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At 4:35 PM on Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, 1971 in the United States, a man traveling under the name Dan Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 flying from Portland International Airport. He carried a briefcase containing wire and “red sticks” resembling dynamite.
When the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 5:45 PM, its intended destination, he released the passengers in exchange for $200,000 and four parachutes. At 7:45 PM he had the flight crew take the plane back into the air, ordering them to fly towards Mexico at low speed and altitude with the landing gear down and 15 degrees of flap. Six minutes later, a warning light indicated that the 727’s built-in rear stairway had been lowered. Six minutes after that, the crew felt a “bump” suggesting that Cooper had jumped from the ramp into the stormy night somewhere over the Washougal River watershed.
Despite an eighteen-day search of the projected landing zone, no trace of the man or his parachute was ever found, and it remains unknown whether he survived the escape. On February 13, 1980, $5,800 (in bundles of $20 bills) of the ransom money was found by a family on a picnic five miles northwest of Vancouver, Washington on the banks of the Columbia River, though there are several variations to this account.
The FBI questioned and then released a man by the name of Daniel B. Cooper, who was never considered a significant suspect. Due to a miscommunication with the media, however, the initials “D. B.” became firmly associated with the hijacker and this is how he is now known.
Following three similar (but less successful) hijackings in 1972, the Federal Aviation Administration required that all Boeing 727 aircraft be fitted with a device known as the “Cooper Vane”, a mechanical aerodynamic wedge, which prevents the rear stairway from being lowered in flight.
One of the 1972 hijackings was carried out by Richard McCoy Jr. On April 7, 1972, four months after D. B. Cooper’s hijacking, McCoy boarded United Flight 855 during a stopover in Denver. It was a Boeing 727 with aft stairs, the same type used in the Cooper incident, which McCoy used to escape after giving the crew the same type of instructions as Dan Cooper.
Police started to investigate McCoy after a tip. He was a married former LDS (Mormon) Sunday school teacher with two young children who was studying law enforcement at Brigham Young University. He was also a Vietnam veteran, a former Green Beret helicopter pilot, and an avid skydiver.
Following a fingerprint and handwriting match, McCoy was arrested two days after the hijacking. Inside his house FBI agents found a jumpsuit and a duffel bag filled with cash totaling $499,970. McCoy claimed innocence, but was convicted and received a 45-year sentence.
Once incarcerated, using his access to the prison’s dental office, McCoy fashioned a fake handgun out of dental paste. He and a crew of convicts escaped in August 1974 by stealing a garbage truck and crashing it though the prison’s main gate. It took three months for the FBI to locate McCoy, in Virginia. McCoy shot at the FBI agents and agent Nicholas O’Hara fired back with a shotgun, killing him.
D. B. Cooper: The Real McCoy, co-authored by an ex-FBI agent named Russell Calame, was published in 1991. The book made the case that Cooper and McCoy were really the same person, citing similar methods of hijacking and a tie left by Cooper similar to those worn by Brigham Young students. The author said that McCoy “never admitted nor denied he was Cooper.” And when McCoy was directly asked whether he was Cooper he replied “I don’t want to talk to you about it.” The agent who killed McCoy is quoted as saying, “When I shot Richard McCoy, I shot D. B. Cooper at the same time.” The widow of Richard McCoy, Karen Burns McCoy, sued and won a settlement from both the book’s co-authors and its publisher.
However, in August 2000, U.S. News and World Report ran an article about a widow in Pace, Florida named Jo Weber and her claim that her late husband, Duane Weber, had told her “I’m Dan Cooper” before his death in 1995. She became suspicious and began checking into her late husband’s background. Duane Weber had served in the Army during World War II and later had served time in a prison near the Portland airport. Mrs. Weber recalled that her husband had once had a nightmare where he talked in his sleep about jumping from a plane. She had once found an old plane ticket in his papers for Northwest Airlines that said SEA-TAC (Seattle-Tacoma airport.) One of the most convincing pieces of evidence Mrs. Weber related was the fact she had checked out a book on the Cooper case from the local library and saw notations in it that matched her husband’s handwriting. Mrs. Weber began corresponding with FBI Agent Ralph Himmelsbach, the chief investigator of the Cooper case. Himmelsbach has said Weber is one of the best suspects he has come across.
Although the match between the composite drawing and pictures of Duane Weber must be considered inconclusive, recently, facial recognition software was used on 3000 photographs (including that of a Weber and two other suspects) to identify him as “the best match” (in 3000).