Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

DB Cooper: The Legendary Daredevil

A Mystery

Sketch of DB Cooper
Sketch of DB Cooper

The particulars of D.B. Cooper's clever airborne crime and daredevil getaway have been pondered, picked over and recapitulated for three decades now.

In 1971, D.B. Cooper hijacked and threatened to blow up an airliner, extorted $200,000 from its owner, Northwest Orient, then leaped from the airborne 727 with 21 pounds of $20 bills strapped to his torso.

He was never seen again—dead or alive. The crime was perfect if he lived, perfectly crazy if he didn't.

In either case, D.B. Cooper's nom de crime—no one knows his real name—may be the most recognized alias among western felons since Jack the Ripper.

Everyone from dour G-men to giddy amateur sleuths have pored over the details, hoping to wheedle a resolution out of some overlooked aspect, as though a clue concealed in the holdup's hieroglyph of facts might lead to an a-ha!, a la Inspector Clouseau.

Yet the case remains unsolved more than 30 years later, and D. B. Cooper has become the Bigfoot of crime, evading one of the most extensive and expensive American manhunts of the 20th century. The whereabouts of the man (or his remains) is one of the great crime mysteries of our time.

Of course, the annals of wrongdoing are stuffed with titillating unsolved cases, from London's notorious ripper in the 1880s to the Black Dahlia murder of an aspiring actress in Los Angeles in 1947 to the befuddling murder—and muddled investigation—of little Jon Benet Ramsey in 1997 in Boulder, Colo.

But D.B. Cooper's crime was different. First, no innocent bystander was injured, although law enforcers argue that he put several dozen lives at risk.

There was modest collateral damage to Northwest Orient's bottom line, and the FBI's swollen ego was bruised to the bone. Cooper pulled his buccaneering swipe in the twilight of the 47-year tenure of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who died not long after the hijacking. The director no doubt went to his grave with teeth gritted over his agency's inability, in this case, to get their man.

Cooper's crime also was unusual in that it helped rally critical support for sweeping air travel security initiatives, including passenger screening. Until D. B. Cooper's skydive, it was entirely possible to walk aboard a jet carrying a bomb.

Most law-abiders react with revulsion to violent criminals, with disgust to extortionists, and with a tsk-tsk to the preponderate larcenies that fill crime blotters in police stations across America.

Yet Cooper induced more smiles than frowns.

Hijackings became more violent and less palatable as the 1970s wore on, and the destruction of September 11, 2001, makes any such act seem evil.

But D. B. Cooper's crime was of its time, the early 1970s, when antisocial behavior had cache. Many Americans commended his moxie. He was celebrated in a song, film and books. He managed to tweak J. Edgar Hoover's nose and finagle a bag of loot from a big corporation. He was Robin Hood for tie-dyed longhairs—and not a few wearers of more traditional attire.

But did D. B. Cooper get away with it? No one can say for certain. We do know that he could have survived the dangerous nighttime skydive because Cooper's caper, like a crime science experiment, was replicated with complete success by a copycat aerial clip artist just months later. That hijacker hit the ground safely, although the mimic ultimately paid dearly. The copycat case also spawned a controversial theory about the fate of Dan Cooper.

Coincidentally, Cooper himself probably copied a similar hijacking that occurred two weeks before his endeavor.

Many others have tried variations on the airline extortion technique—generally with less success. Some have "splattered," as law enforcers like to say. FBI investigators believe Cooper probably met that fate—a fatal kiss of the ground. But their opinion is far from unanimous.

Books by a half-dozen authors, including three separate tomes by ex-FBI agents, have posited theories—some serious, some spurious—about what happened to Cooper. Several men have stepped forward claiming to be Cooper, although none convincingly so. Some believe Cooper is alive and well and living on a beach in Mexico. Others say he slipped back into an obscure American life and grins like a Cheshire cat at premature reports of his demise.


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