Finding D.B. Cooper Part 2 — The First Clues

As we approach the 44th anniversary of the most famous skyjacking, November 24, 1971, let’s begin to take more in depth looks at the audacious case of D.B. Cooper.

“Dan Cooper” with and without his wrap around sunglasses. It was the nation’s first skyjacking purely for greed. The FBI wanted “Cooper” bad, but couldn’t find a clue as to his identity.

During the Korea War Operation Jilli gave us much data on how leaflets fall to earth, their drift in the wind and their spread on the ground, based on paper weight, the cut and the size. Dropping leaflets was quite common, and many of the psyops had to drop them from a distance and use wind drift to hit their targets. It became quite a science.

In 1978 a thin plastic paper placard was found in the woods about 13 miles east of the small Washington town of Castle Rock. The hunter, Carroll Hicks, realized it was a warning placard from the inside of a door to an airliner. He turned it in. Amazingly, it could be traced. It had, in fact, been the placard on inside of the rear door of the 727 that D.B. Cooper had skyjacked in 1971. When he lowered the aft stairs, the suction must have sucked it out and ripped the placard from the opened door.

When this thin bit of plastic paper was found it should have revamped everything the FBI had thought about D.B. Cooper and his escape from that Boeing 727.

The placard.
The placard.

When Cooper opened up the back emergency door a light came on in the jetliner’s cockpit (About 8 p.m.). The crew, huddled in there on their skyjacker’s order, knew he had opened the back emergency exit door. Fifteen minutes or so later the aircraft’s nose dropped. This told them that the rear staircase— unique to the Boeing 727— was lowered. (Further tests by the FBI suggested that the airplane actually made a curtsy because the stairs, already lowered, sprang back up.)

The deduction was made that their rogue skyjacker and his 200K ransom money jumped from the airliner. Nevertheless, per D.B. Cooper’s orders the crew remained cringed in the cockpit even after they were sure he was gone. They flew all the way to Reno, Nevada, like that, where they landed according to their earlier agreement with their abductor in order to refuel. There, of course, they discovered what they had suspected. He was gone. Had it not been for the airliner genuflecting, no one would know where to begin to calculate D.B. Cooper’s drop zone.

The crew.
The crew.

Using this, law enforcement and the FBI searched where Captain Scott, the pilot, thought they had been flying. He estimated near Ariel, Washington, by the Merwin Dam of Lake Merwin. Logical enough on Cooper’s part to pick this area. The lights of the dam would make a perfect geographic marker for his drop zone. He clearly knew the route, so it is safe to assume he knew of the dam’s lights and that they would make a perfect landmark at night.

The crew’s deduction that Cooper had jumped when the plane genuflected became central to every search for the adventurous “Jesse James of the Jet Age.” But no trace was ever found in the woods. No red parachute, no body, no parachute pack. No money. No shredded clothes. Nothing. Nothing to indicate D.B. Cooper died or survived . . . Not even the briefcase. Copper could hardly have held on to that on the way down. Why was that too not found? Whether he lived or splattered, that briefcase should still be out there.

The case has remained on the books, and D.B. Cooper is a popular culture icon of daring and mystery. Who was he? What happened? The public has preferred to believe that Cooper survived. If so, why was none of the money ever spent? (The FBI had photographed the bills first and had the serial numbers of each.) “Splattered” was the FBI’s theory. This means that Cooper never got his parachute open. He hit like a rock. This would explain seeing no red parachute or anything else. It was a dark, stormy night, and the rains may have covered what remained of the body. Yet this placard, of all things, was still findable years later.

Because of all the contradictions, the case of D.B. Cooper remains quite open. His daredevil skyjacking is probably the most famous cold case outside of a serial murder spree.pursuit_of_d_b_cooper

The searchers weren’t being negligent in their search, but were they looking in the right place?

Let’s look at this:

Critical Factor—    Astoria, west of Castle Rock, was clocking the winds as gusting up to 45 mph. A storm was clearly unleashing itself over Washington State. The Boeing 727 was at 10,000 feet.

Rewind— When D.B. Cooper lowered those aft stairs the seal on that aircraft was broken. That placard, affixed to the rear emergency door, was ripped from its place by the initial suction and pulled out. It then drifted down.

