Making Sense of the New D.B. Cooper Frenzy

New interest in a 40-year-old cold case of a whiskey-drinking parachuter

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This is not the first time D.B. Cooper-mania has swept the country. The legendary figure who parachuted from a hijacked plane over the state of Washington 40 years ago this November has been lodged in the American psyche ever since. His caper has inspired a feature film, a novel, myriad true crime accounts and television reenactments, and lots of amateur treasure-hunters. On Saturday, the Telegraph reported that the FBI, still riding high after arresting Whitey Bulger earlier this summer, had gotten a new lead on the mystery, though the bureau was tight-lipped as to exactly what that was. By Monday, more details began to trickle out about a new suspect, dead for 10 years, who hadn't been named before in the case, either by the FBI or as one of the thousands who have claimed credit for the crime over the last four decades.

Cooper's myth has all the irresistible elements--a well-dressed daredevil, a missing treasure, an unsolved mystery. The suspect, who actually called himself Dan Cooper, wore a tie and carried a briefcase when he bought a ticket from Portland to Seattle on Nov. 24, 1971. Once the plane was in the air, he ordered a whiskey, lit a cigarette, and handed a note to the flight attendant: "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." Cooper demanded $200,000 in $20 bills, and four parachutes to be delivered when the plane landed in Seattle, holding the passengers hostage. After the delivery, and refueling, he released the passengers and demanded to be taken to Mexico, but after the plane got airborne, he jumped out of the rear door somewhere over the Cascade mountains, the $200,000 strapped to his torso. He was never seen again.

The suspect: While the FBI hasn't named its new suspect, it has identified somebody internally. The man has been dead for 10 years, the bureau said on Monday, which means he lived for some 30 years after getting away with the crime. The Seattle Times reported that he died of natural causes. F.B.I. spokesman Fred Gutt told The New York Times the lead came from a former law enforcement agent who "'had an association with' the suspect from long ago." He told Reuters the suspect was "someone who surfaced who hasn't surfaced before," which is somewhat unique in this investigation that still attracts false confessions, both to the FBI and to news outlets. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote on Monday, "Since 2007, at least a half dozen people have contacted claiming to be Cooper, though none of the messages have given more than what's on his Wikipedia page."

The evidence: The new investigation comes from a tip given to the FBI by a former law enforcement agent, who provided the bureau with an item to be sent for fingerprint analysis, reports said yesterday. The Seattle Times reported that the item was a guitar strap, which was "not conducive to lifting fingerprints to compare to partial prints found in the plane," according to Gutt. But the bureau reportedly has DNA evidence from Cooper's Raleigh cigarette butts,* and the clip-on tie he wore, which it can test against the strap. The agency is working with the suspect's family to get more of his things for testing, The Seattle Times reported.

The frenzy: People love this story so much that even a hint the investigation might not be dead has brought amateur investigators and regular devotees out in force. According to the Post-Intelligencer, "By Monday morning, the whirlwind that forms whenever the FBI publicly discusses Cooper brought the agency more than 100 media calls." Amateur detective forums such as WebSleuths have lit up with the new details, and thousands of news outlets have picked up the story. But Houston Press blogger Pete Vonder Haar contends, via a Pearl Jam anecdote, that the frenzy is outdated and inappropriate:


I went to Lollapalooza in 1992, when Pearl Jam was the second act. During their set, a dude hopped up on stage, dodged security and ran through the band to dive off the opposite side. When the cops inevitably descended upon the kid, Eddie Vedder stopped the show and said, "No, you don't get it: If he makes it from there, across the stage, to there, without you catching him...he wins."

If Cooper survived the jump -- and that's a mighty big if, I grant you -- it means he's been eluding capture for four decades. In other words, he wins.

If the suspect is who the FBI thinks it is, he's already won by running out the clock.

*Since this story ran, Robert Blevins, co-author of Into the Blast: The True Story of D.B. Cooper, wrote to say that the detail of Cooper's cigarette butts had been misreported by the Daily Mail, which is linked in our text. In fact, Blevins said, the F.B.I. has lost the butts. A story last night on The Daily Beast supports that claim.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.