Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are attempting again to solve the 36-year-old mystery of a Northwest Orient Boeing 727 hijacking during which the perpetrator parachuted from the aircraft and vanished with $200,000 in stolen cash.
The FBI is renewing efforts to close the case, centred on Northwest flight 305 from Portland to Seattle on 24 November 1971, which erroneously immortalised the name ‘DB Cooper’ in the files of air piracy.
“We’ve run down thousands of leads and considered all sorts of scenarios,” says the FBI. “And amateur sleuths have put forward plenty of their own theories. Yet the case remains unsolved. Would we still like to get our man? Absolutely.”
FBI special agent Larry Carr has “reignited” the case in the hope that new technology, such as DNA forensics, can assist.
As the Boeing 727 left Portland a passenger calling himself Dan Cooper – later mistakenly labelled ‘DB Cooper’ after a press mix-up with another individual – claimed he had an explosive device and, after giving a flight attendant a glimpse of wires in his attaché case, demanded four parachutes and $200,000 in cash.
Thirty-six passengers were exchanged for the money and parachutes after the jet landed in Seattle, and the aircraft departed again with Cooper and a few crew members on board. He ordered the flight to head towards Mexico but at around 20:00, between Seattle and Reno, Cooper jumped from the 727’s rear air-stair.
While there were doubts Cooper could survive the night-time leap, in-depth investigation by an inquiry designated NORJAK failed to find any trace of Cooper – although nine years after the hijacking a boy discovered a damaged package containing $5,800 near a river outside Vancouver in Washington state. Serial numbers on the $20 bills matched those of the ransom money.
The FBI is releasing additional information on the crime. Special agent Carr says the bureau has DNA traces from Cooper’s clothing and a “solid physical description” of their suspect: “The two flight attendants who spent the most time with him on the aircraft were interviewed separately the same night in separate cities and gave nearly identical descriptions.”
He also believes that Cooper had no assistance from the ground and that the enormous risks he took with the jump show he was not an experienced sky-diver. “Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open,” says Carr.
Over 800 possible suspects – including Duane Weber, Kenneth Christiansen and Richard McCoy, all previously identified as strong candidates – were considered during the inquiry but none has stood up to FBI scrutiny.
After the hijacking a 727 modification was introduced to prevent the rear air-stair being opened during flight. The device became known as the ‘Cooper vane’. Cooper’s flying crime-scene was a 727 bearing serial number 18803, and registered N467US while at Northwest. It later operated as N838N with Piedmont Airlines.