The Unsolved Case Of D.B. Cooper, The Plane Hijacker That Tricked The FBI
On November 24, 1971, along with his $200,000 cash demand, D.B. Cooper parachuted down a Mexico-City bound plane, completing one of the most daring and mysterious criminal ventures ever.
In 2016, after 45 years of a fruitless search, the FBI gave up hope of finding the notorious plane hijacker, D.B. Cooper. Let’s walk through the cold trails of the mystery man.
Who Is DB Cooper?
Not just are the whereabouts of D.B. Cooper a mystery, but his identity remains unknown. A sketch drawing of his face remains to date, the only clue to who he was or what he looked like.
However, we know that D.B. Cooper introduced himself as Dan Cooper and, from what eyewitnesses know, was a quiet man. As the days go by, the trail gets colder. His identity, we may never know.
November 24, 1971: A Day That is Hard to Forget
The date might mean little or nothing to many people, but to the passengers and crew of the Boeing 727 flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, it will be a forever memorable day. Even the FBI agents who worked tirelessly to nail Mr. Cooper won’t forget the events in a hurry.
It seemed like a usual afternoon in Portland, Oregon. Nothing beyond the ordinary. Yet, it was a day for one of the world’s most intriguing plane hijacks.
A One-Way Ticket to Seattle
In the middle of the afternoon, D.B. Cooper walked up to the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. Supposedly in his mid-40s and clad in formal wear, the man bought a one-way ticket for flight number 305.
He had on a suit, a white shirt, a black tie, and unbelievable courage. Mr. Cooper had it all planned out from the beginning to the end. Just like a modern action movie, the execution was almost flawless.
A Man on a Mission
It is interesting to imagine Mr. Cooper aboard the flight, with his unsophisticated attache case by his side. Eyewitnesses don’t believe that he spoke to other passengers on the flight. He was just a man on a mission.
He probably adjusted his tie a few times – a black-colored JC Penny with a tie clasp. This piece of clothing was the biggest clue Mr. Cooper left behind. FBI agents found the tie sitting on Mr. Cooper’s seat.
The Biggest Piece of Evidence
For many years, the abandoned black JCPenney tie remained the center of the D.B. Cooper investigations. Analysts examined the tie to discover stains that could provide more information about Mr. Cooper.
In what seemed like a refreshing breakthrough, scientists announced the discovery of more than a hundred thousand particles of rare earth elements – such as Titanium and Strontium sulfide – on the tie. These clues led analysts to several possible locations like Titanium fields for aircraft manufacturing.
Maybe Mr. Cooper Worked at Boeing
Lots of Titanium deposits on his tie showed that he could have worked at a company like Boeing. At the time, Boeing was working on a transport plane project that required Titanium and other similar elements.
If this suspicion was true, then we can see why Mr. Cooper chose to hijack a plane rather than, say, rob a bank. Let’s get back to the story. How was D.B. Cooper’s heist so successful?
Bourbon and Soda
What drinks would be perfect for a man set to execute an airplane hijack? According to the D.B. Cooper story, it’s bourbon and soda. Mr. Cooper was seen drinking the beverages while he waited for takeoff.
Maybe he rehearsed his plan as the drinks flowed down his throat. At this time, it was almost 3 o’clock. It was almost time for one of the most bizarre events in modern history.
The Flight Attendant Receives a Strange Note
That 24th of November would have seemed like a routine day for Tina Mucklow, the flight attendant. As she walked down the aisle, seeing that the passengers were doing great, nothing could have prepared her for what came next.
Moments later, she was picking up a strange note from a passenger on the floor with an unusual instruction. It was about 3 pm already. This note was directed to her colleague, who was already seated by Mr. Cooper.
Miss Mucklow Describes Her Experience
Somehow, fate chose Tina Mucklow, the newest staff on the 6-member crew, for an unplanned encounter with Mr. Cooper. According to her testimony, as the plane was set to liftoff, her partner, Florence Shaffner, surprisingly took her seat beside a passenger in a suit and horn-rimmed sunglasses.
From her new seat, Florence directed Tina to a note on the floor. “Miss, I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.” Florence was now a hostage. Immediately, Tina called the pilots to break the news. The plane had been hijacked.
