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DB Cooper: Losing the Money

Something that is very easy to do in this case is to get lost in conjecture. I have endeavored to stick as closely to the known facts of the case and not make any wild guesses about anything. However there is one area where the Gunther story and the Cooper story diverge, and that is in regards to how the money was lost, and what container it was in during the jump. In order to move forward with the Gunther Hypothesis we have to find some way to bridge the eyewitness testimony of Tina Mucklow, and that of Clara.

First, the best record of Tina’s account of this issue can be found in the summary of her debrief interviews in the FOIA documents available on the Cooper website (emphases mine):

It was also during this time that he complained to Mucklow that he had requested the money be delivered in a knapsack but instead it was delivered in a cloth type bank bag, which displeased him. It was at this time that Mucklow recalls he stated he would be forced to use one of the parachutes to rewrap the money since he had not been furnished the knapsack. At this same time Mucklow says she suddenly observed him having a small green paper bag, contents unknown. She states that she recalled no other packages or luggage belonging to the hijacker except for the briefcase and this small green paper bag. She says it was also about this time she again offered the hijacker something to eat or drink, which he refused.

Mucklow states that at takeoff from Seattle the hijacker was in seat 18-D or 18-E, occupying both seats at various times, and she was seated across the aisle in 18-C. Mucklow states that at takeoff the hijacker was using several seats and was occupied with opening one of the parachutes and attempting to pack the money in the parachute container and attach it to his body using the parachute (container’s) straps. Mucklow recalls that the parachute was a bright pink-orange color. Mucklow’s description is somewhat vague but she says he removed a small jack-knife from his pocket and he cut some portion of the outside container or the parachute in order to secure the money in ‘this’ rather than in the white cloth type bank bag which had been furnished him. She says that she did not see him tamper with the two large parachute containers other than to generally inspect them when she brought them aboard.

This is from her 2nd interview:

After the passengers left Mucklow asked the hijacker if he wanted her to get the other items waiting outside and he said “yes”, but he wanted the other crew members to remain seated. Mucklow then left and brought in one large parachute (back pack). The hijacker told her to lower the window shades, which she did. Mucklow then left again and brought in two small chutes (front packs). Her next trip she got the last ‘big chute’ and placed it with the others in Row 18. At this time Mucklow handed him a sheet of instructions on ‘how to jump and use a parachute’ and he said ‘he didn’t need that’. Prior to all of this Mucklow asked the hijacker if he wouldn’t rather have one of the cockpit crew (men) get the chutes, but the hijacker told her ‘they aren’t that heavy and she wouldn’t have any trouble’.

When Mucklow returned to the plane with the last back pack chute, she saw that the hijacker had one of the small chutes open and was cutting nylon cords out with his pocket knife. He took the nylon cord and wrapped it around the neck of the money bag numerous times and then he wrapped it a few times from top to bottom, and with the same piece (of cord) he made a loop like a handle at the top. This nylon cord was pinckish in color. He appeared irritated that they hadn’t given him a knapsack for the money as requested, and after trying to put the money in an unfolded parachute, he decided to leave it in the canvas bag (and fabricate a holding line for that, instead).

As soon as Cooper got the money, he was working on a solution to the problem of how to attach it securely for the jump. He apparently tried using one of the reserve parachutes as a container, and this didn’t work. He used paracord to wrap the bank bag tight and make a handle to secure it to himself. We don’t know exactly how he did this, but this is what Tina reported seeing. There is no reason to doubt her account.

One thing we do know is Tina said she saw a green paper bag. This is interesting because Clara says Cooper had stashed the money in a green canvas bag, which she later saw on the ground.

Here is what Clara relays to Gunther (p 155-156): “When his foot repaired itself they went looking for the money he had hidden. There was snow on the ground. This changed the look of the land and confused him to some extent, but he had been careful to take note of distinctive trees and other landmarks and had frequently rehearsed the route in his mind.” They were able to find the parachute, but the money bag was missing. They searched again but couldn’t find it. As they ate some food they brought along, a raccoon watched them from a safe distance. “‘That’s it!’ LeClair said. She frowned at him, not understanding. He said, ‘That’s where the money went! An animal dragged it off!'” LeClair had left some food inside the container with the money before he cached it.

A day or so later they returned to the original cache site and searched around the area. Eventually, Clara reports they found the green bag, which had been ripped open by an animal. There was money still inside, and they found some other bundles scattered on the ground nearby. The total, when they took it home and counted it Was about $87,000. Adding that to the $16,000 already in hand, they now had some $103,000. When I first read this part of the book, I thought for sure it implied that the other $97,000 dollars had fallen out of the bag and had been spread across the countryside by the wind. But upon re-reading it, that is clearly not the case. A few bundles fell out of the bag, nothing more.

