SEATTLE – The FBI is investigating a “credible” lead in the D.B. Cooper skyjacking case, nearly 40 years after a tall, dark-complexioned man hijacked a Seattle-bound Boeing 727 on Thanksgiving Eve 1971 and parachuted into history from the rear of the plane with $200,000 in cash.
“We do have a promising lead,” FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich said Sunday, a day after a British newspaper reported the development in a lengthy feature story on the notorious case.
Dietrich, of the Seattle FBI office, cautioned that the FBI is not on the verge of a “big break,” but is carrying out “due diligence” on the new information.
“It’s a routine part of our investigation,” she said.
Dietrich said the FBI received a tip in the past year from a member of law enforcement who directed the bureau to a credible person who might have helpful information on a suspect.
“I can’t get into specifics,” Dietrich said, declining to provide any details on the potential suspect.
The FBI obtained an item from the person to determine if fingerprints can be extracted from it for comparison to the partial prints the hijacker left on a magazine left behind on the plane and parts of the airliner he touched, Dietrich said.
The item has been sent to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va., she said.
Asked to characterize the significance of the lead, Dietrich said, “It’s good” but the case is “not on the brink of a solution.”
She also called the new information the “most promising lead we have right now.”
Dietrich said the FBI disclosed the information to a reporter from The Telegraph newspaper in London, but didn’t think the article was going to appear until November.
In the story, Dietrich is quoted as saying, “The credible lead is somebody whose possible connection to the hijacker is strong. And the suspect is not a name that’s come up before.”
The development is the latest in a case filled with lore, including the name D.B. Cooper, which was a media creation. The hijacker who jumped from the plane Nov. 24, 1971, identified himself as “Dan Cooper,” but a day after the skyjacking FBI agents checked out a Portland man with the name “D.B. Cooper” and quickly cleared him. The moniker stuck, however.
Agents knew little about the skyjacker except that he smoked Raleigh cigarettes, drank whiskey, was familiar with aerodynamics and paid $20 cash for a one-way flight from Portland to Seattle.
He wore a dark suit and tie, white shirt and pearl tie tack, and had short, dark hair. He periodically wore sunglasses, carried a briefcase and a dark raincoat, and took seat 18C on Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305, having the row to himself.
The jet was barely in the air before he passed a note to a flight attendant, who slipped it unopened into a pocket. Cooper leaned closer: “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” He opened his briefcase to reveal several red cylinders and a nest of wires.
The plane landed in Seattle; passengers were exchanged for parachutes and ransom money paid by the airline. With Cooper and the flight crew on board, it took off, heading south toward Mexico.
About 30 minutes later, a cockpit warning light showed the rear stairway was fully extended. The pilot asked over the intercom, “Is everything OK back there?”
Cooper yelled back, “No,” and bailed out the back into freezing darkness.
The plane landed in Reno, Nev., where agents found Cooper’s skinny black tie, tie tack, eight of his cigarette butts and two of the parachutes.
Cooper’s body was never found, and only a portion of the ransom money – whose serial numbers the FBI had recorded – turned up when a child digging in a sandbar on the north bank of the Columbia River west of Vancouver in 1980 unearthed a bundle of $20 bills.
Cooper jumped from 10,000 feet 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, Cowlitz County, 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.