The Secrets of D.B. Cooper, Part Three - Criminal Profile
by Musika Farnsworth
For whatever reason, hundreds of people are convinced they know who D.B. Cooper was—or themselves admitted to being the most recognized hijacker in the world. Maybe it’s the extraordinary circumstantial evidence. Maybe it’s the desperate need for an answer. Maybe it’s a secret wish to make a difference in the world. But sometimes, no matter how hard we wish, no matter how hard we believe, we just can’t make something true. Today, the FBI has DNA from Cooper’s J.C. Penney clip-on tie that he left on the jet and partial fingerprints from the cocktail glasses he drank from while in flight. They can now quickly confirm or eliminate suspects.
When FBI special agent Larry Carr re-introduced the D.B. Cooper hijacking case to the public in 2008, most of the messages he received were from people asking him not to solve the case. Cooper has become a folk hero to some people, and many want the mystery to remain unsolved. For the people who were involved, it’s another story. The most significant eye witness, flight attendant Flo Schaffner, who spent a lot of time with Cooper on flight 305, lived in fear for years, wondering how and when Cooper would track her down.
An Early Interview
Retired skydiver Jerry Baumchen recalls hearing the shocking news of the hijacking on television. He was having dinner at a neighbor’s house the night before Thanksgiving, November 24, 1971. Baumchen was an active skydiver and had about 500 jumps at that time.
A few days after the hijacking, Baumchen was called into the office at his workplace and led into a private conference room where he was surprised to find a stocky, gray-haired FBI agent waiting. The meeting was not to gather information about skydiving in general, it was an interrogation as to his whereabouts the evening of November 24.
Once Baumchen’s alibi was solidly established, “The interrogation took a completely different turn,” he said. “We ended up just talking for at least 45 minutes. The main thing I remember from the conversation is that the FBI agent said that they just didn’t have any idea who he [Cooper] could possibly be.” He adds that at the time, investigators thought Cooper was an experienced jumper and rigger because Cooper had opened a reserve container.
Baumchen notes that many of the details we know today were not made public then. We now know Cooper jumped without an altimeter or helmet, and in slip-on loafers. Baumchen said that in 1971, virtually everyone wore boots and a helmet to skydive. He also says that by then almost all jumpers were using steerable Para-Commander canopies rather than military-surplus canopies such as the one Cooper chose for his jump. Baumchen said, “It’s inconceivable to me that an experienced person would jump without boots, especially into the woods at that time of year.”
Another Skydiver Questioned
Despite the fact that the FBI now thinks that Cooper was not a seasoned jumper, they will still question those who were if they are actively pursuing a lead. One example is Sheridan Peterson. Now 84 years old, Peterson is a Marine Corps veteran and former smokejumper with 270 sport parachute jumps who spent 30 years in Asia and the Middle East. Seven years ago, while living in a retirement community in California, Peterson found a note from an FBI agent taped to his door. It had taken the agency 32 years to track him down.
The FBI was curious about Peterson since he was a skydiver with a bit of a reputation for being a renegade; had lived in the Pacific Northwest; was 44 years old at the time of the hijacking (witness descriptions put Cooper in his mid-40s); was familiar with the workings of the 727 aircraft since he’d worked at Boeing's Plant Two in Seattle; and was a member of the Issaquah Skyport, the skydiving center where authorities had obtained rigs for Cooper’s use during the hijacking. Soon after the hijacking, authorities had even questioned Peterson’s ex-wife, who reportedly said, “Yes, that sounds like something he’d do.” However, at the time, no one knew where Peterson was.
The FBI eventually traced Peterson's whereabouts to Asia. They surmised that during this time frame, Peterson had flown to the States, made the heist and then returned to Asia. However, when the FBI was finally able to question him, Peterson pointed out that he had been in Pokhara, Nepal, at that time and showed proof.
During the interrogation, the FBI agent asked Peterson if he thought Cooper had survived. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “He wasn’t a skydiver. D.B. did everything wrong. He picked up the pilot’s chute instead of the skydiving rig. He had neither an altimeter nor a stopwatch and had no idea what the elevation of the terrain was; consequently he wouldn’t have known when to pull the ripcord.” Peterson feels certain that Cooper had never made a jump prior to the heist, and that not being a skydiver, he would have pulled right out the door at 10,000 feet. Not wearing winter clothes, it is likely that Cooper would have died of exposure.
Peterson told the FBI that if he himself hijacked the 727, he would have “insisted upon a helmet, been wearing boots, warm clothing and gloves. And a flashlight to spot my landing.” Although the FBI obviously felt Peterson was a credible suspect who may have survived the jump, both DNA and fingerprint analysis cleared him as a suspect.
“There is something you should know, but I cannot tell you,” Kenneth Christiansen reportedly told his brother before passing away in 1994. This confession and the fact that he had so much in common with D.B. Cooper, is what prompted the brother to report his suspicions to authorities, according to the book “Into the Blast: The True Story of D.B. Cooper” by Skipp Porteous.
