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Unmasking D.B. Cooper

On a rainy night in 1971, the notorious skyjacker jumped out of a 727 and into American legend. But recently, a chance lead to a Manhattan P.I. may have finally cracked the case.

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Left: An FBI sketch of "D.B. Cooper." Right: Kenneth Christiansen, Northwest purser and former paratrooper; the suspect.  

The detectives at Sherlock Investigations get strange requests all the time. There was the mysterious disappearance of Captain Jack, an iguana that was stolen out the window of a ground-floor apartment on West Twelfth. Or the elderly woman in Peter Cooper Village who thought her neighbor was trying to kill her by shooting neutron beams through her kitchen wall. (They checked it out. She wasn’t.) Or the jealous husband in Park Slope. He suspected his wife was cheating on him, and with his father. (She was.) So the e-mail that came in on March 19 didn’t set off any alarms. It read:

Dear Good People,
I would very much like to contact Nora Ephron, Movie Director of the movie, “Sleepless in Seattle.” I think she would be interested in what I have to say.
Sincerely, Lyle Christiansen.

When Sherrie Hart, the Sherlock detective commandeering the e-mail in-box at the time, read the note, her eyes rolled. Oh, boy, she thought. Here we go again. She typed back:

We would not be able to give you a famous person’s address. If you want to write a letter to Ms. Ephron, we would deliver it to her ourselves. The fee would be $495. Proceed?

Proceed. When Lyle Christiansen’s money order and letter came in the mail a few days later, Hart passed them on to the agency’s owner, Skipp Porteous. With wavy hair, baggy eyes, and sandals on his feet, Porteous looks more aging hippie than hard-boiled gumshoe. He breaks in the afternoon for a non-tough-guy ritual: meditation. Porteous was once a preacher, but became disenchanted with religion, and in the course of writing a book called Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, discovered he was good at digging around.

Porteous looked at the envelope. He studied the return address. Morris, Minnesota. He looked at a map. The town was two hours from Fargo, North Dakota. Population: 5,200. He opened the letter, and after peering inside for powders, he read it. It barely made sense. It was a rambling confession of finding the answer to a “famous unsolved caper” that would make a great movie—and one only Ephron could direct, because she had “heart.” She could call this movie Bashful in Seattle—because the main character in the caper lived near Seattle. Skipp thought, Strange, yes; dangerous, no. So he hailed a cab, rode over to Ephron’s building on East 79th, and left the letter with her doorman. Ephron got the letter. She opened it and looked at it and put it down on the kitchen counter. It stayed there for some time. Then it disappeared. “I don’t know what happened to it,” she says.

In Morris, Christiansen was waiting. He is 77 years old, retired from the post office, and now works as an inventor and holds a few patents. Every day, he’d walk out to his mailbox hoping for a reply from Ephron. Nothing came. He sent Sherlock another letter, which Porteous had delivered. Weeks passed. No word. Did she know he was paying all this money to reach her? Finally, Christiansen wrote to Sherlock: “As you know, I have been trying to contact Nora Ephron, but for some reason she doesn’t answer my letters. Now I would like you to help me. I am sitting on the answer to a many decades mystery which has never been solved … No one was killed or injured in the caper but could easily have been … I hope you will think about this and let me know.”

Porteous was curious. He began to probe with e-mails. Christiansen would often type back late at night, he said, so his wife wouldn’t discover his secret relationship with D.B. Cooper. “Yes, I knew the culprit personally,” Lyle wrote one day. “He was my brother.”

The case of D.B. Cooper is one of the most famous crimes in American history. It is also the only skyjacking in the world that has gone unsolved. Over the past three decades, the FBI has investigated nearly 1,000 suspects. They might as well be looking for Sasquatch. D.B. Cooper is folklore now. He’s inspired books, movies, safety regulations for airplanes, and treasure hunters. A bar celebrates the anniversary of his heist with a D.B. Cooper look-alike contest. Poems have been inked. Songs too, like Chuck Brodsky’s “The Ballad of D. B. Cooper”:

It was Thanksgiving eve
Back in 1971
He had on a pair of sunglasses
There wasn’t any sun
He used the name Dan Cooper
When he paid for the flight
That was going to Seattle
On that cold and nasty night

That night changed aviation history. It started in Portland, Oregon, when a man walked up to the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. He was wearing a dark raincoat, dark suit with skinny black tie, and carrying an attaché case. He had perky ears, thin lips, a wide forehead, receding hair. He gave his name, Dan Cooper, and asked for a one-way ticket to Seattle, Flight 305. The ride was a 30-minute puddle jump. He sat in the last row of the plane, 18-C, lit a cigarette, and ordered a bourbon and soda. The plane took off and he passed the stewardess a note.


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