“I have a bomb.” It’s 1971, and those four fearsome words have just been scrawled on a note and handed to flight attendant Flo Schaffner. The man who wrote them – a passenger on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 – also reveals a briefcase seemingly filled with dynamite. Terrified, Schaffner sees no option but to help him secure a ransom of $200,000 and four parachutes. And when the cash is delivered, the thief makes a daring mid-air leap from the plane – never to be seen again. It’s an incredible story, and the jaw-dropping hijack baffled experts and investigators the world over. But now, almost 50 years later, important new evidence has allowed researchers to crack a crucial component of the D.B. Cooper case.
This latest discovery comes from citizen sleuth Tom Kaye. The scientist is one of only a handful of regular people who’ve been permitted to see the case documents by the FBI. It’s just as well Kaye was granted access to the files, too: his work has unearthed a crucial new clue in what was presumed to be an unsolvable cold case. And with it, we’re now a whole lot closer to catching the crafty crook.
“Dan Cooper” – christened “D.B.” in the press – has been at large since November 24, 1971. At the time, there was nothing about the guy that singled him out as special or noteworthy. He simply walked up to the desk of Northwest Orient Airlines and purchased a ticket to Seattle, Washington. It’s a pretty low-excitement start to the country’s most daring heist.
The descriptions of D.B. Cooper weren’t very exciting, either. According to the FBI investigation, he was simply a middle-aged guy who was “nondescript” and “quiet.” Cooper was also dressed in a suit, white shirt and tie. So basically, he could’ve been just about any adult male boarding a flight in 1971… until he spoke to Flo Schaffner.
It happened a little after 3:00 p.m. Cooper had already enjoyed a smoke and a stiff drink – perhaps to calm any pre-hijack nerves. And when he slipped Schaffner the message, the flight attendant initially ignored it. She figured it was simply one more dude making a pass at her. Cooper demanded she look at it, though, and that’s when things took a turn for the worse.
Cooper told Schaffner to sit next to him and then issued his demands. He wanted $200,000 in cash plus four parachutes. He also asked for the plane to be refueled after they’d landed in Seattle. And if the hijacker didn’t get what he asked for? Well, then he’d blow up the craft. Faced with that terrifying threat, Schaffner had no choice but to be his messenger.
Flight 305 landed in Seattle a couple of hours after its scheduled arrival time. The FBI had Cooper’s money – and some snipers – ready and waiting. Cooper then traded the plane’s 36 passengers for his dough. But he didn’t wait around for the craft to finish refueling. Instead, he ordered the pilot to take off for Mexico City. Yet the daring hijacker never crossed the border.
In a staggering twist, Cooper leaped from the aircraft – according to the FBI – “somewhere between Seattle and Reno [in Nevada].” He was wearing a parachute and carrying the $200,000… and that was the last anybody ever saw him. Not for lack of trying, mind you. People have tried really hard to track down the mysterious hijacker – but they’ve been thwarted at every turn.
The day after the crime took place, the FBI poured into the area’s woods to look for any clue as to where Cooper could have gone. They found nothing. But the agents did put together a profile. They figured Cooper knew about aircraft and had knowledge of the region. The investigators also had a good idea of his character and appearance.
But it wasn’t enough. After five years of searching, the FBI had looked at and dismissed around 800 possible culprits. Only a handful were viable suspects, though, and no arrests were made. Yet there was one guy who continued to be singled out by those working on the case. This man’s name was Richard McCoy.
McCoy entered the picture several months on from the Cooper skyjacking. The reason? He had pulled off a heist in a very similar fashion to Cooper. Yep, parachutes, ransom money and all. This time, though, McCoy was captured shortly after his mid-air escape. Yet even though McCoy was convicted for his crime, the FBI eventually declared that he wasn’t the elusive D.B. Cooper.