When I first began investigating the Cooper hijacking, I felt Cooper lost the money when he pulled his ripcord, since it was unlikely he’d be able to tie a knot with paracord that would hold under the strain of a hard parachute opening. Other hijackers lost their ransom in the air, and it took careful planning (notably from hijackers Richard McCoy and Robb Heady) to secure the money properly. In the Gunther book, Clara claims that only half of the ransom was recovered. How is this possible? Either you lose the money, or you keep it. Certainly, losing half the money seems impossible.

According to Clara, Leclair brought a canvas bag, green in color, with him to help carry the money. Clara was sure Leclair had specifically requested twenty-dollar bills. She was mistaken, as Cooper made no demands regarding denomination. In fact, eyewitness reports show Cooper was flustered by the fact the money came in a bank bag instead of the requested ‘knapsack.’ Then there’s the green bag Cooper had with him. If Clara is right, Cooper brought a canvas bag for the money. If he assumed he would be getting fifties and hundreds (not the twenty dollar bills he received), Cooper would have brought a bag big enough for between 2000 to 4000 bills. He got 10,000 bills.

The money weighed about 10 kilos (22 pounds) and would have been bulky and difficult to deal with. His options improve if he splits the money between the two bags. About half was left in a bank bag, half was put into the green canvas container. When his parachute deploys, his canvas bag stays with him while the bank bag breaks away. Thus, the bank bag, wrapped in paracord, was lost somewhere in the Columbia watershed. It eventually gets sent down the river by the strong spring floods, possibly in 1977, and the money gets deposited by water flow on Tina bar. (The actual mechanics involved in getting the money to Tina Bar are a guess, and it’s such a huge point of contention in the Cooper forums I don’t want to state anything positively.)

The fact of the matter is the three or four bundles of money found on Tena Bar could not survive the elements unprotected for so long. they definitely wouldn’t stay together and end up one on top of one another on a sand bar without being together in the bag for a long time. The bills had to spend most of their time protected, and they must have traveled together in the same container to the Tina Bar area. The container breaks apart, and several bundles settle on top of each other. Cooper using two bags matches Tina Mucklow’s testimony about the green bag, it explains at least in part the Tena bar money find, and it aligns with Clara’s story. It’s conjecture but it provides the simplest explanation for all the data.

The Math of the Tie

Many in the Cooper world believe the tie Cooper left behind on the airplane could have been purchased at a thrift store. Indeed, because of the unique mixture of metallic particles on the tie, this is necessary to save their preferred suspect from being eliminated from the case. And truthfully, a tie picked at random from a thrift store had to belong to somebody. The odds of picking a tie belonging to a specific person are very low, but since every tie belongs to somebody with their own background and habits, it’s possible Cooper’s tie has nothing to do with Cooper himself.

But how unlikely is it?

First, Tom Kaye was able to connect the tie to Cooper. The tie belonged to someone who smoked a lot while wearing the tie over a long period of time. We know Cooper smoked and that 44% of men smoked in 1971. Cooper used matches from matchbooks to light his cigarettes. Once again, Kaye found particle evidence on the tie indicating matchbooks were the preferred ignition source for whomever owned the tie for those many years of wear before the hijacking. There is no data on ignition source preferences among smokers in 1971. I would guess it would be about half the population, the other half would use lighters or stick matches.

Therefore, even though we can’t get an exact figure, we can roughly estimate the probability of someone randomly picking a tie at a thrift store which matches their own smoking habits and preferred ignition source at 22%. Or, put another way, there is a 78% chance the tie belonged to Cooper long before the hijacking ever happened. If some evidence was found that Cooper was left handed (other than the placement of the tie tack itself), we could be over 97% certain the tie belonged to Cooper.

There’s another wrinkle here. Not only does the tie have to match Cooper’s habits by chance, Max Gunther has to match Dan LeClair’s career and life to what was later found on the tie, again by random chance. There are two ways of looking at this question, one is through the real distribution of jobs, the second is by using the number of jobs Gunther could have picked from if he picked one at random from a list.

Using the actual distribution of the labor force, Gunther would have to pick a white collar job in the manufacturing sector. According to the 1970 Census, manufacturing accounted for 27% of the workforce. White collar work accounted for about 47% of jobs. Taken together, there is a 13% chance Gunther would pick the right job in the right sector. We’ll use this as our low estimate.

It is unlikely, in my mind, that Gunther would be even thinking about the distribution of jobs if he were creating a fictional story.* Rather, he would likely choose from jobs he, as a journalist and author, would be familiar with. And likely, he would be familiar with many many jobs and careers. In the 1970 Census, they profile more than 400 different jobs and careers by category and sector. If Gunther just picked something at random, we can safely say he had about 400 real choices.

