D.B. Cooper puzzle: The legend turns 30

If you believe a persuasive San Diego cabdriver, D.B. Cooper was a drifter and card player who died of a cocaine overdose in California 15 years after skyjacking a Northwest Airlines jet between Portland and Seattle.

If you believe an equally insistent Florida realtor, D.B. Cooper was her late husband, a chain-smoking ex-con who revealed his true identity to her six years ago as he lay dying of kidney disease in a Pensacola hospital.

And if you believe the FBI, the notorious skyjacker, after parachuting out of the plane at 10,000 feet with a 21-pound satchel of ransom money strapped to his chest, died in the jump. No matter that his body has never been found.

Three decades later, the only unsolved skyjacking in the country's history continues to fascinate mystery lovers, with many hoping the passenger known as D.B. Cooper — who physically hurt no one, except possibly himself — landed safely with the loot and got away.

"He's our Jesse James and Billy the Kid," said Jerry Thomas of Jefferson County, a retired Army infantryman who has made it his mission to scour the backwoods of Southwest Washington for any sign of Cooper.

Even law-abiding Americans have a history of rooting for the underdog, and "here's a little guy all by himself who reached up and tweaked Uncle Sam's nose and took $200,000 from a major corporation" and may have gotten away with it, said retired FBI Agent Ralph Himmelsbach, who spent years searching for Cooper and wrote a book about the case.

It almost doesn't matter if Cooper is dead; for 30 years, his legend has lived on.

A leap into history

On Nov. 24, 1971, a tall, dark-complexioned passenger identifying himself as Dan Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 on a stormy Thanksgiving Eve, demanded and got $200,000 and parachutes, then jumped from the rear of the plane into history.

In recent weeks, as the anniversary has approached, television crews from around the world have descended on Thomas, a self-appointed Cooper expert, for his stories and a walk through the woods where Cooper is believed to have landed. Maybe, just maybe, Thomas would find a scrap of parachute, a human bone, a waterlogged $20 bill.

Officially, the case remains open.

"The fact it's the only unsolved hijacking keeps it high-profile," said FBI Agent Ralph Hope of Seattle, the latest in a list of agents in charge of the case. "It will remain that way until we know the individual could not be alive."

Though the FBI conducted major searches in 1971 and 1980, collected 1,200 files and checked out countless leads, no hard evidence ever turned up. Agents still receive a half-dozen inquiries a month; most are simply filed away.

"There's a number of incidents where people looked very, very good, but no direct evidence was located," Hope said. "Many will read articles or books and call in with information, much of it inaccurate. You can almost tell what books they read."

'I have a bomb'

Hijacker D.B. Cooper, in FBI sketches from 1971 and showing how he might look today.
Agents knew little about the skyjacker except that he smoked Raleigh cigarettes, drank whiskey, was familiar with aerodynamics and paid $20 cash for a one-way flight from Portland to Seattle.

He wore a dark suit and tie, white shirt and pearl tie tack, and had short, dark hair. He carried a briefcase and dark raincoat, and took seat 18C on Flight 305, having the row to himself.

The jet was barely in the air before he passed a note to a flight attendant, who slipped it unopened into a pocket. Cooper leaned closer: "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb." He opened his briefcase to reveal several red cylinders and a nest of wires.

The plane landed in Seattle; passengers were exchanged for parachutes and ransom money paid by the airline. With Cooper and the flight crew on board, it took off, heading south toward Mexico. About 30 minutes later, a cockpit warning light showed the rear stairway was fully extended. The pilot asked over the intercom, "Is everything OK back there?"

Cooper yelled back, "No," and bailed out the back into freezing darkness.

The plane landed in Reno, where agents found nothing except Cooper's skinny black tie, tie tack, eight of his cigarette butts, two of the parachutes and possibly a fingerprint among the 66 never identified.

Did he survive? Said Hope: "We know there was a blowing storm, the plane was going 170 knots, he was wearing street clothes and street shoes. ... The chance of survival was not good. Possible, not likely."

Yet Cooper's body was never found, and only a portion of the ransom money — whose serial numbers the FBI had recorded — turned up when a child digging in a sand bar on the north bank of the Columbia River west of Vancouver in 1980 unearthed a bundle of $20 bills.

That gives romantics room to fantasize that Cooper is alive, enjoying his riches in some exotic locale.

But the San Diego cabbie and the Florida realtor have no doubts. Not only are they certain Cooper survived the jump, they insist they know who he was.

The cabbie's tale

The two men were poker-playing buddies. Sitting in a bar one night in 1984, Rizzo said, he confided to Huddleston that he was a fugitive wanted by the FBI for counterfeiting.

Huddleston replied with his own confession: He had skyjacked an airplane in 1971.

