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The skyjacking’s the limit – ‘The Mystery of D.B. Cooper’

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Nearly half-a-century ago, an event took place that has captivated and confounded people ever since. Something so outlandish, so unbelievable, so inscrutable that it can’t help but be fascinating even now, almost 50 years since it happened.

All I have to say is a name: D.B. Cooper. If you know, you know. If you don’t, well – he’s the man who, back in 1971, executed what remains the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of American aviation. He leapt into the night carrying $200,000 dollars, the plane in the skies over Washington state … and was never seen again.

“The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” – written and directed by John Dower – is a documentary that offers its viewers a potential solution to its titular question. Or rather – four solutions. Dower’s film features four primary subjects, each of whom shares the unshakeable belief that they know who D.B. Cooper was.

And they have four different answers.

In effect, this gives Dower four different narrators regarding who D.B. Cooper was and what sort of life he lived following his legendary crime. Each of the four have what they consider to be ironclad evidence of Cooper’s identity. And the thing about it is … they all make pretty good cases.

Interspersed with it all is an account of the skyjacking itself, offered by the people who were there in the moment – the flight attendant who served as his messenger (and implied hostage), the pilot who was flying the plane – and recreated through some well-executed dramatizations. It’s a thorough examination of the mystery – a mystery that remains undeniably fascinating even now, so many years later.

On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper walked into Portland International Airport and bought a ticket to Seattle, paying cash. He boarded the 727 and took a seat; he was reportedly quiet and polite. Shortly after takeoff, he handed a note to one of the flight attendants that said he had a bomb that he would detonate if his demands - $200,000 and four parachutes waiting in Seattle – were not met.

After circling for two hours and time taken to refuel, the plane took off from Seattle at just after 7:30 p.m., heading to Reno for another fuel stop before continuing to Mexico City. The hijacker didn’t wait for the plane to arrive at his stated destination, instead lowering the stairs at the rear of the cabin at 8 p.m. Approximately 15 minutes later, he jumped from the plane at 10,000 feet, disappearing into the forested land on the border of Washington and Oregon. He was never found.

Other than a few bundles of cash turning up on a riverfront in 1980, no trace of Cooper was ever located. The case remains the only unresolved case of air piracy in American history.

In “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper,” we meet people who believe that they knew D.B. Cooper in the time following his disappearance; Bower walks us through each of their stories – stories that, it cannot be stressed enough, are both incredible and relatively plausible.

Duane Weber was an insurance salesman who confessed to his wife Jo on his deathbed that he was D.B. Cooper. Jo learned that the man she knew had many secrets, including multiple identities and a criminal record; she also noted an old knee injury that he claimed was the result of jumping from a plane, as well as recurring nightmares revolving around fingerprints.

In addition, he took her on a tour of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1970s, making cryptic statements about “where Cooper walked out of the woods.” She believes that he reclaimed the money and threw the damaged bundles away in an attempt to change the narrative.

Barbara Dayton was born Robert Dayton, transitioning to a woman in 1969 in what is believed to be the first gender reassignment surgery in Washington state. She was an avid pilot and skydiver who once confided in airfield owners Ron and Pat Foreman that she had been D.B. Cooper, following a photo that revealed the physical resemblance.

According to the Foremans, Dayton’s family also noted the uncanny resemblance. All involved were sure that Barbara was possessed of both the necessary skills and the wild daring required to pull off such a feat.

L.D. Cooper disappeared around Christmastime in 1972, much to the confusion of his niece Marla. After years of vague responses whenever she asked about her uncle, in 1995, Marla’s dad confirmed her suspicions that yes, L.D. was in hiding and that he was the legendary hijacker. This brought old memories to the forefront – memories that certainly made it seem as though L.D. was D.B.

Marla took – and passed – an FBI-administered polygraph test, though some argue that just because she believes her story to be true does not mean that it is. There are questions about L.D.’s capability to execute such a plan.

Lastly, we have Richard Floyd McCoy, a man who executed a nearly-identical skyjacking in April of 1972, mere months after D.B. Cooper’s crime. This flight was a Denver-L.A. trip, with McCoy demanding $500,000 and bailing out over Provo, Utah. The similarities of the crimes – as well as McCoy’s military background – made him a prime suspect.

McCoy’s refusal to answer questions about the Cooper case (as well as his refusal to quietly go to prison – he escaped twice) leave him a subject of much interest, though he cannot confirm – he died in a shootout with federal agents following his second prison escape in the summer of 1972.

“The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” spends time on each of these four stories, engaging in a straightforward and honest way with all the people involved. Again – every one of these people clearly genuinely believes that their answer is the right one. Dower wisely stays out of the way, allowing each of these narratives to play out without judgment or bias. He treats all four theories with equal weight, never tipping his hand with regard to which story he himself might deem most credible.

(Personally, I lean toward McCoy – Occam’s razor and all that – but the reality is that the three other folks give credible testimony. They all make their case.)

Americans love an outlaw and they love a mystery. D.B. Cooper gave us both. And “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” gives us a fascinating look at the people who still, so many years later, insist on sharing their truth. Maybe the best part of the whole thing is this: Only one of them (if any) can be right, but it’s easy to believe them all.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 December 2020 19:45


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