So, on the conservative side of our estimate, there is a 13% chance Gunther picks the right sector and type of work, and there’s a 44% chance Dan Cooper picks a tie at random that matches his smoking habit (ignoring, for a moment, the matchbook question); doing some basic probability calculations, there’s only a 5.7% chance of these two events aligning in the way they have in this case. More realistically, we can say that there were over 400 possible careers for Gunther to choose from, and using the 22% estimate about Cooper picking a tie at random from earlier, we got the chance of these two independent events aligning at about 1.1 in 2000.

Yes, there’s room to disagree about some of the particulars. You can adjust the parameters as you see fit. Regardless, this is a highly unlikely circumstance. We are asked to believe that Dan Cooper, living in the Pacific Northwest in 1971, bought a tie at a thrift store to wear on his hijacking and that tie would later prove to have particles that could have only been obtained in an esoteric industrial situation. Then we would have to believe an author living in Connecticut over a decade later would pick that same situation for his fictional DB Cooper character for a fake story he hoped would dupe enough people to make him some money. What side of the bet would you like to be on?

*This is a major reason why I don’t think Gunther is making any of this up. A novelist chooses the careers of his character for some specific purpose. He needs a rich character, or a miserable character, or some other quality to help move the plot. Picking industrial chemicals doesn’t add anything to the character of Dan LeClair.

Richard McCoy is not DB Cooper

McCoy is complicated, both as a person and as a suspect in Norjak. A Mormon Sunday school teacher, a family man with a wife and two kids, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, and he was studying to be a police office at Brigham Young University. Four months after the Cooper hijacking, McCoy used a fake grenade and a handgun to hijack a United Airlines 727 and hold it for a $500,000 ransom. Sentenced to 45 years for the crime, McCoy escaped from a federal prison and died a few months later in a shootout with FBI agents.

You can get the entire rundown on Richard McCoy’s life before and after his hijacking in the book “DB Cooper; The Real McCoy” by Bernie Rhodes. Be forewarned, it is one the more difficult-to-read books related to this case. It has long passages of boring, sometimes incomprehensible prose interrupted by short spurts of interesting details of FBI and law enforcement processes and politics. Nothing is presented in a logical order and I personally found much of the book a struggle to read. Rhodes also exaggerates his claims to make the connection between Cooper and McCoy. Most of the connections they find between Cooper and McCoy are more coincidence than MO. Rhodes presents a very tenuous case.

With that resounding endorsement, let’s look at the connections the book makes between the two hijackings. McCoy and Cooper both used pre-written notes (Cooper used one, McCoy used many), they both sat in the back row of their 727s on the same side of the aircraft. They both directed refueling trucks to nearly the same position. They both left a clip-on tie (!) on the aircraft after exiting. Rhodes lists over twenty circumstances he believes connect McCoy to Cooper. However, most of these connections are very weak. Cooper and McCoy committed the same crime, hijacking a 727 with the intention of jumping out the back, so of course many of their methods would be similar.

It’s not necessary to go in and examine every connection between Cooper and McCoy. The reality is McCoy was a copycat and there are enough differences to prove McCoy and Cooper are not the same person. Firstly, when McCoy was originally apprehended, we know his picture was shown to several of the Norjak eyewitnesses and they did not identify him as Cooper. McCoy was also much different in personality. He was forceful and rude when dealing the crew, he was much quicker to anger. He also wore a disguise, which Cooper did not do. Finally, he used a fake grenade and a handgun to hijack his aircraft, while Cooper used a homemade bomb-looking device; more, Cooper spun a yarn about the device being electronic and even told the cockpit to be judicious with their radio communications because it might cause a misfire and destroy the airplane.

McCoy and Cooper were simply very different people. McCoy was uncomfortable in his own skin, using heavy makeup and a wig to disguise his appearance. He dressed in loud colors, a blue tie, a red and blue striped jacket, and a green shirt with flowers on it. Cooper dressed in much more subdued colors. McCoy’s notes were verbose compared to the concise orders Cooper gave his cockpit crew. Cooper was quite calm, even charming, throughout the hijacking. No one would describe McCoy’s crime in such a way. McCoy brought skydiver gear, including a jumpsuit and helmet.

The tie is the final piece of evidence that absolutely eliminates McCoy. Bernie Rhodes believes the tie belonged to McCoy and that members of McCoy’s family recognized the tie as belonging to him. This can not be true. Firstly, we know McCoy didn’t work with titanium, like most of the suspects we’ve looked at. However, McCoy also didn’t smoke. Tom Kaye found that Cooper’s tie was saturated with particles associated with smoking. It had more material on it than a similar tie Kaye tested, meaning the tie was worn often by a smoker. I inherited my grandfather’s extensive collection of ties, and a quick look under a blacklight showed none of the particle density found by Kaye using the same method on Cooper’s tie. My grandfather was a non-smoker like McCoy, who also had to wear a tie every day to work for his entire life. The lack of visible particles is, to me, quite telling. If the tie belonged to Dan Cooper, then Richard McCoy can’t be our mysterious hijacker.

