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Sunday, November 17, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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D.B. Cooper -- Perfect Crime Or Perfect Folly?

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

25 years ago, with parachute and loot, he leaped from a 727 and into Northwest legend

The floor of the Washougal River Watershed is so cluttered with nature's ever-expanding debris that each step snaps a twig or yanks a stubborn bramble.

Yet Jerry Thomas, a retired Army infantryman, drill sergeant and survival instructor, seems convinced that somewhere amid this jumble he will someday pick up the frigid trail of D.B. Cooper, the skyjacker who collected $200,000 in ransom and bailed out of a Boeing 727 and into Northwest legend 25 years ago next Sunday.

Thomas' step-by-step, eight-year search seems beyond looking for a needle in a haystack. This could very well be the wrong haystack. And the needle could be driving a Cadillac in Florida by now.

Cooper parachuted from 10,000 feet into the blackness of a Thanksgiving eve storm with a 21-pound bag of $20 bills tied around his waist. His is still the only unsolved domestic skyjacking in U.S. history and despite checking out almost 10,000 potential suspects and maintaining a case file 60 volumes thick, the FBI remains stumped.

In fact, speculation, blind trails and Thomas' stubbornness are about all that's left. The basic questions have never been answered: Who was he? Where did land? Is he dead or alive? What happened to the money?

Even the name, "D.B. Cooper" was pure media creation. The day after the skyjacking, FBI agents checked out a Portland man with that name and quickly cleared him. But the moniker stuck.

In his years of searching, Thomas, 45, has found a stagecoach rifle and a 1921 penny, but no sign of Cooper. Yet he remains vigilant. As he describes what he believes happened, he interrupts himself in mid-sentence to bend down and examine a piece of glass smaller than a dime.

"Looked out of place," he says.

He is convinced the skyjacker landed hard - "splattered" - and was swallowed by this dense expanse of firs and ravines north of the Columbia River and about 12 miles east of Vancouver. He's equally convinced he will one day find something, a parachute harness, a remnant of the money bag or maybe scraps of the loot.

"I've done this so long I figure if I can find something then people won't think I'm such a lunatic," he says.

"Miss . . . I have a bomb"

The skyjacker wore a dark suit and tie, white shirt, pearl tie tack, short dark hair. He carried a briefcase and dark raincoat, periodically wore sunglasses and identified himself as "Dan Cooper" when he paid $20 cash for a one-way, midafternoon flight from Portland to Seattle.

Although skyjackings were alarmingly common back then - 147 between 1967 and 1972 - there were no security checkpoints to examine the contents of his carry-on. He took seat 18C on Northwest Flight 305 and had the row to himself.

The jet was barely in the air before he passed a note to a flight attendant sitting nearby. She thought he was hitting on her so she slipped it, unopened, into her pocket. Cooper leaned closer, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."

At one point, he opened his brief case and gave her a peek. She saw several red cylinders and a nest of wires.

When the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport three hours later, at 5:40 p.m., the other passengers still didn't know they were hostages. Once Cooper got $200,000 and four parachutes, the plane was emptied except for him and four crew members.

He never specified the denominations of the ransom money so the FBI gave him 10,000 $20 bills (all of which had been photocopied) to slow him down. Agents worried that the extra parachutes meant he might take hostages if he did bail out.

Once the plane was refueled, Cooper instructed the pilot to fly toward Mexico, but no higher than 10,000 feet, with wing flaps at 15 degrees and landing gear down. That would slow the plane down, below 200 mph, and make jumping easier. He also wanted the rear stairway door open at takeoff, but he relented when the captain told him the jet couldn't get airborne that way.

As soon as the jet took off, Cooper sent flight attendant Tina Mucklow to the cockpit and told her to stay there. She glanced back on her way out of the 126-seat passenger section and thought she saw him using cord to tie something, probably the money bag, around his waist.

Less than five minutes later, Cooper began trying to open the rear stairway. Sometime around 8:05 p.m., about 30 minutes after takeoff, a cockpit warning light showed the stairway was fully extended. The pilot asked over the intercom: "Is everything OK back there? Anything we can do for you?" Cooper yelled, "No!" and was never heard from nor seen again.

