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Identifying the ‘real’ D.B. Cooper

One man’s 10-year probe turns up new evidence in unsolved skyjacking

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published: August 16, 2018, 6:02am
7 Photos
An artist’s rendition of plane hijacker D.B. Cooper, left, and a photo from around that time of Sheridan Peterson.
An artist’s rendition of plane hijacker D.B. Cooper, left, and a photo from around that time of Sheridan Peterson. Courtesy of Eric Ulis Photo Gallery

An Arizona man says he can positively identify one of the original suspects in the 1971 NORJACK hijacking, a 92-year-old man living in California, as the real D.B. Cooper, and even has evidence to place him on the plane.

“The real D.B. Cooper has basically been on the FBI’s radar since the very beginning,” said Phoenix’s Eric Ulis, who works in events planning and studies Cooper lore as a hobby.

Ulis concedes the evidence is circumstantial, but posits the man known to history and lore as D.B. Cooper is really a man named Sheridan Peterson, one of the FBI’s earliest suspects, who managed to escape prosecution because the feds couldn’t build a case.

Ulis was a child when a man calling himself Dan Cooper (in those days, travelers didn’t have to show identification) hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. He bailed out somewhere over Southwest Washington with $200,000 in ransom.

“Ever since that point, I’ve been fascinated with the D.B. Cooper case,” he said. “The grand mystery of two-hundred grand and the mysterious guy who got away, and no one knows what his name is.”

The hijacking

In November 1971, a man who bought a ticket as Dan Cooper (made D.B. Cooper due to a press miscommunication) hijacked and held for $200,000 ransom a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland bound for Seattle.

Officials gave him the cash and several parachutes when the plane landed in Seattle. After letting the passengers off, Cooper ordered the flight crew to fly south.

The FBI ended its active investigation into the case in 2016, after 45 years of searching. The decades of interviews, evidence and expert opinion gathered by the FBI indicated Cooper very likely didn’t survive his jump, but his body was never recovered.

“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,” the bureau said in 2016.

As for Ulis, his interest didn’t wane with time, but his frustration with the state of Cooper speculation increased.

There’s a lot of bad theorizing out there, he said, so about 10 years ago he decided to look into it himself. He used old and newly released records and tried to build a suspect profile from scratch. He also interviewed investigators and Peterson himself.

“Not expecting to come to any kind of real resolution, but as time went on, it’s just how things worked,” he said.

The evidence

He reasoned Cooper had to have significant familiarity with the Boeing 727. Metal shavings recovered from a clip-on tie Cooper left on board the plane included titanium, a rare metal for people to encounter at the time if they didn’t work in specific fields, including aircraft manufacturing.

Investigation records also pointed to one suspect’s college and work record, the latter of which included time as a smokejumper in Montana and a job at Boeing.

After cross-referencing the information, Ulis identified Peterson — a former smokejumper, skydiver and technical writer for Boeing — and spoke to him multiple times. Ulis wrote a 120-page analysis and built a website to share his findings.

Peterson was about the right age at the time, was an experienced skydiver and had worked at Boeing, but some of the most compelling information came from Peterson himself, Ulis says.

Peterson has denied being Cooper, including in an article he wrote for the National Smokejumpers Association’s magazine in 2007.

He wrote about the odd experience of being questioned by the FBI in 2004, and said, in his opinion as a skydiver, there was no way Cooper survived. That’s in keeping with the accepted opinion of experts and investigators. They say the plane’s airspeed was too great, the altitude too high and the parachutes unsuited for that kind of jump.

However, Peterson references specific details about the parachute rigging that are not part of any public record, and it’s unlikely Peterson would know that unless he was there, looking at the chutes himself, Ulis said.

Furthermore, Ulis interviewed an agent who spoke to Peterson in 2004. When asked about that point, she came to the same conclusion.

That puts Peterson on the plane, Ulis says.

Also, Ulis says there are problems with Peterson’s alibi.

Peterson was in Nepal during the skyjacking, and opened a confidential bank account in Singapore in 1971. A bank account like that requires ample initial investment, Ulis said, and opening it would require him to, at some point, leave Nepal, poking a hole in his story.

The FBI also found partial DNA evidence on the dropped tie, and took a sample from Peterson. He’s one of three people from which the FBI compared DNA, according to Ulis. There’s a chance none of the DNA evidence was actually from Cooper, but strangely, Peterson wasn’t publicly cleared, although the others were.

Also, that clip-on tie, Ulis said, was sold in a set that included a pair of cuff links like those Peterson once owned.

Case closed?

The caper remains the only unsolved skyjacking case in the United States, and a world of interested locals to full-blown tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists remain in thrall of the story of one of the most brazen heists of the 20th century.

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Many people have come forward claiming they’re Cooper, or say they were given a deathbed confession. Ulis is convinced of his theory, but again concedes his evidence is strongly circumstantial.

“And that can be expected after 50 years,” he said.

More recently, Cooper followers have forwarded theories naming Robert Rackstraw, through a cryptological analysis of letters sent to newspapers by supposed Coopers. Or, some say, Cooper really jumped over Cle Elum, per a confession by a man named Walter Reca.

Ulis doesn’t take much stock in those theories. The physical evidence, including an airplane placard found in Castle Rock and ransom money found by the Columbia River downstream from Vancouver, definitively show the plane’s flight path.

As for Rackstraw and the secret ciphers, Ulis agrees it’s more likely a case of confirmation bias on the part of the code breakers. Also, Rackstraw is too young, he said.

It was Peterson all along, he says, but the FBI could never put together the evidence to establish a case.

“I’m absolutely convinced that he’s D.B. Cooper. He’s the one who did it, but at the end of the day they simply can’t prove it.”

Beyond being more forthcoming with his specific questions, or clearing him, Ulis hoped the government would work out some kind of deal with Peterson so he could speak freely. Ulis said Peterson stopped talking with him after he got spooked.

What worries Ulis most is the possibility of not getting the full story while Peterson, 92, is still alive.

“He’s the one person that knows the truth to the entire matter,” Ulis said. “I do believe that under the right circumstances he would be wiling to come clean and supply the evidence to prove it.”

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Columbian environment and transportation reporter