Kenny Christiansen is Not DB Cooper

Kenny has gotten an inordinate amount of press coverage, including an episode of Brad Meltzer’s “Decoded” and he played a prominent role in Geoffrey Gray’s indispensable Skyjack. His brother, Lyle Christiansen, has been the primary source of speculation regarding Kenny’s involvement in this case. The full profile on Kenny can be found in Robert Blevins’ and Skipp Porteous’ book “Into the Blast; The True Story of DB Cooper.”

The bare-bones is that Kenny, then a purser for Northwest, planned Norjak with his friend [Bernie GeeMan] (“Bernie” is a living person and I choose not to name him). The mild-mannered Midwesterner was a former WWII paratrooper who had the prerequisite knowledge of the 727 and experience with the airlines and their operations. GeeMan was the wheel-man who would pick up Kenny once he reached the ground. GeeMan and Kenny’s whereabouts during the hijacking are known only to them, though the best explanation is that they were camping together.

After the hijacking, the claim is Christiansen experienced a lifestyle change. He bought property, a house, loaned $5000 to GeeMan’s sister, purchased expensive stamps and coins and otherwise lived a comfortable life after spending the previous decades just scraping by. The paradigm shift happened soon after the Cooper hijacking. Porteous and Blevins have produced plentiful speculation and circumstantial evidence to feed their thesis. Among the more entertaining finds was the Decoded team discovering a framed-out box in the attic of Christiansen’s old house.

It all makes for good theatre. And more than that. Christiansen’s aviation knowledge actually makes him a better suspect than some of the critics in the DB Cooper forums will admit. But there are some serious problems with the story. Physically, Kenny is too short. He has pale skin. In my opinion, he’s only vaguely reminiscent of any of the Cooper sketches. Most importantly, the primary circumstantial claims from Into the Blast about an unexpected surfeit of money right after the hijacking has been dismantled piecemeal over the last few years. Documents have come to light showing Kenny did not pay for his house in one lump sum of cash, but instead paid off a standard mortgage over many years.

Christiansen was a lifetime bachelor who did not have kids or anyone dependent on him. He lived a rather simple, even boring, life. It’s the sort of lifestyle financial planners would love. This leaves a lot of disposable income for other assets, like his coin and stamp collection. This piece of circumstantial evidence I find to be particularly specious. First things first, the value of Christiansen’s stamp and coin collection has never been confirmed. Estimates have ranged from $30,000 to $400,000. Without a full catalog, we can’t know for sure. But even a six-figure collection would have been within reach of a lifetime bachelor who purchased gold and silver coins throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s.

There are also problems with connecting Christiansen to Cooper in other ways. Obviously, there’s the tie issue. Kenny would not have been exposed to pure titanium and some of the other tie particles in his day to day life. Advocates who are cognizant of the tie evidence typically explain it away by suggesting Cooper’s tie was purchased at a thrift store prior to the hijacking. Not in this case. Blevins and Porteous suggest in their “General Overview of the Case” that they can connect the tie tack to Christiansen. However, we know from Tom Kaye’s analysis that the tie and tie tack were a mated pair. If Christiansen can’t account for the particles on the tie, then he can’t have owned it or the tie tack.

There are plenty of other problems with presented case. Firstly, any Cooper story involving an accomplice is suspect. Especially if the accomplice is said to have successfully rendezvoused with Cooper. Even Richard McCoy, who painstakingly ordered his hijacked plane along a very specific route and was able to to land very close to his chosen dropzone, failed to meet up with his getaway driver (his wife). Cooper was very hands-off when it came to the flight path; he directed the plane to fly south to Mexico, with a gas stop in Reno. That’s it. He never checked in with the cockpit for any information on the plane’s heading or location. If Cooper had an accomplice, they were playing Hide and Seek.

Another wrinkle: Christiansen continued to fly for Northwest after the hijacking. It is very probable he flew with at least one of the flight attendants from Norjak, who would have recognized him as the hijacker. Blevins and Porteous believe the fact Christiansen worked for Northwest was one of the primary reasons he was able to avoid detection. The FBI would never conceive of this hijacking as an inside job, they suggest. Once again, we don’t have access to the FBI files so we don’t know for sure, but this investigation was very thorough. Besides, you can’t escape the fact Christiansen could have encountered someone from the hijacking for years and years after the fact. It was a terrible risk to take.

Finally, this story leaves the Tena Bar money find completely in the air. Blevins and Porteous suggest the possibility of a plant. While I now believe the money found at Tena Bar got there through natural processes, I was once open to the possibility of a plant. For a variety of reasons I believe the money could arrived on the banks of the Columbia through natural processes. The primary reason is the report of a debris field from FBI agents working the find in 1980. There’s an economic reason too, $6,000 is simply too much money for a thief to throw away on a red herring. It would be about $30,000 in today’s money.

