The FBI has what it calls “our most promising” lead to date for a suspect in the infamous 1971 D.B. Cooper case — the nation’s only unsolved commercial airplane hijacking.
The name of a man not previously investigated was given to the FBI, and an item that belongs to him was sent for fingerprint work at the agency’s Quantico, Va., forensic lab, agency spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich told seattlepi.com Saturday.
A law enforcement colleague spoke with someone who may have a strong connection to Cooper, and that law enforcement staffer contacted the FBI, Sandalo Dietrich said.
“With any lead, our first step is to assess how credible it is,” said Sandalo Dietrich, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Seattle office, where the Cooper evidence is kept. “Having this come through another law enforcement [agency], having looked it over when we got it — it seems pretty interesting.”
Sandalo Dietrich, who was out of the office Saturday, did not have the date when the information was given to the FBI. She also didn’t give specifics about the item, citing the ongoing investigation.
“It’s back at our lab and we hope to compare it to partial fingerprints we got in the hijacking,” Sandalo Dietrich told seattlepi.com. “It would be a real break if it came back.”
However, agents are not sure if fingerprints can be pulled from the item.
The FBI has not released the suspect’s name, age, hometown or possible criminal record. However, the item being sent to the forensic lab appears to be a significant step.
In 2007, agent Larry Carr solicited the public’s help, saying that while the agency still viewed it as a criminal case, it was far from a priority. The agency continually gets requests to test DNA to either prove or disprove Cooper’s identity, but rarely has done so, Carr said in 2007.
Because it’s a partial DNA sample, agents said they can only compare it to other DNA samples and exclude suspects. Some people who have been sure Cooper was a relative have been told he was not.
“People become so focused, they want their details to fit,” Carr said in 2007, adding the FBI has investigated nearly 1,000 suspects since November 1971.
The FBI obtained a partial DNA sample from the black JCPenney clip-on tie the man known as Cooper left on the plane. That, along with the parachute he discarded, his boarding pass with “DAN COOPER” written in red ink, and a few deteriorated bills remain at the FBI’s Seattle office. Only a fraction of the $200,000 Cooper took that 1971 night was recovered.
In 1980, Brian Ingram found a portion of the money near the Columbia River, and the FBI returned most of those bills to him. Ingram has since auctioned some of them.
Sandalo Dietrich didn’t say if agents believe the possible suspect is dead, though Carr and other agents have previously said they believed Cooper died the night he jumped, sinking into the earth with a parachute that didn’t open properly. That would explain why he and most of the money have never been found, they’ve said.
Agents have also said they believe Cooper — who gained the initials D.B. after confusion in a United Press International newsroom — wasn’t a mastermind. He didn’t ask for large bills, so he was given mostly 20s, which made the total bundle heavier and harder to carry.
Cooper also didn’t recognize that the “X” on the backup parachute he used meant it was only for classroom demonstrations — and sewn shut. The main chute Cooper used was packaged as a Navy-issue NB6.
“He jumped with the parachute I packed,” former Issaquah sky-diving instructor Earl Cossey told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March 2008. “But he obviously didn’t know what he was doing.”
Every year, the Ariel Store and Tavern on state Route 503, near where many believe Cooper landed, has a party in his honor on the anniversary of the jump.
The tavern is decorated with sketched mug shots, pictures and dozens of newspaper articles about the unsolved hijacking.
Many theories have been told there, including one in which Cooper was actually a woman and the recipient of the first sex change operation in Washington. One of owner Dona Elliott’s most notable: A woman believed Cooper survived the jump, but didn’t survive an encounter with Sasquatch in Washington’s woods.