Hunting D.B. Cooper: Seattle scientist lends expertise to solving famous NW hijacking

Staff writerAugust 21, 2013 

Tom Kaye


  • “COOPER”

    Where: Washington State History Museum.

    When: Saturday through Jan. 5.

    Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with days varying by season and extended hours and free admission every third Thursday, 2-8 p.m.

    Admission: $9.50 adults; $7 seniors/students; free for children age 5 and younger.



    When: 2 p.m. Saturday.

    Where: Washington State History Museum.


On Nov. 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted out of a Boeing 727 and into the legends of the Pacific Northwest.

Earlier that day, the neatly dressed 40-something carrying a briefcase had boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 in Portland. En route to Seattle, he handed a flight attendant a note stating he had a bomb.

When the plane landed at Sea-Tac Airport, he demanded $200,000 in cash and four parachutes. After everyone but the crew was released, the plane took off again, headed south. About 45 minutes into the flight the crew noticed a pressure change and had to adjust the trim of the plane.

When the plane later landed in Reno with its rear staircase still deployed, Cooper was gone along with the briefcase and money. All the skyjacker (a reporter’s mistake would change his name to D.B. Cooper) left behind were the extra parachutes, cigarette butts and his black clip-on tie.

On Saturday, the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma will open an exhibit on D.B. Cooper. “Cooper” uses artifacts, first-person accounts, FBI documents and a mock-up of a 727 interior to tell the story of the mysterious hijacker.

In the days after the hijacking, an extensive search along the flight path was conducted, but not a trace of Cooper was found.

Then, in 1980, a young boy digging along the banks of the Columbia River at Tena Bar north of Portland uncovered three bundles of cash. The $5,800 in bills was identified as Cooper’s ransom money through serial numbers, recorded before they were given to him on the day of the hijacking.

The found money only served to deepen the mystery around the nation’s only unsolved airline hijacking.

In 2007, FBI agent Larry Carr, in a bid to solve the case, released evidence and information to the public.

That’s when Tom Kaye stepped in.

At first glance he seems an unlikely Cooper hunter. The theories on the hijacker’s techniques, identity and fate operate at a near-UFO level of speculation. Kaye is a scientist — an associate researcher in paleontology with Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. He also studies astrophysics.

In 2008, he established the Cooper Research Team with scientific illustrator Carol Abraczinskas and metallurgist Alan Stone. The trio soon was dubbed the “citizen sleuths” by the FBI.

On Saturday, Kaye will give a talk on what his team found when they re-examined the evidence and theories surrounding D.B. Cooper. The News Tribune caught up with him via phone at his Arizona home.

Q: Why is D.B. Cooper so heralded in pop culture?

A: I don’t know. I think it was such a novel thing for a guy to do. He had a brilliant escape plan but we don’t really know if he escaped or not. And he was a gentleman thief. He even offered money to the flight attendants and they turned him down.

Q: It sounds like your interest in science is broad.

A: Only in paleontology and astrophysics. I look up and down at the same time.

Q: Then why did you start the Cooper Research Team?

A: The one thing that connects paleontology and astrophysics is spectroscopy. The world of spectroscopy analyzes molecules and atoms. If you want to know what a star is made out of, you look at the spectroscopy and it tells you what’s burning up out there. If you want to know what a bone is made out of, you use spectroscopy. A gentleman who knew me through astrophysics and knew I did this kind of analytical work and was interested in the D.B. Cooper case asked me if I was interested in taking a look at the money when FBI agent Larry Carr made it available in 2007.

Q: Is there a “searching for Bigfoot” element going on here?

A: No, but I’m glad you asked that. There are two things we want to get across to the public. The first thing is that the FBI did not spend a dime on any of our research. Larry Carr was told not to spend any money on this and he said, “OK. How about if I have the public work on this?” The other thing is that we’re not supporting any suspect. At any given time there are half a dozen Cooper suspects who people are promoting as D.B. Cooper. We went by all the original information from the time period. All we did was look at the various possibilities other people have proposed and then did tests to determine if they made sense or not.

Q: Give us an example.

A: The way the money arrived on Tena Bar in 1980 was a long circuitous route through a bunch of rivers. That would have required the bills to travel 50 miles down the river. So we did experiments to see what happens when a stack of bills goes in the water. We threw money into the river with notes attached to see how far they would get before someone found it. We looked at the lifetime of rubber bands in the wild. All these things pointed to the fact the theory was not any good.

