Southern Illinoisan from Carbondale, Illinois on December 1, 1996 · Page 29
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Southern Illinoisan from Carbondale, Illinois · Page 29

Carbondale, Illinois
Issue Date:
Sunday, December 1, 1996
Page 29
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A legacy of D.B. Cooper's caper is the 'Cooper Vane,' a latching device on Eoeing . 727s that prevents the rear stairwell from ; ; being lowered during flight. The Southern Illinoisan Sunday, December 1, 1996 Section ED o c vw rr m f- , XIL ( 1 I A 8i? EDoIBo 77; ; ' ' ;tT fiM" V I'v"" f f"' ;,r, 'cvr, :-V v? rtr" . ?r i -. sFS, .. -munffij , " - - " . ,. !- :. ,..:...,,. ,M ,W( ,M . . .. - - - . -J -i J AP file photo filug shots: D. B. Cooper, shown in these 1 973 artist's renderings, became a legend when he jumped out of a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 with $200,000 in ransom money 25 years ago between Seattle, Wash, and Portland, Ore. Knight-Ridder photo On the trail: Jerry Thomas, a retired U.S. Army infantryman, searches an abandoned mine along the Washougal River in Washington. He has spend eight years on the trail of D.B. Cooper, the infamous skyjacker. Twenty-five years after his jump from a jetliner, Cooper is the only domestic skyjacking case that remains unsolved. 25 years later, skyjacker's trail a mystery By Richard Seven Seattle Times 6n f0 n SEATTLE he floor of the Washougal River Watershed is so cluttered with nature's ever-expanding debris that each step snaps a twig or yanks a stubborn bramble. Yet Jerry Thomas, a retired Army infantryman, drill sergeant and survival instructor, seems convinced that somewhere amid this jumble he will someday pick up the frigid trail of D.B. Cooper, the skyjacker who collected $200,000 in ransom and bailed out of a Boeing 727 and into Northwest legend 25 years ago on Nov. 24. Thomas' step-by-step, eight-year search seems beyond looking for a needle in a haystack. This could very well be the wrong haystack. And the needle could be driving a Cadillac in Florida by now. Cooper parachuted from 10,000 feet into the blackness of a Thanksgiving eve storm with a 21 -pound bag of $20 bills tied around his waist. His is still the only unsolved domestic skyjacking in U.S. history and despite checking out almost 10,000 potential suspects and maintaining a case file 60 volumes thick, the FBI remains stumped. In fact, speculation, blind trails and Thomas' stubbornness are about all that's left. The basic questions have never been answered: Who was he? Where did land? Is he dead or alive? What happened to the money? Even the name, "E).B. Cooper" was pure media creation. The day after the skyjacking, FBI agents checked out a Portland man with that name and quickly cleared him. But the moniker stuck. In his years of searching, Thomas, 45, has found a stagecoach rifle and a 1921 penny, but no sign of Cooper. Yet he remains vigilant. As he describes what he believes happened, he interrupts himself in mid-sentence to bend down and examine a piece of glass smaller than a dime. "Looked out of place," he says. He is convinced the skyjacker landed hard "splattered" and was swallowed by this dense expanse of firs and ravines north of the Columbia River and about 12 miles east of Vancouver. He's equally convinced he will one day find something, a parachute harness, a remnant of the money bag or maybe scraps of the loot. "I've done this so long I figure if I can find something, then people won't think I'm such a lunatic," he says. The skyjacker wore a dark suit and tie, white shirt, pearl tie tack, short dark hair. He carried a briefcase and dark raincoat, periodically wore sunglasses and identified himself as "Dan Cooper" when he paid $20 cash for a oneway, midafternoon flight from Portland, Ore., to Seattle. Although skyjackings were alarmingly common back then 147 between 1967 and 1972 there were no security checkpoints to examine the contents of his carry-on. He took seat 18C on Northwest Flight 305 and had the row to himself. The jet was barely in the air before he passed a note to a flight attendant sitting nearby. She thought he was hitting on her so she slipped it, unopened, into her pocket. Cooper leaned closer, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb." At one point, he opened his briefcase and gave her a peek. She saw several red cylinders and a nest of wires. When the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport three hours later, at 5:40 p.m., the other passengers still didn't know they were hostages. Once