The FBI announced at the end of last month that it was no longer actively pursuing the 45-year-old investigation into the notorious case of D.B. Cooper, the hijacker who vanished in 1971 after parachuting out of a plane with $200,000 in ransom money.
It all started on Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, 1971 in Portland, Ore., when an unassuming man carrying a black attaché case walked up to the ticket counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. Identifying himself as Dan Cooper, he purchased a one-way ticket on Flight 305 to Seattle, Wash., a 30-minute trip. (Interesting note: He became “D.B. Cooper” only after a wire service published a story incorrectly calling him that, and the name stuck.)
Boarding the Boeing 727, Cooper sat down in the last row in seat 18C next to a flight attendant, lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and 7-Up. Flight 305, approximately one-third full, took off at 2:50 p.m. He then passed the attendant a note. The 23-year-old attendant, thinking that this was just another guy hitting on her, dropped the note in her purse. “Miss, you better look at this note. I have a bomb,” said the passenger. She read the note: “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit beside me.” She did as she was told but asked to see the bomb. She saw a tangle of wires, a battery and eight red sticks.
More instructions followed: “I want $200,000 by 5 p.m. in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two forward parachutes. When we land I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I’ll do my job.” He then told her to get up and take his message to the captain.
The airplane circled Puget Sound for approximately two hours to allow Seattle police and FBI agents to get the parachutes, the ransom money and to mobilize emergency personnel. At 5:24 p.m. Cooper was informed that his demands had been met. At 5:39 p.m. the plane landed in Seattle on a remote tarmac. Cooper released the 36 passengers, and the airline’s staff brought the money – 21 pounds of twenties totaling $200,000 — as well as the parachutes. The plane was refueled and at 7:40 p.m. took off.
Cooper ordered the captain to fly to Mexico City and then came the very specific instructions: Keep the plane at minimum air speed of 120 mph at under 10,000 feet with wing flaps at 15 degrees and landing gear in a down position. He strapped the money to his body, put on two parachutes and moved to the rear of the plane toward the aft stairs which were used on 727’s to disembark passengers. He then opened the door, lowered the stairs, climbed down and at 8:13 p.m. jumped into the cold, black, wet windy night somewhere over southwest Washington state.
Cooper, despite a massive manhunt that went on for months, was never found, dead or alive. The FBI, which never ruled out that the hijacker could have been killed upon landing, interviewed hundreds of people. It never found a body or the parachute. The only lead came in 1980 when a family came upon $5,800 in cash by the Columbia River whose serial numbers matched the money given to Cooper.
Over the years there have been books — some factual, others unabashedly embellishing the truth — conspiracy theories, movies, songs and sightings of D.B. Cooper all over the Western Hemisphere. All adding fuel to the legend that refuses to die.