• Graveyard Shift

The Fascinating Case Of D. B. Cooper, A Mystery Man Who Vanished After Hijacking A Plane

One of the most bizarre incidents of the 20th century still remains unsolved: the D. B. Cooper mystery. In the early '70s, a man calling himself Dan Cooper purchased a one-way airline ticket from Portland to Seattle. What transpired after the plane took flight is the stuff of legend. Straight out of a Hollywood movie plot, Cooper carried out a plan involving hijacking, taking money, and jumping via parachute at 10,000 feet. He was never heard from again, joining the ranks of people who mysteriously disappeared .

While the basic facts of the case remain clear, the subsequent investigation drew in thousands of tips, none generating concrete answers. Over 45 years, the FBI "exhaustively reviewed all credible leads, coordinated between multiple field offices to conduct searches, collected all available evidence, and interviewed all identified witnesses," agents wrote in a 2016 statement.

Despite all these efforts, no one was ever charged with the offense. Who is D. B. Cooper? What happened to all the money he demanded? Will the person who put 40 other lives at risk ever be brought to justice? 

  • Photo: US Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Was Never Heard From Again, And No Remains Were Ever Found

    Authorities searched the woods in Washington state where Cooper would have likely landed, but no trace of him was found. While the case remained active, many experts hypothesized Cooper did not survive the fall. Journalist Bill Cooper, who interviewed multiple agents involved with the case, thinks Cooper was not prepared for the jump: "It was below zero air temperature and D. B. Cooper would have hit the air, and the air was 170 knots - it would’ve been like slamming into a brick wall."

    Special agent Larry Carr thinks Cooper wouldn't have been able to get the parachute open, as he told journalists decades after the incident occurred:

    Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky.

  • Photo: US Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1980, A Boy Discovered Some Of The Money In A Rotting Package

    Despite mounting evidence Cooper may have perished during his escape from the plane, the FBI decided to keep the case open. Nine years after the incident in 1980, an 8-year-old boy discovered $5,800 on the north bank of the Columbia River. The cash was in a rotted package, and it matched the serial numbers of the ransom money demanded by Cooper.

    While this was a major discovery for investigators, it did not lead to any breakthroughs, and no additional cash was found. With inflation, the amount of money Cooper absconded with - $200,000 - would equate to well over one million dollars in the present.

  • Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Suspect Richard Floyd McCoy Carried Out A Similar Scheme Only Five Months After Cooper

    On April 7, 1972, United Airlines Flight 855 was en route to Los Angeles from Newark, NJ, when a passenger who boarded the plane at a stopover in Denver, CO, was seen holding a hand grenade in his seat. The man, when approached by a crew member, threatened the person and handed over detailed "hijacking instructions." He demanded $500,000 and four parachutes, which he received after the plane, another Boeing 727, landed in San Francisco instead of Los Angeles.

    In a plan nearly identical to the one rolled out by D. B. Cooper five months earlier, the passengers were evacuated from the plane while the crew remained on board. The pilot was instructed to fly east, and the man parachuted out of the plane over Utah, disappearing in the dark April night.

    The hijacker was Richard Floyd McCoy, a resident of Provo, UT, who was detained only a few days later at his home. McCoy was sentenced to 45 years in prison, and after escaping a Pennsylvania detention center in 1974, was slain by authorities. While there are many similarities between his case and Cooper's, McCoy was ultimately ruled out as a suspect in the 1971 incident because he did not match the description of Cooper provided by multiple witnesses. McCoy was just a copycat.

  • Photo: The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper / Universal Pictures

    Cooper’s Identity And Whereabouts Captured Media Attention, Inspiring Many Movies, TV Shows, And Songs

    In the decade after the hijacking, songs and T-shirts about D. B. Cooper were made. Ariel, the Washington state community where it's suspected Cooper landed, has held annual D. B. Cooper festivals and established its own tourism industry based solely on the hijacker.

    Hollywood has also attempted to capitalize on the Cooper legend. The 1980 book Free Fall was adapted to film the next year, renamed The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper and starring Treat Williams. Other films and books have come along. Cooper's story was a central plot point in the 2004 film Without a Paddle. Musicians like Todd Snider and Chuck Brodsky have released songs about the man.

    While some of these films and songs treat Cooper like a hero, the FBI agents involved in the case have never seen his wrongdoing as noble or valiant. In fact, lead FBI investigator Ralph Himmelsbach described Cooper as "sleazy" in a 1980 interview :

    A sleazy, rotten [crook]. Nothing heroic about him, nothing glamorous, nothing admirable at all. He jeopardized the lives of 40 people and I have no admiration at all. He was a stupid selfish man.