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DB Cooper: What I think Happened

When I first started looking into this case, my opinion was that whoever DB Cooper was, he was not one of the suspects regularly talked about online or on TV. So I took the available evidence, read as much as I could, and created a rough overview of all the evidence. I also wanted to look at what might have happened to Cooper after he left the 727 with his bag of money and a parachute. I outlined everything I thought happened, within a reasonable level of confidence. [I posted an abbreviated version of this on the DB Cooper Forum.]

Since starting out, I have found the case to be much more complex than I first thought. I have also found out that, like others, I do have a favorite Cooper suspect. However, I feel it would still be valuable to go over my initial conclusions, with a revision or two based on exchanges with other Cooper researchers on the forum.

Who was Dan Cooper?

First and foremost, Cooper was not a criminal before hijacking the airplane. The FBI had Cooper’s fingerprints (almost assuredly), and had years to look into suspects with a known criminal history. When Himmelsbach says Cooper was “an old con,” he’s making a fundamental error. In all probability, the hijacking was Cooper’s first crime.

From Tom Kaye’s analysis of the tie, we get a different picture of Dan Cooper. He was educated, worked as an engineer or manager. He could have even been a metallurgist. Cooper possibly worked at Boeing on the 727, which would explain some of his knowledge of the airplane’s rear stairs and flap settings. The timing of the hijacking is also of interest, as it took place just after the supersonic transport (SST) program lost its federal funding. Lots of workers lost their jobs.

Since the tie did not have any wild pollen on it, we don’t know where exactly Cooper lived. The FBI took a long look at Boeing, so Cooper was not a current or recently released employee there. Parts of the SST program were being worked on all over the country, so we again can’t pinpoint Cooper’s hometown. We do know, based on the knowledge he displayed during the hijacking, that Cooper lived in the SeaTac area at some point in his life, probably before leaving Boeing and pursuing a job in aviation at some other company.

Cooper was ex-military. He was either a paratrooper or a loadmaster. He was literate, well-spoken, and level-headed. He was a casual smoker and a light drinker. He was taking some form of prescription medication, probably for heart disease. Since he asked for “negotiable currency” and his name “Dan Cooper” might have come from a French-language comic book hero, Cooper could have been born and raised a French-Canadian before emigrating. Cooper was either a lifelong bachelor or recently divorced (he made his jump the day before Thanksgiving, so it’s unlikely he was worried about needing to be somewhere the next day.) He need not have been a loner, as Cooper remained quite calm and conversed for hours with a complete stranger, showing a high degree of social skill.

Much has been made of Cooper’s “olive” skin tone. It could mean he was of Hispanic descent, or he might have been an avid outdoorsmen or golfer. Hang around a golf course in late August and early September, plenty of guys sport a deep tan. I mention golf because it’s a universal business sport, and Cooper was a white collar guy.

What of the Jump?

Having now spent several months reviewing hundreds of combat jumps made by RAF airmen during nighttime missions in WWII, I believe I have a solid dataset to make some reasonable inferences about what happened to Cooper between the 727 aftstairs and the ground [I intend to publish these findings at a future date].

To put it simply: If an airman was able to get out of his stricken craft in a conscious state and with enough altitude to deploy his parachute, there was an almost 100% pull rate. Some of the interesting jumps I’ve read about include: an RAF airmen who had to attach his parachute in freefall, in the dark; another who had a 20mm cannon round sticking out of his thigh; a successful jump with a parachute clipped to a harness on only one d-ring; not to mention dozens of guys thrown from exploding airplanes. Taken together, we can conclude that even inexperienced jumpers find a way to deploy their parachutes.

So Cooper pulled the ripcord. It would have been a hard opening for Cooper. He might have lost his shoes (reported to be slip-on loafers) and I think he also lost the bag of money. Paracord is difficult to tie into knots, and the amount of force involved in a parachute opening is not kind to improvised anything. At least one of Cooper’s copycats lost their money during the jump, and most of them put more planning into their capers.

Cooper pulled the ripcord early, likely as soon as he stabilized into freefall (it was dark, and Cooper had no way to judge altitude). So Cooper was pushed by the wind for a very long time and might have traveled up to seven miles (but more likely around 4 miles). If the published FBI flight path is accurate, he landed a few miles east of Battleground, WA. This was mostly farming country, and pretty flat.

