There is one question I still don't have a good answer for. It happens to be the one I get most: "Who do you think he is?" Then, when I began to scroll through the thoughts in my mind, and enact another verbal do-si-do around the obvious, I get cut off. "Seriously, how could you not have even a hunch as to who the hijacker is? You wrote a whole book about him."
It's true, and it's a good point.
"But don't you have a feeling? A hunch?"
That's the problem.I tried to feel my way through the case for nearly four years, acting on hunches, and piecing together clues by following my instincts, pretending to be a quasi criminal profiler and questing to understand the skyjacker behind the horned-rim glasses, Mr. D. B. Cooper. But aside from a few rare occasions where I did my best to enact cold logic, my investigation into the identity of the unknown hijacker, who on a stormy fall night in 1971, boarded a Northwest Orient plane, ransomed its passengers for four parachutes and $200,000 in cash, then parachuted out the back over the remote forests of the Pacific Northwest and was never seen again, still continues to be a mystery
My hunt for Cooper began with a thumbprint. After getting a tip from a private investigator I know from covering the crime beat in New York, I was introduced to the first photos and military records of Ken Christiansen. A shy and lonely purser who worked for Northwest for decades until he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1994, Kenny had been suspected to be Cooper himself after his brother Lyle saw a sketch of the hijacker on television. Trolling the web, Lyle found Skipp Porteous, my P. I. friend, who after a good deal of legwork asked me to continue hunting down the lead.
Looking at Ken Christiansen's photo and the sketch of Cooper I was nearly convinced old Kenny was D. B., and touching the thumbprint he left on his old paratrooper military records to mine I knew then I had nailed Cooper down.
Until Barbara Dayton came along. After drinking a few beers at the annual Cooper days party at the Ariel Tavern in the fall of 2007, I was shown two photos: one of a man, another of a woman, in front of an old Cessna plane.
"That's D. B. Cooper!" exclaimed Ron Foreman, an airplane mechanic from Puyallup and owner of the photographs.
I didn't get it. Which one?
"You might say they both are," his pilot friend Cliff Kluge said.
Barb Dayton was a transgender patient. As male (née Bobby) he was aggressive and macho and rude, anything to cover up the "maleness they stab me with," he told his doctors before his gender reassignment surgery in 1969. As a female, she was living in a trailer, didn't have enough money for gas, and slid into a depression. In the weeks before the hijacking, she was suicidal. Then, two weeks after the hijacking, she visited her doctors. They noted that for some reason Barbara "was doing well" and "strangely unworried about money despite the inability to get work."
I could see her now. After pulling off the job dressed as a man, Barb entered the bus station near her drop zone, put on her makeup and wig, and hid under the Bureau's noses in plain sight, working as a Seattle librarian.
Yep, Barb Dayton was D. B. Cooper all right, I thought.
Then I learned about Richard McCoy Jr. A Mormon Sunday school teacher and former Green Beret, McCoy was a classic American hero — until five months after the Cooper jump he donned a disguise and hijacked a United Airline plane, jumped out with a parachute and $500,000 in a duffel bag. The execution of the crimes were so similar, McCoy, who had been studying skyjackings at Brigham Young at the time, had to be Cooper too, I felt.
Which is about the time I started talking to Jo Weber. In the summer of 1995, she was aiding her sick husband, Duane, in the hospital when, days before his death, he told her, in an owl-like sound, "I'm Dan Cooooper."
She didn't know who Dan Cooper was (it was the actual alias the hijacker used when purchasing his ticket.) She also didn't know, until going through his things after his death, that her husband was a career con artist who spent much of his youth in prison, some of those years alongside James Earl Ray, may have had mercenary and mob contacts dating back from the Bay of Pigs, and late in life had false identification for the name John C. Collins.
I thought shady Duane Weber could have pulled the job off, perhaps even John C. Collins. But what about shy and ghost like Ken Christiansen? Or the skilled military hero turned outlaw Richard McCoy? Or alpha male turned librarian, Bob and Barbara Dayton?
In their own ways, they all had a claim on the legendary hijacker. And the quest to prove the case, by me, by suspicious brother Lyle, by widow Jo Weber, and countless others was really what the case was about. On the hunt for D. B. Cooper one finds what they want to find, and in the many sketches of the hijacker they see who they want to see. So, to answer your question, Who was Cooper? They all are.
I was different, I thought. With the Bureau files at my fingertips, I was convinced that I might have the ability to determine once and for all who the hijacker was, and using these exclusive clues to solve the great unsolved hijackings in our time, quickly became an obsession.
How else to explain the three days I spent in the basement of the Rutgers University library, flipping through years back from postwar years '46, '47, '48, and '49, looking for faces on the track team that matched an FBI sketch that might not even look like Cooper himself? Or the miles of microfiche I scanned looking for clues that rogue CIA operators, with possible mob ties, hatched the scheme to improve airplane safety? Or opening an e-mail account in the Philippines to communicate with alleged former mercenaries?
After a while, I stopped wondering who he was. I started wondering, who was I? Why did I feel the need to know Cooper's real identity? It was like a sense of entitlement was driving me. I deserved the right to know who he was. Surely, the clues to uncovering Cooper, I thought, must be at the end of Google search somewhere. Or buried within hundreds of FBI files I had obtained to use on my hunt. So much accurate data and information is now at our fingertips it seemed inconceivable that this man could elude me, and yet I had no idea who he was. I learned that without answers, there is only suspicion and paranoia and obsession. And with that I began to learn to savor the unknown, to embrace the mystery of the mystery, the mystery in front of me all along. I no longer felt the need to know, Then, a week before the book's release, came news that the Bureau was investigating "our most promising" lead in the case, and a new suspect. Immediately, my ears were twitching. Who was it? "We called him 'L. D.,'" Marla Cooper told ABC News about her Uncle Lynn Doyle Cooper. But was he really Cooper?
He might be. There is no evidence to suggest he is — just a memory that came flooding back from Marla Cooper from when she was eight years old. What's noteworthy is that in the case of Uncle L. D. is that it almost no longer matters what the facts are. It's yet another and perhaps the most compelling mystery in Cooperland, a place where the truth is not always what is there but what people are willing to believe.
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Geoffrey Gray is the author of Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper. Follow Cooper news and developments at HuntforDBCooper.com, and Twitter@skyjackthebook.
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