Curse or pleasure: The enduring mystery of D.B. Cooper

A new book immerses itself in the case. Enough so that the author begins to look over his shoulder for conspirators, and manages to do that without losing the reader.

Crosscut archive image.

An FBI sketch of the hijacking suspect who came to be called D.B. Cooper

A new book immerses itself in the case. Enough so that the author begins to look over his shoulder for conspirators, and manages to do that without losing the reader.

There was a promising lead in the case. Shards of DNA were being tested to see if, once and for all, there was a match.

Lynn Doyle Cooper, a recluse who spent time in Oregon and died in 1999, was the notorious D.B. Cooper, the man who hijacked a Boeing 727 on Thanksgiving Eve 1971, the man’s niece claimed. She believed it was her uncle who leapt from the plane with $200,000 cash, never to be seen again. The feds in early August confirmed the tip and called the lead “promising.” Once again, the unsolved case, nearly four decades old, was making headlines around the world.

Nearly as quickly as the tip surfaced, it was dismissed. DNA didn’t match, FBI officials said.

That wasn’t surprising to Geoffrey Gray, a contributing editor at New York magazine who just published a gripping account of the case, Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper (Crown; $25). Skyjack is as much a story of the derring-do hijacking as it is the tale of the suspects and the searchers.

Intrigue about the Cooper case has persisted for years. Gray carefully charts how he was personally drawn into the Cooper Curse, the malady that afflicts anyone who hunts for a definitive truth in the case. On July 6, 2007, Gray met with a source, a private investigator, who claimed he knew someone who knew something about Cooper’s true identity. Setting out on a cloak-and-dagger reporting assignment, Gray began to interview people associated with the hijacking. He was given access to the FBI files and sifted through reams of source material.

As Gray delves into the past, he deftly takes the reader with him, giving life to the early ’70s with vivid details.

Gray brings his readers into the Boeing Field control room in Seattle where Northwest Orient Airlines executives spar with federal agents about what to do with the emergency on Flight 305. We hear the police radio sputter in Portland as a verified “164,”  the code for a hijacking, is broadcast. We meet Special Agent Ralph Himmelsbach, on his way home for Thanksgiving, who is diverted to PDX and would spend much of his career chasing the case. We see how a Portland wire reporter misheard a source and typed “D.B.,” forever enshrining false initials to the mysterious man known officially only as Dan Cooper.

From the moment Cooper jumped out of the back of the plane, amateurs joined professionals to scour southwest Washington for signs of the hijacker and his $200,000 cache.

Suspects emerged along with clues. Skyjack introduces a motley cast including a transsexual loner, a crazed widow, and a disturbed explorer who has spent decades roaming the dense Washington woods for Cooper’s body.

Skyjack is hardly the first book about the Cooper hijacking. There are nearly a dozen titles.  Still, Skyjack feels entirely contemporary. Its immersion journalism blended with strong narrative nonfiction told in a breathless way.

It becomes hard to distinguish foe from foil, just as it becomes hard to discern rumor from fact, or memory from fantasy. By the book’s end, the author is peering over his shoulder fearing conspiracies that have whirled among his sources. Was the Cooper case a government conspiracy? Would the feds hunt him down? “I lock my cabin windows,” Gray writes. “I place a few washed-out tomato cans in the doorway — my own homemade alarm system. I think about hiding a steak knife under my mattress.”

In an interview on NPR, Gray said he believes that the hijacker survived and could still be on the lam. I find Gray’s conclusion at odds with his book. What survives about the case is the Cooper Curse, the infectious disorder that haunts Cooper sleuths. The author’s optimism that the case may be solved is the first symptom that he’s been exposed, not inoculated.

What’s so thrilling about “Skyjack” is that Gray stacks up the virus chapter after chapter. By the end, like the author, the reader tests positive. The Cooper Curse has been passed on yet again.


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