A Bomb in a Briefcase
If Florence Shaffner wondered if it was all a big joke, her doubts soon cleared away. Shortly after she sat by the mystery man, she knew that he was serious. Slowly, D.B. slightly opened a briefcase by his side to reveal an explosive device.
According to the FBI’s official report, the bomb was a network of wires and red sticks. The sight was convincing enough to keep the flight attendants in a compliant disposition.
Mr. Cooper Wants $200,000
D.B. Cooper soon began to make demands. He ordered the attendant to write a note to the captain with a list of demands, including $200,000 in cash. It was a lot of money at the time, equivalent to around a million dollars presently.
The cash – as well as other demands – had to be delivered to the aircraft on landing. Specifically, he needed the money by 5 pm. As Florence Shaffner took the note to the cockpit, Tina Mucklow reluctantly replaced her beside Mr. Cooper.
…And Four Parachutes
The atmosphere was tense. Tina was still reeling from the shock. She, however, managed, as well as Miss Florence, to maintain her composure. Mr. Cooper also demanded four parachutes – two front and two back parachutes.
Jumping off the plane was part of his plan or, at least, one of his options. Meanwhile, the other passengers were oblivious to the strange happenings on the plane. When it reached its Seattle destination, the journey still seemed normal.
A Fuel Truck in Seattle
The last item on the list of Mr. Cooper’s demands was an unusual one — a fuel truck parked and waiting at the Seattle airport once the plane landed. Miss Tina sat beside Mr. Cooper and prayed for other passengers who went on with their business with all innocence.
Only time would reveal his plans for the fuel truck. Maybe he was a pilot intent on taking the plane out of the country. Nothing was clear at the moment.
Waiting in the Air
The flight to Seattle was only to last 30 minutes. For this reason, the plane had to circle in the air for an additional four hours on reaching its destination. At the same time, government officials were busy getting Mr. Cooper’s demands ready.
The passengers remained oblivious to the hijack and alighted unsuspectingly as the plane touched down. The cash, parachutes, and fuel were ready for Mr. Cooper.
Mr. Cooper Gets His Money
The other two flight attendants ran for their lives after the plane hit the ground. With Tina Mucklow alone with Mr. Cooper and the pilots, she had to make several trips on and off the plane to get his money and parachutes.
She soon dragged a 9-kilo bag full of money: $200,000 in $20 notes onto the plane. According to her, she felt lonely and uncertain of her fate.
A Short Stop at Nevada
The next plan on Mr. Cooper’s agenda was to get the plane refueled a second time (it was first refueled in Seattle). The plane headed for Reno, Nevada, to replenish its fuel tanks before changing its path.
Contrary to expectations, Mr. Cooper had directed the pilots to a surprise destination – Mexico City. No one knew why the criminal chose the city and what he intended to achieve there. To escape the arms of the law, Cuba had been the preferred landing location for previous plane hijackers.
On the Way to Mexico City
Until a few minutes after changing course, Miss Tina and all the other crew members believed Mr. Cooper was heading for Mexico City. Things began to take a different turn when D.B. Cooper demanded that she show him how to open the door that led to the plane’s rear stairway.
Scared that she could be sucked out of the plane by the gushing, Tina was a little relieved when Mr. Cooper ordered that she join the pilots in the cabin.
Mr. Cooper Takes a Dive
With the plane flying at a low altitude of 10,000 feet as he demanded, Mr. Cooper made for the rear exit door. He lowered the stairs and prepared to do the unexpected.
Mr. Cooper disposed of the briefcase before taking a daring dive over the hilly terrain and dense forests of Portland, Oregon. Tina was the last known person to ever see Mr. Cooper to date.
The Dare-Devil Dive
Over the years, the level of risk involved in Mr. Cooper’s jump-off has made people wonder, “What was he thinking?” Diving over such dangerous terrain could only take unbelievable amounts of guts.
The jump was a life-risking one even for the most experienced divers or military men. So, even if the rumors are true about Cooper being a military paratrooper, his chances of survival on a stormy night remain slim, especially in a suit.
Is Cooper Dead or Alive?
Given the conditions of his jump, it is easier to believe that Cooper didn’t make it alive. A suit and loafers aren’t good clothes for jumping off planes in the middle of the night. Let alone with $200,000 strapped to one’s body. If he did survive, he probably would have died of age-related causes or be 95 years old.
After his famous jump, police had spent several days rummaging through a wide radius of forests and hills in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Why Flight #305?