Of course, the agents had to consider the possibility that Cooper had died during his escape attempt. This really was an incredibly risky skydive, after all. It was dark, Cooper’s parachute lacked any controls, and he was diving into territory filled with trees. All of this would have challenged a professional skydiver – and investigators didn’t think Cooper was one. But then came a breakthrough.
A boy named Brian Ingram was out with his parents in Vancouver, Washington, one day in 1980. He made a space for a fire close to the Columbia River – at Tena Bar – and came across a weird bump in the ground. “I wasn’t excited at all at first,” Ingram later told People magazine. “Then I brushed the sand off, and it was money!”
You guessed it: the stash was part of Cooper’s ransom money. The bills were damp and disintegrating – but their serial numbers proved they’d been among Cooper’s cash. This was a big deal, of course, and the FBI arrived soon after to hunt for further clues.
Unfortunately for the agents, though, they came up empty-handed. Yet the evidence still raised interesting questions. How did the $5,800 end up in this exact spot? And what did it mean for the hijacking case? Well, nobody ever offered any completely satisfying answers. But the money did provide investigators with three tantalizing theories.
The problem with the money was that it was found about 20 miles from where the FBI reckoned Cooper had landed. So if the investigators had their facts straight, how had the money traveled such a long way? One explanation was that the FBI was simply wrong about the landing site and the hijacker had in fact dropped down near the river. But not everyone was convinced.
Another theory suggested that the skyjacker – or perhaps some kind of accomplice – purposefully hid the cash there as a distraction. If that were the case, it certainly worked! Yet the most prominent explanation for the money ending up where it did came from Leonard Palmer, a Portland State University geologist. It’s called the “Washougal Washdown Theory.”
It’s got a catchy name, so you know it’s going to be good, right? Palmer’s suggestion is that Cooper did drop out of the plane around Ariel – as the FBI figured. But during the descent, Palmer said, some of his cash landed in a nearby stream. This money then followed the current and gradually made its way along the Columbia River to Tena Bar.
That’s all well and good… But it doesn’t tell us who D.B. Cooper was, does it? While the FBI continued to investigate the case, the experts never settled on a suspect – and the years continued to pass. The case grew cold. Then, in 2007, scientist Tom Kaye and his team got involved.
It was at this time that the FBI “reignited the case” of D.B. Cooper by asking the public for help. Kaye and his “Cooper Research Team” were then granted access to the case files and conducted several years of research. As we know, the work continues to this day – with Kaye’s latest discovery providing the most compelling clue yet.
The idea was to apply modern research techniques to a decades-old case. Kaye could take advantage of technology that didn’t even exist in 1971 to try to catch the criminal. And we should note that this most recent discovery is far from the first conclusion that the team has drawn.
You see, the team’s initial investigation focused on Cooper’s tie. The skyjacker had left it behind when he’d leaped from the plane. And one fact that Kaye uncovered, which he and his team published on CitizenSleuths.com, took “the number of potential suspects from millions down to hundreds.” What had he found? That Cooper had “worked at or had access to a plant that used titanium.”
Yet while this was clearly an exciting discovery, it didn’t result in the investigators finally getting their man. In 2016, in fact, the FBI officially closed the case, citing the need “to focus on other investigative priorities.” The door was still left open so that any new leads connected to the cash would be looked into, though. And Kaye’s recent discovery certainly is a striking piece of new evidence.
The discovery first came to the public’s attention in August 2020. Speaking to King 5, Kaye revealed that he’d taken a much closer look at the D.B. Cooper ransom money found in 1980. And using his trusty electron microscope, the scientist has seemingly made a big breakthrough in the case. So what’s the deal?
As we’ve already heard, the money has been the cause of much debate. Kaye’s team had even previously noted that the cash “continues to resist all natural explanations for how it arrived on Tena Bar.” But it seems that all the research so far had failed to consider the diatoms. And if you’re now wondering what we’re talking about, don’t worry: we’re going to explain.
