After 45 years, the FBI finally throws in the towel on D.B. Cooper hijacking

The FBI has ended its nearly 45-year active investigation into the identity of skyjacker D.B. Cooper, who turned a $20 airplane ticket into a $200,000 ransom payoff and then parachuted into legend.

“Following one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations in our history,” said Seattle FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williamson in a statement Tuesday, the agency has “redirected resources allocated to the D.B. Cooper case in order to focus on other investigative priorities.”

The move likely means America’s only unsolved jet hijacking will remain just that, and the public may never learn the true name of the cool man in sunglasses and business suit who in mid-flight handed a stewardess an invitation she could not refuse.

“Miss,” his note said, “I have a bomb and would like you to sit by me.”

He showed her what appeared to be a wired-up explosive device in his briefcase, and demanded $200,000 and four parachutes.

After the Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland, Ore., landed in Seattle that Thanksgiving eve, Nov. 24, 1971, the 36 other passengers and two flight attendants disembarked and the ransom money and parachutes were brought aboard. The Boeing 727 then took off for Mexico City, as the hijacker ordered, flying slowly at 10,000 feet.

Somewhere over southwest Washington state, officials figured, he dropped the rear exit stairs and parachuted into the rainy night sky with his cash.

The mysterious passenger had used the name Dan Cooper, but an early news report identified him as D.B. and the name stuck.

“The mystery surrounding the hijacking resulted in significant international attention and a decades-long manhunt,” Dietrich-Williamson said. But “in order to solve a case, the FBI must prove culpability beyond a reasonable doubt, and, unfortunately, none of the well-meaning tips or applications of new investigative technology have yielded the necessary proof.”

For decades, the FBI collected reports of supposed D.B. Cooper sightings and people claiming to be him or accusing others of being him. The Associated Press reported that the skyjacking’s 40th anniversary brought a wave of new claims including the supposed discovery of particles of pure titanium in the hijacker's clip-on tie, suggesting he might have worked in the chemical industry. But that and other reports were short of any solid leads.

Some were almost comical. For example, a 2007 New York magazine story, “Unmasking D.B. Cooper,” told readers that “a Manhattan P.I. may have cracked the case.” His suspect, who died in 1994, looked vaguely like the sketch of Cooper and, according to the investigator, was on his deathbed when he whispered to his brother: “There is something you should know, but I cannot tell you.”  

Another Cooper lookalike, a Florida antiques dealer who generated a lot of media coverage, was also dead. But on his deathbed, he made a much better confession, according to his wife. “I’m Dan Cooper,” he whispered. At least he got the name right.

Many figure Cooper has been dead the whole time, presuming he was killed in the skydive. A body was never found, although nearly $6,000 of the ransom money — known to authorities by its serial numbers — was discovered by a boy digging on a beach by the Columbia River, beneath the assumed drop zone.

The FBI is still accepting relevant Cooper tips, Dietrich-Williamson said.

“Although the FBI will no longer actively investigate this case, should specific physical evidence emerge — related specifically to the parachutes or the money taken by the hijacker — individuals with those materials are asked to contact their local FBI field office.”

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UPDATES:

7:46 p.m.: The story was updated with Times staff reporting.

The story was originally published at 11:41 a.m.

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