As always, we await the DNA from the missing cigarette butts to compare familial DNA from other members of the Christiansen family to completely eliminate Kenny from the suspect list. This is unlikely to ever happen. Still, we can fit suspects to the evidence and work from there. Christiansen has part of the background I would look for in a Cooper suspect, but he only fits part of the picture. Everything else, from his appearance to his life after the hijacking, points away from him being Dan Cooper.

DB Cooper: From Seattle or Portland?

Originally, when I started seriously digging into the DB Cooper case, I wanted to write a short novella about Cooper using all the known facts to craft a realistic narrative. Almost immediately, I got stuck on an intractable problem. I couldn’t figure out if Cooper was based in Seattle or Portland. Nor could I figure out if he wanted to land in Seattle or Portland. And I had no idea how he travelled between Seattle and Portland. To try to figure things out, I focused on where I thought Cooper intended to land. The resulting meditations led down a dark hallway of conflicting information

First, I believe Cooper had some kind of plan for his dropzone. The FBI does not. They say Cooper was acting alone, that he was smart or clever, but not a mastermind. From their perspective, Cooper leapt out of that airplane without a clue where he was going to land. He had put himself into a situation that was going to get him killed. To me, this goes against everything we know about Cooper. Cooper made a bomb, real or not, that gave the impression he was a serious threat. He pre-wrote the first message he gave to the flight attendant, Flo Schaffner, which kept his handedness a secret. He then collected that note, and other evidence, leaving very little behind. We even know Cooper brought a knife, which allowed him to deal with the unexpected problem with the bank bag. Planning. I’m not suggesting Cooper was perfect or that he had the heist plotted out to the finest detail, but he did have a plan. He thought a lot about this. So where did he intend land?

Seattle? We know Cooper asked to have the stairs down during takeoff. He put on the parachute harness almost as soon as he got it. The cockpit communicated to air traffic control that Cooper was trying to get the stairs down just seven minutes after takeoff. This indicates he wanted out of the aircraft, and soon.

Also, Cooper could identify Tacoma from the air and appeared to know the Seattle-Tacoma area very well (for instance, he know how long it took to drive from McChord Air Force Base to the airport). He knew Seattle in a way a tourist doesn’t. This makes a strong case for Seattle being both Cooper’s base of operation, his home territory, and his intended dropzone.

What about Portland? Cooper originally boarded the flight in Portland. The FBI tried to find out how Cooper got to the airport; they checked for abandoned vehicles, they interviewed cab drivers and bus drivers, and were never able to figure anything out. They also looked into the hotels and motels around Portland and found nothing. Tina noted that Cooper had a matchbook from a company that had a restaurant in the Portland airport (admittedly the company had restaurants at many airports). Did Cooper case the airport and enjoy meals at the SkyChefs restaurant? If Cooper really wanted to land near Seattle, how did he get to Portland? Where was his car? What were his logistics and how did they stay so perfectly hidden from the FBI?

It should be noted, while Cooper did fight to open the aft stairs as soon as possible, he didn’t jump right away. In fact, it took at least six minutes for him to jump after his last communication with the cockpit. This despite the fact it had taken him nearly twenty minutes already to get the stairs down. He must have known every minute counted. In just those six minutes, the plane traveled about 18 miles. If he wanted to get out near Seattle, why let so much time pass? Based on my own analysis of the timing of the jump, Cooper landed in the Vancouver suburbs, well within walking distance of the airport where the whole adventure first began. If I had to pick based only on the above evidence, I would favor Portland over Seattle, despite Cooper’s obvious knowledge of the Puget Sound area.

How does all this fit in with the Gunther text?

The book gives us a simple explanation: LeClair was in Portland. And he wasn’t trying to land near Seattle or Portland. Rather, he was trying to land between them. LeClair was intentionally aiming for the forests north of Vancouver. His plan was to rely on his experience as an outdoorsman and walk out of the forest a free man. Based on the text, it appears LeClair didn’t believe law enforcement would be able to pinpoint his jump until long after he had made his escape.

Cooper living in Portland answers other questions too. The FBI never figured out how he got to the airport because he probably walked there. When checking on hotels and motels, the FBI probably checked the guest list, not knowing the man they were looking for might have been an employee (according to the book, possible fabrication). Yet, even though LeClair lived in the area, he wasn’t pinpointed by anyone who knew him because he was a transient visitor to the area, having lived there for less than a year (estimate from the text). There were no roots for investigators to find.

The only question remaining was how LeClair knew so much about Seattle. I can’t answer that, there is no information in the book that gives us any clue why that is the case. I can only speculate that he scouted everything out before the hijacking, or he knew Seattle from prior business trips. Who knows, this is simply the nature of this paradox; regardless of whether DB Cooper was operating out of Seattle or Portland, it wouldn’t explain everything about the case.

