FBI Reopens Very Cold Case of D.B. Cooper

The FBI launches a new effort to crack a case from 1971, when hijacker D.B. Cooper parachuted from a Seattle-bound plane, after extorting $200,000. An FBI agent, who was only 4 when Cooper jumped, hopes new DNA evidence and tips from the public will track down the mystery man.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The FBI is resuming the search for D.B. Cooper, the hijacker who 36 years ago bailed out of a jetliner with $200,000 and was never seen again.

Now the FBI is trying something new, asking the public to help them find Cooper, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE: Most people would consider a 1971 skyjacking as a matter of ancient history.

(Soundbite of archived news)

Unidentified Man: When he got on a plane in Portland, Oregon last night, he was just another passenger. But today, after hijacking a Northwest Airlines jet, ransoming the passengers in Seattle and making a getaway by parachute. The description on one wire service - master criminal.

KASTE: Even the media frenzy that the case inspired back then now seems dated. The folk songs, the 1981 movie and all those unsolved mystery TV shows.

(Soundbite of archived TV show)

Mr. LEONARD NIMOY (Actor): This is Leonard Nimoy. Join me for a perfect crime as we go in search of D.B. Cooper.

KASTE: But as far as the FBI is concerned, the D.B. Cooper case is more than just a historical curiosity.

Mr. LARRY CARR (FBI Agent, Seattle): It was never closed. It's always been open. It's always had a case agent assigned to it.

KASTE: That agent is now Larry Carr based in Seattle. He's well aware that he's the second generation on this case.

Mr. CARR: It's quite surreal here. Growing up a kid in Indiana, hearing about the case and giving it some thought at that point in time, and being 41 now and the lead investigator on the case. It's a little weird.

KASTE: Carr says the hijacking is no longer a priority for the FBI. It's not even very high on his own list. All he really has time to do is to try to publicize the case again, but this time he wants to share more of what the FBI knows.

Mr. CARR: If we want the public's help, they have to have the right information, and the right information isn't what's been circulating.

KASTE: For example, Carr wants to dispel the image of D.B. Cooper as some kind of master skydiver. The FBI, long ago, concluded that Cooper was no expert. He made too many amateurish mistakes. Carr also hopes that the publicity might attract some volunteers.

Mr. CARR: Perhaps someone who has a specific skill or access to new technologies - they get interested in the case.

KASTE: One clue for them to go for them to go on is the portion of the ransom money that was found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980. Carr thinks a hydrologist might be able to track it upstream, back to its source, and maybe to Cooper's remains.

Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI agent first assigned to the case is delighted with Carr's efforts.

Mr. RALPH HIMMELSBACH (Former FBI Agent): Good for him. Good for - I don't know him, but I'm rooting for him.

KASTE: Himmelsbach investigated the case for eight years and had followed him into retirement. He believes Cooper died during the jump, but he'd like to know for sure, especially because D.B. Cooper now seems to become a kind of folk hero for some people.

Mr. HIMMELSBACH: They say I hope he got away with it, but I look at it differently. I think he was just simply a sleazy, rotten criminal who was middle-aged, and his life had gone nowhere and he thought what a good idea and he might give it a try.

KASTE: Himmelsbach may be right that many people would rather not find out what happened. Special agent Carr says he's already getting e-mails from people begging him not to solve the mystery of D.B. Cooper.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

INSKEEP: You can find a link to the FBI's web page about D.B. Cooper at npr.org.

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FBI Seeks Help in Solving Skyjacking Mystery

Sketches of the 1971 hijacking susptect known as Dan "D.B" Cooper.

Sketches of the 1971 hijacking suspect known as Dan "D.B." Cooper. The FBI is asking the public to help solve the case. Federal Bureau of Investigation hide caption

itoggle caption Federal Bureau of Investigation
Some of the extortion money was found by a boy walking near the Columbia River in 1980.

A boy found some of the extortion money while walking by the Columbia River near the Washington-Oregon border in 1980. Federal Bureau of Investigation hide caption

itoggle caption Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI is asking amateur detectives to help write the final chapter of a 36-year-old mystery.

Last month, the agency reopened the case of the airline hijacker known as Dan "D.B." Cooper, who bailed out of a Northwest Orient airplane with $200,000 in extortion money in 1971.

