The FBI’s Decades-Long Hunt for D.B. Cooper—the Only Airline Hijacker Who Got Away
The new HBO documentary “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” investigates the potential suspects who may have hijacked a 1971 flight with a suitcase-bomb and parachuted into obscurity.
Some criminal cases go unsolved simply because of the era in which they took place. Take, for example, the 1971 hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, which left Portland for Seattle on Thanksgiving Eve and was promptly commandeered by a man in a suit and sunglasses who claimed his name was Dan Cooper (later known as D.B. Cooper, owing to a news mix-up). Armed with a bomb, Cooper convinced the craft to land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where he collected from the FBI four parachutes and $200,000 in cash. He then let the passengers go, forced the plane to take off for Mexico City, and then leapt out of the tail door somewhere between Seattle and Reno, never to be heard from again.
It’s America’s only unsolved airplane hijacking. And thanks to a dearth of satellite footage and DNA evidence, it seems likely to stay that way—a notion underscored by the FBI’s July 2016 decision to suspend its decades-long investigation into the event, the byproduct of a “different world” in which airport security was light, hijackings were common, and forensic investigations were (relatively) primitive.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper (premiering Nov. 25 on HBO) revisits this infamous episode in American criminal history with an awareness that a definitive answer to its central question—who was D.B. Cooper?—probably isn’t in the cards. Rather, writer/director John Dower’s documentary is simply content to revel in the unknowability of its story. To that end, it’s a tantalizing look at a case that stymies conclusions at every turn. There are many potential D.B. Coopers examined by this entertaining true-crime effort, and the pleasure comes from trying to decide which of them is the most plausible.
With the same lightheartedness that characterized Dower’s prior My Scientology Movie, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper details that fateful November 1971 night when, in the pouring rain and the pitch-black darkness, D.B. Cooper strapped a parachute on, grabbed his newly-acquired cash, and jumped out of Flight 305 and into forested parts unknown. Guided by interviews with co-pilot William Rataczak and second officer Harold “Andy” Anderson, as well as flight attendant Tina Mucklow, who tended to Cooper throughout this ordeal, the director provides a step-by-step account of how this daring individual got away with a scheme that could have fallen apart at any number of different moments. That he then vanished into thin air only enhanced his mythological aura, which some here liken to that of Robin Hood, since he was a bold thief sticking it to corporate America at the exact moment that Boeing was closing up shop in Seattle and economic anxiety had gripped the region.
It must be said that, unlike that famed character, Cooper doesn’t seem to have robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Then again, there’s little concrete proof about anything the mastermind did after exiting the plane. The fact that the FBI botched retrieving fingerprints from Cooper’s seat, and has since lost the butts of the cigarettes he smoked, has sabotaged any attempt to use modern-day technology to ascertain his identity. And consequently, what The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is left with is a sizable collection of suspects who could have done the dirty deed—all of them promoted as Cooper by friends and loved ones.
The first of these prospective culprits is Duane Weber, whose wife Jo (with the assistance of colleague/”memory man” Tim Collins) has long maintained he was the guy behind the hijacking. Weber apparently confessed this to her on his deathbed, and before that, he took her on a vacation to the region where Cooper would have landed (where he dug something up in the dirt), and he apparently also had multiple fake identities and bought two new cars right after the hijacking despite having little income. Weber appears to be a good candidate, until the film moves on to its other would-be perpetrators: Barbara Dayton, the first gender-reassignment surgery recipient in Washington state history, and an expert pilot; L.D. Cooper, who supposedly went into hiding shortly after the hijacking; and Richard Floyd McCoy, who in 1972 committed an identical copycat hijacking that nabbed him $500,000, and who was later killed by police after his second escape from prison.
Could one of these four individuals be the real D.B. Cooper? Absolutely! Is there any way to make an irrefutable pronouncement about which one it is? Not on your life! The Mystery of D.B. Cooper thoroughly delves into relatives and friends’ reports about Weber, Dayton, Cooper and McCoy, but what it unearths is a lot of intriguing conjecture and scant hard evidence. There’s a gaping black hole at the center of this saga, and no matter how long one stares at the well-known composite sketch of the hijacker—with or without sunglasses—or listens to FBI agents and authors pore over particulars of the case, resolution remains persistently out of reach.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is thus another real-life whodunit about the elusiveness of truth, and director Dower embraces that state of affairs both narratively and formally. Allowing his own questions to be heard on camera, he foregrounds himself as a kindred spirit to the viewer, desperate for out-of-reach answers. At the same time, he employs dramatic recreations to situate the audience inside the cabin of Flight 305, thereby creating a sense of immediacy, and connection, to Cooper’s feat, even as he routinely underscores how verifiable facts are impossible to come by. While a few of his staged sequences are a bit too melodramatic for their own good, Dower benefits from a cast of characters who are at once amusingly colorful and just believable enough to not be written off as attention-seeking quacks—including author Bruce Smith, who lays out the big picture from a makeshift camper home deep in the woods.
Even the February 1980 discovery of some of Cooper’s stolen loot—which was found by a young boy on the banks of the Columbia River—only further muddied the proverbial waters, begetting a series of new hypotheses that could be neither confirmed nor dismissed. One thing, however, is for certain: whether he lived or died, made off with his bounty or lost it along the way, Cooper continues to be an enduringly mythological true-crime figure, and The Mystery of D.B. Cooper does his baffling feat justice.