Private Investigator Porteous learned of the family’s claim and found the coincidences between Christiansen and Cooper too strong to ignore. In World War II, Christiansen trained as a paratrooper. After the war, he made demo jumps for cash. He smoked and drank bourbon, just as Cooper did on the day of the hijacking. Furthermore, Christiansen lived near Seattle and worked for Northwest Airlines as a purser. Porteous spent three years collecting information, researching and interviewing relatives and neighbors of Christiansen. He wrote a manuscript for a book, convinced Christiansen was D.B. Cooper.
Years earlier, the FBI dismissed Christiansen as a suspect because his physical description was not close enough to Cooper’s. However, due to the urging Christiansen’s family and Porteous, the FBI asked for a DNA sample, which Christiansen’s relatives were able to provide. Christiansen’s DNA did not match that found on Cooper’s tie.
When asked whether he was proceeding with the publication of his book, Porteous said, “Yes. There is overwhelming evidence, much of it new, that indicates Kenneth Christiansen is Dan Cooper. We know his motive, his partner who picked him up after he bailed out, and what he did with the money.” Porteous says he has sent the FBI a manuscript of his book, which was published in March, and hopes they will re-open the case.
According to an article in the Depoe Bay (Oregon) Beacon newspaper, attorney Galen Cook has been investigating the D.B. Cooper case since the 1980s and is considered an authority on the subject. He was a guest on a radio show three years ago when a listener called in. According to Cook, the caller claimed that his father, William Gossett, who passed away in 2003, had many secrets and was similar to the description of Cooper.
Cook found the similarities between Gossett and Cooper too strong to ignore. Looking further into the case, Cook told the Beacon, “The circumstantial evidence is really strong. I feel we’ve got the right guy.” According to Cook, Gossett was in the U.S. Air Force and Army, and he served in Korea and Vietnam. He had combat parachuting experience, made several night and high-altitude jumps and was a survival expert. Gossett talked about the hijacking often, saying he could write Cooper’s epitaph. He privately told several family members and friends he was D.B. Cooper.
“He had the level of skills and ability to plan the entire thing with military precision and to not only parachute from the plane but to survive,” Cook told the “Beacon.” It is unknown whether the FBI has tested Gossett’s DNA. Nonetheless, Cook is certain Gossett was Cooper. Cook states he has found the answers to the mystery of the ransom cash found along the Columbia River and why Cooper used the rigs he did. He is said to be writing a book on the case.
In 1991, FBI Agents Bernie Rhodes and Russell Calame released the book “D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy,” which pointed out the similarities between the Cooper case and another hijacking.
Four months after the Cooper extortion, another person attempted the same thing—this time, successfully. Richard McCoy Jr. was an experienced skydiver who had served in the Army and was a demolition expert and pilot in Vietnam. Despite being married with two children and a Mormon Sunday school teacher with plans to become an FBI or CIA agent, McCoy attempted D.B. Cooper’s plan. He executed it flawlessly. Just as Cooper did, McCoy boarded a Boeing 727 that had aft stairs, handed a flight attendant a hand-written note and demanded four parachutes and ransom cash. McCoy demanded $500,000 and carried an empty pistol, a fake grenade and his own jumpsuit.
McCoy jumped over Utah, his home state. His canopy ride was uneventful. He landed safely and hid the canopy in a culvert. He paid $5 to a passerby for a ride into town and went home. The next day McCoy flew a helicopter in search of the hijacker—he was on National Guard duty.
Apparently, having the equivalent of $2.4 million in today’s currency after jumping from a Boeing 727 jet was too irresistible to keep to himself, and McCoy surreptitiously boasted of it to an acquaintance. He also left the hand-written ransom note and fingerprints on a magazine in the jet when he jumped. Authorities arrested McCoy two days later. The only luxury he enjoyed with the money was a milkshake; the rest of the ransom cash was found in his home. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Two years later, McCoy and a group of inmates escaped prison. FBI agents tracked him to his home. He fired shots at them; the agents returned shots, and McCoy was killed.
Many people still feel that McCoy could have been Cooper, although McCoy always denied it, and the FBI says that they have eliminated him as a suspect since he had an alibi for the evening of the hijacking.
John List is one of the people investigated by the FBI in connection to the Cooper case who did not have a parachuting background. List served in the U.S. Army during World War II, taught Sunday school in the Lutheran church and had a master’s degree in accounting. However, he lost his job and was having severe financial problems. On November 9, 1971, a few weeks before the Cooper hijacking, he murdered his family. List claimed he did so to send them directly to heaven and prevent them from being on welfare. He disappeared immediately after the murders and was not apprehended for 18 years.
Since the crime took place a few weeks before the hijacking, and since List’s age, features, height and weight were very close to the description of Cooper, many considered him a suspect. He also seems to fit the personality profile that some have attributed to Cooper. Psychiatrist David Hubbard, in the television program “In Search Of,” described the probable profile of Cooper this way: “As an individual, he was a person of failure, who had lost the capacity of earning a living in our society.”
However, List never alluded to being D.B. Cooper. In fact, when he was apprehended, he vehemently denied being the hijacker. The FBI eliminated List as a suspect after his imprisonment in 1989.