Cooper got $200,000 and four parachutes, the plane was emptied except for him and four crew members. He never specified the denominations of the ransom money, so the FBI gave him 10,000 $20 bills (all of which had been photocopied) to slow him down. Agents worried that the extra parachutes meant he might take hostages if he did bail out. Once the plane was refueled, Cooper instructed the pilot to fly toward Mexico, but no higher than 10,000 feet, with wing flaps at 15 degrees and landing gear down. That would slow the plane down, below 200 mph, and make jumping easier. He also wanted the rear stairway door open at takeoff, but he relented when the captain told him the jet couldn't get airborne that way. As soon as the jet took off, Cooper sent flight attendant Tina Mucklow to the cockpit and told her to stay there. She glanced back on her way out of the 126-seat passenger section and thought she saw him using cord to tie something, probably the money bag, around his waist. Less than five minutes later, Cooper began trying to open the rear stairway. Sometime around 8:05 p.m., about 30 minutes after takeoff, a cockpit warning light showed the stairway was fully extended. The pilot asked over the intercom "Is everything OK back there? Anything we can do for you?" Cooper yellel, "No!" and was never heard from nor seen again. At 8: 1 i p.m. the crew felt pressure bumps, which the FBI believes were caused by Cooper jumping off the ramplike stairway, forcing it to snap shut briefly before re-opening. Cooper jumped into a storm, with air temperatures around 7 degrees below zero, strong winds and freezing rain. It wasn't until the plane landed for more fuel in Reno, with the stairway still down, that the crew and FBI knew for sure he was gone. Authorities estimated he landed near the small community of Ariel, east of Woodland and one ridge line over from the Washougal watershed. The weather was so bad that the manhunt was delayed a few days. Cooper had vanished. Agents combed the plane and were left with nothing but his skinny black tie, a tie tack, eight of his cigarette butts, two of the parachutes, and possibly a fingerprint among the 66 never identified. He had cut nylon cords off one of the remaining chutes, apparently so he could tie on the money bag. Former agent Ralph Himmelsbach tried to chase the jet in a helicopter that night and spent the next eight-plus years until his mandatory retirement in 1980 in the equally futile assignment of following up thousands of tips. Himmelsbach has written a book on the case ("NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper") and believes the skyjacker likely died near where he landed. Thanks to two clues, rare things in the Cooper case, the ex-agent also believes Thomas is looking in the right area. First, an 8-year-old boy digging a fire pit on a sand bar along the north bank of the Columbia River west of Vancouver on Feb. 10, 1980, unearthed $5,800 of Cooper's loot. The money, only inches below the surface, had eroded so badly that only Andrew Jackson and the serial numbers were left. Some believe the find showed Cooper landed in or near the Columbia River, but hydrologists concluded the tattered and still-bundled money was more likely deposited by a stream flow than human hands. The area where Cooper was thought to have landed is drained by the Lewis River, which empties into the Columbia downstream from where the money was found. The Washougal empties into the Columbia about 15 miles upstream. Himmelsbach says the early months of 1972 were marked by extremely high river levels, which could have carried the loot downstream. Decrepit rubber bands were found along with the money, meaning the cash had to have been deposited there before the bands lost their integrity. The second clue: On Himmelsbach's last day with the bureau, the Northwest pilot came to visit. The agent learned for the first time that the pilot, who had been manually flying the plane that night because of Cooper's speed and altitude demands, was traveling farther east than authorities had realized. That meant the actual drop zone was probably south-southeast of the area that was searched. Of course, no one saw Cooper jump. Nobody knows which way he drifted, or whether his chute opened or whether he had survival gear stashed or if he was a paratrooper or whether he lost the recovered portion of the money while in the air or if he had more tricks up his sleeve. Thomas, who did a tour in Vietnam and led survival courses before retiring from the Army after an 1 8-year