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D.B. Cooper hijacking mystery is revived with 'promising lead'

A reported tip has led investigators to a person who might have information on D.B. Cooper's 1971 jetliner skyjacking, and an unspecified item has been sent to a lab. It's the 'most promising lead we have right now' in a case that has captivated the public imagination, an FBI spokesperson tells a Seattle newspaper.

August 01, 2011|By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • A 1971 artist's sketch released by the FBI shows the skyjacker known as "D.B. Cooper."
A 1971 artist's sketch released by the FBI shows the skyjacker known… (FBI )

D.B. Cooper, the infamous airplane hijacker who vaulted into urban mythology by parachuting out of a jetliner over the Pacific Northwest with a $200,000 ransom, is back on the FBI's radar screen.

Cooper, whose case remains the only unsolved airline hijacking in U.S. history, became the stuff of legend on the night of Nov. 24, 1971, when he jumped from a Boeing 727 into the skies between Portland, Ore., and Seattle. He disappeared with the ransom he extorted -- 10,000 $20 bills.

The case has remained open, but the trail has been cold despite hundreds of tips, thousands of theories and dozens of breakthroughs in scientific investigation. Now the FBI, which has previously said that Cooper is likely dead, is looking at fresh evidence, according to weekend reports in the media in Seattle, the epicenter of the story that seemingly can never die. The FBI's recent tip in the case was first reported by the Telegraph newspaper in London, a testament to Cooper's international appeal.

PHOTOS: Vanished into thin air

The tip provided to the FBI came from a law enforcement source who directed investigators to a person who might have helpful information on the suspect, FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich told the Seattle Times on Sunday. She called the new information the "most promising lead we have right now," but cautioned that investigators were not on the verge of breaking the case.

"With any lead our first step is to assess how credible it is," Sandalo Dietrich told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Saturday. "Having this come through another law enforcement [agency], having looked it over when we got it -- it seems pretty interesting."

The information includes an item that was sent to a lab in Quantico, Va., for testing, she said. She did not provide specifics about the item or the man's identity.

Dietrich was on vacation on Monday, according to a message on her FBI voicemail.

It is not surprising that the Cooper story has spawned a dozen books and at least one movie. It combines elements of mystery (what happened to…), adventure (man jumps from plane into rugged terrain..), but above all, the romance of an unknown person getting away with something and vanishing to possibly enjoy the ill-gotten gains.

According to reports, a man calling himself Dan Cooper purchased a one-way ticket to Seattle the day before Thanksgiving, 1971, at the Portland airport counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. He was somewhere in his mid-40s, between 5-10 and 6-2. He wore a black raincoat, a dark suit, white shirt and black necktie. He could have passed for a funeral director or a banker with his mother-of-pearl tie pin.

He ordered a bourbon and water and lighted a cigarette (in those days one could smoke on an airplane). He called over a stewardess and handed her a note, printed in all capitals: "I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked."

By late afternoon, the plane had landed in Seattle, had been refueled and passengers taken off. By evening, the ransom and parachutes were delivered and the plane took off for Reno. At 8:13 p.m, the aircraft's tail section sustained a sudden upward movement.

When the craft landed at 10:15 p.m, authorities searched but Cooper was no longer on board.

PHOTOS: Vanished into thin air

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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