Duane Weber was one of the most recent suspects the FBI investigated. According to an article in U.S. News and World Report, before passing away in 1995, Weber whispered to his wife, “I’m Dan Cooper.” Mrs. Weber had no idea what he meant. In frustration he said, “Oh, let it die with me!”
It was only after he was gone that his wife studied the 1971 hijacking. The more she read, the more she found similarities between her husband and D.B. Cooper that were too strong to ignore. According to the article, Mrs. Weber claimed that her husband once had a nightmare and said that he left fingerprints on the “aft stairs.” Weber had used aliases in his life and had a criminal past. He had a knee injury he said was “from jumping from a plane.” He smoked and drank bourbon. Weber’s photograph and physical description closely matched the Cooper sketch.
Mrs. Weber was convinced her husband was the hijacker. She agreed to take a polygraph test with the FBI, and apparently passed. However, Weber was eliminated as a suspect after a DNA test found no match.
One Hijacker, Many Confessions
There was only one hijacker on the night of November 24, 1971. So why are multiple people claiming to be D.B. Cooper? Why would someone continue to insist their suspect is Cooper, even after the FBI eliminates them with DNA testing?
Some say that the DNA on the necktie and the fingerprints from the cocktail glasses Cooper left on the jet contain many samples, and that it is unknown if any of them were actually Cooper’s. Since the FBI will not release all of their files to private investigators or the public, some feel that this leaves too many unanswered questions.
People may make voluntary false confessions for fame and attention. Being the first person ever to hijack and skydive from a jetliner could be an irresistible form of attention. Yet scientists say it’s more than attention-seeking, but a pathological condition—and is very common. In 1932, someone kidnapped world-famous aviator Charles Lindberg’s baby. The ransom was paid, but the baby was found deceased. The kidnapper was apprehended, found guilty by trial and put to death by electrocution. Yet in the two years authorities searched for the perpetrator, more than 200 people admitted to the crime.
Fame is not the only reason for a voluntary false confession. The confessor may find that he relates to the case and the suspect. As he becomes obsessed with the case, he learns intimate details and claims to know the motivation for the crime. The confession itself may be triggered by severe guilt over something else in the confessor’s past; to protect the real criminal or simply because the confessor is confused between fact and fiction.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As the years go on, it may be harder and harder to find the real identity of the person responsible for the only unsolved hijacking in the U.S. Perhaps finding significant material evidence in the forests of the Pacific Northwest—if there is any—may be the key. Perhaps the answers lie somewhere in the FBI’s crime files. And of course it is possible that one of the many confessions is not false. Regardless, there continue to be many secrets of D.B. Cooper.
About the Author
Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, has been jumping since 1992 and has a Bachelors of Arts in social sciences. She can usually be found at the DZ knitting between loads. Her other interests include ballet, sewing, piano and motorcycles. She wrote a very popular article on the D.B. Cooper case for the November 2003 issue of Parachutist and updated that piece for this series.
Richard McCoy, Jr. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 15, 2010, from http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_McCoy,_Jr.
Sherlock’s Case Files. (2007, October 27). FBI and D.B. Cooper [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.sherlockinvestigations.com/blog/2007/10/fbi-and-db-cooper.html
Sherlock’s Case Files. (2009, September 24). Hunting for D.B. Cooper [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.sherlockinvestigations.com/blog/2009/09/hunting-for-db-cooper.html
Craig, John S. (2008, May 31). D.B. Cooper Suspect Named: William Pratt Gossett. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from Associated Content website: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/796139/db_cooper_suspect_named_william _pratt
Beasley, Rick (2008, May 28). Investigator Claims Depoe Bay Man Was Infamous ‘D.B. Cooper!’. Retrieved April 11, 2010, from Depoe Bay Beacon Web Edition: http://www.depoebaybeacon.com/news.asp?dtype=4&catid=6&recid=30
Klatell, James (2006, August 28). False Confessions Are No Rarity. Retrieved April 8, 2010 from CBSNews.com: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/08/28/national/main1941780.shtml
Montaldo, Charles (n.d.). Why Do Innocent People Make False Confessions? Retrieved April 8, 2010 from About.com: http://crime.about.com/od/issues/a/false.htm
Gray, Geoffrey. (2007, October 21). Unmasking D.B. Cooper. Retrieved April 12, 2010 from New York News & Features: http://nymag.com/news/features/39593/index3.html
John List (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_List
Pasternak, Douglas. (2000, July 24). Skyjacker at large. A Florida widow thinks she has found him. Retrieved April 8, 2010 from U.S. News Online: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/doubleissue/mysteries/cooper.htm
Books about Cooper
D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive? by Richard Thomas Tosaw
D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy by Bernie Rhodes and Russell P. Calame
D. B. Cooper: What Really Happened by Max Gunther
Into The Blast—The True Story of D.B. Cooper by Skipp Porteous, Robert Blevins, and Geoff Nelder
Norjak: the Investigation of D B Cooper by Ralph P. Himmmelsbach
Skyjack: The Hunt for D. B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray (scheduled for release in November of 2010)