MELISSA BLOCK, host: A long-unsolved crime may soon be explained - at least, that's what an FBI spokeswoman indicated this weekend, tantalizing reporters with new information about the skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper. In 1971, he hijacked an airliner over Washington state, demanded a $200,000 ransom, then jumped out of the plane with the loot and a parachute. He hasn't been seen since. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, the FBI now claims to have a promising new lead.

HOWARD BERKES: D.B. Cooper was an uncommon criminal, sticking it to the man - in the lingo of the times - by skyjacking an airliner full of people; claiming he had a bomb; and convincing the FBI to give him 10,000, $20 bills and four parachutes if he let the passengers go. The exchange was made when the plane reached Seattle, and it then took off for Mexico. Cooper jumped out over Ariel, Washington. Some of the money was found, wet and torn, but there's been no sign of Cooper. Dona Elliott runs the general store in Ariel.

DONA ELLIOTT: Let's see, I've been here 21 years and if I had been smart enough I should have started a book, taken pictures of D.B. Cooper could-bes, for look-a-like. And I'd say there's probably been at least 20 or more.

BERKES: The FBI had a thousand leads and some identifying evidence, including cigarette butts, fingerprints and saliva. So imagine the excitement in Cooper Country this weekend when an FBI spokeswoman told a reporter for the British paper The Telegraph that there's a fresh lead. She called it credible and promising. And it points to a new suspect never considered before. The spokeswoman did not provide details. Dona Elliott is skeptical because, as she puts it:

ELLIOTT: I mean, the government's pulled so many stinkies on us ,it could just be another one. I mean, they are - FBI's government.

BERKES: Well, there is someone who is taking a good-faith look at this new lead, and trying to find out as much as he can about it. Geoffrey Gray is about to publish "Skyjacker: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper," which follows three years of what Gray calls obsession with the case.

GEOFFREY GRAY: The forensic evidence that they have to use is incomplete. The fingerprints themselves are partial. The DNA strains that they have - and have retrieved from saliva found on the hijacker's clip-on tie - are also partial and may not even be the hijacker's.

BERKES: So Gray was not impressed when the FBI spokeswoman said agents have and are testing an item from their new suspect, and that the source of the item is a reliable law-enforcement colleague. Today, Special Agent Fred Gutt provided a few more details. The new suspect is dead, he says, so no one will be brought to justice, as he put it, if the new lead pans out. And the new evidence is fingerprints. Gutt acknowledges imperfections in the hijacker's prints. Agents at an FBI lab will still seek a match, but Gutt says the case is not a priority matter.

FRED GUTT: It'll happen but when, I don't know. You know, it'll certainly be below a current missing child case, a current terrorism investigation, and many other things.

BERKES: So it's not clear whether D.B. Cooper will be identified before the 40th anniversary of the skyjacking, on our next Thanksgiving eve. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "D.B. COOPER")

TODD SNIDER: (Singing) Now, some people say that he died up there, somewhere in the rain and the wind. Other people say that he got away but then his girlfriend did him in. The lawman say if he is out there, someday they're going to bring him in. As for me, I hope they never see D.B. Cooper again...

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