Relevant Fact— The placard was found about 13 miles east of Castle Rock. This is  commensurate with the strong winds from the west. Its rate of fall would usually be around 2.5 feet per second. Put all the calculations together and it would drop about 9000 feet in an hour. Add the heavier weather, barometric pressure, and the intermittent downpour, and the rate of decent is doubled. Thus the placard could have been found as much as 22 miles or more east of where it dropped from the Boeing 727.

Deduction— Because Castle Rock was only 13 miles west from where the placard was found, the jetliner had to have been flying west of Castle Rock on its Victor 23 route to Portland, Oregon, to the south.

Thus those aft stairs were lowered about 30 miles northwest of the Ariel, Washington, area— much further north and west of where Captain Scott, the pilot of the airliner, had first thought. Indeed, Scott later came to this conclusion himself. He later said he believed they were further west than originally estimated. Obviously, this was correct.

If the interpretation of the genuflecting is correct, then it is also obvious that “Dan Cooper” waited about 15 minutes to jump. At the airliner’s speed it should have gone about 50 miles south. But if it was further west than it was estimated, where did Dan Cooper end up? Was he on the west side of the Columbia River around Deer Park or on the eastern side near Woodland? After searching failed around Ariel, the Feds thought more in terms of Woodland.

In attempting to bolster the theory that Cooper jumped near Aerial, it has been said that the lights of Merwin Dam would have been used as his guide.
In attempting to bolster the theory that Cooper jumped near Ariel, it has been said that the lights of Merwin Dam would have been used as his guide.

But nothing has ever been found around Woodland either. The very fact that the paper exit warning placard could still be found, even 7 years later, indicates by now (44 years later) that D.B. Cooper’s remains, or more likely those of his red parachute, should have been found by some hunter by now. But they haven’t.

Despite how impenetrable the forests are around here, the valleys and river areas are not. Now, in light of this a later discovery can be interpreted more than one way. Some of the money was found. In 1980, $5,800 dollars of the ill-gotten ransom money was found, having been washed ashore on a bank of the Columbia River known as Tina Bar. This is just north of Caterpillar Island. Caterpillar Island in turn is just north of Portland, Oregon, from whence Dan Cooper had taken off to begin his daring crime.

The search at Tina Bar.
The search at Tina Bar.

The first interpretation: The Feds, particularly the lead investigator, Ralph Himmelsbach, speculated that the villainous Cooper had drifted with the strong wind, and Himmelsbach in particular believed that Cooper splattered in the Washougal Valley and that with time some of the money was dislodged and drifted down the Washougal River and into the Columbia River, drifted through Portland and eventually was deposited on Tina Bar just north of the metropolis.

Himmelsbach’s theory is radical in light of the belated theory undersigned by Captain Scott, the pilot, when he expressed his belief that they had actually been flying much further west of Ariel around Woodland when D.B. Cooper jumped. This struck everybody at the time as probable since nothing was found around Lake Merwin. However, the location of the money obviously dashes to pieces Scott’s theory. The money could not have flowed up river. Caterpillar Island is south of Woodland. Yet does the money’s location really support Himmelsbach’s radically opposite view?  It would if it was not for the winds.

Ralph Himmelsbach had a cripplingly negative view of Cooper's abilities. He also made terrible mistakes in computing wind drift.
Ralph Himmelsbach had a cripplingly negative view of Cooper’s abilities. He also made terrible mistakes in computing wind drift.

The problem and the solution is the placard. The wind drift and rate of descent confirmed Captain Scott’s suspicion they were further west than estimated. D.B. Cooper could not have drifted from an area northwest of Portland (around Woodland, Washington) to the Washougal over 25 miles to the southeast. The estimated drift and descent of a man Cooper’s estimated weight (180 pounds) is known and it is not even 9 miles from 10,000 feet. And with the winds prevailing the drift of a parachutist from where they estimated he jumped should have been east not southeast.

The first arrow at top of map indicates Wopodland where it ws later thought probable that Cooper jumped. Star marks Caterpillar Island. Second arrow marks the Washougal.
The first arrow at top of map indicates Woodland where it was later thought probable that Cooper jumped. Star marks Caterpillar Island. Second arrow marks the Washougal.

