Eric Ulis is running for Congress in Arizona – so he’s decided to introduce himself to voters while standing on a stretch of industrial shoreline in Vancouver.
That’s the power of D.B. Cooper.
Ulis, a 55-year-old former professional blackjack player, has dedicated much of the past decade to trying to solve the 1971 skyjacking of Northwest Orient Flight 305 out of Portland – the famous Cooper case. He believes his obsession with the skyjacking will help him start a political career.
Squinting into a movie camera, his boots squishing in the Columbia River’s muddy surf, Ulis tells future viewers that he’s standing on “the exact spot here in Washington state [where] a master criminal known as D.B. Cooper buried $200,000 in ransom after parachuting from a commercial airliner in mid-flight.”
That spot is on Tena Bar, the unassuming, privately held sandbar where in 1980 an 8-year-old boy found a cache of deteriorating $20 bills. Ulis doesn’t actually know that the unknown skyjacker, who bought his plane ticket under the name Dan Cooper, buried the ransom money here. Like almost everything about the D.B. Cooper case, it’s a theory.
But we’re getting off point. Ulis isn’t at Tena Bar on this sunny early-spring day to tell people what might have happened in the area 50 years ago. He’s making an analogy.
“Today,” he continues, “in the other Washington – the one on the other side of the country – we have a new brand of master criminal. Yet unlike D.B. Cooper, this criminal is easily identifiable.”
He’s talking about Arizona Republican U.S. Rep. David Schweikert, whom he hopes to face next year in the general election.
Ulis says he’s running for Congress for one reason above all others: to “end Trumpism.” As his Twitter bio puts it: “2022 Democratic Congressional candidate in AZ 6 because coup-supporting insurrectionists suck.”
The deadly events in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, when supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the formal affirmation of the Electoral College vote, shocked Ulis out of his D.B. Cooper bubble. Democracy in his country was at stake, he decided. He had to get in the game.
To be sure, Ulis’ decision to throw his hat in the ring is a return to a longstanding ambition. In the 1990s and early 2000s, before he launched his Cooper quest, Ulis ran for public office a handful of times in various places – a Seattle suburb, a Sacramento suburb, the exurbs of Phoenix – sometimes as a Republican, sometimes a Democrat. He never managed to win.
There’s no single explanation for his Sisyphean electoral results. He did take a flier on a couple of races where he never really had a chance. And a couple of times when he did have a shot, he ended up getting knocked backward by embarrassing “oppo-research” revelations: that he was behind on child-support payments to his ex-wife, that he’d spent a night in jail after a heated argument with a girlfriend. Politics ain’t beanbag, as they say.
But this time, Ulis believes, it’ll be different. Because the survival of the country’s highest principles is on the line. (He’s disgusted that Rep. Schweikert, a Trump stalwart, objected to Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential results.)
Most promising of all this time around, Ulis says: He’s now been on national TV. He was the star of last fall’s “The Final Hunt for D.B. Cooper,” an installment of History Channel’s “History’s Greatest Mysteries” franchise, and he has more Cooper-related television projects in the works.
What Ulis appears to have learned from his past ballot-box defeats is that focusing on policy is not what gets you attention in politics these days. Way back in 1996, the Seattle Times endorsed Ulis in his very first run, for the Washington legislature, calling him “a promising newcomer” and heralding his “good proposals” on school levies and sales-tax exemptions. Those good proposals didn’t get him very far. No one was interested in wonkiness then, and they’re even less so 25 years later.
So Ulis is “leaning into Cooper” – that is, he’s convinced that his decade-long fascination with America’s only unsolved skyjacking case will set him apart in the field of candidates. It’s something that will get voters to perk up and take notice.
“I’m 100% embracing my work on Cooper,” he says. “I think it’s a helluva accomplishment to get a show on the History Channel.”
Maybe he’s right, that this minor TV fame will give him an edge. What’s certain is that Ulis is a natural salesman, an earnest go-getter, an affable attention-seeker. No one who spends more than five minutes with him will be surprised to learn that he’s drawn to showbiz and politics.
Or that, in a previous life, he was captivated by the gambling table.
Over the years, Ulis has worked here and there as a stockbroker and a currency analyst, but his foremost professional experience has been as a blackjack player.
“I had a knack,” he says. “I was very, very good at playing blackjack.”
The reason he was so good: He learned to count cards. In blackjack, first-rate card counters supposedly have an advantage of 1% or so over the house, which means the player must have a commitment to riding out the lows. That’s where Ulis says he truly excelled: He could remove emotion from the equation. “Blackjack at that level is an investment,” he says. “It’s not gambling.”
His father John Ulis, a former NASA programming contractor who worked on the Apollo program, learned the same card-counting system as his son and spent about a year out on the road with him in the mid-’90s, driving from town to town in Nevada, using fake names. (They mostly avoided Las Vegas, believing the casinos there were pretty good at zeroing in on card counters.)
“It was fun, it was exciting to see if I could do it,” the elder Ulis says. “It’s not a casual thing. I practiced for about six months at home. The first time you do it for real [in a casino], you want to yell, ‘Stop making noise!'”
Card counting isn’t illegal, to be clear, but casinos do frown on it. If a pit boss figures out that you’re counting cards, at the very least you’ll be pulled aside and asked to go play a different table game. John remembers his son being kicked out of a casino in Laughlin, Nev. “They barred him within a half hour,” he says.
Eric Ulis says this unusual chapter in his life also recommends him to voters. “It gives you an idea how my mind works,” he says. “I was the kind of kid who had to figure out Rubik’s Cube, and I did. I’m a no-nonsense person.”
At any rate, Ulis’ serious blackjack-playing days are in the past. His work on the D.B. Cooper case – going through hundreds of pages of FBI reports, analyzing wind-speed data from the night of the skyjacking, interviewing surviving witnesses – is the present.
A few years ago, he homed in on the late smokejumper Sheridan Peterson as a suspect, and he’s now convinced that in a civil case, where the standard of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence,” he could successfully establish that Peterson was the man who hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305.
Mary Jean Fryar, a former FBI agent who appeared with Ulis on “History’s Greatest Mysteries,” believes he just might be right.
“Eric really knows his stuff,” she told The Oregonian/OregonLive in 2019. “He’s done his homework.”
Ulis’ father also is “impressed” with the work Eric has done on the case. “I always thought, if you’re going to do something, you have to be meticulous,” John Ulis says. “And he is.”
The campaign-video shoot at the edge of the Columbia River took a couple of hours on that late-March day. Eric Ulis, sighing, admitted he was exhausted. He’d flown in from Phoenix that morning, after getting his second Covid-19 vaccine shot shortly before midnight, and drove directly from the airport to meet the filmmakers.
Still, he wasn’t ready to head for his hotel. He was at Tena Bar, after all, an important place for D.B. Cooper hunters.
He returned to his rental car, pulled out a magnetic locator and headed back to the beach.