Forty years ago, a man known only as D.B. Cooper boarded a flight in Portland, ordered a bourbon and soda, lit a cigarette, handed a note to a stewardess announcing a hijacking, and -- after a refuelling stop in Seattle where he exchanged 36 hostages for $200,000 and 4 parachutes -- leapt out the back of the plane’s open rear stairs somewhere over southwest Washington state, never to be heard from again. It remains the only unsolved hijacking is US History.
Cooper, if his bones aren’t rotting somewhere deep in the forest, may have joined the ranks of those few who have committed perfect crimes. Membership requirements include being really smart, with bonus points for not being an asshole, which D.B. seems to have covered: he asked for 4 parachutes, in order to create the impression that he was jumping along with his 3 remaining hostages, making it impossible for the authorities to sabotage any of them; a flight attendant onboard described him as “rather nice,” and he insisted on tipping when paying for his post-hijacking bourbon. This last point, in particular, gives the story much of its nostalgic glow -- in an era where plane hijackings conjure horror, and the allure of air travel is racing towards its well-publicized nadir, there’s something comforting about this story: Wow, you think, even the hijackings were better back then.
The case still is officially open and over 1000 suspects have been considered, but the only physical evidence ever recovered was just under $6000 in cash disintegrating on the banks of a river in 1980, instructions from the plane on how to lower its back stairs 2 years earlier, and a clip-on tie left aboard the aircraft (ruining, unfortunately, the image of a man in a suit and tie freefalling into the black night.) The latest hat to be thrown in the ring, suspect-wise, is Lynn Doyle Cooper (known in his family as L.D.), courtesy of his niece Marla, who went to the FBI earlier this year. Her story, repeated in media outlets everywhere in early August, is that as an 8 year old girl she saw her two uncles – L.D. and brother Dewey -- leave to go “turkey hunting” before the hijacking, return bloodied and lacking in explanations, and heard a lot of hushed talk about lost money in the woods. Her uncles, she was told, had done something terrible -- L.D. disappeared soon afterwards. Years later her father told her on his deathbed that she has to write a book about L.D.: “Don’t you remember Marla? He hijacked that airplane.”
It’s not an incredibly believable story, and when I spoke with Marla Cooper recently I didn’t hear much that made it any more so, but for the questions I was thinking about it didn’t really matter. Why, I wanted to know, would you turn in a family member who committed a highly illegal act that is punishable as hell, and will probably land your entire extended family on a no fly list forever? “I figured he was probably dead,” she said , “or if he is alive, I doubt they’re going to sentence him.” Regardless, she expressed no concern for sullying the family name. “He could be a legacy to his kids,” she said. “Obviously we’re in a capitalist society, and this is a story that people have obsessed about for 40 years.” She’s right: who wouldn’t want a James Bond type in their extended family, especially if it can be turned into money on the book and talk show circuit? New York writer Geoffrey Gray, who just published Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper, dismisses claims like Marla Cooper’s, telling NPR “the story of Cooper really is the story of people coming forward, claiming that they heard a long lost uncle say something” -- though I don’t know how much we should blame these people when an FBI agent named Larry Carr suggested in 2007 that the case might be solved by “someone remember[ing] that odd uncle.”
If you ask me, it’s more like the story of D.B. Cooper is the story of people wanting to believe in something awesome. Part of your brain is telling you no – saying “he leapt out of a plane at 10,000 feet into a storm, and none of the money was ever spent: he’s gotta be dead” – while a more fun part is thinking just how fucking slick it is that he had that second bourbon, and wondering how expensive the suits were that he spent his loot on. You’ll be hard pressed to find negative opinions of D.B. Cooper, which is pretty amazing considering he did, remember, hijack an airplane in order to personally enrich himself. Ms. Cooper sighed when I asked what her uncle L.D. was like: “he was sweet, sweet man,” she said, “harmless.” She disagreed adamantly at my suggestion that he was perhaps a bad, criminal type.
And so can you blame Marla Cooper for believing that her uncle is the famed hijacker? Because after chatting with her for almost an hour I became convinced that she does believe L.D. is D.B., and that, despite the potential money to be made from the story, she is no scam artist. Imagine the scenario: your father is on his deathbed and tells you your uncle is the famous D.B. Cooper hijacker. You’re from the area where it happened, you remember people being weird when it happened, and your uncle L.D. disappears soon afterwards. And you think: your father isn’t an asshole, isn’t making things up to send you on wild goose chases, so even if you don’t believe it you start to wonder why he did. Next thing you know you’re on the phone with the FBI.
I believe D.B. Cooper made it. I believe he was too dashing to be poor, and too interesting to work for his money. I believe he dipped and kissed one of the stewardesses, like that famous LIFE magazine photo at the end of the war, before leaping out the back of that plane. And I believe he spent his remaining years travelling the world over, smiling to himself whenever he told people he was the famous hijacker and they assumed he was joking. Or at least: I want to believe that. But really, I think that 40 years ago a guy was desperate and had what he thought was a good idea, and died somewhere over the Pacific Northwest while no doubt reconsidering it. In any case, drink a toast to D.B. Cooper – the savviest hijacker there ever was. Or at least think of him the next time your bags are searched at the airport.