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.


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