ARIEL — D.B. Cooper lives.
At least, he does in the minds of more than 100 enthusiasts who gathered Saturday afternoon for the Ariel Store’s 37th annual D.B. Cooper Party to discuss their theories on what fate befell the legendary skyjacker 40 years ago.
A man who identified himself to a flight attendant as Dan Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 between Portland and Seattle on Nov. 24, 1971, then extorted $200,000 in ransom before parachuting into a storm. Despite exhaustive attempts by the FBI and others, neither the fate nor the identity of the skyjacker has ever been confirmed.
In 1980, an 8-year-old boy found a portion of Cooper’s ransom money along the banks of the Columbia River, about seven miles northwest of Vancouver. Authorities have speculated the money floated there from the Washougal River. Cooper’s remains, however, have never been found.
The Ariel Store, 288 Merwin Village Road, is located in a remote area on the border of Clark and Cowlitz counties where the FBI once believed the skyjacker leaped into the night. Saturday’s event included live music, a displayed parachute similar to the one Cooper used to jump from the hijacked jet and plenty of speculation.
“It’s just an excuse to have a party and get together,” store owner Donna Elliott said near the store’s bar area. Nearby, three men strummed acoustic guitars and a woman played a violin in the center of the room.
The myriad unknowns surrounding Cooper’s case coupled with it being the only unsolved commercial airplane hijacking in American history have made him a modern-day folk hero to some in the Pacific Northwest.
“People are so unhappy with the government and have been for so long,” said Skip Calhoun, 70, of Springfield, Ore. “Any chance we get to celebrate anyone getting over on the government is reason to celebrate.”
Jack Elliott, the 41-year-old son of Donna Elliott, chimed in that the FBI continues to try to solve Cooper’s case because “someone got something over on the government.”
Both Calhoun and Jack Elliott believe Cooper survived. Elliott questioned whether Cooper jumped. Donna Elliott opined he might have been dropped off at the Portland airport, where he received a ride from an accomplice.
Donna Elliott cheered for Cooper because he represented the little guy defeating the government, and she bristled at notions that the FBI was closing in discovering his identity.
“That’s a big farce,” she said.
Dave and Nancy Hester recalled watching chaos erupt on the Sea-Tac Airport tarmac on the night Cooper hijacked the plane. The couple lived near the airport then. After seeing a news report on TV, they walked across the street to an area where they could see the runway.
The enduring allure of Cooper’s story led the Hesters to drive two and a half hours Saturday from their home in Kent to their first D.B. Cooper Party at the Ariel Store.
“It’s kind of like a fairy tale,” Nancy Hester, 67, said. “I don’t think in this day and age that could happen. There’s too much technology.”
Erin Keesis, 51, recalled having conflicted emotions when she first learned of Cooper.
“They’re making somebody famous who committed a crime,” she said were her first thoughts. “But this is a fun thing because nobody got hurt.”
Keesis, who is from Imogene, Iowa, attended the event with her husband, Larry, who is working in Vancouver. She said she had no clue if Cooper lived but added that if he walked through the door it would be “cool to meet somebody famous.”
Keesis’ sister, Rachel Perkins, also of Imogene, Iowa, also admitted to being in the dark when it came to Cooper’s story. She stood in the store near the hanging parachute, looking across at people in the bar area, wondering “if that might be him.”
Not everyone expressed such uncertainty about Cooper.
Robert Blevins, co-author of Into The Blast: The True Story of D.B. Cooper, attended the event. The book names former United Airlines employee and Army paratrooper Kenny Christiansen, who is now deceased, as the real D.B. Cooper.
The FBI could confirm Christiansen was Cooper if it would just interview the people cited in his book, Blevins said.
Until then, the legend of D.B. Cooper will only grow.
“Some people don’t want to know for sure,” Blevins said. “On the other hand, if the guy died, they might be happy because he lived and was able to spend the money.”