America’s Unidentified Supervillain: An Investigation into the Mysterious Case of D.B. Cooper

By Wilson C. ’20

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, a routine flight between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington quickly became the stage for one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in U.S. history. Over the course of 5 hours, one man, now referred to in pop culture as “D.B. Cooper,” was able to extort $200,000 dollars from the FBI, and then, just as quickly as he appeared, escaped without ever being seen again. This mystery, which captivated the nation, has produced countless theories; some legitimate, and others complete nonsense. In this article, various theories as to the man’s identity, fate, whereabouts, and profile will be thoroughly dissected and evaluated. The man behind the crime may never be found, but it’s possible that he returned to civilian life without ever being caught, sitting in the FBI’s suspect pool for decades.

Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, which had previously stopped over in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Great Falls, Missoula, and Spokane, was about to take off on the final leg of its journey: Portland to Seattle. On the afternoon of the flight, a man who identified himself as Dan Cooper purchased a one-way ticket for the flight at the Northwest Orient Airlines counter within the terminal. Witnesses described him as a white man in his early forties, with black hair and a receding hairline. The man was also wearing a suit and black sunglasses. He and 36 other passengers boarded the Boeing 727, which took off at 2:50 PM.

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The Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727 which was involved in the incident (Wikipedia).

The flight which the man boarded was staffed by six flight attendants. One of these flight attendants, Florence Shaffner, was serving the man, who was seated in seat 18C, just a few minutes after takeoff. After being served, he handed her a note which she quickly placed into her purse. The flight attendant later stated that she disregarded the note, assuming it was the phone number of a lonely business traveller, but what the man said next made her realize that the man was much more threatening than she initially thought. Cooper called her over and whispered into her ear these chilling words: “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” The note was purposefully written in perfect printed script to prevent the man’s identification, and it read: “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.” Shaffner, wishing to bring as little attention to herself to prevent provoking Cooper into using the bomb, calmly sat down next to the man and asked to see the bomb. Cooper unzipped his briefcase and revealed what Shaffner describes as a “tangle of wires” with “a battery surrounded by 8 red cylinders.” It was then that Cooper made his demands; $200,000 in cash, 4 civilian-grade parachutes (he disliked the rip-cords on military parachutes), and a refueling truck upon the plane’s landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He ordered that Shaffner write down these demands on a note and hand them to the captain of the flight, William Scott.

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Flight Attendant Florence Shaffner’s transcription of the hijacker’s note (FBI Archives).

Upon receiving the information from Shaffner, Scott immediately alerted Air Traffic Control in Seattle, who then alerted the FBI of the hijacking-in-progress. He also alerted the president of Northwest Orient Airlines, Donald Nyrop, of the hijacker’s demands, and Nyrop ordered the flight crew to comply with all demands put forth by the hijacker. In order to buy time for the FBI to acquire the necessary funds and parachutes, the airplane circled around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for almost two hours. In order to keep the passengers calm, Scott told the passengers over the airplane’s intercom that there was a minor mechanical issue that had to be resolved before the landing. Emergency personnel in the area were mobilized in case Cooper decided to harm any of the hostages. At 5:24, the hijacker was notified that his demands had been met and that the airplane would now be landing in Seattle. The plane touched down at 5:39 with all passengers and crew left unharmed.

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Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 refueling on the tarmac in Seattle after the hijacking (The Columbian).

Upon landing in Seattle, the flight was stopped on the runway. An employee of the airline carried $200,000 (in $20 increments, each of which the FBI had photographed before the delivery in order to track the serial numbers), as well as the four parachutes which the hijacker requested, to the airplane. Satisfied that his demands had been met, Cooper then released all 36 passengers from the plane, along with two flight attendants, including Florence Shaffner. Flight Attendant Tina Mucklow remained on board at Cooper’s request.

