The Unsolved Case of Plane Hijacker DB Cooper
We look at the Canadian connection behind the only case of aviation piracy that the FBI couldn't crack.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
This past summer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it was formally ending its 45-year-old investigation into the infamous D.B. Cooper case, the only unsolved case of American aviation piracy. The bureau told the media that it was "redirecting resources" from the case that has become one of the longest ongoing FBI investigations on record.
On the 24th of November 1971, a man wearing a dark suit, sunglasses and calling himself Dan Cooper (the media inaccurately reported him as being D.B. Cooper, but it became a popular epithet) skyjacked a Boeing 727 plane flying from Portland to Seattle. After boarding the flight, and ordering a bourbon and soda, Cooper showed a flight attendant a briefcase with what appeared to be a bomb inside. Cooper demanded that the plane land in Seattle and he be given $200,000 (the equivalent of around $1.2 million today) in "negotiable American currency" and four parachutes.
After receiving the cash and parachutes, Cooper released all 36 passengers from the plane. Two pilots, a flight attendant, and flight engineer remained onboard. After refuelling, Cooper told the pilots to plot a course to Mexico with a stop in Reno, Nevada to re-fuel; he also told the pilots to fly at an altitude just under 10,000 feet and to set the flaps to 15 degrees. A short time later, Cooper equipped two of the four parachutes, opened the staircase at the back of the plane and jumped into the Pacific Northwest night.
On the plane, Cooper left behind a black clip-on-tie, a tie clip, two of the four parachutes he had demanded, and several cigarette butts. However, no trace of Cooper was ever found, and to this day his identity has remained a mystery. In the 45 years since the skyjacking, amateur and professional sleuths, conspiracy theorists, authors, investigative journalists, and former and current members of the FBI have tried to solve the Cooper mystery. Despite years of FBI investigations into numerous suspects and over 900 self-confessed Coopers coming forward, no one has ever confirmed the identity of the skyjacker.
A Canadian Connection?
Over the years, a plethora of theories on who Cooper was have sparked numerous independent investigations. Interestingly, many of the theories involve Canada. Some suggest Cooper may have worked or lived in Canada, while others allege he may have stashed the cash in a Vancouver bank. Some even claim Cooper was responsible for sending a mysterious letter to a Vancouver newspaper, just days after the skyjacking. The following theories explore some of the more popular Canadian angles that have become attached to the Cooper mystery.
In 2011, Galen Cook, an American lawyer and amateur Cooper sleuth, believed that the answer to who Cooper was lay with a US Army and Air Force veteran named William Pratt Gossett. Gossett allegedly told his sons that it was he who pulled off the skyjacking. Gossett's sons said that their father once showed them the famous sketch of Cooper and claimed he was, in fact, the skyjacker. Cook also noted that Gossett had extensive military training including "jump training and wilderness survival"—the sort of skills that would have been needed to pull off the heist.
Cook told the Canadian Press that one of Gossett's sons showed him a key that apparently opened a safety deposit box at a bank in Vancouver, which supposedly contained the Cooper ransom money. Gossett's sons claimed that their father took a mysterious trip to Vancouver in 1973, almost two years after the skyjacking. One of the sons claimed that, during the trip, his father left him in a hotel room and said that he'd "be back in a couple of hours." When his father returned, they immediately returned to the States. One of William's sons, Greg Gossett, told The Canadian Press "He always had a thing about Canada."
However, William Gossett died in 2003 and no one could confirm if he actually did stash money in a Canadian bank. Nonetheless, the Gossett theory is not the only piece of potential evidence that suggests Cooper visited the city of Vancouver.
On the 30th of November 1971, just a few days after the skyjacking, someone calling themselves D.B. Cooper mailed a letter to the Vancouver newspaper The Province. The letter—deemed to be one of four mailed by someone claiming to be Cooper in the Pacific Northwest region—complained of the inaccuracy of the composite sketch created by the FBI and claimed that he, Cooper, attended the November 28th Grey Cup game at Vancouver's Empire Stadium where the Calgary Stampeders beat the Toronto Argonauts. "I enjoyed the Grey Cup Game. Am leaving Vancouver. Thanks for your hospitality, D.B. Cooper," reads the end of the letter.
Tom Colbert, an investigative reporter who has been probing the Cooper case for the last five years and has released a book on his investigation, The Last Master Outlaw, suggested the letter could be significant in the case.
"We believe the letter, written during your Grey Cup game, was not planned," Colbert told VICE. In a recent History Channel documentary, Colbert and a team of investigators confronted a man they believe to be Cooper: a 73-year-old Vietnam war veteran named Robert W. Rackstraw. However, the FBI still chose to wind down its investigation into the case, despite Colbert's suspect and circumstantial findings.
