PORTLAND, Ore. -- The passenger aboard the Northwest Orient flight from Portland to Seattle on Thanksgiving Eve 1971 wore sunglasses, a suit and a polyester black clip-on tie. He politely asked for a bourbon and 7-Up. Then, he handed the flight attendant a note declaring he had a bomb and demanding a $200,000 ransom.
Was this the beginning of a deeply flawed hijacking plan that would end with a suicidal nighttime parachute jump from the Boeing 727 jet by the man who would become known to the world as D.B. Cooper?
Or was Cooper a much more savvy guy who knew that Boeing 727 jets had been previously used by a CIA contract airline for parachute jumps over Southeast Asia, and who had the skills to pull off such a jump from the plane's aft stairs in the night sky over Southwest Washington?
Forty years later, in a D.B. Cooper anniversary symposium, there was still no consensus on these fundamental questions to the legendary hijacking. Some who have investigated the case are convinced he lived -- others equally certain he died in the jump even though intensive searches never located a body.
This is the nation's only unsolved hijacking, and the symposium drew Cooper sleuths from all over the country. They have analyzed flight paths, information from FBI files, parachutes' capabilities, and a plethora of other clues, including a French-language comic-book character named Dan Cooper who likely helped inspire the hijacker. There were also dozens of other people at the gathering, including several who helped in the initial search and investigation.
"Nobody was thinking of him as a legend or a Robin Hood. This was the first major hijacking in our territory, and we wanted to catch this guy," said Gary Tallis, a retired FBI agent. "As far as we were concerned, he put people's lives at risk."
One of the high-profile speakers was Marla Cooper, an Oklahoma woman who has provided what the FBI in Seattle earlier this year called a promising lead into the case.
Marla Cooper told the gathering that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, a Korean War veteran who had Dan Cooper comic books posted in his bedroom, was the hijacker, and another uncle acted as an accomplice.
Marla Cooper says her uncle, who died in 1999, survived the jump but lost the money as he parachuted to the ground. He then returned to the area in unsuccessful searches for the loot.
"The reason that the FBI has taken me seriously is that I know what I know, and my story hasn't changed," Marla Cooper said.
The hijacker left his clip-on tie on the aircraft, and DNA taken from the tie did not match that of Lynn Doyle Cooper. But Marla Cooper said the FBI agents suspect the necktie initially belonged to someone other than the hijacker, and thus may have contained DNA that would not have been tied to the hijacker.
Marla Cooper said the FBI now is reviewing fingerprints obtained from her uncle.
Several speakers at the symposium offered analysis to support the notion Cooper, whoever he might have been, did survive the jump.
They included Mark Metzler, a veteran sky diver, who found documentation that a CIA contract airline had used a Boeing 727 for airdrops over Southeast Asia, and even showed a film clip of demonstration jumps from the aft stairs extended in midair.
That's just what the hijacker did back in 1971, when he asked that the rear stairs be opened so he could exit the plane with a military-issue parachute that had been provided in Seattle along with the cash. If he pulled the chute open right off the stairs, then he could have survived, Metzler said.
The chances he survived the jump were "absolutely nil," said Jerry Thomas, a retired Army sergeant who has searched for Cooper clues for more than two decades in the Washougal, Lewis and Salmon river drainages.
Thomas doubts Cooper had the knowledge necessary to operate the parachute, and even if he did, he would have been knocked off-balance and into a death spiral by the weight of the cash -- $200,000 in $20 bills delivered in Seattle -- that he took from the aircraft.
Through all the years of investigations, there has been one huge development in the case. That happened in 1980, when Brian Ingram, then 8 years old, was clearing a spot on Tina Bar, along the Columbia River, for a campfire.
Just a few inches into the sand, Ingram found three bundles of $20 bills with serial numbers that were eventually traced back to the hijacker's cash hall.
Ingram, now 40 years old and living in Arkansas, flew to Portland for the symposium.
He said he was too nervous to speak to the gathering. But he does have his own analysis of the case.
"I believe he did survive," Ingram said. "I gave the man a lot of credit. I feel it (the cash) didn't get there by natural means."
(Contact Hal Bernton at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)