After the hijacker was given his cash and parachutes, the plane began to refuel, but there were some issues with the fuel truck which caused a significant delay. This delay gave Cooper the chance to outline his flight plan to the pilots. Cooper ordered that the plane fly at 10,000 feet, and at the minimum speed possible without stalling, all the way to Mexico City. He also requested that they kept the cabin unpressurized, the landing gear down, and the flaps extended to 15. The 727 was not equipped for that sort of flight, as it would only have a range of 1,000 miles with that set of specifications in place. The pilots told Cooper that this flight would be impossible without another refueling, and Cooper reluctantly agreed to refuel in Reno, Nevada. The pilots submitted this flight plan, and it was met with severe resistance from the airline and the FAA. The FAA requested that a representative meet face-to-face with the hijacker, but as the pilots feared he was already suspicious of the fuel delay and somewhat on-edge, this request was denied. The flight plan eventually went through and the flight took off at 7:40 PM for Reno, just over two hours after the initial touchdown.

Shortly after takeoff from Seattle, the Air Force scrambled two F-106 Delta Darts from McChord Air Force Base to follow the plane. A third plane, a T-33 Shooting Star, eventually joined the two Delta Darts in following the airliner. Shortly after the T-33 began following the plane, Cooper sent Mucklow into the cockpit so that he was alone in the cabin. Little did Mucklow know that she would be the last person to ever see the hijacker. It was at this point that he decided to perform his daring escape. In the dead of night, the hijacker deployed the aircraft’s aft airstair and jumped out of the plane with the ransom money. The trailing planes did not notice his exit, and the flight crew would have been completely unaware of his exit had it not been for the cabin warning light which illuminated in the cockpit shortly after 8:00 PM. The crew offered their assistance over the plane’s intercom but receive no response. Because of the aft airstair being open, it was determined that it would be unsafe for any of the crew to inspect the cabin, so the plane continued on to Reno. The flight landed in Reno at 10:15 PM local time.

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The flight crew, clearly shaken, upon their arrival in Reno (N467US Archives).

The cabin was thoroughly searched, and investigators quickly determined that Cooper had made off with the cash and two of the parachutes. The only trace of the hijacker which remained in the aircraft was his clip-on tie, which was tested for fingerprints but produced no viable results. The FBI quickly launched a massive investigation, known as NORJAK, and initially compiled a list of 800 suspects. They canvassed the possible drop zone of the suspect as well as areas covered by the flight path, but found no clues as to his whereabouts. Only two material clues have been found since; a placard from the 727’s airstair was discovered near the flight path in 1978, and $5,800 of the ransom money (matched using the FBI’s photographs) was discovered by an 8 year-old along the Columbia River in 1980. Unfortunately, these clues did not produce any credible leads for investigators, and today, the hijacker remains at-large. The FBI concluded its official investigation on July 8, 2016, nearly 45 years after the hijacking. 

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FBI composite sketch of the hijacker (FBI Archives).

The FBI was able to produce a final list of about 25 suspects who have yet to be ruled out as the perpetrators of the crime, and from this list, as well as other private investigations, many suspects and theories have been produced. One of these suspects, originally produced by the FBI, was a man by the name of D.B. Cooper, who lived in Oregon at the time. He was only a person of interest because of his proximity to Portland and his name, but the FBI quickly ruled him out as a suspect. Despite this, a journalist published a false story incriminating D.B. Cooper, and the name stuck. D.B. Cooper was simply the name of an unlucky innocent man, not a suspect, and he was certainly not the hijacker himself. However, aside from Cooper, the FBI has come away with quite a few interesting suspects from this list of 25. 

One potential suspect was William Gossett. Gossett was in special forces in Vietnam, where he was trained to parachute from a 727 to drop in behind enemy lines. Gossett was also known by friends to be obsessed with the hijacking story and even confessed to a friend that he had committed the crime. Perhaps the most incriminating piece of information on Gossett is that he was a penniless gambler until he came across a large amount of money in December 1971. However, the only evidence for this monetary gain comes from Gossett’s son, who was only able to get his story out to tabloids. The validity of the confession is also unproven. If these pieces of information were somehow proven to be accurate, there might be a stronger case against Gossett, as his physical profile is a pretty good match. However, we have no way of knowing the truth of any information beyond his army career, so he can’t be considered as a credible suspect.