Moreover, the Washougal, like all river valleys, is hardly impenetrable. If Cooper splattered near this area, near enough that some of the money was eventually washed into the Washougal River, then his remains or those of his clothes or parachute should have been found by now.

The money and the placard are our only tangible clues. They give us the second interpretation. Put together they tell us that Cooper survived. But there are other clues. Of the 3 bundles found, still secured in their rubber bands, one bundle was shy ten 20 dollar bills— 200 bucks. How could that be? But even these clues lead to more clues that give us some insight about how long D.B. Cooper was actually in the woods.

We will pursue this in the next D.B. Cooper post.

Finding D.B. Cooper

It has been my experience that even an average mind that obsesses on one thing is going to do fairly well at it. The most successful criminals (i.e. those whose crime sprees were daring and complex but they were never caught) have left enough clues to reveal to what extent they had planned, pre-planned, and worked out their crime. They need not be geniuses. Some have great ingenuity, but “ingenuity is a poor substitute for intelligence,” as Demetrios told Mr. Van Leyden.

D.B. Cooper fits into this mold perfectly. The “Jesse James of the Jet Age,” as he has been romanticized, planned and pre-planned his daredevil skyjacking and escape. Those who follow true crime and cold cases know of whom I speak. What is his real name? No one knows, but his alias of Dan Cooper or D.B. Cooper is good enough.

He gave the name Dan Cooper to the ticket agent.
He gave the name Dan Cooper to the ticket agent.

This mysterious middle-aged, slender man, in dark suit, overcoat, and carrying a brief case, bought a ticket on Thanksgiving Eve (November 24) 1971 in Portland, Oregon, for a short trip to Seattle, Washington. With lots of details omitted right now because there is no need to be redundant to all that has been published, let’s just say that he ended up pulling off the extortion crime of the century. Nearing Seattle he told the waitress he had a bomb in the briefcase and used that threat to make the airliner’s owners fork out 200K. After they landed at Seattle, he demanded that they bring 2 pairs of parachutes and also refuel the jetliner. He finally released the passengers but kept the crew aboard. He told the pilots they were going to take him to Mexico, so he could escape.

After all this was done, the jetliner took off, with only a slim crew and D.B. Cooper smoking his Raleigh cigarettes.

The parachutes were a dead giveaway, of course, that he had always intended to jump and not head to Mexico. Everything he ordered them to do underscored this– and they obeyed his orders precisely. They flew at 10,000 feet altitude. They kept the flaps lowered by 15 degrees and kept the airspeed under 200 mph. D.B. Cooper clearly  knew the aircraft, the Boeing 727. This was evident in that no one can parachute out of a jetliner’s side door. He needed an aircraft with a rear exit door. The Boeing 727 was the one airliner that had a rear door and a staircase that lowered.

News photo of the airliner at Seattle's airport.
News photo of the airliner at Seattle’s airport.

In addition, D.B. Cooper also knew the route. He had even recognized Tacoma from the air before they had landed in Seattle. They also now headed back the same way to Portland, though Copper had made it sound as if the route wasn’t important. At that altitude, however, it was the only route they could take, and Cooper no doubt knew this.

But “Dan Cooper” made a curious mistake before they took off. He had insisted that the 727 takeoff with the rear door open and the staircase deployed. The airline objected. The airliner angles up on takeoff and that staircase is going to be crunched up. He relented and said he would open it in the air himself. He did indeed know that type of aircraft. Not even the stewardess knew the stairs could be lowered in-flight.

Why was Dan Cooper insistent on taking off like this? The only explanation is that he didn’t want his drop zone to be known with any precision. He knew what would happen when the door was opened. And so it did. Around 8 p.m. a light came on in the cockpit telling the crew the rear door was opened. About 15 minutes later the aircraft genuflected, that is, the nose dipped and the tail rose and then compensated, both indications the staircase had sprung up and lowered again, indicating someone had jumped from the stairs. The crew, huddled in the cockpit on his orders, deduced that Dan Cooper, their villainous skyjacker, had jumped.