At 8:11 p.m. the crew felt pressure bumps, which the FBI believes were caused by Cooper jumping off the ramplike stairway, forcing it to snap shut briefly before re-opening.

Cooper jumped into a storm, with air temperatures around 7 degrees below zero, strong winds and freezing rain. It wasn't until the plane landed for more fuel in Reno, with the stairway still down, that the crew and FBI knew for sure he was gone.

Authorities estimated he landed near the small community of Ariel, east of Woodland and one ridge line over from the Washougal watershed. The weather was so bad that the manhunt was delayed a few days.

Cooper had vanished. Agents combed the plane and were left with nothing but his skinny black tie, a tie tack, eight of his cigarette butts, two of the parachutes, and possibly a fingerprint among the 66 never identified. He had cut nylon cords off one of the remaining chutes, apparently so he could tie on the money bag.

Former agent Ralph Himmelsbach tried to chase the jet in a helicopter that night and spent the next eight-plus years - until his mandatory retirement in 1980 - in the equally futile assignment of following up thousands of tips.

Himmelsbach has written a book on the case (NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper) and believes the skyjacker likely died near where he landed. Thanks to two clues, rare things in the Cooper case, the ex-agent also believes Thomas is looking in the right area.

First, an 8-year-old boy digging a fire pit on a sand bar along the north bank of the Columbia River west of Vancouver on Feb. 10, 1980, unearthed $5,800 of Cooper's loot. The money, only inches below the surface, had eroded so badly that only Andrew Jackson and the serial numbers were left.

Some believe the find showed Cooper landed in or near the Columbia River, but hydrologists concluded the tattered and still-bundled money was more likely deposited by a stream flow than human hands.

The area where Cooper was thought to have landed is drained by the Lewis River, which empties into the Columbia downstream from where the money was found. The Washougal empties into the Columbia about 15 miles upstream.

Himmelsbach says the early months of 1972 were marked by extremely high river levels, which could have carried the loot downstream. Decrepit rubber bands were found along with the money, meaning the cash had to have been deposited there before the bands lost their integrity.

The second clue: On Himmelsbach's last day with the bureau, the Northwest pilot came to visit. The agent learned for the first time that the pilot, who had been manually flying the plane that night because of Cooper's speed and altitude demands, was traveling farther east than authorities had realized. That meant the actual drop zone was probably south-southeast of the area that was searched.

Of course, no one saw Cooper jump. Nobody knows which way he drifted, or whether his chute opened, or whether he had survival gear stashed, or if he was a paratrooper or, whether he lost the recovered portion of the money while in the air, or if he had more tricks up his sleeve.

Right plane, wrong parachutes

Thomas, who did a tour in Vietnam and led survival courses before retiring from the Army after an 18-year career, stands on the banks of the west fork of the Washougal River. It is about 10 yards wide, ice-cold and rumbling in tiers over and around slimy boulders.

Even if Cooper had survived the jump, he would likely have been injured and unprepared to make it through the thickets or down the cold river, especially in the blackness of the woods, Thomas says.

He points to small caves that honeycomb the far banks. "Maybe he crawled up in one of those. But he didn't. Because I checked."

He carries a 6-foot walking stick, wrapped with cord and with a hook on one end. He uses it to knock a basketball-sized moss nest out of a flimsy, low-bending tree hanging over the water. About the size of a money bag that could have gotten caught up in such a tree, he ventures.

Himmelsbach, who occasionally talks with Thomas, believes Cooper died near a stream, enabling the money to eventually be carried out to the Columbia. He believes nothing short of death would have separated Cooper from the money he gambled his life to get.

But just in case, air-piracy charges await him in U.S. District Court.

Himmelsbach says Cooper planned his caper well, but not well enough. He picked the right plane - the only jet in which the stairwell could be opened in mid-flight (a latching device called "the Cooper Vane" has since been installed). He knew enough to require the pilot to fly low and slow.

But he left the plane with the two worst parachutes, including one marked with an "X," meaning it wouldn't open properly. It was mistakenly provided in the haste to meet his demands.

He did not require the pilot fly a precise route, which makes it seem unlikely Cooper had a rendezvous established. And he did not ask for warm clothing, a helmet and goggles.

