Fifty years ago, on the night before Thanksgiving, a skyjacker claiming to carry a bomb in a briefcase seized a Boeing 727 en route from Portland to Seattle.
When the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials scrambled to meet the well-dressed skyjacker’s sophisticated demands for multiple parachutes and $200,000 in ransom money. He let passengers go and forced the flight crew to take off and head south again. He bailed out somewhere over Southwest Washington.
He was never seen again, dead or alive, despite decades of investigation by the FBI — and by legions of amateur sleuths and mystery junkies who find the enigma known as D.B. Cooper simply irresistible. Cooper’s astonishing escapade ranks with Bigfoot in the hall of fame of Pacific Northwest myths and oddities.
“It’s one unpeeled layer of onion skin after another,” said Bruce Smith, a Washington journalist who has written a book about the skyjacking. “There’s something exciting and stimulating and scary about the D.B. Cooper case. There’s something timeless about it.”
Next weekend, the Kiggins Theatre will welcome Smith and other Cooperologists — self-appointed investigators and authors, parachute experts and pilots, eyewitnesses and their descendants, Hollywood wannabes and just plain conspiracy theorists — for a 50th anniversary, expanded, two-day edition of the annual gathering known as CooperCon.
“I’m not prone to conspiracies,” he said. “I’m not interested in the fantastical or emotional. I’m interested in facts.”
Ulis said he discovered the mystery when he was a kid in the late 1970s via “In Search of …,” the Leonard Nimoy TV series that probed murky matters like ancient alien visits and the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
“I just got curious when new bits of information popped up,” said Ulis, who calls himself an entrepreneur and professional gambler. He has run for Congress, unsuccessfully, as both a Democrat and a Republican.
The longer he followed the Cooper case, Ulis said, the more conspiratorial and outlandish the theories seemed to grow. Thanks to the arrival of the Internet, he started to work the case himself.
“What the heck, maybe I can solve this thing,” he thought. He became a frequent writer about Cooper and about what he considers flaws in the FBI investigation, especially after all of the agency’s Cooper case files were released to the public in 2016.
“It was a guilty pleasure at first, but it took on a life of its own,” said Ulis, who has appeared on several History Channel shows about Cooper and was the focus of the two-hour 2020 documentary “The Final Hunt for D.B. Cooper” on “History’s Greatest Mysteries.”
Ulis has found a niche delving into prolonged puzzles like the Bermuda Triangle and the JFK assassination.
“I’m involved in larger TV projects and series in the same genre,” he said. “This is what I do.”
Bruce Smith calls Ulis “the P.T. Barnum of the D.B. Cooper scene, and I mean that in every sense: part showman and hustler, part very good producer who gets things done. The breadth and depth of his expertise about the Cooper case is extraordinary.”
Smith, who lives near Mount Rainier, used to write for the Eatonville Dispatch, whose editors and readers were hungry for D.B. Cooper stories.
CooperCon attendees always flock to Victor 23 afterward to continue their discussions over food and drink. Ward himself, while interested in the Cooper mystery, doesn’t get involved in debates.
“I stand back and I’m happy to sell them beers,” he said. “I don’t need to solve it; it’s just something that happened in our community that we can remember and celebrate.”
“People bring guitars and sing their songs about D.B. Cooper,” Smith said. “And the Cooper choir sings along. Yeah, even me. A couple beers and I get pretty bold.”
While it’s all meant in the spirit of real inquiry — and good fun — Smith added that there is a dark side to the Cooper universe, which does attract some extreme people.
“I watch my back,” Smith said.
A few days after CooperCon, Ulis intends to return to Tena Bar, a private beach downriver from Vancouver and Frenchman’s Bar, and shovel up the sand.
Tena Bar is where three bundles of tattered $20 bills — nearly $6,000 in all — were discovered in 1980 by a kid named Brian Ingram. (The grown-up Ingram is scheduled to speak at CooperCon.) The money was positively linked to Cooper.
“I believe (Cooper) buried it all in two or three small holes,” Ulis said. “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the missing parachute and the missing attache case were there all along, within about 20 or 30 feet of where the FBI looked.”
When Ulis goes digging, he’ll be joined by Vancouver businessman Robert Bertrand, an aspiring screenwriter, actor and passionate Cooperologist.
“You have to have boots on the ground,” Bertrand said, “and you also have to have people talking to their grandparents, going through their old junk, checking those old $20 bills.”
Beyond good business, that’s a chief reason why Bertrand decided on an “Operation: D.B. Cooper” challenge when he launched his NW Escape Experience business in Hazel Dell: to remind customers about this real, unsolved case.
“It’s important to build a fun room for families, but I also wanted to keep the Cooper story alive in their minds,” Bertrand said. “The only way the riddle will be solved is by people staying interested in the story.”
Bertrand said he learned the name D.B. Cooper from one of his mother’s dare-to-believe-it supermarket tabloids. “‘D.B. Cooper was my father’ — something like that,” he said with a chuckle.
“It’s a local story, a local mystery that never got solved, and I just fell in love with it,” Bertrand said. “I spent a year researching the story and got heavily embedded in the D.B. Cooper investigation community.”
The aspiring screenwriter has penned what he calls an “epic” D.B. Cooper movie screenplay, “The Sky Way.”
“A movie has never been made that’s faithful to the story,” said Bertrand. “My D.B. Cooper script … is told in real time from the moment he boards the plane to the moment he jumps.”
“D.B. Cooper is part of the Pacific Northwest zeitgeist,” Smith said. “This is our story.”
Too much fun
The FBI is having none of the hero worship. Ralph Himmelsbach, the agent most closely associated with the case, famously called Cooper a “rotten, sleazy crook.” But all the Cooperphiles interviewed for this story admire the way their antihero reportedly behaved like a gentleman and harmed no one — except powerful institutions like banks, insurance companies and airlines.
“He’s drinking bourbon, he’s very polite, and then he jumps out of the back of an airplane. What’s more James Bond than that?” Ulis said. “That was at a time in American life when authority was being called into question, so somebody who sticks it to the man — you can see how people would be rooting for this guy to get away with it.”
Bertrand echoed that sentiment. “What a rock-and-roll move, to lower those stairs and jump into the abyss,” he said. “It’s the most intriguing crime story I’ve ever heard of. Once you dip your toe, you get sucked right in because there are so many details and so many theories.
“We call it the Cooper Vortex,” Bertrand said. “We’ve got people researching wind speeds and directions. We’ve got people digging up the beach. These are normal, everyday people who get hooked on this story because it’s so strange and wonderful.”
Ulis thinks Cooper, likely a disgruntled aerospace-industry employee, may still be alive and keeping quiet.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that he still might be identified,” Ulis said.
Smith believes Cooper will be identified within a few years, thanks either to improving scientific techniques or to the “remote psychic sleuthing” that’s already secretly employed by military and intelligence agencies, he said.
Wyatt said he hopes the mystery is never solved because it’s too much fun.
If there ever is a solution, it will only send Cooperologists into “a deeper frenzy” of questions and counter-theories, Shaefer said.
“It’s been 50 years, and there’s no end in sight,” Bertrand said. “Welcome to the vortex.”