Cooper vanished after the jump, and his true identity has never been discovered. Now, the FBI is releasing sketches of the legendary hijacker, a map of the area where he could have landed and a handful of photos from the case. They've also unveiled a Web site dedicated to solving the crime.

"Help us solve the enduring mystery," the Web site entreats. "Who was Cooper? Did he survive the jump? And what happened to the loot, only a small part of which has ever surfaced?"

FBI agent Larry Carr said he hopes the clues will jog someone's memory.

"Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the $5,800 in ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream, or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle," he said on the FBI's posting.

The Fateful Day

The mystery unfolded the night before Thanksgiving in 1971 when a man calling himself Dan Cooper used cash to buy a one-way ticket to Seattle at the Northwest Orient Airlines (now Northwest) counter in Portland, Ore.

During the flight, Cooper handed the flight attendant a note saying he had a bomb in his briefcase and wanted $200,000 in $20 bills and four parachutes.

When the flight landed in Seattle, Cooper took the money and parachutes and let the 36 passengers go. He then directed the pilot to take him to Mexico City.

At about 8 p.m. — somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Nev. — Cooper went to the back of the plane and jumped into the pitch black night in the midst of a driving rainstorm. The plane landed safely, but no trace of Cooper was ever found.

Nine years later, 8-year-old Brian Ingram found $5,800 of the extortion money when he was vacationing with his family.

Ingram, who is now 36 and lives in Mena, Ark., said he found three bundles of deteriorated $20 bills while looking for firewood on the sandy banks of the Columbia River near the Washington-Oregon border.

Ingram said he got to keep only half of the money — the other half was turned over to Northwest's insurance carrier, which had paid the $200,000 extortion.

Most of the money has deteriorated into small pieces, but he still has 13 half-bills and nearly 20 that are still intact. Ingram said he wants to keep at least one of the bills for his family, offer one to a museum and auction off the rest. He said he thinks the bills could bring enough to put a child through college.

Photos of the tattered bills are posted on the FBI's Web site, and Carr is hoping they might provide a clue to Cooper's landing site — or his body.

Carr said most agents believe it's unlikely that Cooper survived the foul weather jump into such rugged, heavily forested country.

"Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open," Carr said.

Evidence on Web Site

Over the years, the legend of D.B. Cooper has grown, serving as fodder for countless news articles, a movie and ballads.

On Monday, the FBI decided to take another stab at solving the case. The bureau released drawings of Cooper that were made from the descriptions of two flight attendants and witnesses on the ground.

They all described a middle-aged man with brown eyes.

"The two flight attendants who spent the most time with him on the plane were interviewed separately the same night in separate cities and gave nearly identical descriptions," said Carr. "They both said he was about 5'10" to 6', 170 to 180 pounds, in his mid-40s, with brown eyes. People on the ground who came into contact with him also gave very similar descriptions."

Carr has included some observations on the Web site that might help would-be detectives who accept the FBI's challenge.

Agents now believe Cooper was not an experienced skydiver because he made the jump in street clothes on a dark, rainy night; and he is believed to have acted alone because he did not coordinate with the flight crew to fly over a particular drop zone.

Over the years, several people have thought they knew Cooper's identity or have claimed to be the hijacker. FBI officials said they have considered more than 800 suspects and processed thousands of pieces of information.

They even arrested Richard Floyd McCoy for a similar airplane hijacking and escape five months after Cooper's flight, but McCoy was ruled out as a suspect in the Flight 305 hijacking because he didn't match the physical description.

The most recent suspect — Kenneth Christiansen — was revealed in an Oct. 22 article in New York magazine.

According to the article, Christiansen's brother, Lyle Christiansen of Morris, Minn., took his suspicions to the FBI and Sherlock Investigations, a private detective agency in New York.

Kenneth Christiansen, who died of cancer in 1994, was a former employee of Northwest airlines. He also lived in Bonney Lake, Wash., and had trained as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army.

The FBI said Christiansen didn't match the physical description, however.

Other claims have also been discounted based on physical descriptions, parachuting experience and DNA recovered from the thin, black tie that Cooper removed before he jumped.

The FBI is asking that anyone with information e-mail the Seattle field office at fbise@leo.gov.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press

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