Mel Wilson is not D.B. Cooper

One of the principal investigators of the case believes Cooper must have been someone with a criminal background, an “old con” looking for one last big score. Few serious Cooper suspects have had Himmelsbach’s requisite profile. And only one, as far as anyone knows, has been missing since the hijacking. In 1971, just weeks before Norjak, Mel Wilson left his family home in Minnesota to travel to a sentencing hearing for a counterfeiting conviction and disappeared forever. He was never on the radar as a suspect in this case until one of his daughters started posting his story online. Which makes him, along with Dick Lepsy, among the handful of serious suspects to come to light in the last ten years.

Wilson is a fascinating study, he was a man right out of the movies. Physically imposing, intelligent, charming, he was smooth-talker who was always working an angle. His preference was counterfeiting, and the descriptions available to us say he was very talented in his art. He was a classic confidence man. If you watch the Unsolved Mysteries episode on Wilson, you will find out he was also a ladies man. After he first went missing, his family found out about another family he had also abandoned.

As for being a viable Cooper suspect, I’m skeptical but here’s the case: Wilson was intelligent, a fugitive from justice who went missing right before the hijacking, he fits the physical description and he smoked and drank. His charm and personality seem to match Cooper’s disarming personality. Wilson wore suits and he preferred loafers. Superficially, he looks like a decent candidate. It seems unlikely he could have planned this heist while in the middle of a legal battle, but it’s possible.

The case against Wilson is based not on his inability to plan such a heist, nor whether he would commit such a crime. Instead, it’s based simply on his lack of knowledge and skills. He did not have any previous parachuting experience, that we know about. Parachuting experience is not a prerequisite for a Cooper suspect, and the FBI now believes Cooper had very little knowledge about skydiving at all. I believe the FBI is simply wrong, we know Cooper felt comfortable putting on a parachute harness, which is not normal and I invite any neophyte to try on a parachute harness without instruction. Wilson also doesn’t have any of the aviation knowledge Cooper apparently had. Finally, Wilson is yet another suspect who doesn’t explain the particle evidence found on Cooper’s tie.

What really makes me skeptical is Wilson was a counterfeiter. Why would someone who prints his own money jump out of an airplane for $200,000? People stick to their habits, and I believe Wilson left his family for Las Vegas (or somewhere else) and continued his career printing money and running cons. Dan Cooper was the first hijacker to leave an aircraft, had he been the second or third then perhaps Wilson could have been a possibility; without an existing modus operandi there are a lot of logistical holes for an amateur like Wilson to fill. Finally, if Cooper was a criminal known to law enforcement, it is my belief the FBI would have solved the case, regardless of whether he lived or died in the jump.

Still, there’s no reason not to do a full vetting. Since so few serious suspects have come to light, there’s certainly no harm, especially considering Wilson fits the FBI view that Cooper was an amateur who died in the jump. It thus beggars belief that the FBI has refused to consider Wilson a suspect. One of Wilson’s daughters spoke with the FBI and pursued this through multiple agencies, but got a tepid response, later receiving a letter stating “During any given investigation, the FBI receives many tips, … In accordance with DOJ policy, we cannot discuss details of ongoing investigations. This includes not disclosing subjects considered and/or excluded, and investigative techniques that may be used … rest assured that the FBI pursues all leads that we believe will provide us with information of investigative value. I apologize that we are unable to disclose the nature and extent of our investigative response.”

This was in response to a woman looking for her father. I do not believe Mel Wilson is Dan Cooper. However, there is no reason not to have his DNA compared to the sample from the tie, or to check his fingerprints against those collected from the plane after the hijacking, and relay this information back to Wilson’s surviving family.

“Dan Peters” is not Dan Cooper

(“Dan” is a living person who may or may not qualify as a public figure, so his real name will not be used here)

It’s more difficult to explain why Peters isn’t Dan Cooper than to give the myriad reasons why everyone believes he could be the famed hijacker. But, to wit: Peters was an experienced skydiver, he was trained as a smokejumper and pursued skydiving as a hobby. As a member of Boeing’s fledgling skydiving club, Peters did a skydive while wearing a business suit and carrying a heavy bag of flour (it was strapped to his body, and he did it to create a streak in the sky). This jump is very reminiscent of Cooper’s and as such, we can say he definitely had the means and mentality to jump out of a 727 wearing a suit and carrying a heavy sack of money.

Peters worked at Boeing in the Manuals and Handbooks group, and he did so while the 727 was being put through its trials. So he would have had the requisite aviation knowledge and the specific information on the 727 that Cooper appeared to have.