Q: The discovery of the money in 1980 reignited the case. How do you think it ended up on the river bank?

A: It got there by unnatural means. I can tell you it did not roll down a river. It could have gotten there by multiple other means but none of it would have been an act of God. I don’t want to say a person put it there because that would limit the possibilities. It could have gotten there mechanically somehow. Who knows? If the money could talk, it could tell us the whole story.

Q: Where do you think Cooper landed?

A: The flight was monitored by SAGE radar, the most advanced radar system at the time. The plane’s route was in the archives. Because of that and the fact they went and duplicated the jump scenario in the days following the event, we see no reason he did not jump out over Ariel (Wash.).

Q: In 1978, a placard containing instructions for lowering the rear stairs of a 727 was found by a deer hunter east of Castle Rock. Was that on the flight path?

A: Yes, that anchors the flight path accurately.

Q: Extensive searches, one that included 1,000 troops from Fort Lewis, found no trace of Cooper. An SR-71 spy plane photographed the whole flight path and found nothing. Why do you think he was never found?

A: I think he walked out. We looked at satellite photos from the 1970s and there were farms and people living there. It’s not overgrown or the deep, dark woods. If he landed in the Ariel area, he probably buried his parachute and walked out. And having a suit on may have been the most brilliant thing he did because if you’re going to hitchhike out of a remote area with a suit on, you’re way more likely to get picked up.

Q: Do you think he had help?

A: There’s probably somebody that’s not saying anything. If he didn’t die and walked out, he had contact with somebody and that somebody has not said anything.

Q: As the flight was circling over Puget Sound, Cooper allegedly said, “Looks like Tacoma down there.” Do you think he may have been from Tacoma?

A: This is one of the intriguing parts of the case because there’s good reason to believe or not believe he was from the area. We also believe he’s not a U.S. citizen. Obviously he knew Tacoma. On the other hand, he was not making any effort to disguise himself. If you’re from the neighborhood, don’t you think you would disguise yourself? He did not seem to be concerned with where the plane was flying. He said, “Fly south.” They were entertaining the idea of flying out over the ocean and letting him jump in the ocean. So he was smart enough to think about the parachutes and escape plan but not smart enough to think where the plane should fly.

Q: He also knew where McChord Air Force Base was located, the difference between military and civilian parachutes, how jets operated. Could he have been ex-military?

A: That would make the most sense because they (the military) teach you how to jump out of airplanes. He knew how to put the chute on but then again he attached a reserve chute to a chute that wasn’t meant to take a reserve. And he took the one that was a dummy and was sewn closed and labeled, “Do not use.” So how smart was he? There are so many things that go both ways, and that’s a good example.

Q: What evidence did Cooper leave behind on the plane?

A: Just the tie and cigarette butts. (The butts) are lost now.

Q: What did you learn from the tie?

A: Of all the pieces of clothing he could have left behind, that was the best one because you never wash a tie. Everywhere he’s been, he’s picked up particles. It’s the one piece of evidence that points backward in time. We took particle samples (from the tie using tape) and put it under an electron microscope. Then we did spectroscopy on those particles. Some of those particles were titanium. And one piece of titanium had stainless steel smashed into it. Those types of particles only come from a machinery area. Further analysis showed it was pure titanium and not alloyed. They only used alloyed titanium in airplanes (in 1971). So, that leaves chemical plants. So either he was involved in a chemical area or in the manufacturing of titanium before it was alloyed. So that’s the two places where you would go look for him today.

Q: Has this narrowed profile sent other citizen sleuths looking at chemical plant employee rosters from the 1970s?

A: No. That’s an FBI job. We’re up against the conundrum that the FBI is not going to spend money on that and rightly so. If they caught the guy, he’d be 85 and on oxygen at this point. So it doesn’t make sense. Until somebody comes up with some piece of evidence or a suspect that matches the spectrum of characters that we came up with here – that’s what we’re waiting for. But now may be the best time in history to solve the case. If somebody knows something and they know Cooper, they would wait until Cooper dies to say something.

Q: What can the public learn from your talk on Saturday?

A: The titanium and the analysis of the money is the first new information applied to the case. If they come and hear the talk, they’ll go home thinking about how to solve it. The public loves a good mystery.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service