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.