The 727 with its rear stairway lowered upon arrival at Portland.
The 727 with its rear stairway lowered upon arrival at Portland.

The pilot estimated they were near Ariel, Washington, by the Merwin Dam, when D.B. Cooper bailed. Yet a huge search found no trace of “Dan Cooper,” his bright red parachute, or the briefcase. And until 1980 none of the money. A few bundles were discovered at Tina Bar on the Columbia River by Caterpillar Island. How did they get there? It’s nowhere near the estimated jump zone. Nor could winds have caused Dan Cooper to drift toward this area.

Much mystery surrounds this, the greatest and most romanticized skyjacking in history. Of all that I investigate, only a couple of topics do not have tragedy. This always puts them at the top of my favorite’s list, even if they aren’t some of the most famous cases. D.B. Cooper’s daredevil hold-up has no tragedy with it. He committed a seemingly outlandish, complex and dangerous crime to get money. It was greed. But he had style. He wasn’t a desperado in appearance. Rather he was a bit of a James Bond, smooth, easy, smoking his Raleighs, dressed well. He even offered to pay for his drink when the stewardess brought one at his request. Apparently, he’d rob a corporation but not a citizen.

Finding D.B. Cooper or at least his ultimate fate is a mystery hunter’s dream. They’re forests to be covered and a cunning mind to second-guess. Clues are everywhere, but where is Dan Cooper?

The FBI preferred to believe he had died in the jump. Yet the money could not have gotten to where it was found if he had. Later, much later, the lead Fed on the case believed he had survived.

The FBI wanted D.B. Cooper no matter what.
The FBI wanted D.B. Cooper no matter what.

I, too, believe that “Dan Cooper” survived. Thus the location of the money is a valuable clue. So is the meticulousness with which he planned his skyjacking. From Portland he came. Back to Portland he was obviously going. No one plans as much as he did and then expects to simply bail out of a jet on a stormy night, land in a muddy field or dangerous, scraggly forest, and then thumb a ride back to Portland with 200K wrapped around his waist. He had escape and pick-up planned, and he didn’t want anybody to know the drop zone.

But there’s that interesting mistake on D.B. Cooper’s part. He must not have known that the stairs would act like a rudder and that they would make the plane genuflect. He seemed worried about the light going on. He apparently did wait a while after he lowered the stairs. Perhaps up to 15 minutes. The reason? Probably to hide his drop zone. But the stairs give us a clue. When he jumped they sprang back up.

Examining the drop zone must be the first clue that we pursue in the next D.B. Cooper post. A couple of discoveries and one of D.B. Cooper’s own mistakes will tell us more in the next blog.

NorCal– The Taunting Rapist

Comedy and Tragedy — the masks represent the broad spectrum for the theatre and indeed for life. All shades of life — adventure, romance, thriller, etc. — are colored by both comedy and tragedy. But the masks represent something more basic– they are masks. They are put-on. They are performances.

Such was the signature of NorCal Rapist. Northern California’s musing rapist. He delighted in what he did to his victims. He raped them. Terrorized them. Was on stage before them. He emptied their ATM accounts. He apologized profusely to some for what he did. But these extremes of humor and apology are not him. His real face is below:

The real face of NorCal. The true reflection of his soul.
The real face of NorCal. The true reflection of his soul.

Wearing such a guise he arrived at his victim’s house in Martinez, California, in 1996. It was Halloween. He pointed a gun at her. He bound her. Then he raped her over several hours. Then he left. Weeks later he called and apologized. It was not sincere.

She was only his third victim. He would over the next decade carefully stalk at least 7 women and rape or assault them in their homes. Sometimes he would later call and taunt. Sometimes apologize.

NorCal always attacks them in their own home.

NorCal first struck in Rohnert Park, north of the San Francisco Bay Area in June 1991, forcing his way into a condo. He was wearing a ski mask. But thereafter he developed a more suitable veneer to his personality. He started wearing odd theatrical masks. In January 1997 he raped two women in Davis, California. He took their ATM card and was captured on Bank video using it. But what was captured was a man wearing a distorted, smirking mask, fit for Jason Voorhees.