Most incredibly, Peters worked at Boeing at a time when abandoned mechanical equipment was left in large bins for employees to rummage through for their own use. Some of that equipment would certainly have been involved in some of the testing involving pure titanium being done at Boeing for the Supersonic Transport program (SST) going on at the time Peters worked there. Thus making Peters the only candidate other than Leclair who plausibly accounts for the titanium particles found on Cooper’s tie. Not surprisingly, he has remained a popular suspect. In fact, he is the only suspect for whom there exists a plausible piece of physical evidence connecting him to this crime.

Peters had the dark complexion, receding hairline and basic physical characteristics of the hijacker. During his stint in Vietnam working for the State Department during the war, he became disillusioned with the American presence there and became a lifelong anti-war activist, something he continues to this day. This gives Peters a plausible motive for the crime. Other than having blue eyes, Peters is a perfect fit. So perfect, in fact, the FBI pegged him as a suspect soon after the hijacking.

By all accounts, the FBI’s Norjak investigation was thorough. If they suspected Peters at all, they would have shown his photo to eyewitnesses, among other things. Nothing came of it, and Peters has remained a free man. In 2002, Peters’ DNA was collected by the FBI and tested against the samples found on Cooper’s tie. There was no match. After thirty years, the FBI completely eliminated Peters as a suspect.

Cooper sleuths eagerly await the updated edition of Peters’s autobiography for a possible departing confession (He is in his nineties now, but in decent health). Regardless, I think it’s safe to say he’s not Dan Cooper.

Cooper-Related Jump Data

Stored Here

Jack Collins is Not DB Cooper

*This is the last of the minor suspect profiles. I have a few more major suspects to profile, before we get back to the Gunther book.*

Profiled in the book “My Father was D.B. Cooper”, Jack Collins was a pilot, skydiver and an insurance agent with money troubles who was always looking for a get-rich-quick scheme. Apparently Collins used his skydiving hobby to fake injuries for insurance scams. His brother was a 727 pilot, and according to Jack Collins’ son, the two perpetrated the Norjak heist to help provide for a struggling family. Unfortunately, any theory involving an accomplice is extremely suspect. Richard McCoy, who hijacked a plane several months after DB Cooper, had to constantly communicate with the cockpit in order to align the aircraft with his dropzone. Even then, McCoy failed to meet up with his ride. Cooper made no attempt to find out the plane’s location from the cockpit, and there’s no evidence Cooper had a specific drop zone in mind. Still, between John and his brother, they would have the requisite knowledge of the 727 and skydiving to be plausible suspects. However, once again, we find someone who does not fit with Kaye’s tie findings. Unless something other than weak circumstantial evidence emerges, we can safely eliminate Collins as a suspect.

(Note: Duane Weber used “John C Collins” as an alias, and even served time under that name.)

Revisiting Cooper’s Jump

Much of the debate in the DB Cooper case has centered around whether he survived the jump. The weather wasn’t perfect, Cooper was jumping at night with borrowed equipment and without standard skydiving gear or clothing. I’ve previously looked at this problem and came to the conclusion that the odds were in Cooper’s favor even if he was an inexperienced skydiver. In my quest to understand the dynamics of Cooper jump, I looked at bailout situations faced by bomber crews during the Second World War. I believe WWII represents the best available population for analysis, as thousands of novice skydivers were forced to jump from stricken aircraft under extreme circumstances over unknown terrain, often at night, with unfamiliar equipment, in any weather situation and from a variety of aircraft speeds and configurations.

From the situations I read about, combat bailout jumps were almost never made under ideal conditions (stable aircraft going less than 150 mph at proper altitude). In fact, there are some amazing tales of survival, including people who survived being thrown out of exploding aircraft. Many jumps were made at very low altitudes, giving the flyers very little to no time to stabilize their bodies and pull the ripcord “by the book.” Training was very minimal and often, especially in the RAF, completely absent. Thus, there is a strong prima facie case for similarity between Cooper’s jump and bailout jumps done in WWII.

Re-examination of WWII parachuting

In my original paper, I back-engineered a method for estimating Cooper’s survival probability using the available WWII parachuting data, which amounted to comparing the number of airplanes lost (multiplied by the number of crew per aircraft) to the number of POWs held by the Axis powers. This gave an approximate survival rate of 80%. This process was done for several reasons, among them to save time, get a bigger sample size and because there wasn’t an easily accessible collection of complete data. Unfortunately, aggregation of data at this level allows for a lot of variance. Other confounds included not knowing the conditions surrounding every bailout situation, and the fact the number of POWs didn’t necessarily represent the true number of survivors.

What was really needed was raw data from a large pool of actual parachuting events aggregated by a third party. In the process of finishing the first paper, I found just such an index. It was nearly complete and would give a good comparison between night and day jumps. Most importantly, it was not based on survivor self-reports, the information was third party and independently researched. Overcoming survivor bias is, in fact, the main problem this data set solved. If you use only self-reported survival stories, you automatically skew the data toward survival as non-survivors can’t relate their experiences.