A more intriguing story is that of Kenneth Christiansen. Christiansen was a paratrooper in World War II, and worked as a flight attendant for Northwest Orient Airlines after the war was over. In 1972, he came across a sum of money large enough to buy a house in cash (this was later disproved through FBI investigation: it took Christiansen 17 years to pay off his new home). On his deathbed, Christiansen told loved ones that he had kept a large secret from them, but refused to say what it was. Following his death, his brother Lyle discovered that Kenneth had over $200,000 in his bank account, a suspiciously large amount for a man of his career path. Even more suspiciously, Kenneth also kept a collection of Northwest Orient Airlines newspaper clippings up until the date of the hijacking. Lyle was so sure that his brother was the hijacker that he manager to get in touch with Florence Shaffner, the flight attendant who first had contact with the man. To Lyle’s surprise, she confirmed that this was the closest match to the man she had ever seen. Furthermore, Christiansen was known to be a smoker, bourbon drinker, and was left-handed (evidence collected from the hijacker’s tie suggests he was also left-handed). Although some of this evidence is compelling, Christiansen’s story brings up more questions than answers. First of all, if he did spend a large amount of money on a new house, how did he end up with such a large amount of money when he died? All other plane hijackings in U.S. history have been solved, so he certainly didn’t come across it through a repeat offense. Furthermore, if he attempted to spend the cash, especially to buy a house, he would have certainly been caught by the FBI. Any sort of large cash purchase could come onto the radar of federal authorities, and if one single bill out of the 2,000 paid to Cooper had its serial number matched, he would have been busted. As for the newspaper clippings, it’s entirely possible that Christiansen simply stopped collecting after the hijacking took place because the number of clippings about the case would have been too large to keep up with, or he might have simply just lost interest. Finally, the evidence related to Christiansen’s physical profile and tendencies seem compelling at first, there is one major problem with this profile; witnesses said Cooper was probably at least 5’11”, whereas Christiansen was only 5’8.” Christiansen’s story makes for fodder for conspiracy theorists, but he is not a credible suspect. There were enough holes in his profile for the FBI to dismiss him as a suspect fairly early on.

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Kenneth Christiansen (Oregon Live).

After the FBI ended their investigation of the hijacking in 2016, private investigators began to look into the case. The most compelling suspect produced from any of these investigations was Robert Rackstraw, a former Green Beret from San Diego. The History Channel aired a documentary on Rackstraw, who they believed to be the man behind the historic crime, and cited seemingly incriminating evidence. Their theory centered around a letter which was sent to major newspapers on December 11, 1971, which was supposedly from Cooper himself. According to the documentary, private investigators discovered this letter, and cracked a code which was contained in the letter. This code revealed army units which Rackstraw fought for in Vietnam. The code was designed to alert the members of these units that he was alive and well after the jump. Although the code in this letter is fascinating, the validity of this letter is in question. Newspapers at the time dismissed it as a prank, and the FBI never really verified it as a credible piece of evidence. Furthermore, it was clear that The History Channel had ulterior motives for airing the documentary. In fact, they attempted to sell Rackstraw a book deal if he admitted to his guilt, and when he refused, they attempted blackmail Rackstraw into admitting his guilt on television. When he refused, they aired the documentary anyways. The entire Rackstraw theory is centered on a letter which was probably a harmless prank, but it’s entirely possible that this letter was indeed from the hijacker; but the code had nothing to do with Rackstraw. Rackstraw was 28 at the time of the hijacking, 15 years lower than the predicted profile of early forties, and eyewitnesses said he did not resemble the hijacker. Although we can’t know for certain the validity of the letter, the fact that Rackstraw does not match the physical profile of the hijacker is a dead giveaway that he is innocent, and that the History Channel was attempting to manufacture evidence to make a quick buck.

