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Unmasking D.B. Cooper

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The definitive expert on the Cooper case is Ralph Himmelsbach. He was the FBI’s lead agent on the hijacking for eight years. He’s now retired and lives on a farm in Woodburn, Oregon. He’s got a metallic white mustache trimmed just so and bushy eyebrows that curl into a wave. I wanted to see what he thought of Kenny as a suspect, and one afternoon this summer we sat outside on his patio. A plane passed by. “It’s an AT-6 Texan,” Himmelsbach said, looking up. “A North American AT-6.” Himmelsbach knows planes and lives to fly. I asked him if he’d ever investigated anybody who worked for Northwest Airlines. “No,” he said, and explained. “We had an awful lot of suggestions by people that said ‘I think it’s an inside job.’ It is inconceivable for several reasons. The most obvious, if you know anything about airline procedure, is that it is not possible for a conspiracy to form because the individuals are not in charge of what flights they’re going to go on.” But what about a lone employee? Himmelsbach ruled this out too. “If you were acquainted as I was with many of the people in the airline industry,” he explained, “they are exceptional people. They are head and shoulders above the standards and the values and the character of normal, average Americans.”

I pulled out photos of Kenny. He studied them slowly.

“Not bad,” he said. “Except for the hair.”

I then showed him Kenny’s discharge papers from the Army. He looked at Kenny’s height (five-eight), weight (150 pounds), and eye color (hazel), then pushed the papers back. “Well, he’s too short, not heavy enough, and has got the wrong color eyes.” I then told him about Kenny’s history: his service in the paratroops, and working for Northwest—as a purser, a flight attendant, a mechanic—and living near Sea-Tac, and his quiet mien. The old man lit up like somebody had plugged him into the wall socket. “All of this makes him look like a good suspect to me,” he said. “If I was still on duty and it were up to me, I’d say, ‘This guy is a ‘must investigate.’”

My next stop was Bonney Lake. I wanted to see Kenny’s house out there. On the drive north from Portland, it became clear why so many agents believed that Cooper never survived the jump. The trees are hundreds of feet tall in the Cascades, a snow-capped collection of volcanoes and glaciers and miles of snowfields that never melt. Mount Rainer is the centerpiece, sitting high at over 14,000 feet, watching.

Kenny’s place is now a print shop on the main drag. I parked in the back and looked at Mount Rainier. It looked, just as Lyle said, “like it was across the street.” The shop was closed. I peered through the dark windows. I tried to imagine Kenny in there. In his purser’s uniform, getting home from another trip to Tokyo, with the young runaways he housed. I tried to imagine where the kitchen was. Lyle said he hung a poster there for inspiration.

THERE ARE THREE KINDS OF PEOPLE, the poster read.

Those who MAKE things happen.
Those who WATCH things happen.
And those who WONDER what happened.

And I wondered myself: Which one was Ken Christiansen?


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