New HBO documentary examines 50 years of the D.B. Cooper mystery
Have you ever gotten so fed up with your life that you felt like bailing out—literally? The urge to disappear and start over with a new identity somewhere is one that touches many people even in relatively stable times, let alone moments of crisis like the one we’re living through now. So the release of John Dower’s new HBO documentary, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, on the day before Thanksgiving in this year of pandemic, unrest, and financial hardship is well timed.
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In these times, some of us can maybe understand, though certainly not approve or endorse, the impulses and goals imputed to the hijacker who used the alias Dan Cooper when buying a ticket for a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland to Seattle the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, extorted $200,000 and nabbed four parachutes, and, somewhere between Seattle and Reno, jumped out of the plane and into popular lore as the mystery man behind the only unsolved commercial airline hijacking in history.
The sheer audacity of the crime, and the mystery of Cooper’s identity, have assured the story a place in the popular mind and in the annals of American weirdness. It has obsessed people for half a century, spawned books and movies of variable quality, and given rise to innumerable tips over the years, from credible leads to deathbed not-quite-confessions (“There’s something I’ve never told you … [gasp! croak!]”) to the most bogus and frivolous reports: “My neighbor’s a little weird. I think he’s D.B. Cooper!” There are people who know for a fact that Cooper didn’t survive the jump and people who’d bet their lives that he did. I have followed the case with interest and have written a short story imagining the hijacking’s aftermath from the point of view of three young men on the ground.
The story is literally incredible. We still don’t know who Cooper was or exactly what his motives were, and the idea that he was fed up with his life and wanted to start over somewhere is, of course, guesswork. It’s one possibility among many. He may have wanted to go back to the life that he led, $200,000 richer. (That’s about $1.2 million in today’s currency.) Even half a century later, even after countless painstaking searches through the physical, forensic, documentary, behavioral, circumstantial, and witness evidence by thousands of professional and amateur sleuths, we still don’t know who the man was or what happened to him.
It’s possible that the obsessive hunt over the past fifty years has been for a man whose life ended that day in November 1971. Cooper leapt from the aft stairs of the Boeing 727 into two-hundred-mile-an-hour winds, over the Pacific Northwest wilderness in the late fall, wearing a business suit, a raincoat, and a pair of loafers. Though he appears to have meticulously planned other aspects of the heist, he inexplicably chose the least reliable of the four parachutes, a training chute.
But, the die-hard Cooper hunters are quick to respond, what happened to the chute? Even if Cooper didn’t survive and wild animals came and ate him, as some posit, we would eventually have found the chute or pieces of it. (In 1980, an eight-year-old boy did find a small amount of the ransom money, about $3,000, on the banks of a river near the Oregon border.) Whoever Cooper was, he must have had friends and family somewhere, and nobody filed a missing person report or contacted the FBI about the disappearance of anyone matching Cooper’s profile.
That latter point bolsters the theory that he did not, in fact, vanish and start over somewhere else, but went back to his life with the ransom money or what portion of it didn’t get sucked away by the winds. As the new documentary notes, the authorities deliberately put the cash in a bag that was hard to seal and unlikely to hold all the bills securely while poised on the aft stairs of a plane hurtling through the night or plummeting to the earth amid the ferocious winds.
The theory that Cooper extorted the cash in order to move ahead, on better terms, with the life he was leading is one of four possibilities Dower seriously considers in The Mystery of D.B. Cooper. This theory is in keeping with the notion that D.B. Cooper was Richard Floyd McCoy, a Vietnam vet and career criminal who committed a similar hijacking in April 1972, sometimes called a “copycat” crime, but that term seems apt only if McCoy was not Cooper.
Unlike some of the other suspects considered in this documentary, McCoy’s criminal and sociopathic traits are not in doubt. Apart from the hijacking, he had a record of bank robbery and jail breaks and died in a gun battle with FBI agents in Virginia Beach in November 1974. Dower amasses interesting facts, including records of a phone call made from Las Vegas to McCoy’s wife in Utah soon after the hijacking. This appears to prove that McCoy was not home when the hijacking occurred, but in a locale not far outside the Boeing’s flight path or far from Cooper’s jumping-off point. The casinos of Vegas offered easy means for him to launder the cash. But McCoy denied being Cooper, and the evidence here is admittedly circumstantial. McCoy’s widow took successful legal action against the publishers of the 1991 book D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy.
Another possibility Dower explores is that Cooper was Duane Weber, whose widow, Jo Weber, claims he blurted out his real identity to her on his deathbed in 1995. She insists with fervor that she knows her husband was Cooper, but to my mind this is one of the weaker theories presented in the film. It relies largely on a confession no one can independently verify and on circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that Duane bought cars with cash soon after the hijacking, the discovery among his personal effects of a copy of Soldier of Fortune featuring an image of a parachutist, and a bizarre claim he allegedly made (again, impossible to confirm) to have tossed a sack of money into a river at a spot upstream from the 1980 find.
But this case obsesses people, feelings run strong, and changing the views of someone who may feel enlarged or elevated by a connection to the mystery is easier said than done. When Dower asks whether she knows Duane’s real identity, Jo nearly yells at him, “I know it with all my heart and all my soul. Do you think I would have given up twenty-three years of my life if I didn’t believe it with all my heart and soul?”
Another of the suspects is one Barbara Dayton, born Robert Dayton, the first known transgender person in Washington State, who had a penchant for flying and who gave a lengthy confession to a couple, Ron and Pat Forman, who live not far from where the crime happened. Dower extensively interviews the couple, who claim to have met Dayton near the airport at Thun Field, where Dayton reportedly practiced flying a small plane on weekends.
