Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the only unsolved case of air piracy in commercial airline history — the D.B Cooper hijacking. Five decades have passed and very few answers are known about the man behind the crime. Ask around Portland and Southwest Washington, and you’re bound to find people who know Cooper’s name, and maybe have their own theories about him.
The crime that happened half a century ago
On Nov. 24, 1971 — which was also the day before Thanksgiving that year — a passenger whose ticket was booked under the name Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight at Portland International Airport. The flight was scheduled to be a quick stint north to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The plan changed shortly after takeoff.
After ordering a drink, Cooper revealed to a flight attendant that he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 and parachutes once the plane reached Sea-Tac.
His demands were met, and Cooper’s fellow passengers safely disembarked. He then instructed some of the crew to fly him to Mexico City with a fuel stop in Reno, Nevada. However, when the plane was flying over Southwest Washington, Cooper parachuted out of the plane with the ransom money and vanished.
He was never seen or heard from again. Cooper’s identity has also never been confirmed.
In 1980, there was a break in the case — kind of. Along the Columbia River in Vancouver, a boy discovered $5,800 of damaged twenties. Investigators confirmed the bills were from the Cooper ransom. But the lead didn’t go any further. No more of the cash from the hijacking has ever been found.
The $200,000 ransom Cooper received would be equivalent to $1,352,513.45 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A local legend
Since his disappearance, Cooper has fascinated Pacific Northwest residents and others.
John F. Barber, now a faculty member at Washington State University Vancouver, remembers coverage of the hijacking when it happened. He watched television news reports in 1971, and recalls the crime seemed “so completely improbable, impossible.”
When asked why interest remains around the case, Barber told OPB that “mystery attracts attention and speculation.”
Barber is also the creator of Re-Imagined Radio, a media project that shares sound-based storytelling. Re-Imagined Radio produced a series of radio dramas on Cooper, using the mystery as source material.
The local legend of Cooper meant more visitors to the Clark County Historical Museum on Saturday.
Katie Bush, the museum’s public historian, told OPB that Saturdays are usually less busy days but with the hijacking anniversary, “people are asking about him a lot.”
The public’s interest in the case doesn’t surprise Bush, since so little is known about the history-making criminal. “The mythos of D.B. Cooper is really what keeps it alive.”
“As a Northwest historian, I think the Northwest is incredibly interesting, and there’s so much here to study, but he kind of adds a bit more interest to it. We’re more than coffee, plaid and Portlandia, there’s a lot more going on here than people expect,” Bush said. “Maybe we don’t have Al Capone like Chicago does, but we do have D.B. Cooper so that’s pretty cool.”
“The other big names in crime that happened around here, and not to try and valorize or anything, but like the Green River Killer, Ted Bundy – there was some closure that happened to that, and this is still a complete mystery.”
Plus, Bush said, people may have another motivation to learn about the case. “Everyone’s hoping that they can find some of his money out there,” she explained, with a laugh. “Maybe someday it will come floating down the Columbia and we’ll find it. We all want to find a bag of money on the side of the road.”
Will we ever know answers?
Five years ago, the FBI concluded its investigation into Cooper. The bureau announced in July 2016 that it was ending “one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations in [its] history.”
Civilians have attempted to keep investigation efforts alive. Eric Ulis, who has dedicated over a decade of his life to investigating the Cooper case, led a dig in August near the 1980 cash discovery location to search for evidence.
Ulis told OPB that he went back to the site with volunteers for additional digging on Nov. 18, and they plan to go again in January. He explained that due to the rocky terrain, digging can only be done manually.
Ulis first heard about Cooper when he was a child interested in aviation in the late 1970s. As an adult, he grew more curious about the case and then began investigating as a “guilty pleasure.” In more recent years, he saw reports of new suspects and new theories, but “they seemed too conspiratorial to me,” Ulis said. “I want to know who the real guy is, the real story. That’s what precipitated my interest.”
As for Cooper’s fate, Ulis believes the hijacker got away safely and is potentially still alive. “I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that he survived.”
Ulis founded CooperCon in 2018. This year’s convention was held over the weekend at the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver. Ulis said it drew about 220 people, the most since the annual event began.
The highlight of CooperCon 2021 for Ulis was speaking with Bill Mitchell, who sat near Cooper on the flight in 1971. The plane was in the air for three hours, but none of the passengers knew a hijacking had happened until they saw law enforcement gathered on the ground.
Ulis is optimistic that modern science and technology will help solve Cooper’s identity. He believes Cooper’s briefcase and parachute will be located. He also has hopes, in the coming months, to get access to and analyze a key piece of evidence that was recovered: Cooper’s clip-on tie.
“I have a feeling that in the next 10 years, we have a better chance than not in solving this case.”
A closed investigation, but something in the works
The crime achieved by Cooper sounds like something out of a movie. Soon, the hijacking will get Hollywood treatment.
“Nod If You Understand” has been greenlit. The thriller, directed by Amber Sealey, will tell the story of flight attendant Tina Mucklow, who was on the plane with Cooper, according to Deadline.
“This hijacking is an important piece of U.S. history, much obsessed over, and yet there are huge parts of the story that have never been shown before. The camera has never been pointed in the right direction, until now,” Sealey told Deadline.
The movie will focus on Mucklow and her fateful encounter with Cooper. Mucklow spoke with Rolling Stone back in January about her experience and how it shaped her life.
A popular culture phenomenon
While the loose ends remain, Cooper is a fixture in Pacific Northwest lore. His hijacking and disappearance have inspired a local escape room, a brewery in Vancouver and promotions by the Portland Pickles baseball team. In the community of Ariel in Southwest Washington, an annual event is held in November to commemorate Cooper.
His name and legend have also been featured in national entertainment. He was the inspiration for the name Dale Bartholomew Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, in “Twin Peaks.” The “Loki” television series on Disney+ included a scene that showed Loki was actually Cooper in its premiere episode.
Bush’s suspicion about treasure seekers who would search for the uncovered Cooper cash was the plot of the 2004 fictional film “Without a Paddle.”
In the 50 years since his jump into history, Cooper has never been found — but as a legend, a mystery and a pop culture artifact, he has left a lasting legacy in the Pacific Northwest and the world.