Further, the data is only from Denmark. Confining the events to a single geographic region helps control the number of variables; most importantly the civilian population of Denmark wasn’t inclined to murder allied airmen like those in Germany (there are some anecdotes about German civilians and SS troops executing downed allied airmen, however Freeman Dyson discounts this as a major survival factor in his book “Disturbing the Universe”). In essence, this data acts as a natural experiment to compare night and day jumps, and also gives us a healthy sample size from which to draw conclusions about Dan Cooper’s survival.

The results

In 66 nighttime bailout events involving 210 jumpers, there were 192 successful parachute deployments for a 91.4% survival rate. There were 6 possible no-pulls, i.e. bodies found with undeployed parachutes, and 4 apparent parachute mals. For the daytime airmen, we have very similar results. In 46 situations, there were 244 airmen leaving stricken aircraft with 235 survivors on the ground for a 96.3% survival rate. Again we find four apparent parachute mals, but only one possible no-pull. The 91.4% survival rate for RAF airmen jumping at night is significantly higher than the result from my initial study, and it gives more credence to the possibility of DB Cooper surviving his jump.

It needs to be stated that none of the no-pulls are confirmable. There was no record anywhere in this sample of a group of men leaving an aircraft together only to discover someone didn’t get a handle on their ripcord. There was a total of 454 jumpers between both groups, so the fact we have not one confirmable no-pull should be a significant indicator of how rare no-pulls must have been. There were tens of thousands of bailouts during WWII, so it’s a near-certainty that some no-pulls happened. But I can’t find enough information to get a baseline on just how often they occurred. Even using the number of possible no-pulls among the RAF in Denmark as a baseline for inexperienced night jumpers, we’re looking at a rate of less than a 3%.

I ran a simple t-test comparing the US daytime and RAF nighttime samples; at a 95% confidence interval, the two samples are significantly different, but by an extremely thin margin. The difference between the two datasets was 4.88%, which is just a little higher than the 4.36% needed for significance. We can’t be entirely sure of the cause of the difference between the RAF night jumps and the American daytime jumps. Not only did RAF bomber crews operate at night, they also had smaller escape hatches than American aircraft, and RAF crews often had to attach their parachutes before jumping, giving them less time to prepare for the actual bailout. Regardless, this data confirms the efficacy of the parachute as a life-saving device, and that amateurs and inexperienced persons can use this device with a high rate of success even under difficult circumstances.

Examination of No Pulls in Skydiving

Anecdotally, No-pulls are a common occurrence in sport skydiving. You can find self-reported occurences and even videos with a simple search engine query. Skydivers even have equipment that automatically deploys their parachute if they haven’t pulled their ripcord (or thrown their pilot chute) by a certain altitude. Skydivers take it as a fact of their sport and have equipment and protocols to prevent fatalities caused by this phenomena. My interest is whether a no-pull represents an inherent risk of parachuting in general, or if it is a byproduct of the sport of skydiving. To figure things out, I looked at the details behing all the no-pull fatalities recorded in the Skydiving Fatalities Database.


There were 833 lethal parachuting incidents catalogued in the Skydiving Fatalities Database between 1995 and 2009. Of these, 107 are classified as no-pulls. However, even among these, only 48 fatalities appear to be directly applicable to Cooper’s jump. The majority of the recorded no-pulls involved demo-jumps, group formations, camera work, health problems, suicides, or other situations that Cooper would not have been dealing with during his jump. Thus, we can safely assume that most of the no-pulls catalogued in the Skydiving Fatalities Database, and thus most no-pull occurences from the world of skydiving, are caused by either the stunts and activities innate to the sport of skydiving, or by factors related to the mental or physical health of the skydiver.

Assuming Cooper was not suicidal, and there’s no evidence he was, and assuming he didn’t have a heart attack during the jump (which would have been a real possibility for a middle-aged smoker in 1971), this greatly reduces the possibility of a no-pull situation during Norjak. When we combine this information with the WWII parachuting data, it becomes clear that DB Cooper had a very good chance to survive his jump. However, the database did show that six of the no-pull fatalities happened when borrowed or rented equipment was used, and one individual died while jumping at night; both of these risk factors were present during Cooper’s jump but the represent a small minority of the total fatalities profiled in the database.

It will always be difficult to infer the true survivability of Cooper’s jump since we do not know the extent of his skydiving experience, the state of his equipment, the configuration of the money and how it was attached to his harness, his mental state and his health. We can say with some certainty that the weather and the lack of daylight had very little effect on his survival. In all likelihood, from the broad perspective presented here, we can be about 90% confident Cooper pulled the ripcord on his parachute and it deployed properly. From there, we can only make educated guesses whether he was hurt on landing, or whether he lost his life by drowning in the Columbia.


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