D.B. Cooper's Final Escape

The FBI announced Tuesday that it is closing its 44-year-long investigation into the enigmatic hijacker, who jumped out of a plane with $200,000 in 1971.

Artist sketches of the hijacker D.B. Cooper (Reuters)

Well, D.B. Cooper, if you’re out there—and if that really is your name—it looks like you’ve gotten away with it.

Cooper, or a man calling himself that, jumped out of Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 and into American criminal mythology on November 24, 1971. He boarded the plane in Portland, Oregon, ordered a bourbon and soda, and began smoking filtered Raleigh cigarettes.

A little bit after takeoff, Cooper handed the stewardess (it was the ’70s) a note saying he had a bomb and asking her to sit next to him. He flashed a briefcase full of wires and demanded $200,000 and four parachutes. She took the note to the pilot. The plane landed in Seattle, where Cooper let the passengers off and took the cash and the chutes. Then he and a few crew members took off again, bound for Mexico City, as he demanded. Somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Cooper jumped out of the plane. He was never heard from again.

On Tuesday—44 years, 7 months, and 18 days after the hijacking—the FBI announced it is closing the Cooper file for want of evidence. Or in the dry language of law enforcement, “The FBI has redirected resources allocated to the D.B. Cooper case to focus on other investigative priorities.” Over the years, agents had considered 800 suspects and whittled down the list to less than two dozen. Not that they’re giving up entirely. “Although the FBI will no longer actively investigate this case, should specific physical evidence emerge—related specifically to the parachutes or the money taken by the hijacker—individuals with those materials are asked to contact their local FBI field office,” the agency said in a statement.

“We’re  just done with it,” said Ayn Dietrich-Williams, a public-affairs specialist in the agency’s Seattle Bureau. “In the last few years all the tips that we’ve gotten have not led to anything new,” she said. “A piece of physical evidence we received in 2010 was looked at and we were waiting for evidence to come back from the lab in Quantico.” The results came back in January and “there was no physical match to the person we were looking at whom we thought might be a match for D.B. Cooper,” she said.

It has long seemed likely that Cooper’s mystery would remain just that, but the FBI’s announcement marks a more formal surrender. The story was all the more alluring for the tantalizing clues that have emerged over the years. No one even knows for sure who “Cooper” was. He bought his plane ticket as “Dan Cooper,” but who he really was and or what he was really named remain subject to intense speculation but unknown. (He became popularly known as “D.B.” after the FBI interviewed, and then cleared, a Portland-area reporter named D.B. Cooper.) The FBI contends that Cooper probably died in his jump:

Perhaps Cooper didn’t survive his jump from the plane. After all, the parachute he used couldn’t be steered, his clothing and footwear were unsuitable for a rough landing, and he had jumped into a wooded area at night—a dangerous proposition for a seasoned pro, which evidence suggests Cooper was not.

In 1980, a boy found a package of nearly $6,000 worth of rotting $20 bills whose serial numbers matched the ransom money. The rest of the money, or any sign of Cooper, was not found anywhere nearby. But of course, they would want us to believe that Cooper was dead, and not that they’d let him slip away, right?

In 2011, news reports told of a new suspect, one who had gotten away with the crime but had been dead for 10 years. The FBI reportedly hoped to nab Cooper with the help of DNA evidence: saliva left on the Raleigh cigarette butts. The only problem was that the butts had gone missing, just another bizarre disappearance in the story.

The decision to close the case will come as a relief to some. “Flight attendants and the pilots are pretty sick of it,” Dietrich-Williams said. And then there are the agents themselves. “The most recent case agent was just a kid when he started on it. He was on it for 5 years,” she said. Evidence from the case will be stored for historical purposes at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

As for Cooper himself, his status remains the same as it was: literally vanished into thin air.