Lynn Doyle Cooper, who many are convinced was the hijacker, is perhaps the most interesting suspect which the FBI investigated. He has connections to the hijackers which no other suspect possesses. First off, Doyle was obsessed with Dan Cooper, the comic book hero who was likely the inspiration for the hijacker’s alias, a connection which none of the other suspects have. Furthermore, unlike other suspects, there is evidence against Doyle which incriminates him on the very night of the hijacking. His niece claims that he came home with a bloody shirt, and claimed he was in a car crash; however, she saw that there was no damage to the car. He was driven by his brother Dewey. She claims that she later heard him remark to Dewey: “We did it, our money problems are over. We hijacked an airplane!” The most compelling part about Lynn Cooper’s story is that he had an accomplice, his brother Dewey; no other suspect had a known accomplice. The accomplice would have allowed Cooper to make it out of the forest in a reasonable amount of time as not to arouse suspicion from his family, and the presence of a getaway car would allow him to evade law enforcement. If Dewey and Lynn had pre-negotiated a drop zone, Lynn would have been able to make it home within a few hours of the landing. Despite being the most compelling of any case offered up, there are still questions about Cooper’s story. For one, his DNA did not match the DNA on the tie, and secondly, it’s unknown exactly what happened to all of the money. That being said, there isn’t much to go against Lynn Doyle Cooper being the hijacker. 

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Lynn Doyle Cooper (USA Today).

Clearly, there are many different theories about the identity of the hijacker, and throughout the list of suspects, assumptions are made which may not necessarily be true; namely that Cooper was a paratrooper, and that he was from the Pacific Northwest. While the plane circled the Seattle airport, Cooper began to settle in and potentially revealed more clues as to his true identity. After ordering some bourbon and water, Cooper was seen looking out the window, when he remarked: “looks like Tacoma down there.” This meant that the hijacker might have been from the Pacific Northwest; but he could have just visited previously or simply done his research beforehand. As the plane neared its landing, he stated that McChord Air Force Base was only about 20 miles away from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Although this piece of information on its own makes it completely possible that he had just mapped out other potential landings beforehand, this comment, combined with his knowledge of military parachute technology, provides one of the few insights into the hijacker’s identity; it seems likely that he had a military background in some capacity, but not necessarily as a paratrooper. The theory that Cooper had a military background is backed up by the FBI’s profiling. They uncovered that Cooper was likely in possession of knowledge which was only available to elite military and CIA operatives.

Furthermore, one of the few solid pieces of evidence collected on Cooper was the ticket receipt which he left at the Northwest Orient Airlines ticket counter in Portland. He marks his alias as Dan Cooper, who was a comic book character. In the comic, Dan Cooper was a hero of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and often parachuted from planes. This comic book was not sold in the United States, but was sold in Canada. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the hijacker was from Canada, or had even been there, but more weight can be placed on the hypothesis of the hijacker being a foreigner when the wording in his ransom demands is considered. He requested that the payment be made in “negotiable American currency,” a phrase seldom if ever used by Americans. This promoted the theory that the hijacker might have been Canadian, but a more likely proposal is that the man discovered the comic book while deployed with the American military overseas, where that phrase might have been used in discussion with people of that overseas nation. Ultimately, this ticket could prove a number of things about the hijacker, but it certainly supports the theory that he had a military background. 

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The ticket purchased by Dan Cooper in Portland (Wikipedia).