It would have been a blind landing (no moon light, totally dark) with a fifteen mile per hour wind. Try jumping from the top of a car moving 15mph with your eyes closed. It would hurt. Paratroopers are taught how to land in ways that minimize injury, but this would still be a tough landing. There’s a very good chance he was injured, a broken ankle or a fractured spine. About half of RAF airmen were injured in their jumps, but almost all of them were mobile and had the ability to evade capture for a little while after their jumps. So Cooper was probably capable of moving away from his landing zone. In the dark, with at least ten hours before an air search would be able to find him, Cooper would have plenty of time to make his escape.

His Escape:

Landing in a field somewhere, Cooper would move quickly to either a road or shelter. He probably buried his gear or just tossed it somewhere into deep brush. It’s possible he was able to get a ride from someone, likely telling a story about a car accident or something. Since the FBI checked all the hotels and motels right after the hijacking, Cooper probably either stayed with his helpers for the night, or was able to get transportation out of the area.

What about the manhunt? What about the roadblocks? Cooper landed farther south than the FBI thought. The actual manhunt was very pathetic, and was in the wrong area. If Cooper was able to go south into Vancouver, or hitch a ride east, there were no roadblocks to worry about. If Cooper was living in Portland, it’s completely possible he got a ride all the way home.

Cooper paid for his plane ticket with a fresh $20 bill, and later used another $20 to pay for a drink on the airplane, getting about $18 in change. So he had money on him. If I were planning this caper, I would have plenty of cash on me. So even if Cooper lost the ransom money, he was not without resources. If anyone did help Cooper and later came to be suspicious of the shoe-less and injured man they drove to Portland, they might have been afraid to talk about it, lest they be arrested as accomplices. Chances are, Cooper’s story stuck and they never even considered the stranger they met 12 miles south of the FBI search zone to be anything other than the world’s unluckiest dude.

The Money:

Three bundles of money were found on a sandbar about twenty miles away from the drop zone, and there’s no reasonable way to explain how the money traveled so far with rubber bands still attached. The general conclusion I draw from everything I’ve read about the Tena Bar money find is that it is indecipherable. So far, no explanation presented comes close to explaining the details of how the money got there.

If Cooper lost the money in the jump, like I suggest above, then someone else must have found the money. Greed would keep the find secret. While there were rewards for helping to apprehend Cooper, they did not add up to the $200,000 in the bag. Even after the statute of limitations had expired, the people who found the money would still owe taxes on their windfall. Not too shocking, then, that these people never talked.

The FBI revealed a couple of years later that all the serial numbers on the bills had been recorded, and they gave the impression that the money was therefore unspendable. If someone had found the money and was given the impression they would go to jail (or owe a ton of money to the IRS) if caught with it, I’m sure they would have disposed of it. Like by throwing it into a river. Or maybe they buried it near the Columbia. Some of the forum members have suggested the money looks like it was burned. It’s possible someone tried to completely destroy the bills by throwing them in a fire, not noticing the several bundles that weren’t completely burned.

These are all just guesses, and details surrounding the Tena Bar find are among the most speculative to be found in this case. Regardless, Cooper lost some or all of the money, and some of it ended up at Tena Bar. Anyone who might have found the money would have little incentive to talk about it, and we’re all waiting on some deathbed confessions to move the case along in this area.

And The Rest

Cooper, injured and broke, probably watched the news non-stop for the next couple of weeks. After making his escape, he might have taken all his available resources and left the area for good. Or, he could have stayed and returned to his regular life. He did his crime on a four day weekend, so his coworkers would have assumed he was with family. He comes in on Monday with a new tie, new shoes, and maybe a limp from a “car accident.”

He makes no large purchases. His lifestyle doesn’t change. There’s no way to connect him to the crime. For whatever reason, the artist sketch doesn’t quite look like him (much like the Unabomber case) and there’s simply no one who can put him on that airplane. Besides, Dan Cooper was a white collar guy, a regular Joe Doakes, he was boring. No one would believe the metallurgist on the shop floor was jumping out of airplanes. And above all, Cooper doesn’t talk to anyone. Ever.

Long suffering from a chronic medical condition, Cooper dies sometime before Unsolved Mysteries airs its DB Cooper episode (October, 1988), the one with the new and improved artist sketch. Some of his coworkers mourn his passing, maybe he had a few close friends. A nephew shows up to his funeral. His ex-wife skips the whole affair. It turns out to be the greatest adventure never told.


2 Responses

  1. We are getting closer to the names. You have a suspect, spill the beans!

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