attendant remained on the plane with Cooper, who demanded they fly to Mexico. Shortly after takeoff, Cooper parachuted with the money from the rear stairs at 10,000 feet, as the Boeing 727 was going 196 mph, about 20 miles north of Portland, according to FBI records. The weather was stormy, with a wind chill well below zero at that altitude.

“I think D. B. Cooper died the night he jumped,” said Carr, sharing the belief of case agents before him.

But about once a month, the FBI gets calls insisting that theory is wrong.

One came from Lyle Christiansen, a 77-year-old Minnesota man, who swears his brother, Kenneth, was the man who got away. Kenneth Christiansen lived in Bonney Lake and looked like the FBI sketch of Cooper. He worked for a commercial airline and was a former paratrooper.

Lyle Christiansen was so sure his brother was the one, the FBI said, he sent agents several letters before going to the media with his story.

The FBI, however, said last month that Kenneth Christiansen wasn’t a viable suspect because he was 150 pounds and 5-foot-8, at least 4 inches and 30 pounds short of the description given by the flight attendants on the hijacked plane.

“But I’ve got information and I can show it,” an undeterred Christiansen said this week. “I know it was him.”

Jo Weber also has said she knows her late husband, Duane, was Cooper.

The Florida woman told reporters in 2000 that her husband admitted to being Cooper in a 1995 deathbed confession. He was in the Army, had done time in a Northwest prison and, like Christiansen, looked like the FBI sketch.

Earlier this year, however, Carr called Weber’s Florida home to say her husband’s DNA didn’t match the sample extracted from Cooper’s tie in 2001.

“I felt bad,” the agent confessed. “She’d spent 12 years of her life compiling information.”

On Highway 503, 10 miles east of the I-5 Woodland exit, the Ariel Store and Tavern, near where many believe Cooper landed, throws an annual party in his honor on the anniversary of the jump.

Owner Dona Elliott, who welcomes international Cooper followers, has heard people say he was in cahoots with the flight staff. One woman believed Cooper survived the jump, but didn’t survive an encounter with Sasquatch in Washington’s woods.

On Saturday, Ron Forman plans to be at the store, which has a wall of Cooper newspaper clippings, to talk about who he thinks is the true hijacker.

Forman said a friend of his — who was a loner, like the FBI described — confessed to Forman and his wife. The friend, who looked similar to the FBI sketch, was a proficient skydiver, an expert with dynamite and mysteriously disappeared in the days around the hijacking.

The kicker: Forman’s friend was a woman named Barbara Dayton; family and friends say she is believed to be the first person in Washington to have a sex-change operation.

“What a perfect alibi,” said her niece, Billie Dayton. “When my dad saw the FBI sketch, the first thing he said was, ‘That looks like Bobby.”’

Barbara was born Bobby Dayton in 1926 and had the operation in December 1969, according to family. Forman said Dayton, who lived in West Seattle and was a University of Washington librarian, dressed like a man for the hijacking and disguised her voice.

She said she never spent the $200,000 because she hid it in a Woodburn, Ore., cistern near where she landed, her family said, but Dayton later recanted the story after she realized she still could be prosecuted for the crime, family said.

Forman believes the small amount of money found in 1980 deteriorating on a Columbia River bank — the only money ever found and linked to Cooper — was planted by Dayton to spark interest in the case.

Carr said the $5,800 that was found several miles from the suspected drop zone had a questionable path, but he doesn’t buy Dayton’s story.

Her height also didn’t match descriptions from flight attendants, who sat close enough to know if Cooper actually was a woman, he said.

But even in the face of the FBI’s dismissal, Dayton’s family and friends still believe.

“People become so focused, they want their details to fit,” Carr said, adding the FBI has investigated nearly 1,000 suspects.

Going public with the evidence, Carr said, may lead to someone coming forward with new information. Until then, the mystery remains.

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