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Unmasking D.B. Cooper

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Treat Williams as the skyjacker in the 1981 movie The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper.  

“He was almost invisible,” says Harry Honda, a Northwest purser who worked with Kenny. “If you asked somebody on his plane who was the purser on that flight, they couldn’t tell you—that’s how quiet this guy was.” If they had a layover, Kenny would not go out with the staff. “He was noncommunicative,” says Mary Patricia Laffey Inman, a Northwest purser. “He kept to himself. He was a plaid-shirt guy,” says Lyle Gehring, another Northwest purser, who worked alongside Kenny for years. “You ask people and say ‘Ken Christiansen,’ they say, ‘Who?’”

At home, he always wore the same clothes: denim overalls and a blue-striped railroad cap. “He looked like a farmer, you know,” says Rose Edmiston, a former Northwest flight attendant who lives in Bonney Lake. “That would probably be the last person in the world I would think could be D.B. Cooper.” Driving around town, she’d sometimes see him with younger men in front of his house, scrubbing down a car with soap or working under the hood. The rumors she heard about him were true: He was taking in troubled kids and runaways. One, she heard, he found sleeping in the town laundromat. Another kid was Kenneth McWilliams, or Mac, who lived with Kenny off and on for twenty years.

“He was an amusing character,” McWilliams says now of Kenny. He describes life in the house as “odd.” There were always other men around, men from the Army whom Kenny knew and had relationships with. “It was uncomfortable to me, because I’m not like that, but not everybody lived in that house at night,” McWilliams says. Living there as a teenager was also liberating. When Kenny came back from Japan or Germany, there were always gifts: expensive food, big bottles of aged sake, ceramic dolls. Kenny never held back financially. They always ate out. “Any restaurant, really,” McWilliams says. “He’d always call it ‘my turn.’ He’d never accept that I pay for some of the things that he ate.” Kenny also helped Mac and other young men who lived with them learn how to save. Once, as a teenager, McWilliams says, he wanted to buy a car. Kenny opened up a bank account for him and matched every dollar he earned. “There was always a little bit of cash, maybe a little bit in his dresser. Also in his wallet.” He thinks it’s possible Kenny was D.B. “As a steward, they made good money, but they didn’t make that much money.”

Northwest’s salaries were notoriously meager. For pursers, the saying was “$212 a month and all you can carry,” and that meant stealing toilet paper from the airplanes’ bathrooms to supplement your paycheck. Female flight attendants were forced to adhere to strict intercompany mandates, like weight checks. They also couldn’t wear glasses. Or have their own rooms during layovers. Men could. All of which created an atmosphere of hostility toward Northwest. Workers would strike. Workers sued. Kenny was never vocal in his outrage toward Northwest, “He’d always just sit in the back at a union meeting, or not [go] at all,” says Gehring. Quietly, Kenny hated the strikes because it meant he had to find quick work, like picking apples on a farm. “He built up a little hatred for NWA for laying people off and forcing them to go on strike,” according to Kenny’s brother. “I think he thought he could sock it to them by pulling off the hijacking.”

When the package of photos from Morris arrived in the mail, Skipp looked at Kenny Christiansen for the first time. “It was uncanny, really,” Skipp says. “He looked just like the sketch.” He had more questions for his brother. Did Kenny ever make extravagant purchases? Only his house and some land, Lyle said. Did Kenny drink bourbon? Yes, Lyle said. Kenny loved bourbon so much he collected bourbon bottles. Did he smoke? Yes. It all added up. There was a wealth of detail, a full portrait of a man who possessed so many of Cooper’s traits—a polite, quiet paratrooper with a secret life.

Still, there was no concrete testimony, nothing direct. Then Lyle told him about a conversation he had with Kenny when his brother got sick with cancer. Lyle suspected the cause was radiation he’d suffered at Bikini atoll. On his deathbed, Lyle remembers, his older brother pulled him close. He then said something that didn’t make sense to him then. It does so now.

Kenny said, “There is something you should know, but I cannot tell you!”

Lyle didn’t want to know. “I don’t care what it is you cannot tell me about. We all love you.”

One of the only living eyewitnesses to the Cooper case is Florence Schaffner, the stewardess who accepted Cooper’s note. She now lives in Lexington, South Carolina. One Sunday last month, we had lunch at Lizard’s Thicket, a local chain in Columbia that serves fried chicken for brunch.

Flo, as she calls herself, has frosted blonde hair and deeply tanned skin. Her hands were shaking on the table. Just thinking about the Cooper case makes her nervous, she said. She was never the same after Cooper’s jump. She took a month off and went to live with her family back in Arkansas. She also became paranoid. If Cooper was living, she feared that he’d come after her. Eliminate the witness, you know. She’d look under her car for bombs. She’d turn her keys over real slow.

Over the years, the FBI has shown her photos of dozens of suspects, and she has yet to identify any of them. I’d brought the photos of Kenny Christiansen, and she spread them on the table. She zeroed in on the passport photo all blown up. She rubbed his features on the page. “The ears, the ears are right.” She moved to the lips. “Yes, thin lips. And the top lip, kind of like this, yes.” Then the forehead. “A wide forehead, yes.” Then the hair. “Receding, yes, the two areas—yes, yes—sort of like this.” She was pushing down on the photo hard now, rubbing the image like a charcoal drawing. “There was more hair, though.” The eyes. “About like that.” The eyebrows. “Yeah, about like that.” The images were closer in resemblance to Cooper than any of the suspects she’s ever seen, she said. But? “But I can’t say ‘Yay.’” We got up from the table. “I think you might be onto something here,” she said.


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