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What really happened to D.B. Cooper? Pick a theory

Book coverBy Finn JD John

D.B. Cooper vanished on Thanksgiving’s eve like a well-dressed ghost, leaving behind only a legend — driven by questions that seemed to cry out for answers.

So let’s cut to the big setpiece here: What really happened?

That all depends on whom you ask. There are at least a dozen different explanations that have been offered, by various people claiming to either be or know the real D.B. Cooper.

So, who’s right? Does anyone really know?

Here are a few of the theories that have gotten the most exposure:

1. “D.B. Cooper was the rakish rascal who wrote Ha Ha Ha in 1983.”

Ha Ha Ha is one of the earliest books to have come out claiming to tell the story of what really happened to D.B. Cooper. It is, unfortunately, anonymous, but it was published by the Daily Journal of Commerce in Portland. It describes Cooper — its writer — as a hard-drinking former businessman who decided to become a crook, and embarked on a wild crime spree, pulling heists, having reckless sex with bold and bodacious women, and eventually getting sentenced to prison for a crime he didn’t commit — a technical injustice that he avenges by escaping from custody and hijacking the airplane and disappearing into the forests of Canada with gallons of $20 bills.

It’s kind of fun to read, actually. Unfortunately it’s out of print and very hard to find.

2. “D.B. Cooper was a guy named Paul LeClair, who died of a heart attack in the late 1970s.”

This claim is made by Max Gunther in D.B. Cooper: What Really Happened. Max Gunther was a staff writer for True Magazine — one of the famous “stag magazines” of the 1960s that were more or less rendered obsolete by Playboy. Classic “stag mags” were pulps for men, full of swaggering, hard-punching fiction about pirates and adventurers and stuff like that, in which hard-fisted Indiana Jones types battle their way through hordes of bad guys to rescue busty young women in skimpy, ripped-up outfits.

Gunther claims he was contacted by the hijacker in 1972 and, after winning the confidence of the hijacker and his girlfriend over a period of many years, finally learned the truth.

3. “D.B. Cooper was a transsexual dude named Barbara Dayton.”

This book is self-published by a kindly couple in Washington State who make the case that D.B. Cooper was, in fact, their now-dead friend Barbara. You see, Barbara was, at birth, a gent named Bobby Dayton, and in the late 1960s he had one of the first-ever gender reassignment surgeries.

Forman & Cooper imagesPat and Ron Forman

A side-by-side comparison of Barbara Dayton, before her gender-reassignment surgery when she was still known as Robert, and the artist’s sketch of hijacker D.B. Cooper.

So, the theory goes, while the authorities scrounged all over southwest Washington looking for some dude in a suit, Barbara, having ditched her man-duds and wriggled into a skirt and pumps, strutted right on by with the money in an extra-large purse or something. And that, as the authors rather hilariously put it, is why the FBI “never got its man.”

Yes, this is by far the craziest D.B. Cooper origin story I know. But it’s actually a relatively robust theory.

4. “D.B. Cooper was a real-life Rambo named Richard McCoy.”

Two years after D.B. Cooper’s caper, an ex-Green Beret named Richard McCoy pulled a heist that was eerily similar to Cooper’s, except this one was over Utah and involved more money — and also, McCoy got caught. While McCoy was in prison afterward, a Utah state prison official named Bernie Rhodes started getting curious about some of the parallels between the two cases. After he retired, Rhodes started examining the evidence seriously and thoroughly, and came to the conclusion that McCoy wasn’t just a copycat hijacker — that he was the same guy, who, having gotten away with it once, thought he’d try again. Rhodes makes the full case for McCoy as Cooper in his book, D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy.

5. “D.B. Cooper was ‘Rambo’ McCoy’s buddy, Duane Weber.”

On his deathbed, a man named Duane Weber confessed to his wife (whom he’d married after the hijacking) that he was D.B., and then died; she, looking into it, found a whole bunch of spooky coincidences: Weber was an old friend of Richard McCoy (Suspect No. 4, above); he had a criminal record she didn’t know about; and his friends from the bad old days called him “Coop,” an abbreviation of his A.K.A., which was Dan Cooper. What were the odds?

6. “D.B. Cooper was an inside job by an airline employee named Kenny Christensen.”

This theory was suggested by private detective Skipp Porteous and book publisher Robert Blevin in their book, Into the Blast. The idea is that Christiansen, a poorly paid Northwest Orient Airline worker who happened to be an ex-paratrooper, used his inside knowledge of airline procedures to plan and execute the job. Their theory is compelling, plausible, and backed up with plenty of circumstantial evidence — something big happened to change Kenny’s bank balances right around the time of the skyjacking — but once again, there just isn’t DNA-class proof.

7. “D.B. Cooper was a comic-book fan from Sisters, Oregon.”

This theory comes to us from the niece of the suspect, an articulate and outgoing woman named Marla Cooper, who says her uncle L.D. Cooper — a great fan of a series of French graphic novels about a paratrooper named Dan Cooper — told her he did the job and swore her to secrecy after he returned on Thanksgiving Day of 1971 all banged up and bloody.

8. “D.B. Cooper fell in the Columbia, drowned and was eaten by sharks.”

 This is the conventional wisdom on Cooper, if there is such a thing. Except that it’s physically impossible given where Cooper jumped and what direction the winds were blowing. It is, however, entirely possible that Cooper died in the jump, landing on somebody’s farm, and the person who found him quite sensibly buried his body and equipment, retrieved the money and threw a handful of it into the river to lead investigators to think he’d drowned in it.

A good scrounge on Google will turn up lots of other attempts to claim a solution to the D.B. Cooper mystery — ranging from somewhat plausible to straight-up goofy. There’s a book by George Nuttall, which makes the case that Cooper owed money to the mob and that J. Edgar Hoover himself stymied the investigation because he was being blackmailed by Lucky Luciano; a slim self-published volume by one “Mr John Fredrick James jr.” claiming to deliver “The End of the Legend” (some guy named Larry C. Lufkin); a few blog posts and forum threads that claim he was a CIA agent or a secret FBI guy; and, well, the list goes on.

Today, almost 45 years after the skyjacking, there’s not much reason to suspect that D.B. Cooper speculation will be falling out of fashion anytime soon.

(Sources: Books mentioned above by Pat and Ron Forman, Max Gunther, D.B. Cooper, Bernie Rhodes, George Nuttall, and “Mr John Fredrick James jr”;;; Porteous, Skipp & al. Into the Blast. Seattle: Adventure Books, 2011; Gray, Geoffrey. Skyjack. New York: Crown, 2011)

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: Signum Press

This hard-to-find book, written by an anonymous person claiming to be D.B. Cooper in 1983, was printed at the Portland Daily Journal of Commerce. Three copies are currently listed on Amazon for roughly $160.



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