One Giant Leap

With $200,000 strapped to his body, D. B. Cooper stepped out the back of a plane and into history

AT 2:53 P.M. on November 24, 1971, a tall, nondescript man boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle. Five hours later, with $200,000 in ransom money tied to his waist, he parachuted out the back of the Boeing 727 into the dense forests of southern Washington—and into the pantheon of folk heroes.

The man gave the alias Dan Cooper when he bought his ticket (an erroneous news report supplied the name D. B., which stuck). Wearing sunglasses and a dark suit, he found a seat in an unoccupied row. As the plane was taking off, he passed the flight attendant a note stating that he had a bomb in the briefcase on his lap and demanding $200,000 in small bills and four parachutes when they landed in Seattle. When his demands were met, Cooper released the passengers and directed the pilot to take off toward Mexico at an altitude below 10,000 feet and a speed of less than 200 miles per hour. Shortly after 8 p.m., Cooper ordered the flight attendants into the cockpit, put on two of the parachutes, lowered the aft staircase, and stepped out into the stormy night somewhere near the Washington-Oregon state line. To this day, it stands as the world's only unsolved skyjacking.

Despite one of the most extensive manhunts in FBI history, agents found no body or parachute and never determined the hijacker's real identity. Meanwhile, Cooper was rumored to be drowned in the Columbia River, dead and eaten by animals in the forest, laundering his cash in Reno or Las Vegas, or alive in New York, Florida, or Mexico. People came forward with skulls, deathbed confessions, and tales of a man who looked like the FBI's composite sketch, but none of it ever amounted to anything. Cooper's legend blossomed, inspiring a 1981 movie, The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, with Treat Williams in the title role. In 1978, a hunter in Washington found a plastic placard that was verified to be from the rear stairs of the 727. In 1980, an eight-year-old boy playing in the sand on the banks of the Columbia River unearthed $5,880 of Cooper's loot. Those 294 bills are the only part of the ransom that has ever surfaced, and they seem to lend credence to retired FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach's less than romantic version of what really happened.

"Most likely he was injured on impact," says Himmelsbach, who worked on the case from 1971 to 1980 and posits that Cooper died by the side of a creek. "And then later, the creek overflowed and carried him and the money downstream, where the money was found."

Sounds logical, but logic never killed a folk hero. The most recent fuel for the fire comes in the form of Duane Weber, a 70-year-old Florida man who, as he was dying in 1995, confessed to his wife that he was Dan Cooper. His widow, Jo Weber, contacted the FBI. She began to wonder about some of Duane's strange behavior—like the 1978 nightmare in which a sleep-talking Duane said something about fingerprints on the aft stairs, or the 1979 vacation to Washington during which Duane walked down to the banks of the Columbia by himself just four months before the portion of Cooper's cash was found in the same area.

"If Duane was not Cooper, someone will have to explain a lot of things to me," says Weber. "It is a story with so many coincidences that it defies the odds."

The FBI recently visited Weber's Florida home and removed gloves, an electric shaver, and hair samples, presumably for the purpose of extracting Duane's DNA to compare with that extracted from cigarette butts that the hijacker left behind. The FBI has confirmed that the case is still open, and will remain so indefinitely.

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