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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Snohomish residents Barbara Bailey, right, and Beth Jarvis sit on a gate atop a levee on Bailey’s property on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Bailey Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Bailey is concerned the expansion of nearby Harvey Field Airport will lead to levee failures during future flood events due to a reduction of space for floodwater to safely go. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Harvey Field seeks to reroute runway in floodplain, faces new pushback

Snohomish farmers and neighbors worry the project will be disruptive and worsen flooding. Ownership advised people to “read the science.”

IAM District 751 machinists join the picket line to support Boeing firefighters during their lockout from the company on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amid lockout, Boeing, union firefighters return to bargaining table

The firefighters and the planemaker held limited negotiations this week: They plan to meet again Monday, but a lockout continues.

Bothell
2 injured in Bothell Everett Highway crash

The highway was briefly reduced to one northbound lane while police investigated the three-car crash Saturday afternoon.

Heavy traffic northbound on 1-5 in Everett, Washington on August 31, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
On I-5 in Everett, traffic nightmare is reminder we’re ‘very vulnerable’

After a police shooting shut down the freeway, commutes turned into all-night affairs. It was just a hint of what could be in a widespread disaster.

Anthony Brock performs at Artisans PNW during the first day of the Fisherman’s Village Music Fest on Thursday, May 16, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
At downtown Everett musical festival: ‘Be weird and dance with us’

In its first night, Fisherman’s Village brought together people who “might not normally be in the same room together” — with big acts still to come.

Two troopers place a photo of slain Washington State Patrol trooper Chris Gadd outside District 7 Headquarters about twelve hours after Gadd was struck and killed on southbound I-5 about a mile from the headquarters on Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Judge reduces bail for driver accused of killing Marysville trooper

After hearing from Raul Benitez Santana’s family, a judge decreased bail to $100,000. A deputy prosecutor said he was “very disappointed.”

Pet detective Jim Branson stops to poke through some fur that Raphael the dog found while searching on Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Everett, Washington. Branson determined the fur in question was likely from a rabbit, and not a missing cat.(Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lost a pet? Pet detective James Branson and his dogs may be able to help

James Branson, founder of Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue, helps people in the Seattle area find their missing pets for $350.

Whidbey Renaissance Faire volunteers pose in their costumes. (Photo by Bree Eaton)
Faire thee well: Renaissance is coming to Whidbey Island

The volunteer-run fair May 25 and 26 will feature dancers, a juggler, ‘Fakespeare,’ various live music shows and lots of food.

Community Transit leaders, from left, Chief Communications Officer Geoff Patrick, Zero-Emissions Program Manager Jay Heim, PIO Monica Spain, Director of Maintenance Mike Swehla and CEO Ric Ilgenfritz stand in front of Community Transit’s hydrogen-powered bus on Monday, May 13, 2024, at the Community Transit Operations Base in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New hydrogen, electric buses get trial run in Snohomish County

As part of a zero-emission pilot program from Community Transit, the hydrogen bus will be the first in the Puget Sound area.

Two people fight on the side of I-5 neat Marysville. (Photo provided by WSDOT)
Video: Man charged at trooper, shouting ‘Who’s the boss?’ before shooting

The deadly shooting shut down northbound I-5 near Everett for hours. Neither the trooper nor the deceased had been identified as of Friday.

Two people fight on the side of I-5 neat Marysville. (Photo provided by WSDOT)
Road rage, fatal police shooting along I-5 blocks traffic near Everett

An attack on road workers preceded a report of shots fired Thursday, snarling freeway traffic in the region for hours.

The Port of Everett and Everett Marina on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Is Port of Everett’s proposed expansion a ‘stealth tax?’ Judge says no

A Snohomish resident lost a battle in court this week protesting what he believes is a misleading measure from the Port of Everett.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.