Rizzo said he kept the secret until after Huddleston died in 1986 of an aneurysm brought on by a cocaine overdose at age 52. Rizzo told the FBI his tale. An autopsy of Huddleston revealed his legs were covered with scars, which Rizzo says were caused by the jump from the plane.

Rizzo said Huddleston gave him this account:

After plunging from the plane, he landed near a river, in a tree about 10 feet above the ground, where a sharp limb punctured his knee and ribs. The weather was so bad his shoes blew off, and ice and sleet coated his arms and back.

The strap that held the money tore, and that's how he lost the packet later found by the child on the riverbank. He crawled to a cave and later hitchhiked to Portland, where he spent months recuperating before eventually moving to San Diego.

He hid the money until 1978, when he took it to an Indian reservation in Montana to be laundered. When he returned to San Diego, he kept it stashed in the taillight of an old Cadillac.

Because he was constantly fearful of running into someone from the flight who would recognize him, he often changed his appearance, growing a beard and shaving his head, then growing a mustache and wearing a long ponytail.

Rizzo said Huddleston once said: "In the back of my mind, one day I'll be sitting on a bus, in a bar, and look into the face of the only person who could identify me. I'll see that stewardess. I know she will never forget my face."

Huddleston told Rizzo he'd bought the airline ticket under the name Don — his real middle name, not Dan — and was amused that the FBI went searching for a Dan Cooper.

"He was a James Dean type, a daredevil," Rizzo said. "This is not a story I could make up, but the FBI's never going to prove it."

The real-estate agent's tale

She claims she found the remote spot near Battle Ground, Clark County, where her husband, an insurance salesman and ex-con, took her in 1979. At the time, all he told her was that it was a sentimental journey for him.

It wasn't until 1995, when he was 70 and on his deathbed, that he whispered to her, "I'm Dan Cooper."

Jo Weber had no idea what he meant, and he angrily blurted, "Oh, let it die with me."

She has since uncovered a trail of stories, suppositions and what could just be coincidences. Among them:

Composite sketches of Cooper resemble her husband, who was a chain smoker. Because he'd served time for burglary and forgery on McNeil Island when it housed a federal penitentiary, he was familiar with the general area where Cooper is believed to have landed.

He sometimes talked in his sleep, drenched in sweat. "I left my fingerprints on the aft stairs," he mumbled. "I'm going to die."

When she asked him about it later, he was vague and evasive.

Jo Weber once found an old airline ticket from Portland to Seattle in a box of records. She came across it a second time when she was cleaning out clothes, but her husband said it didn't mean anything, and the ticket got lost again.

"I've offered to do anything I have to to prove I'm telling the truth," she said. "Now, I have to let God take care of the rest. I've given it five years of my life ... but I'm not going to use up the rest of my life trying to do the FBI's job for them."

Investigations 'just burn out'

The FBI has investigated a litany of stories like those from Rizzo and Weber but rejected them because there is simply no proof, Hope said. Except for the sodden bills along the Columbia, the forests have held Cooper's secret.

"Every so often one would come along, and I'd get the rush of adrenaline," said Himmelsbach, the retired FBI agent and author. "There's a guy in a bar with a bunch of $20 bills, he's limping on one leg and someone asks where he got the roll, and he says he might of hijacked an airplane. You track those things down, and they just burn out."

Another who discounts Weber's deathbed confession is Thomas, the retired Army infantryman who has spent the past three decades searching the thick forests of Southwest Washington for signs of Cooper.

"There's no way," said Thomas, 50, a survival expert. "... A lot of what (Jo Weber) is claiming came right out of a book."

Thomas pulls out a well-worn map and traces the forests around Washougal, Clark County. This, he believes, is where Cooper's remains rest.

But he is willing to entertain the notion that Cooper survived, so he walks the woods, sometimes with his grandchildren, searching for signs under branches and along creek banks.

"Unsolved cases really intrigue me. This is my life," Thomas said.

Some clues still kept secret

When Cooper commandeered the Northwest jet, skyjacking was hardly a novel crime. More than 25 were attempted in 1971 alone, but he alone did not get caught.

The following year, screening devices became mandatory in airports, and Himmelsbach said exit doors on airliners were modified with a device named the Cooper Vane so they could not be opened in midflight.

The FBI won't talk about suspects in an open case. But agents say they have kept some of their clues secret in hopes of someday solving the mystery. "There's stuff we know nobody else knows," Hope said.

The small town of Ariel, Cowlitz County, where some think Cooper landed, hosts an annual Cooper celebration; this year there will be no one parachuting from the sky because of security concerns over a nearby dam. After 30 years, the event still draws a crowd.

"It's that desperado mystique," said local historian Walt Crowley of the story's enduring fascination.

"It was an extraordinary audacious act to lower that rear gangway in flight and jump into a dark and stormy night," Crowley said. "He didn't hurt anybody ... and we all love a mystery."

Susan Gilmore can be reached at 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com.