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Unmasking D.B. Cooper

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Kenny Christiansen's house.  

Growing up, Lyle was different from Kenny. Lyle was into contact sports and girls. Kenny was into “classy things,” Lyle says. Kenny was so precise in his drawings that he composed illustrations for the yearbook staff. He played cornet in the band and sang in the men’s chorus. He danced tap. And acted in several school plays. And in sports, Kenny set school records for the half-mile. In high school, he was at the top of his class and had his pick of twelve private colleges. But the war was on, it was 1944, and Kenny enlisted. He thought of the Air Force, but decided on the Army, and chose an elite, dangerous, and thus better-paying specialty: the paratroops. “Kenny was always looking for ways to make a buck,” Lyle says.

Training was brutal. By the time Kenny had strapped on all his gear—which could include parachute and reserve chute, helmet, canteen, cartridge belt, compass, gloves, flares, message book, hand grenades, machete, M-1 Garand rifle, .45 caliber Colt, radio batteries, wire cutters, rations, shaving kit, instant coffee, bouillon cubes, candy—the entire bundle weighed as much as 90 pounds. The paratroops donned such heavy gear (they had to survive behind enemy lines for weeks) they couldn’t walk onto the transport planes on their own. They had to be pushed on.

Jumps were also menacing. The quality of the parachutes was primitive. You could not steer them out of the way of power lines or trees. You hit the ground hard on your boots, buckling the ankles and the knees, in some cases breaking them. Kenny trained with the 11th Airborne Division, the Angels, which had been sent to the Pacific. But he never saw combat. When he was finally deployed, on August 16, 1945, his discharge papers show, the war was over. He ended up in Japan, joining the initial occupation forces. He ran the mail room and made jumps on the side for extra money.

“Dear Folks,” Kenny wrote home in one letter dated August 4, 1946, from Sendai. “I went to church this morning. I went last Sunday also. I had more reason to go last Sunday, as after ten months of hibernation, I once again donned a chute and reserve and entered a C-46. I cringed a good deal, but I managed once again to pitch myself into the blast. That jump was worth $150. The nicest thing about the whole affair was that I never had time to worry about it … Don’t get the idea that I didn’t get that certain stomackless [sic] feeling, because I did.”

After that jump, he vacationed in Namazu, a fishing village south of Tokyo. “I spent most of my time up on the roof during the day; nights I usually lounged in a beach chair down by the water’s edge,” he wrote. “They had a group of Hawaiian guitar players down there. With the music, the breeze off the Ocean, and the waves crashing the shore, I felt like a millionaire enjoying his millions.”

“There is something you should know, but I cannot tell you,” Kenny Christiansen told his brother on his deathbed.

Porteous couldn’t believe it. The profile that was coming into focus was remarkably exact. The paratroops? That’s exactly the kind of jumper the Feds were looking for. Not an expert who knew fancy equipment. A gutsy amateur who only specified “front” chutes and “back” chutes. He wanted to know more about Kenny. “This is fascinating stuff,” he wrote Lyle, who then told him about all the odd and dangerous jobs Kenny did for extra pay. After college, Lyle said, his brother went back to the Pacific, this time to Bikini atoll, in the Marshall Islands. The government was testing nuclear bombs there. Kenny worked as a telephone operator. It was lonely, though he liked being alone, and it was always beach weather on Bikini. Kenny loved the beach, Lyle said. Even back home, he saved to spend on travel. In college, he took a job selling magazine subscriptions on the road. He traveled once with a carnival, selling tickets. Then he’d leave for warmer climes: Jamaica, Laguna Beach, L.A., Mexico City. Then Kenny learned of a job working for the airlines.

Northwest, based in Minneapolis, was looking to hire technicians to work on its planes in Shemya, an island in the Aleutians. He started as a mechanic and was rehired in 1956, as a flight attendant. He relocated to southwest Washington and was promoted to purser. This meant $50 extra monthly pay, and dealing with Customs and Immigration agents and managing the plane’s money.

According to property records, Kenny was able to purchase a house and some land. In October 1972, about a year after Cooper’s jump, Kenny paid $14,000 for a modest ranch in Bonney Lake, a small mountain town, in the Cascades. A year later, a deed shows he paid $1,500 for a parcel of land.


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