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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

D.B. Cooper hijacking at 50: A half-century ago, a man in a suit jumped from a plane over Washington state and into the American psyche

For a few short hours overnight in November 1971, Missoula’s Michael Cooper may have been the most wanted man in the United States.

The world geography high school teacher had caught Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 in Montana and stopped in Spokane and Portland, before a final puddle jump to Seattle. He shared a Boeing 727 cabin with the man history has dubbed “D.B. Cooper,” the only American flight hijacker whose case remains unsolved today.

“When we got off the airplane, there was a bus that was parked not far away from the aircraft,” Michael Cooper said by phone this week from his home in Sequim. “As soon as we sat down on the bus, one of the FBI agents started to call the roll of the passengers.”

The agent got to “D. Cooper,” and not one of the 30 or so passengers who’d been shuttled away from the jet, where the nondescript hijacker sat with $200,000 in small bills and four parachutes, raised their hand. The agent repeated the name.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘No, it’s M. Cooper,’ ” the teacher remembered saying. The passengers filed out of SeaTac and out into the night. Cooper drove with his sister to her home, where he caught the news that authorities were looking for Michael Cooper, a teacher at Sentinel High School.

“The FBI never did apologize,” said Cooper, who believes the agent crossed the wrong name off the list that night. The issue was corrected by the next morning, when The Spokesman-Review reported the details of the 10,000-foot jump from the aft stairs by the hijacker over the woods of southwest Washington. It was situated on the same front page as news from Paris came to Spokane that Expo ’74 was officially a go.

An FBI agent in Butte confirmed to the Associated Press that Michael Cooper was not a suspect.

Still, fascination with the case ran wild. The desire to know who, and why, a man who gave his name as Dan Cooper had boarded the flight with what was described as dynamite and demanded cash continues to run rampant, 50 years later.

A prime suspect?

Buddy Levy is still convinced Kenny Christiansen hijacked the 727 on Nov. 24, 1971.

“The fact that he worked for the airline, and knew so much about that craft,” said Levy, a professor of English at Washington State University who authored several books on historical figures, including one on Geronimo with former WSU football coach Mike Leach. “The fact that he had been a paratrooper, with 80-plus jumps.”

Levy admits that as a teenager growing up in Ketchum, Idaho, he hadn’t been too drawn to the D.B. Cooper case. But in research for his appearance on the short-lived History Channel documentary series “Decoded,” Levy studied source material provided by the show’s producers.

The episode, which aired in January 2011, took as its premise the idea Christiansen not only survived the jump, but used the ransom to later buy himself a house in Bonney Lake, Washington. Levy said he was persuaded by the physical evidence provided by Christiansen’s brother, Lyle, who had been pitching for years the idea his kin, a man disgruntled by frequent airline strikes, had been pushed to extortion.

Christiansen had been an Army paratrooper before working his way up from flight attendant to purser, an attendant supervisor, with Northwest Orient. He smoked the same brand of cigarettes, Raleighs, that Cooper did before his jump.

One of the key pieces of evidence Levy admits is circumstantial is a photograph of Kenny Christiansen, wearing the same suit and tie and carrying a similar attaché case as the one described holding a bomb by a flight attendant.

“Basically, it’s almost like he went out for Halloween as D.B. Cooper,” Levy said of the photograph.

Investigators have said Kenny Christiansen’s physical characteristics don’t match those provided by eyewitnesses, including flight attendants Florence Schaffner and Tina Mucklow. But on the show, Levy and his co-hosts pair a transparent image of the infamous composite sketch of Cooper with a contemporary photograph of Christiansen. The lines match up nearly perfectly.

Levy was also swayed by Lyle Christiansen’s story that on his brother’s death bed in 1994, he leaned in and told his brother there was something he wanted to get off his chest. But Lyle Christiansen refused to hear it.

“It felt compelling,” Levy said of the story. “It felt pretty strong.”

Levy still gets phone calls and letters every now and then about Cooper, and estimated it was the episode of the show that generates the most interest. That includes a subsequent episode that took him to the secluded woods of Northern California, where he was arrested trying to infiltrate the Bohemian Grove, site of a secretive summer enclave tied to strange rituals by people in positions of power.

