If the evidence presented in the Gunther book is so strong, why do few people actually believe it? There are a number of reasons, not least of which is the lack of a real name for a suspect. However, Gunther also gets a lot of little details wrong; early in the hijacking narrative, Gunther gets the seat Cooper sat in wrong, he writes about a confrontation between Cooper and 305 Captain Bill Scott when in fact Scott and the rest of the flight officers never left the cockpit. In fact, entire chapters appear filled with errors and misinformation (more on that later).
Most seriously, Gunther seems to contradict several important details of the hijacking that were kept secret by the FBI until only recently. These include the color of Cooper’s parachute, the description of the bomb Cooper used, how Cooper lost some of his money, and almost the entire hijacking narrative. How do we reconcile these and all the other problems with Gunther’s book if we are to take his story at face value? First, let’s examine the major problems in detail.
There are problems with the entire hijacking narrative, mostly found in the second chapter of Gunther’s book. A sample of these issues: Cooper never asked for a specific seat, the flight had an open seating arrangement. Gunther gets the seat row and number wrong. There is no mention of Bill Mitchell, the young college student in the row across from Gunther. Captain Scott never left the cockpit to talk to Gunther, nor did any of the flight crew. Cooper never asked where the plane was before he jumped. Cooper put on the parachute long before Mucklow was sent to the cockpit, etc, etc. There are just a lot of little details that Gunther gets wrong.
The primary reason is Gunther, nor his primary source ‘Clara’, were eyewitnesses to the hijacking. By the time Clara contacted Gunther, ‘Dan LeClair’ had been dead for several years. What little information Clara had was secondhand from LeClair. In fact, based on the text, it appears the primary recollection of the hijacking from LeClair’s perspective was unusual connection LeClair made with Tina Mucklow during the course of the hijacking.
Regardless, it shouldn’t be surprising that Clara was fuzzy on these details. She wasn’t the. And why would she ask what seat Cooper was in? Or when he put the parachute on? These details are important to the investigator, but not to anyone else. Gunther fills the gaps the best he can, using his own research to supplement Clara’s story.
Gunther, presumably from Clara, describes the bomb as follows:
*He found an attache case or small suitcase in a storage room at the hotel. Inside this case he built a fake bomb of red-painted tin cans, aluminum and wire (p. 137).*
Here is how the bomb is described by as eyewitness:
*“In the left corner had 8 long sticks of about 6 inches long and 1 inch in diameter there were two rows of them. Then a wire out of there. Then a batt lite [sic], (probably like) a flashlight batt only as sthik [sic], (probably thick) as my arm and eight inches long”. [From RTTY or TTY Log Page 104]*
Commonly, it is assumed the reddish sticks were road flares, wrapped around a large cell battery with black tape, plausibly accessorized with myriad wires to give the full “electric and technical” effect. I found Gunther’s description of the bomb is one of the more jarring and obviously erroneous passages in his book.
However, LeClair was described as quite handy and mechanically minded. While I first thought of just regular cans of soup being spraypainted, it’s possible LeClair may have removed the bottom and top pieces of several tin cans, rolled them tight and narrow to make the ‘dynamite’ sticks, then used an unmodified can or cans painted to look like the battery, and added the wires. Honesty, it doesn’t seem likely given the availability of road flares and radio batteries. Since the bomb was never recovered, we can’t know anything for certain. Personally, this description seems like it was mostly conjecture and misunderstanding on Clara’s and Gunther’s part.
This is especially complicated, since any Cooper story needs to account for the Tina Bar money find. We’ll examine the finer details of how LeClair could lose half the money in a later post, here I just want to mention one of the biggest problems with the Gunther text. Several times, Clara claims Leclair specifically requested $20 bills. It appears from the text Clara really believed this, however we know Cooper did not specify any denomination for the money. This cannot be easily resolved, but I would say this mistake in the narrative from Clara evolved from Clara and LeClair’s efforts to launder the money after the hijacking (small bills are more easily exchanged in everyday transactions).
The traditional story regarding the parachute rig Cooper used in the hijacking was that he got an old Navy NB-6 container and harness with a 28-foot round canopy, and that the canopy was white. Over the years the details have changed depending on who and when the details were being discussed. Most recently, evidence was found by Cooper researcher Bruce Smith that Cooper likely used a Pioneer Parachute owned by an acrobatic pilot named Norman Hayden. Confusion over the ownership, type and color of the parachute used by Cooper is now an open question, at least until the FBI releases their complete files on the case, and even this may not help us learn whether, in the confusion on the night of the hijacking, the true color of the parachute was recorded. (In fact, opening the parachute container would have been both difficult for an amatuer and dangerous, as an improperly packed parachute can kill.)
Gunther, from Clara, describes the parachute as a multi-colored parachute with bright red and yellow panels. A quick Google image search for “Pioneer parachute” did return a vintage photo of a round canopy of black, red and yellow, so the color scheme itself is plausible. Clara might not have seen the complete parachute before it was destroyed either, so it’s possible there were more than two colors. Or, it could be a false recollection, or a Gunther fabrication. Who knows? The point here is not whether we can come to a definitive conclusion, the question is whether we need to answer every little contradiction or fuzzy detail with a complete explanation.
The answer to that question is, basically, no we don’t. What we have here is eyewitness testimony given over a decade after the events unfolded. And the testimony is incomplete because our witness, Clara, wasn’t on the plane. What she knows of the hijacking and how Dan LeClair planned it is all hearsay. Even events she witnessed could have been tainted by later facts, for instance, her belief Dan LeClair was a meticulous planner who would never have left something up to chance.
We also must remember the book is much more than just the story Clara told Max Gunther. Gunther did his own research including dozens of interviews with many of the principals in the case. He talked to several FBI agents, and had more than one interaction with Himmelsbach. Skipp Porteous talked to Himmelsbach about Max Gunther and relayed this exchange through his book “Into the Blast”:
*When I asked his opinion on Max Gunther’s book, Himmelsbach said he didn’t like Gunther and knew all about the book. He pointed out that Gunther claimed someone named ‘Clara’ talked to him and provided him with all the details about Cooper. Himmelsbach says that Gunther later changed his story to match the facts.
Porteous, Skipp; Robert Blevins (2011-01-06). Into The Blast – The True Story of D.B. Cooper – Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 1043-1045). Adventure Books of Seattle. Kindle Edition.*
Simply put, this book is a complex document. It is not just the eyewitness testimony of a single individual. It is very likely the story Gunther got from Clara was incomplete, and he was trying to fill in the gaps he knew his audience would expect from such an exposé. Gunther was a journalist, he was comfortable doing interviews and research. If you read through the book, you’ll note he almost always references sources in the text. Once you start looking for them, you can source almost the entire book, and he even hints at when he’s just guessing.
Thanks to Gunther’s habit, we can look at the chapter with the most factual errors, chapter two, and source the problem: The FBI. Gunther talked to several agents in addition to Himmelsbach, and it appears many of the factual errors were intentional misinformation, most prominently the fictional conversation between Cooper and Captain Scott. Providing false information would be one way to test the veracity of this story, however by this time Clara had most likely broken off contact with Gunther and she would not have been able to correct the misinformation anyway.
If you’re looking for a reason not to believe Gunther’s story, you will find it. This was my conclusion when first reading through the text, until the point when Gunther revealed LeClair’s profession. This fact, which represented the only time after-the-fact forensic evidence confirmed a DB Cooper confession, required a deeper look into the text. It is my belief, despite the aforementioned issues, that the Gunther hypothesis still holds true.