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12:46 pm
Wed November 27, 2013

America's Most Famous Unsolved Skyjacking Case

On the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man known only as “D.B. Cooper” hijacked a Boeing 727 on a flight from Portland, Ore. to Seattle. He extorted 200,000 dollars in ransom and parachuted from the plane.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Feliks Banel of KUOW looks back at America’s most famous unsolved skyjacking case.

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And now a story that takes us back to Thanksgiving eve, 1971. That's when a man known only as D.B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 on a flight between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, extorting $200,000 in ransom, parachuting from the plane. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, KUOW's, Feliks Banel, he looks at America's most famous unsolved skyjacking case.

FELIKS BANEL, BYLINE: A few crumbling $20 bills, an airline boarding pass, a pink parachute, a black clip-on necktie from J.C. Penney, this is all that remains of a legend. And it fits neatly into a cardboard box at the FBI office in Seattle.

It was early afternoon on Thanksgiving eve, 1971. A man paid $18.52 in cash for an airline ticket to Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS)

WALTER CRONKITE: When he got on the plane in Portland, Oregon, last night, he was just another passenger who gave his name as D.A. Cooper.

BANEL: The passenger had actually given his first name as Dan, but Walter Cronkite called him D.A. In the beginning, nobody got the name right. The legend hadn't quite stuck yet. The man, whoever he really was, is best remembered now as the hijacker, D.B. Cooper.

As the Boeing 727 headed north toward Seattle, Cooper passed a note to a stewardess. In this clip from the CBS Evening News, Bill Kurtis describes what happened when the plane landed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

BILL KURTIS: Thirty-six passengers got off the jetliner in Seattle last night, left aboard four crew members and the hijacker dressed in a business suit, demanding $200,000 and carrying a plain briefcase, which he told the crew held explosives.

FELIX BANEL, BYLINE: On the ground at CTAC airport, authorities gave Cooper the money, along with four parachutes in exchange for releasing the passengers. The jet was refueled, and around 7:30 p.m., the CTAC tower cleared it for takeoff. It climbed into the November darkness and headed south toward Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

KURTIS: The crew, here being debriefed by the FBI, was told to fly low over Oregon's flatlands with the flaps down. The speed dropped to 200 miles per hour.

BANEL: As they flew South, Cooper ordered the crew to stay in the cockpit. The jet began to run low on fuel, and then landed in Reno, Nevada. Back in the main cabin, Cooper, the $200,000 and one of the parachutes were nowhere to be found. All that was left was Cooper's clip-on necktie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

KURTIS: Snow covers the mountains in northern California and Nevada, a hostile terrain for any parachute drop, especially at night. Police believe he left the 727 in the flatlands of Oregon or Washington, but they are still looking in four states, even around the airport.

BANEL: Law enforcement ultimately focused the search on southwest Washington, but they failed to turn up any clues. Meanwhile, Cooper became something of a folk hero, like a modern-day Robin Hood to some people. A tavern in the search area even began throwing an anniversary party each year. Then Hollywood made a movie. The film was called "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper." Treat Williams played the hijacker as a former Green Beret with a checkered past and daddy issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm not impressed, you know. You're still an outlaw.

TREAT WILLIAMS: (as D.B. Cooper) Oh, so I'm an outlaw. Say it a couple times, it don't mean much: outlaw, outlaw, outlaw. But I'm a very successful outlaw.

BANEL: The FBI thinks Cooper died while making the jump. It was a cold night. Cooper was underdressed, and none of the bills he was given have ever made it into circulation. In 1980, kids playing along the Columbia River found $6,000 of the money buried in a sandbar. Chances are it washed downstream from where Cooper - or his body - hit the ground back in 1971. Four decades later, the FBI still gets calls from people who claim to be Cooper or claim to know the hijacker's true identity.

The bureau has investigated nearly 1,000 of these possible D.B. Coopers over the years, but none has quite fit the profile. And in spite of their popularity with the legendary hijacker, clip-on neckties have not made a comeback, either. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Felix Banel, in Seattle.

YOUNG: What a mystery. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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