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Unmasking D.B. Cooper

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The FBI didn’t believe that. There were too many specific traits Cooper needed to pull off the jump. Cooper knew how to parachute, and in tough conditions. Maybe he’d been in the Army. Better yet, they figured, the paratroops. He was also familiar with planes (10,000 feet, fifteen-degree wing flaps) and the area (“Looks like Tacoma down there”). They also knew what Cooper looked like. They had a detailed sketch that Florence Schaffner helped create. And there was his personality. “He seemed rather nice,” said Tina Mucklow, another attendant on the flight. “He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm.”

Suspects came and went. Five months later, Richard McCoy, a former Sunday-school teacher from Utah and a Vietnam helicopter pilot, jumped out of a plane over Utah with a $500,000 ransom. He was snatched by the FBI a few days later with $499,970 in a cardboard box. McCoy told the Feds he wasn’t Cooper, but they didn’t believe him. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Then he escaped, using a fake gun made from plaster of Paris stolen from dental supplies, and led a crew of convicts through the prison gates with a garbage truck. When the Feds found him again, there was a shoot-out. McCoy was killed.

In 1980, some of Cooper’s money surfaced. A boy found $5,800 in decomposing twenties buried in a bag, a few feet from a river. The FBI searched the area again, hoping to find more bills—or, better yet, a body. They found nothing.

The next major suspect was Duane Weber. Just before he died in 1995, Weber’s wife claims, he told her, “I’m Dan Cooper.” The Feds eventually collected fingerprints and DNA samples, but the case remains open.

The Cooper file is now a morgue of dead-end leads. It sits buried in the basement of the FBI’s Seattle field office and occupies several shelves in long rows that open and close by spinning black plastic wheels. The belief among agents handling the case now is that Cooper died in the jump—the conditions were simply too brutal to survive, and the twenties would have blown away. When a new tip arrives in the mail, the Feds typically shrug it off and file it away.

One of those tips that came in was from Lyle Christiansen. In fact, he claims he told the FBI about his older brother several times. “Dear Good People,” a copy of one of his letters, written in November 2003, begins. “Here’s the story of how I began to suspect my brother was D.B. Cooper.” He was watching TV one night, he told them, and flipped on the show Unsolved Mysteries, which had an episode about the Cooper case. “I sat up in my chair,” he wrote, “because my brother was a dead ringer to the composite sketch of D.B.” Suspicious, he read up on the case. “There was so many circumstances that I became convinced my brother was truly D.B. Cooper!”

“I’m not getting any younger,” Christiansen wrote to the FBI again, and for the final time, in January 2004. “Before I die I would like to find out if my brother was D.B. Cooper. From what I know I feel that he was and without a doubt.”

A relative of D.B. Cooper’s! Skipp Porteous couldn’t believe what three decades of federal agents (and Nora Ephron) had missed. This would be the biggest case of his career. He could barely contain himself as he typed back to Christiansen: “This is potentially a very hot story.” He wanted facts. Basic stuff: full name, age, Social, address. Lyle wrote back later that night: “Kenneth Peter Christiansen; Born Oct. 17, 1926, deceased July 30, 1994 from cancer. Lived in his own home in Bonney Lake, WA. One could see Mt. Rainier from there. So. Security #473 30 3599. He retired from NWA as a purser. His employee #33983.”

Lyle also dropped a few photos and documents in the mail, and began to tell Skipp about his family. They grew up on a farm with cows and pigs and tractors and chickens. This was during the dust bowls of the Great Depression. “All of us kids did not get lots of hugs when we were growing up and we missed a lot because of it,” Lyle says. “I think it made us all a little bashful and made us long for the hugs. Our folks were so busy. Pa in the field and Ma, cooking, sewing, washing clothes, canning, gardening, and also helping with the harvesting.” For fun, they went to the county fair, where his father once took on a prizefighter and earned $100 by lasting one full round. Lyle and Kenny watched as their dad was paid out in five $20 bills. Kenny could never forget those $20 bills, Lyle says. “That was a lot of money during the Great Depression.” Their father also invented things. One was “a contraption that was supposed to work as a [perpetual] motion machine,” Lyle remembers. It was made from wood and ran on marbles.


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