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The hunt for D.B. Cooper: Searching for the drop zone

D.B. Cooper drop zoneBy Finn J.D. John

Thanksgiving Day of 1971 was a very unusual one for F.B.I. agent Ralph Himmelsbach. He spent it flying a grid pattern over southwest Washington in his Taylorcraft, staring at the ground.

Himmelsbach was hoping to spot a parachute canopy down there — a parachute that would mark the landing spot of the man who’d hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305 the previous evening.

It was the beginning of the hunt for D.B. Cooper — a hunt that still continues to this day.

Looking for the drop zone

Investigators were already starting to zero in on the most likely spot for Cooper’s jump. A strange change in cabin pressure in the plane was reported at 8:13 p.m., and the working theory was that Cooper jumping off the back stairs caused this. (Investigators later confirmed this by having Marines drop a 220-pound weight off the back stairs of a 727 in flight, a duty that has to have tested the nerves even of U.S. Marines.) Based on the prevailing wind direction and the location of the plane at that moment, they came up with a diamond-shaped area in which Cooper probably landed.

So the next day, the search began in earnest. Law enforcement agencies, search-and-rescue units and county sheriff’s mounted posses collected at the Woodland police station and launched a grid search of the part of the target area.

A few days later, 400 soldiers from nearby Fort Lewis joined the searchers. But even so, they were probably a small minority of the people actually on the ground looking for Cooper.

Searchers get lots of “help”

Remember, this was Thanksgiving weekend. Virtually everyone in Oregon and Washington had the weekend off from work, and by the day after Thanksgiving thousands of locals knew exactly where authorities thought Cooper had landed. The news seemed to inspire a sudden mania for outdoor recreation. After all, chances seemed pretty good that Cooper had died in the attempt, which would mean somewhere in the hills of southwest Washington there was a monster bag of money just lying there, tied to a corpse, up for grabs.

“No one readily admitted to be looking for the ransom money,” Himmelsbach later wrote, “but many 1971-style gold rushers were tempted by the lure of a 21-pound package of $20 bills lying somewhere out there in the wilds, and were undaunted by the long odds.”

Time went by. The “gold-rushers” gave up and went home. The soldiers spent 18 days on their grid search through some of the most rugged country in the West, bivouacking each night in the field so they could pick up again the next day. They found the body of a hiker, who had broken his leg and died, and other searchers found the body of a murder victim — a college girl who’d disappeared a couple weeks before while hitchhiking. But of Cooper or his parachute or the money — nothing.

There were a couple red-hot leads that seemed to dissolve like a mirage upon first contact: a report of a big white thing floating in Lake Merwin that subsequently vanished, and a mysterious small aircraft taking off and landing by the light of someone’s car headlights near the drop zone. Nothing came of either one.

Hot tips from the public

Almost immediately, people started calling the F.B.I. with tips. Some of these were people who noticed neighbors suddenly spending lots of money; others were clearly just trying to make trouble for their personal enemies by reporting them. Investigators tried to check out each lead, but soon found themselves inundated.

And it got worse. Within a month or two, the volume of tips coming in to the FBI had gone up, and the quality had gone down. The legend of the cool-cat suit-jacketed skyjacker had fully blossomed, and many people were starting to think of him as a sort of folk hero — sticking it to The Man and getting away with it. People were writing songs, making T-shirts. Every half-drunk high roller flashing a roll of twenties at the local bar seemed to think it would be hilarious to pretend to be D.B. Cooper, and somebody at the bar would call the cops from a pay phone, and then Himmelsbach would get a call at 2 a.m. And it happened again and again.

Typed-out letters signed “D.B. Cooper” started showing up at newspaper offices, and there may actually have been several different people writing them. In any case, they didn’t lead anywhere either.

Hot tips from crackpots

And then there were the funny ones — the tips called in by self-described psychics and paranormal investigators, and by straight-up nutters and swindlers. Himmelsbach remembers one who built a black box covered with dials and switches, which he claimed functioned as a sort of mechanical bloodhound (quite what the advantage was in a bloodhound with no legs and, as soon became obvious, a non-functioning nose, was never made clear). Another got Himmelsbach’s attention by claiming to be skilled in water-witching, but subsequently rang the loony bell by revealing that he did his dousing over a topo map on his coffee table before going out to a scene to dig.

But did they search the wrong place?

The soldiers and posses came back in the spring for another go, and again found nothing. Other searchers got involved as well. A man named John Banks, convinced that Cooper landed and drowned in Lake Merwin, made a deal with the insurance company and spent two years and $15,000 exploring the bottom of the lake in a little submarine. He, too, found nothing.

Money in the riverbank

Then, in 1980, a third-grade boy named Brian Ingram, digging a flat spot for a campfire by the Columbia River on a beach known as Tena Bar, stumbled across $5,800 in water-worn $20 bills — which were immediately confirmed as the bills from the skyjacking.

The cash was bound together with rotting rubber bands, and the corners were rounded off as if they’d been tumbling in the water for some time.

But they were found upstream from the jet’s flight path and upwind from where Cooper apparently jumped. How could they have gotten there? If dropped into the river, why didn’t they get separated? Did someone stash them there? Who knows?

What really happened?

So that’s what we’re left with: A tantalizing smattering of confusing and sometimes contradictory evidence — just enough to keep the intrepid D.B. Cooper sleuths busy for decades trying to solve the case.

So, what really happened to D.B. Cooper that night? There are at least five thoroughly thought-out, highly plausible theories. Then there is another dozen or so that, although not as robust, are highly appealing as stories. For the time being, though, the question is one big mystery.

But then, there are those of us who kind of like it that way.

Next week’s column will take a look at several of the most plausible theories about what happened to Cooper and the money.

(Sources: Himmelsbach, Ralph & al. NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper. West Linn: Norjak Project, 1986; Gray, Geoffrey. Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper. New York: Crown, 2011; Porteous, Skipp & al. Into the Blast: The True Story of D.B. Cooper. Seattle: Adventure Books, 2010)

Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected], @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.

Image above - Courtesy U.S. Government. This is the FBI’s map of the flight path of the airplane Cooper jumped out of. The numbers written on the map in pencil are times of day — 20:05 means 8:05 p.m. and 20:10 means 8:10. Image is from Sluggo’s hijacking research Website.


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