Ron mentioned to Dayton that he’d just gotten his pilot’s license. Conversations with Dayton blossomed into a friendship, and one Sunday night, when Dayton came over to have dinner at the Formans’, Pat noticed that Dayton still had some residual male features, and they got into a deep conversation about the guest’s past. Ron reportedly commented on a likeness to the well-known composite sketch of D.B. Cooper. In the course of dinner with the Formans and another young couple another evening, Dayton reportedly said, “Okay. I am Dan Cooper.” One of the guests freaked out and began to scream that they would all go to jail. Pat says she wondered whether Dayton would now have to kill them all.
To be sure, this makes for a good story. But by the Formans’ own admission, people in the area discussed the case constantly. It’s not hard to imagine someone saying a thing like this after a few glasses of wine, the same way you might say, “I am Elvis” or “I killed JFK” to get a rise out of people. Dower might have asked the Formans just how significant or relevant Dayton’s interest in flying really is here, given that Cooper’s crime did not at any point involve flying. Dayton later allegedly provided a detailed account to the Formans of how she carried out the hijacking and got away, but Dower doesn’t make clear why we should take Dayton’s confession more seriously than any number of others out there.
The fourth suspect on which Dower trains his lens is L.D. Cooper, whose niece, Marla Cooper, came out and told an ABC News interviewer with total confidence that she knew her uncle to be the hijacker. She tells Dower about her childhood interactions, or lack thereof, with her shadowy and elusive relative. “The last time I saw Uncle L.D. was Christmas, the year after the hijacking,” Marla says. “Every year at Christmas, and Thanksgiving, I would say where is L.D.? Has anybody ever heard from L.D.? And nobody ever did.”
In 1995, Marla asked her father what he thought happened to L.D., and the father gave a vague answer. “I think he’s still alive, but I think he’s hiding … from the CIA and the FBI.” When Marla asked why L.D. would be hiding, her father reportedly said, “Don’t you remember? He hijacked that airplane.”
If you think that’s a weak basis for identifying the hijacker, you’re right. It seems literally incredible that Cooper would have bought a ticket on the Northwest Orient flight using his real surname. Her uncle’s disappearance from her life, and remarks from the late father that may or may not have been serious, are close to the only basis on which Marla tells Dower that she knows her uncle was the hijacker. Again, there isn’t much here that anyone can independently verify. The urge to draw attention, and the possibly lucrative deals that may come with it, are understandable, but Dower has set the evidentiary bar low by including this account in his documentary. Again, he fails to explain why he chose this over hundreds of other reports and leads and red herrings that have cropped up.
But if the millions of amateur sleuths who have taken an interest in this case over the years have decided views, just think of what it has come to mean to those who feel entitled to a place at the center of it. Near the end of his documentary, Dower poses the same question to each of the witnesses he has interviewed, and they all affirm, not that they believe, but that they know the person they’ve singled out was D.B. Cooper. The viewer may wonder whether challenging them on this point might lead to a fistfight. In a sense, it seems Cooper is family for them.
An Uneven Work
Dower’s documentary is fast-paced and entertaining, and he goes further than many past treatments of the case. To this reviewer’s knowledge, Tina Mucklow, the stewardess who sat next to Cooper on the Boeing and had the most interactions with him of anyone in the course of the incident, has never spoken one-on-one to an interviewer until now. Mucklow is likable and believable, and her account of breaking down in tears when she and the pilots finally got off the plane alive is moving. Dower also gets intriguing commentary out of co-pilot Bill Rataczak, who relates his reluctance to lie to passengers about why the plane veered off course. (I’ll be a little more skeptical the next time I hear a pilot say we’re going into a holding pattern because of air traffic or some such ruse.)
Given the thousands of leads, maybe it’s not possible for an hour-and-a-half documentary to be even close to exhaustive, but a number of facts go unmentioned. The viewer would never know that the hijacker never actually used the alias “D.B. Cooper,” and that this moniker entered popular lore after a reporter mistakenly thought that the name of an Oregon man whom the police briefly questioned and ruled out as a suspect was the name of the hijacker. Some wonder whether the perpetrator was Canadian, given that he spoke English with no regional American accent and that the alias he did use, Dan Cooper, was the name of a parachutist in a Belgian comic book not sold in the U.S. but available in Canada.
At no point does anyone in the film mention Robert Rackstraw, a criminal and former helicopter pilot who died last year of a heart condition and whom many have long suspected. To be fair, eyewitnesses described the hijacker as a man in his mid-forties, and Rackstraw was twenty-eight at the time of the incident. Dower may have ruled him out on that basis alone.
The most interesting commentary comes near the end of the film, and opens an avenue one wishes Dower pursued. Bruce Smith, a longtime Cooper sleuth and author of D.B. Cooper and the FBI, grants Dower a lengthy interview from the cabin in the Pacific Northwest woods where he wrote his book. When asked about the public’s fascination with the case over the decades, Smith opines, “I think Cooper speaks to something bigger and deeper in more people…people who think, I’m just not tough enough, I’m just not rich enough, and I just don’t have enough opportunities, and if I had a little bit more of something, I’d have a better life. But Cooper figured it out…and he got away with it. I want to be a Cooper.”
For future writers and documentarians, here’s an avenue worth pursuing. The well-known composite sketch of Dan Cooper presents, in a sense, a composite of middle-class American males in an age of severely constricted personal liberties and self-worth. Cooper was a dangerous criminal, not a sympathetic Robin Hood, but what gives his case such disturbing fascination for so many people fifty years later is that he’s a recognizable type of lunatic. He’s someone we all know.