Diatoms, it turns out, are algae. They’re pretty common, too. According to diatoms.org, these single-celled microalgae are actually responsible for about half of the oxygen we inhale. So perhaps that’s why Kaye and his team hadn’t paid much attention initially to the diatoms they’d found on the Cooper money more than a decade earlier. But then Kaye had an idea.
Kaye’s big moment came when he realized that the algae could reveal brand-new information. “We wondered if we could use these different species of diatoms that we found on the Cooper bills a long time ago to determine when the money got wet and when the money landed on [Tena Bar],” the scientist explained to King 5.
And that’s basically what Kaye did. He put the diatoms under the microscope and discovered that these little fellas only come out at a certain time of year. “[The diatoms] bloom in the spring. They do not bloom in November when Cooper jumped,” Kaye explained. This is an important find for several reasons.
For one thing, it throws a wrench into Palmer’s theory that the money floated into the Columbia River as Cooper parachuted toward the ground. Why? “The money was not floating in the water for a year, otherwise we would have seen diatoms from the full range of the year,” Kaye told King 5.
“We only saw [the diatoms] from the spring… the springtime bloom,” the scientist continued. “So this puts a very narrow range on when the money got wet and was subsequently buried on Tena Bar.” Okay, well, that puts an end to a 40-year-old theory. But what did happen?
According to Kaye’s research, Cooper’s cash could only have found its way into the water in either May or June. So this means that for at least five or six months after the dramatic hijack, the money was on dry land. But Kaye also reckons that it doesn’t indicate that the other popular theory is correct.
Remember when we mentioned earlier about Cooper or an accomplice burying the dough to throw off the investigators? At first glance, the new evidence could suggest that this is a workable theory. It’s certainly possible to say that the ransom money was buried for those elusive five or six months. Right?
Well, no. Kaye said that’s not the case. Presumably, this is because the scientist would’ve found evidence of a burial while investigating the diatoms. So that’s two workable theories thrown to the wind. All of which makes us return to the question of what actually happened on that day in 1971.
And even though Kaye’s discovery is significant, it probably doesn’t bring us much closer to solving the mystery. It just means that we now know how the money didn’t find its way to Tena Bar. But given that Kaye has been working on the case for so long, it’s probably okay to assume he has some sort of theory.
But you’d be wrong. Upon being pressed on the unresolved issues of the case, Kaye declared to King 5, “Cooper is still messing with us.” It’s probably not the answer that most people wanted, but it’s hard to argue with the man. Mind you, the case continues to generate interest – and another development cropped up in 2021.
This time it involves flight attendant Tina Mucklow. She was onboard Flight 305 and was an integral part of Cooper’s negotiations. Yet for all the years afterward, the flight attendant has refused to talk publicly about her experiences. And for some reporters and amateur detectives, this has made her the crucial link to solving the D.B. Cooper mystery.
So these folks must’ve been beside themselves with joy when, in January 2021, Rolling Stone released an interview with Mucklow. This is a woman who was up close and personal with D.B. Cooper, after all. Surely now they’d get the answers that they so desperately longed for?
Alas, while Mucklow no doubt had plenty of interesting things to say about the hijacking, none of them pointed the finger at a particular suspect. But perhaps the interview will help to get people off her back. “There have been many times when I’ve felt that people didn’t respect ‘no’ or ‘not interested,’” she explained.
And despite being accused by one Cooper obsessive of being a “wounded woman” who’s “traumatized” by the skyjacking, Mucklow has said that this simply isn’t true. “I went on with my life, pursued what I needed to do, had my own personal interests, likes and wants,” she told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t defined by that hijacking.”
The FBI couldn’t find an answer to the D.B. Cooper mystery, then. And Tom Kaye couldn’t solve all of the case’s conundrums. Even flight attendant Tina Mucklow didn’t provide the insight so many people have been waiting for. So, will we ever find out who D.B. Cooper really is? We’ll just have to watch this space.