Cooper’s escape plan raised further questions. One such was, “Why flight #305?” It became apparent that Cooper knew about the manufacturing defect in the Boeing 727, which was the only Boeing plane with a rear exit staircase.
The original but outdated idea was for passengers to come onboard the airplane through the rear while older passengers exit through the side door. Therefore, it was apparent that Cooper wasn’t in the airplane by coincidence.
Finally On Ground
The plane landed in Reno, Nevada, by 11 pm the same night. The crew members were relieved to reunite with the airport and be safe from the dangerous hijacker. Law enforcement agents cleared the hostages and searched the plane to find Cooper.
At this point, the crew was sure that Cooper had jumped down just after 8 pm when they saw the rear door alarm signal lights come on. Tina cried all the way home, still overwhelmed by her ordeal.
Two Parachutes Left
Another unanswered question surrounding the Cooper case is his demand for four parachutes. Why four? After asking for an initial two parachutes, Cooper requested two additional ones.
In the end, FBI agents recovered two parachutes left behind in the plane. The FBI reports that Cooper used the cords from one of the unused parachutes to strap the money to his body. These parachutes, along with his black tie and plane tickets, were the few pieces of evidence left behind.
A Breakthrough for the FBI
After what seemed like an embarrassingly fruitless search, the FBI found a ray of hope in an unexpected discovery. Nine years after, a young boy who was out camping with his family close to Columbia River discovered wads of Cooper’s $20 bills totaling $5,800 in a rotting package.
This discovery renewed public interest in the case and sparked a new fire in law enforcement efforts. However, to public dismay, no new evidence came to light, and Cooper’s whereabouts, whether dead or alive, remained a mystery.
In 2020, using an electron microscope, scientist Tom Kaye found a new theory surrounding the recovered cash. It was found that a portion of the criminal’s $200,000 extortion money – placed on the riverbank close to his landing zone – had been immersed in water months after he landed.
This twist provided a fresh lead in the historic D.B. Cooper plane hijacking case and gave credence to the possibility that Cooper was still alive.
A List of Suspects
You can imagine that there would be lots of suspects in such a high-profile case. Relying on sketches based on eyewitness descriptions plus other pieces of information, the FBI had thousands of suspects to check out.
The suspect list includes Richard McCoy Jr, who went on to hijack a plane after he was considered a suspect, Robert Rackstraw, Duane Weber, Kenneth Peter Christiansen, and Lynn Doyle Cooper. There were also false confessors, one of which was a woman. Let’s examine three of the most probable suspects.
Richard Floyd McCoy
The FBI once viewed Richard Floyd McCoy, a well-known hijacker with tactics akin to Cooper’s, as a leading suspect. Close to five months after Cooper’s flight was hijacked, McCoy took over a passenger plane in April 1972. He demanded a cash ransom and used a parachute to jump out of the plane.
However, the FBI disqualified McCoy for “other grounds,” in addition to the fact that he “didn’t meet the nearly similar physical descriptions of Cooper offered by two flight attendants.”
The FBI initially believed Robert Rackstraw to be the infamous skyjacker: D.B. Cooper. The Ohio native, who dropped out of high school, was born in 1943. He served as a decorated U.S. Army paratrooper in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s before being expelled from the service for lying and other misconduct.
In their 2016 book, The Last Master Outlaw, authors Tom Szollosi and Thomas J. Colbert claimed that Rackstraw was Cooper.
Duane L. Weber wasn’t discovered by the authorities until after 1995. On his deathbed that year, he revealed who he was to his wife, Jo Weber.
Jo thought back to the dream Duane had while talking in his sleep about “Leaving fingerprints on a plane,” plus a previous knee injury he said he sustained while jumping out of a plane. Also, a forensic artist who has collaborated with the FBI claims that a composite sketch of Cooper and a younger Duane Weber bear remarkable physical resemblances.
Forty-five years after the mystery of the skyjacking, the FBI finally put an end to the D.B. Cooper case in June 2016. The D.B. Cooper case led to some of the “longest and most thorough investigations,” according to the agency.
As the 45-year inquiry ends, it appears that D.B. Cooper indeed outsmarted the FBI, cementing his legendary status. The mystery lives on, and “Where is D.B. Cooper?” is a question that will continue to beg for answers.