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Aug. 10, 2022

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Unsolved mystery of D.B. Cooper comes to the Kiggins stage

47 years later, the Vancouver theater plays host to a radio drama about 1971 plane hijacker

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
13 Photos
This undated FBI artist’s sketch shows two renderings of the nondescript skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper — with and without shades.
This undated FBI artist’s sketch shows two renderings of the nondescript skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper — with and without shades. FBI Photo Gallery

On the day before Thanksgiving, 1971, Dan Wyatt’s mother was waiting to board a plane at SeaTac when the airport went haywire.

A skyjacker claiming to carry a bomb in a briefcase had seized a flight from Portland to Seattle; when the plane landed at SeaTac, officials met his demands for ransom money and parachutes. He let passengers off, forced the flight crew to head south again, and bailed out somewhere over Southwest Washington.

And he was never seen again, dead or alive — despite decades of investigation by the FBI and by amateur sleuths who find the mystery man known as D.B. Cooper simply irresistible.

Wyatt, now the owner of the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver, is one of them: a Clark County kid who grew up fascinated by the fugitive who bought a one-way airline ticket under the name Dan Cooper. The crime touched Wyatt’s family, of course, but personal contact wasn’t required for this region and indeed the whole nation to become captivated by the endless case.

Cooper’s disappearing act remains “the only unsolved case of air piracy in aviation history,” said John Barber, who teaches in the Creative Media and Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver, and is the mastermind of a project called Re-Imagined Radio.

If You Go

What: “The D.B. Cooper Transmissions,” written and directed by Dan Wyatt and presented by Metropolitan Performing Arts.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

Tickets: $8 online in advance; $12 at the door.

 Venue website: www.Kigginstheatre.com.

Disguises welcome: While it’ll infuriate FBI investigator Ralph Himmelsbach, Wyatt and Barber think it would be fun to host an auditorium full of costumed D.B. Coopers — dark business suit, white shirt, skinny black tie, black raincoat, black loafers and, of course, shades.

Did You Know?

Skyjacker, Hop & Hope and Parachute Punch are some of the brews you can enjoy at Vancouver’s own D.B. Cooper-themed pub. That’s Victor 23, which takes its name from the standard flight path Cooper’s plane was flying when he jumped.

Victor 23, launched by pilot Bryan Ward, is the sponsor of “The D.B. Cooper Transmissions.” It’s at 2905 St. Johns Boulevard and features an airplane-wing beer tap tower and a custom mural of the Boeing 727 that Cooper seized.

“Vancouver sort of owns D.B. Cooper,” Ward told The Columbian when the place opened in 2016. “I wanted something that people from Vancouver could embrace as their own.”

Calling All Super Cooper Sleuths

Scheduled for the Saturday following “The D.B. Cooper Transmissions” is a free Portland conference convened by an Arizona man who believes he knows who the real D.B. Cooper is.

Eric Ulis was profiled in this newspaper in August. While expert opinion gathered by the FBI points to a pretty simple reason why Cooper has never been found — because he didn’t survive his parachute jump — many others, including Ulis, don’t buy that.

Ulis’ D.B. Cooper conference will include a lineup of aviation and skydiving experts as well as self-styled investigators who’ll discuss their favorite ongoing suspects. There’s no admission charge. The conference is set for 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Nov. 24 at Columbia Edgewater Country Club, 2220 N.E. Marine Drive, Portland.

Intrigued? Visit https://dbcoopercon.com for more information.

Barber and Wyatt have worked together for years to stage old-fashioned radio-drama performances at the Kiggins; in recent weeks there were terrifically scary renditions of both “Dracula” and “The War of the Worlds” for Halloween, and next month, we’ll get to watch the transformation of that mean miser, Scrooge, into a cuddly teddy bear in “A Radio Christmas Carol.”

Barber and Wyatt used to work with a Portland acting company to stage these shows, but for the past year the talent has been members and friends of Metropolitan Performing Arts, directed by Barbara Richardson and based in Hazel Dell.

Now, Barber, Wyatt and Richardson will bring D.B. Cooper himself to the Kiggins stage in the debut of an original show called “The D.B. Cooper Transmissions.” They chose a meaningful but ironically inconvenient date for the show: the night before Thanksgiving, exactly when the incident took place in 1971. It’s also one of the busiest flying days of the year.

Puzzle pieces

“The War of the Worlds” and “A Christmas Carol” are classic radio dramas from what’s known as the Golden Age of Radio, the 1930s and 1940s (before television superseded radio as the hot new media), but Barber said he’s always been keen to see Re-Imagined imagine some brand-new, original radio plays.

“I’ve always liked the idea of community written, produced and acted performances,” said Barber. “That’s always been part of the conversation.”

Before he returned home and took over the Kiggins, Wyatt earned an M.F.A. in film at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angles, then worked in the movie industry. He studied everything and did everything, he said, including writing his own original scripts.

He also kept up with his Sasquatch sightings, his volcano emergencies and his “Twilight Zone” episodes, he said. “I love the lore and culture of the Pacific Northwest, and I really just love a good mystery,” he said. “The mystery is the fun of it.”

Fun but hard work too, Wyatt said, because his D.B. Cooper script sticks as closely to the facts as possible. “It’s a factual story told in documentary style,” he said.

Wyatt may love mysteries, but he didn’t want to confuse matters further with his own theories or notions, he said. The lifelong Cooper groupie did deep research and came away newly amazed, he said. “I thought I knew a lot about D.B. Cooper until a few months ago,” he said.

Full of new facts, Wyatt’s main challenge was making them all cohere. “How do all these puzzle pieces fit together? I’m sure the FBI felt the same way,” he said.

All about radio

When Wyatt did take artistic license, he said, it was simply to reduce confusion by combining many different characters into fewer ones — and you’ll still see 15 actors voicing 50 people in the show. Among those actors will be various downtown Vancouver notables, including Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle.

Barber is in the cast, too, playing lead FBI investigator Ralph Himmelsbach, who pursued the case until his retirement and was famously furious about the aura of celebrity that grew up around Cooper. Himmelsbach fought that as he was stepping down in 1980, calling Cooper “A sleazy, rotten criminal. … Nothing heroic about him, nothing glamorous, nothing admirable at all. He jeopardized the lives of 40 people.”

There’s one other way Wyatt stretched the truth: by putting words in Cooper’s mouth. This show is called “The D.B. Cooper Transmissions” because it’s all about radio, Wyatt said: charged conversations between flight crews and the ground, between law enforcement officials, and ultimately between Cooper and his pursuers.

Cooper’s real voice has never been heard. “Among all the talking, we don’t know what he actually said,” Wyatt said. “We’re still wondering, who was this Cooper character?”

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