The nature of the crime also sheds light on the profile of the hijacker. He was reported to be extremely polite in his interactions with the crew, and never made a move to harm anyone directly. He was reluctant to use the bomb, or even to show it to the passengers, and probably only carried it as a method for extortion, with no intent to actually detonate it. This behavior points to the fact that Cooper probably was not a violent criminal, as someone like Rackstraw was, and probably was not a hardened criminal either; leaving behind his tie as evidence seemed like a rookie mistake. Despite his criminal inexperience, however, Cooper is known to have been knowledgeable in the mechanics of the Boeing 727. He was aware of a switch at the back of the cabin which allowed for the airstair to be deployed without the direct approval of the flight crew. Flight attendants, like Christiansen, were not made aware of this fact, and this knowledge further supports the theory that Cooper had previously worked for some sort of military organization. 

With all of this evidence taken into account, there is no clear culprit out of the suspects listed, no perfect match to the profile. The one man who has a connection to the alias has no connection to the military, or a foreign nation, and the one man who worked for the airline did not match the physical profile of the hijacker. Obviously, there’s no clear-cut solution to this case, as it is still unsolved, but it seems probable that none of these men were the real “Dan Cooper.” In fact, it’s more likely that the man who committed the crime died in the forest shortly after he landed. Parachuting experts have stated that this would have been an extremely difficult jump, as the plane would be moving at about 170 mph; the rain and darkness only increased the degree of difficulty of the jump. In each of the parachutes, the reserve parachute was stitched up, and if the hijacker had been an experienced parachuter, he would have noticed this. The hijacker requested four parachutes to insinuate that he may force a hostage to jump with him, meaning that he was trying to prevent himself from being supplied with sabotaged equipment. If he had been knowledgeable about the functionality of a parachute, he would have been angry that the reserve chute was inoperable. He also neglected to use proper safety equipment, and was wearing clothing that would be unsuitable for survival in the frigid forest. Ultimately, it seems like Cooper was an extremely organized criminal who had done his research on airplanes, and potentially worked in the military or with planes, but was fatally unaware of the conditions of the jump and in the forest. It’s true that a body was never found, but the FBI was left with a very large swath of forest to canvass, and it’s highly possible that Cooper was either scavenged before they were able to find his body, or that they simply missed something. Another possibility is that Dan Cooper landed with severe injury, and a co-conspirator made off with the cash and disposed of his body. However, there has never been any evidence to suggest that the hijacker had a co-conspirator, so the most likely scenario is as follows: the hijacker, unaware of the dangers of the jump, suffered a serious injury upon landing. He survived, and attempted to move to a secluded area, where he believed he might be safe from predators and investigators. He then died of exposure in this location, and was either never found or scavenged by predators. Furthermore, the fact that the money was never spent indicates that he probably died. The hijacker was probably unaware that the money had been photographed. If he was aware that the FBI might photograph the cash, he would never have hijacked the plane; there would be no reason to extort for money that can’t even be used. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that some of the money was found in the Columbia River. If the hijacker dropped the money during the flight, it would have fluttered in the air in the high winds, and wouldn’t have landed in a stack like that. If the hijacker survived, he certainly wouldn’t have been careless enough to leave all of his money behind, as his profile shows that the money was his main focus. Therefore, it seems most likely that he died with the money on him, and then that some of that money was carried to the Columbia river, through tributaries or perhaps by an animal. It seems highly unreasonable that the hijacker would attempt to hide the money in a riverbed. 

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Some of the bills that were uncovered in the Columbia River in 1980 (FBI Archives).

Overall, the D.B. Cooper case is one that has mystified criminal investigators and the public alike for decades, and which will never reach a true solution. The sheer lack of physical clues leaves too much open to interpretation in this case, and can lead investigators to nearly infinite scenarios, which cannot be proven or disproven. Many intriguing suspects have been brought forward, but each with critical flaws in their profile which makes them unlikely to be the man himself. Out of all of the suspects, it seems that Lynn Doyle Cooper is the most likely culprit, but he died in 1999, meaning the FBI never got the chance to validate his niece’s story, which she shared in 2011. It seems likely that the hijacker died in the forest, based on the profile constructed by the FBI, but the truth is, the public will likely never really know what happened to Dan Cooper.

 

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