"We would have given it to him; we gave him everything else," Himmelsbach says. "He was wearing loafers on his feet and you know those things blew off the second he jumped."

Still, some parachute and survival experts like Frank Heyl of Lake Oswego, Ore., insist Cooper could have made it - with luck and training. Heyl puts Cooper's survival chances at 50 percent. He also believes Cooper ended up in the Washougal basin.

The absence of any trail suggests Cooper could have gotten away, says Heyl, a longtime friend of Himmelsbach's.

"The case is still open isn't it? And Frank and no other agent caught him did they?"

Witnesses described Cooper as in his late 40s, with an olive complexion, between 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall with an athletic build. He had no trace of a regional accent, recognized Tacoma from the air and commented that McChord Air Force Base was only 20 minutes from the airport.

He used filthy language and although he was generally calm, he drank whiskey and smoked at least eight Raleigh filter-tip cigarettes while on the plane. He tried to give one of the attendants a $20 tip, but she refused.

Himmelsbach says Cooper may have been ex-military, but more likely was an ex-con, a loner who burned friends and family and was desperate enough to ignore the long odds.

"When a guy like that drops out of sight the people around him are glad and they don't think much about it, maybe figuring he's in jail again," Himmelsbach says. "You certainly don't get a 48-year-old man who has lived a normal life suddenly doing what this guy did."

He was, Himmelsbach says, "a dirty, rotten crook."

Yet, he also achieved cult status. It was a gutsy, anti-establishment move in an era of Vietnam, Nixon, demonstrations, hippies. It was one man beating the established order, slipping past the feds and managing not to physically hurt anyone.

He became subject of a song, a movie (in which he got clean away with the money), T-shirts and contrived events such as D.B. Cooper bowling tournaments.

The town of Ariel, once thought to be the drop zone, still holds an annual D.B. Cooper celebration. A restaurant in Salt Lake City calls itself "D.B. Cooper's," and will host a "Jump Night" party and give away either a round-trip ticket to Seattle or parachuting lessons.

Cooper was also a copycat, Himmelsbach says, imitating an unsuccessful attempt in Montana just two weeks before. The other skyjacker used a gun and was overcome by the crew. Cooper refined the plan using the threat of a bomb.

Skyjacking was hardly an original crime. There had been 40 in 1969 and more than 25 the year Cooper did it. But it had mainly been a political crime. He helped introduce greed, the threat of a bomb and a parachute getaway to the picture.

The next year, screening devices became mandatory in airports.

The FBI still receives periodic tips ranging from the possible to the bizarre.

Submarines, water witches

Led by the glow of his lantern, Thomas trudges a third of a mile down an abandoned copper mine, one of several tucked away on the hillsides. He slogs through ankle-deep water and the steady drip from a rivulet seeping in from above.

The shaft is 6 feet high at its peak, just high enough to accommodate his rumpled, but compact frame. The wooden rails built at the turn of the century are still in place. It was right here, where for just a moment, Thomas' heart fluttered some time ago.

He had found the remnant of a blackened canvas bag. The one Cooper used to haul his loot? Had the skyjacker ducked into this shaft to find shelter, nurse a injured ankle, and avoid detection?

Nope. It was just a mine bag.

"It didn't last long, but I felt the excitement," he says. "Nothing was here, but I know it wasn't because I looked. I've walked it. I've felt it."

Others have chased it. Someone used a small submarine to scour the bottom of Lake Merwin. Another guy dragged portions of the Columbia River. Even a water witch got involved.

Thomas, who lives off his military pension and prefers the woods to city streets, says he is not looking to become famous or famously eccentric. He says, simply, that trying to help solve a 25-year-old Northwest mystery seems a worthy hobby.

"I know there is something out here," he says, "There has to be."

--------------------------------- D.B. COOPER: PROFILE OF A SUSPECT ---------------------------------

Age: mid-to-late 40s.

Height: 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet.

Weight: 170 to 180 pounds.

Build: athletic.

Complexion: olive, swarthy.

Hair: dark brown, parted on left and combed back.

Eyes: brown, wore wrap-around sunglasses during the latter part of the flight.

Voice: low, no accent, spoke intelligently.

Characteristics: heavy smoker, drank whiskey, seemed calm but used coarse language, appeared familiar with the Puget Sound region.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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