Video from Davis after his attack on two women.
Video from Davis after his attack on two women.

Obviously, we can deduce he knew he’d be on camera. He left the mask on. This was risky. It was dark, early morning. 7:30 a.m. A time when people are about. Yet he didn’t worry about being seen. But imagine if you had seen such an apparition driving along in his vehicle, get out and stroll up to an ATM. A strange, disturbing sight. If you were in the parking lot you’d probably duck down and wait for him to leave. Think of the victims seeing such a man suddenly appear in their homes and point a gun at them.

NorCal developed his MO. He started with white women and then moved on to “Asian” women. He also struck over northern California, thereby earning the unwieldy moniker of “NorCal Rapist.” He struck first in Rohnert Park. Then in February 1992 he raped a woman in Vallejo. In 1996 he dramatically raped a woman in Martinez on Halloween. Then he tied up but did not finally rape a victim in Woodland. In 1997 two women in Davis (January). Then another in Chico (July). In July 2000 he returned to Davis and raped another woman. Then he waited 6  years and raped two women in North Natomas area of Sacramento (October). He never struck in Spring.

Makes all but the Chico rape. Two clusters -- North Bay Area and then Sacramento area.
Shows all but the Chico rape. Two clusters — North Bay Area and then Sacramento area.

You can spot another MO here. NorCal takes quite a long time between rapes. Why? It doesn’t take years to stalk victims beforehand. So why the span of time between attacks? Is he away for some of the time?

It’s not remorse. He’s not fighting some impulse. He carefully and stealthily finds out information about his victims. This takes time and calculation. It’s not just following them from the grocery store. He has some information source that he taps into. Just what is this?

Cluster 2 with Chico included.
Cluster 2 with Chico included.

NorCal was active between 1991 and 2006, and within that time put on lots of weight. At his last attack in 2006 he was estimated to weigh between 200 and 250 pounds. He is only about 5 foot 9 inches tall. So he must have been a pretty bulky guy by this time. At that time he was estimated to be between 30 and 40. Thus he must have been in his 20s in 1991 when he began. He had brown hair. It was spiked in 2006.

Chico composite (1997).
Chico composite (1997). This is unnatural. No one has a nose that thin.
Sacramento composite (2006)
Sacramento composite (2006)

Another thing is apparent in his general MO. NorCal is using highways. The Sacramento Area Cluster is particularly revealing.

Closer view on Cluster 2
Closer view on Cluster 2. He is working the box of highways that link Davis, Woodland, Sacramento and Chico.

Being inundated with EAR/ONS and ZODIAC, I have not had time to investigate this case. So far, I only know the address in North Natomas area of Sacramento on Ivycrest. The location of this street in relation to Highway 99 makes it plain that his victims’ residence here had to comply with certain prerequisites.  It was off a main road (Del Paso Blvd) from a major highway. Easy in, quick out. If this is his pattern in the others, then he simply didn’t see these women at the grocery store and follow them. If he did, they had to lead him to ideal locations to be considered viable victims. I prefer to think he selected them via a stealthier and simpler means.

If I am right in my supposition that his first victim lived in the Parkway area of Rohnert Park, then NorCal started out with this carefully laidout plan. He strikes a home/condo off a main boulevard from the highway. This is someone very calculating and premeditative.

Possible area of condo for Number 1. Rohnert Park Blvd leads right to Highway 101.
Possible area of condo for Number 1. Rohnert Park Blvd leads right to Highway 101.

No doubt his apologies are the result of the same. They are calculated. It is the musing of the masks. He then plots his attack on another unsuspecting woman.

For 9 years now he has been silent. Is he finished?

It would be nice to have a better name than “NorCal” for him, something that befits his Phantom of the Opera type of signature.

Del Paso Blvd leads from Highway 99 to Ivycrest. The North Natomas strike, Sacramento.
Del Paso Blvd leads from Highway 99 to Ivycrest. The North Natomas strike, Sacramento.

Anne Marie Shubert, Sacramento Co.’s DA, made sure that they filed against his DNA. In this way Sacramento at least circumvented Statute of Limitations. NorCal can still be prosecuted. But we need much more information on him. Details, details. “The devil is in the details,” said Holmes.