Their guide in that episode was a then-little-known radio personality named Alex Jones.

“I realized, when we were interviewing Alex Jones, that he was unhinged,” Levy said now of the controversial, conspiracy-peddling Infowars host. “I did not know that he was ultimately going to become a Sandy Hook denier.”

Levy said he thought Michael Cooper’s story could be further evidence that Kenny Christiansen was involved.

“He might have had access to the manifest, the passenger list, and then he’d be like, I’ll just call this guy Cooper,” Levy said. “That would have put two Coopers on the airplane.”

Still, though, the FBI has not made an official ruling about the case. And that’s unlikely to change.

Lingering lure of outlaw

Larry Carr is used to getting questions about the case he inherited from a colleague changing assignments.

“I just did an interview with a Danish media guy,” Carr, the special agent in charge of the D.B. Cooper case based in Western Washington, said this week.

That was the strategy a little over a decade ago when Carr inherited the Cooper case files, which he said had been stashed in a file cabinet. Many of those files are now viewable online at the FBI’s website, even after the agency suspended its investigation into Cooper in 2016. Carr said the agency put out some new info in hopes someone would come forward, and he was inundated with requests to learn more.

“The media just ate it up,” Carr said. “I was just shocked at how much the media was interested.”

Levy said he isn’t surprised the interest in the D.B. Cooper story persists.

“This may not be exclusive to Americans, but we seem to be enamored with outlaws of various kinds,” Levy said. “In Western lore, you’ve got Billy the Kidd, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These people all have moral ambiguity.

“But I think we’re drawn to the fact that they got away somehow,” Levy said.

Carr, like other members of the FBI, isn’t so sure. Although the agency has not closed the file or taken an official position, Carr said his review of the evidence and knowledge of criminal behavior has led him to one conclusion.

“The fact that it hasn’t been solved is even more proof that he died the night of the jump,” Carr said. “He would have told someone. If he’d have survived, we would have solved it.”

Carr pushed back on the notion that Cooper had planned and executed his caper well.

Many point to the subsequent successful parachute jump of Richard Floyd McCoy in April 1972, as evidence Cooper could have survived jumping out of his aircraft five months prior. Many theorized McCoy was Cooper, because of the similarities between the two jumps.

But Carr pointed out McCoy was exacting in his instructions to the flight crew before bailing out over Utah, and demanded such readings as height, wind speed and sky conditions before his jump.

“He brought his own equipment on board,” Carr said of McCoy, who was killed in a shootout with federal agents after escaping custody in 1974. “That’s what an expert’s going to do.”

Still, Levy said, there’s the evidence of Christiansen’s time abroad in the Army in the name selected by the hijacker. The man actually gave the name “Dan Cooper,” though it was erroneous early reports about the initials from the media that persist. Dan Cooper was the protagonist of a Belgian comic book series published in the 1950s.

The Canadian ace pilot frequently parachuted out of aircraft in the comic book series. It was not translated widely into English, leading to speculation the hijacker must have served overseas, as Kenny Christiansen did.

Michael Cooper, after the confusion about his name, returned to Missoula in the Volkswagen that he’d bought the year before as an exchange teacher in England. That’s why he’d left school early the day before Thanksgiving to catch the flight, and why his principal had to answer a midnight call from federal agents about the whereabouts of his world geography teacher.

The story became a teaching moment in Michael Cooper’s class. He hadn’t gotten express permission from his boss to go, even though a friend offered to cover his afternoon classes.

“The point I was making to the kids was, whenever you do something that requires authority to approve it, you better make sure you get it,” Michael Cooper said.

He suspects, though he can’t prove it, that the FBI continued to monitor his tax returns for years, looking for large purchases that might have tied him to the crime.

For Carr, who plans to retire from the FBI soon, the message to the public remains simple. If they have actionable evidence that could reveal the true identity of the hijacker, let him know. Sooner rather than later.

“If someone’s going to come forward, I’m retiring in 10 months,” Carr said. “It would be a great departing achievement after 32 years in law enforcement.”