Colbert told VICE he hired a handwriting expert who compared The Province letter to the airline ticket Cooper purchased for his flight. Colbert said the handwriting expert who examined the two documents concluded that the two samples could have been written by the same individual. After receiving the letter, The Province turned it over to the Vancouver Police Department. Colbert told VICE that it looks like the VPD has since either misplaced, or purged the letter.
A French Connection
Another popular Canadian theory surrounding the Cooper case was that he may have visited, or worked, in Quebec. In 2011 a team of amateur sleuths, backed by the FBI, announced that Cooper may have been a French-Canadian who was military trained and/or a chemical engineer.
The theory was explored by a group called Citizen Sleuths; they revealed that Cooper may have created his identity from a 1960s Franco-Belgian comic book based around a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilot named Dan Cooper. The comic apparently shows a sequence of the main character parachuting out of an airplane, while another episode involves a ransom in a knapsack—details matching the Cooper skyjacking.
The same group who brought forward the comic theory was also able to do a forensic analysis of the tie Cooper left behind on the plane; their results showed that the tie had traces of Titanium on it. As a result, the theory is that Cooper was employed at some sort of metal working plant, probably as some sort of chemical engineer.
There are two other major points that suggest Cooper may have had a connection to Canada. The first being the accent, or lack thereof, of the skyjacker. The same team of sleuths that analyzed the tie suggested that Cooper's "lack of accent" is a sign that he could have been Canadian. This theory was also popular amongst online Cooper sleuths, "While many Quebecers speak English with a heavy accent or not at all, there ARE thousands who speak it so fluently that you would not know that English isn't their mother tongue," said one user named "Valteron" on a popular Cooper message board.
On their website the Citizen Sleuths also noted, "The French Canadians without accents are the Franco-Manitobans, the Franco-Albertans, and possibly the Franco-Ontarians. They would be likely to not have an accent when speaking English." Tom Kaye, member of Citizen Sleuths and Director of the Foundation of Scientific Advancement, told VICE that he thinks the accent could be key in discovering Cooper's identity, "Where would you come from outside the country [US] and not have an accent in this country? There's only one place and that's Canada."
"Negotiable American Currency"
But the most compelling piece of evidence that suggests Cooper may have visited Canada, or planned to escape to Canada, is the fact that he asked for "negotiable American currency."
"The only way you say a line like that is if you were from outside the country," said Kaye. Adding that it makes no sense why Cooper would ask for "negotiable American currency" if he didn't have plans to leave the country. "The big thing that pointed everything towards Canada was the fact the he asked for negotiable American currency," concluded Kaye. Furthermore, American currency is a widely accepted form of payment in many countries all over the world, which means Canada is not the only place Cooper could have fled to.
In 1980, a young boy—while playing in the sand along the banks of the Columbia River in Washington, in a place known as Tena Bar—found almost $6,000 in tattered cash. The boy's parents reported the money to the authorities who confirmed that the serial numbers matched the ransom cash Cooper had been given. To this day, the Tena Bar money find has been the only public recovery of any of the cash Cooper jumped with.
One of the lesser known Canadian theories surrounding Cooper involves a man named James (Jim) Hugh Macdonald. On Dec. 7, 1971, Macdonald went missing after taking off in his Mooney Mark M20D single-engine prop plane from Thompson Airport in Northern Manitoba with the supposed destinationof Winnipeg.
The theory that Macdonald may have been Cooper was popular on message boards, and an older sketch of Macdonald does show a similar resemblance to the composite sketch of Cooper created by the FBI. However, there's never been any substantial evidence to suggest Macdonald was involved in the skyjacking over the Pacific Northwest in 1971.
Bruce Smith, a journalist and author of DB Cooper and the FBI: A Case Study of America's Only Unsolved Skyjacking, told VICE that more recent theories have sleuths "convinced that DB Cooper is a Special Forces Soldier."
Smith said that the entire skyjacking has all the makings of a special forces operation: Cooper knew more about the plane than the pilots did; he knew the staircase below the 727 could open when flying less than 10,000 feet with the flaps open at 15 degrees, and everything seemed meticulously planned and organized.
"The salient fact is the knowledge that Cooper had, the abilities that he demonstrated," Smith told VICE. He also explained that this theory even goes as far as suggesting the entire skyjacking was organized by some government entity to ensure the "federalization" of airline safety. It's a theory that, when unpacked, begins to make sense in the way all conspiracy theories can.
"Was DB Cooper actually from Canada because he didn't have an accent? Maybe," said Smith. "Was Dan Cooper actually Quebecois, was he actually in the Royal Canadian Air Force? Maybe."
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the Cooper case is just how little concrete evidence there is. There's a tonne of circumstantial evidence that when looked at, and studied by any individual, can lead to any number of rabbit holes. But then again, that's the fun part of the Cooper case—any theory could make sense, including the Canadian ones.
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