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News / Life / Clark County Life

Kiggins to host a CooperCon, new radio play about the historic crime

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 21, 2019, 6:02am
9 Photos
AP Photo/File
The hijacked Northwest Airlines jetliner that Dan Cooper took over waits to refuel at Sea-Tac Airport in November 1971 before taking off again. After it did, Cooper, wearing a business suit, a parachute and a pack with $200,000 in ransom money, jumped out somewhere over Southwest Washington. (Associated Press files)
AP Photo/File The hijacked Northwest Airlines jetliner that Dan Cooper took over waits to refuel at Sea-Tac Airport in November 1971 before taking off again. After it did, Cooper, wearing a business suit, a parachute and a pack with $200,000 in ransom money, jumped out somewhere over Southwest Washington. (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

What was sticking in D.B. Cooper’s craw, anyway? Legions of FBI agents and self-appointed sleuths wish they knew.

So does Kiggins Theatre owner Dan Wyatt, who has granted himself permission to speculate about what was on the infamous skyjacker’s troubled mind as he told a captive flight attendant: “I don’t have a grudge against your airline, miss. I just have a grudge.”

You can explore that grudge on the night before Thanksgiving, as a new version of Wyatt’s original radio drama about D.B. Cooper returns to the Kiggins stage.

Wyatt has been fascinated by the legendary skyjacking — the only unsolved case of sky piracy in American history — since before he was born, you might say. He said he was still “a gleam in her eye” on Nov. 24, 1971, when his mother-to-be was waiting to board a plane at Sea-Tac Airport and go visit his father-to-be.

If You Go

What: CooperCon 2019.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 23.
Admission: $15.
Learn More:https://dbcoopercon.com
• • •
What: “The Skyjacker” film screening.
When: 6 p.m. Nov. 23.
Admission: Free.
• • •
What: “In Flight with D.B. Cooper” radio drama.
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 27.
Admission: $10 in advance, $12 day of show.

Where: All events listed above held at Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver

That’s when history, and eventual legend, overtook them all. Coming in for a landing at Sea-Tac was an airplane hijacked by Dan Cooper, a one-way passenger from Portland who claimed to be carrying a bomb.

Cooper let the other passengers off at Sea-Tac, but he held onto the crew and demanded money, parachutes and a flight south. He was supposedly headed to Mexico, but somewhere over Southwest Washington he bailed out of the plane and was never seen again.

The mysterious incident is now “part of our lore, our culture in the Pacific Northwest,” Wyatt said. “I love the mystery. It really appeals to my imagination.”

Wyatt has declared an inaugural D.B. Cooper Week at the Kiggins. It includes a Saturday conference for Cooper sleuths and, after a short break, a 2008 movie for suspense-film fans that same evening.

The following day, you can choose a field trip to explore north Clark County sites where Cooper might have landed — or a boat trip to the beach where his ransom money definitely did.

A few nights later, the Kiggins will host an update of Wyatt’s own you-are-there radio drama, which debuted last year.

The first draft was an exhaustive examination of every documented fact and every player involved, and Wyatt conceded that it turned into a bit of a slog. He said this year’s version will be different: shorter, snappier and more character-driven.

The revised radio play focuses on the human side of the story, especially the conversation between skyjacker Cooper and flight attendant Tina Mucklow, “who sat with him for a long time, but nobody knows what they talked about,” Wyatt said.

We only know that Mucklow eventually withdrew from society and spent 12 years in a Catholic convent near Eugene, he said.

“Maybe that was driven by PTSD over the whole incident,” he said.

Cooper “was angry about something,” Wyatt said. “I decided to take a more intimate, speculative approach about what that might have been.”

Wyatt’s original script will be performed by cast members from Metropolitan Performing Arts, a Vancouver theater school and troupe. It’s produced by Washington State University Vancouver faculty member John Barber and his Re-Imagined Radio project, which aims to recall the Golden Age of Radio (the 1920s through the 1950s) by presenting live performances of both classic and new radio-drama works.

Landing zone

Plentiful fingerprints and tantalizing clues — like packets of the ransom money discovered in 1980 by an 8-year-old playing at a beach downstream from Vancouver — kept the FBI working the Cooper case for decades. The agency officially suspended its efforts in 2016.

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But other dedicated, self-appointed investigators keep turning up new leads, new suspects, new theories. The bemused Wyatt used to attend the (now discontinued) Cooper festival held at the Ariel General Store and found it had a “light and fun touch,” he said.

But the Cooper groupies coming to address Saturday’s CooperCon at the Kiggins “take it very seriously,” Wyatt said. “They’ve made solving this case, which the FBI could never solve, their life’s work.”

The conference organizer is an Arizona man named Eric Ulis, who has spent well over a decade conducting his own Cooper investigation.

Ulis has lined up a day of talks by authors and experts who will dig into the evidence in microscopic detail — including an analysis of parachute-jumping physics and a chemical breakdown of a tie clip associated with Cooper.

One hour after the conference closes, at 6 p.m. Saturday, the Kiggins will offer a completely free screening of an hourlong, fictive film treatment of the Cooper story from 2008 called “The Skyjacker.” Everyone is welcome to the free screening, whether you’ve attended the conference or not.

“It’s a very independent film,” Wyatt said. “It’ll be a topper for the day.”

And, after that, an end-of-day social gathering is set for Victor 23 Brewing, the Vancouver pub (located at 2905 St. Johns Blvd. #3718) named for the flight path that carried Cooper into mystery and history.

The day after the Kiggins conference, Ulis will host a 90-minute boat ride to the waterfront spot where those ransom packets were discovered. The boat ride, with capacity for 15 passengers, is free and first come, first served for CooperCon ticket buyers.

Meanwhile, researcher Bruce Smith will host a D.B. Cooper Road Trip through the mileslong Clark County zone where Cooper is thought to have landed — maybe — and hundreds of investigators, including soldiers from Fort Lewis, searched for him.

The tour will meet in downtown Vancouver, then head north on state Highway 503 to visit Hockinson, Cedar Creek Road, Pup Creek Road, Lake Merwin, the Ariel Tavern, Merwin Dam and Amboy. The tour ends with Mexican food in Woodland.