career, stands on the banks of the west fork of the Washougal River. It is about 10 yards wide, ice-cold and rumbling in tiers over and around slimy boulders. Even if Cooper had survived the jump, he would likely have been injured and unprepared to make it through the thickets or down the cold river, especially in the blackness of the woods, Thomas says. He points to small caves that honeycomb the far banks. "Maybe he crawled up in one of those. But he didn't. Because I checked." He carries a six-foot walking stick, wrapped with cord and with a hook on one end. He uses it to knock a basketball-sized moss nest out of a flimsy, low-bending tree hanging over the water. About the size of a money bag that could have gotten caught up in such a tree, he ventures. Himmelsbach, who occasionally talks with Thomas, believes Cooper died near a stream, enabling the money to eventually be carried out to the Columbia. He believes nothing short of death would have separated Cooper from the money he gambled his life to get. But just in case, air-piracy charges await him in U.S. District Court. I i n j II I S S T B 1 1 a pending vest igation By George Tibbits The Associated Press SEATTLE t's been 25 years :inrp hp tnnV thnt hio . . - -o step out of a Boeing 727 at 10,000 feet, yet tips on D.B. Cooper still trickle in. One of the most daring or dumbest criminals ever remains at large, having either flouted the laws of society or been foiled by the law of gravity. "It's still a pending investigation," says FBI agent Ray Lauer, who adds that the case will stay open "probably forever." The FBI still stores 60 volumes of interviews and other documents telling how Cooper hijacked a jetliner, demanded and received $200,000, then jumped from the plane and into legend. A few taverns and restaurants mark the anniversary of the nation's only unsolved skyjacking case. And now and then someone calls the FBI with a tip or suggestion. "Surprisingly, yeah, we still get quite a few of them," Lauer says. "They tend to come in spurts, when they might get two to four in a week, then might not get any more tips for several months." The FBI dutifully checks them out. Wherever Cooper is, it's a safe bet his skydiving days are over: If he survived, he'd be 70 or older now. Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI agent assigned to the case before his retirement in 1980, has long maintained Cooper was a fool. If the cold didn't kill him, if he withstood the powerful turbulence, Cooper was still parachuting into dense forest at night, at the onset of winter, with no food or survival gear. "It was a bad place to land, and it is doubtful we would ever find the body," Himmelsbach said in a 1991 interview. "This was a desperate act you wouldn't expect from a normal man in his mid-40s. This was something you would expect from somebody who had nothing to lose." Himmelsbach believes Cooper either landed in the Columbia and drowned, or died in the mountains and the money was washed out. An extensive search turned up no traces. Nine years later, Mount St. Helens erupted and blanketed much of the area with ash. If hikers or hunters have stumbled across Cooper since, they've kept his secret. Each year, celebrations are held at restaurants named D.B. Cooper in Salt Lake City and San Jose, and at a little bar in Ariel in southwestern Washington where, legend has it, Cooper paid an anonymous visit. Dona Elliott, who has owned the Ariel Store for six years, says she wishes she had started keeping track of all the men who come in claiming to be Cooper. The latest addition to her Cooper memorabilia is a flier from a Florida woman with a photo of her late husband. The woman said he confessed on his deathbed in 1995 to being Cooper. "What do you think?" asked Elliott, while holding a photograph of the man next to a FBI composite drawing of Cooper. The man in the photo appeared to be at least a decade older. I ' f (C iff I . . i' t . l v 7 Mr '4 '" I i f I rs :Z r V - rrTTl ;: I f ' " T-,, ' ' '?- w ' "x - "5JVv'i;?Wl. J' I I $ r " ., ,,, f 4 r , i - s, 7r V - ' i i i -. - .$ ' . ' . ;-,&,, ? .: ' liriMfJLL- - f ' ' ' V , " t f f'i- , pi, - - - - z -k - r ; gth , x V "l ' y " ' ' : I 1, i. ' i nrr ' - - , , , L .in ml miiMn. i AP photo Preserving tho legend: Dona Elliott, the owner of the Ariel Store in Ariel, Wash., holds a letter from a woman in Florida saying that her husband confessed on his deathbed in 1995 to being D.B. Cooper. The store is home to a collection of Cooper memoriabilia.

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