OGDEN -- A report of a fireball in the sky and a veiled threat from a mysterious man in a dark suit could aid a lawyer's dogged quest to prove a former Weber State ROTC instructor was infamous skyjacker D.B. Cooper.
Galen Cook, a Spokane, Wash., attorney says he's found perhaps the only eyewitness to Cooper's daring parachute escape from a Boeing 727 more than 38 years ago into the dark abyss of the Pacific Northwest.
Cook, who has been pursuing the Cooper case for more than two decades and is writing a book about his investigation, believes a woman named Janet may have seen the hijacker as he jumped from the plane carrying road flares and a $200,000 ransom.
"Janet has no reason whatsoever to lie, so I believe her story," Cook said in an e-mail to the Standard-Examiner. "I have a suspect (William "Wolfgang" Gossett) who worked for the military, was a trained military parachuter, had special knowledge of aircraft and CIA operations in Southeast Asia, was obsessed with road flares, and retired from the Army at Fort Lewis, Wash. (near where the D.B. Cooper incident took place)."
The Cooper case is perhaps the most baffling unsolved crime in FBI history.
On Nov. 24,1971, Cooper commandeered a Boeing 727 en route from Portland, Ore., to Seattle. After receiving a $200,000 ransom, walked down the plane's rear stairs and parachuted into the stormy night.
Cook maintains Gossett, a former ROTC instructor at Weber State who was 73 when he died in 2003 in Oregon, is the elusive hijacker.
He described Gossett as the consummate chameleon who eluded authorities despite a string of highly visible jobs that included private investigator, radio talk show host and priest in the Old Roman Catholic Church.
Cook contends Gossett managed to keep his involvement in the Cooper caper under the radar of law enforcement, but confessed the crime to several people, including a son, Gregg Gossett, who lives in Ogden, Maurice Richards, an attorney from South Ogden, now deceased, and Jim Bjornsen, a close friend and lawyer in Newport, Ore.
Cook also believes Janet may be the only person to have seen the hijacker jump from the Boeing 727 after it took off from Seattle International Airport en route to Mexico City.
He learned of Janet's eyewitness account in 2009 following the death of his long-time friend and fellow Cooper hunter Richard Tosaw.
Tosaw, a former FBI agent and attorney from California, wrote a 1984 book entitled, "D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive?, and kept extensive files on his investigation.
After Tosaw died, his staff gave Cook some of those files, including one that contained a 1985 interview with Janet.
Cook was stunned and excited when he read Janet's account.
"To say the least, I was ecstatic as both an investigator and an attorney," he said. "Her report could change the course and the scope of the case, and in part, answer some of the more intriguing questions. Nowhere, in any records that I have found, is there any reference to an eye-witness to the Cooper jump. Yet there she was. There is something very credible and compelling about her story."
Janet, who is 65 and requested that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, told the Standard-Examiner in her first public interview she's certain she saw Cooper jump from the hijacked jet.
Janet recalled that late in the afternoon on Nov. 24, 1971 she had just gotten off work from her job as a billing clerk at Wilhelm Trucking Co. in northwest Portland and was heading to a beauty shop appointment.
Suddenly a news bulletin came on her car radio regarding the Cooper hijacking.
Janet had her hair done at the salon and didn't give much thought to the news as she drove to her home in nearby Vancouver, Wash.
After reaching the house, she and her husband loaded their two children into the family's Datsun to take them to a babysitter so they could go to dinner at the nearby upscale Key Hotel.
Janet, who was in the passenger seat, looked up just as the car was backing out of the driveway and saw a light pass overhead. A platform or ladder below a plane caught her eye.
"What I saw was flames and thought I saw something on the platform which could have been a person," Janet said.
Immediately, the fireball arched away from the platform, split into two and then disappeared in the direction of the Columbia River.
Cook believes the fireball Janet saw was Gossett tossing some road flares made to look like a dynamite bomb to judge wind direction to safely guide him to the ground.
Cook said his research has shown winds were blowing from the southeast at more than 60 knots in the Portland area around the time of the hijacking. "This kind of wind speed would likely cause a falling flarepack to appear fiery, as reported by Janet," he said.
Janet's sighting of the fireball fits with William Gossett's penchant for road flares, said his son, Gregg Gossett.
"My father had an obsession with road flares," he said. "He used to light them off for me when I was a kid. There were tons of them around our house growing up."
Man in black
Janet said that a few days later, after deciding that the fiery object had something to do with the Cooper case, she sent a letter to the FBI field office in Portland.
She wasn't prepared for what happened next.
Several days later a mysterious, intimidating man in a dark business suit knocked on her door and asked for her by name. Janet said the man, who did not identify himself as an FBI agent or police officer, told her the letter had been received and ordered her to "shut the fxxx up" about it.
"I was scared to death," she said.
Cook believes the mysterious man was an FBI agent warning Janet not to go to the press because the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were expending considerable resources looking for Cooper near Lake Merwin, 35 miles north of Vancouver.
"This would have splintered the FBI's progress and maybe prevented them from capturing D.B. Cooper," he said.
FBI Special Agent Larry Carr, who has been overseeing the Cooper investigation, could not be reached for comment.
Janet didn't mention the possible Cooper sighting again publicly until 1985 when she met with Tosaw who was in Portland to promote his book on the hijacking.
"When I told Richard...you could see by the look on his face that he absolutely believed it was him (Cooper)," she said.
Cook believes he knows why Tosaw didn't follow up on Janet's tip or tell him about it.
"Tosaw did not share his info about Janet's eyewitnessing because he thought he had special information that would help him solve the case," said Cook.
"The problem is that Tosaw also believed Cooper died during the jump. Any extraneous info indicating Cooper survived would not have fit nicely into Tosaw's version of events. I, on the other hand, believe that Cooper survived the jump and went back to the Salt Lake City area where he lived a relatively quiet life on the run."
Cook believes William Gossett planned the hijacking to coincide with Thanksgiving week vacation at Weber State so that he wouldn't be missed.
Cook maintains William Gossett probably landed on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, somewhere west of Portland.
After spending the night in the woods, he probably made his way to Portland International Airport, took a plane to San Francisco and then traveled to Utah, he said.
Battle Ground site
The FBI now maintains that Cooper didn't exit near Lake Merwin but near Battle Ground, Wash., about seven miles north of the Columbia River, but didn't survive the jump because the parachute he used couldn't be steered and his clothing and footwear weren't suitable for a rough landing.
In 1980, 8-year-old Brian Ingram found on the banks of the Columbia River a rotting package of $20 bills totaling $5,800 that matched serial numbers of the Cooper ransom money, further bolstering the claim that the hijacker was killed, according to the FBI.
However, the money could have been planted by William Gossett to throw off authorities, Cook said.
Cook maintains that while William Gossett may have needed the ransom money to pay off gambling debts, there was possibly a "higher moral mission" for the hijacking.
He claims to have uncovered information indicating William Gossett may have committed the crime because he was upset about a clandestine government operation during the Vietnam conflict.
Meanwhile, Cook recently visited Janet's former home in Vancouver.
Using a radar map, Cook has determined the hijacked jet passed directly over Janet's house and the direction of the fireball she saw drifting away from the plane is in alignment with the river bank where some of the ransom money was found.
Cook said Janet's eyewitness account backed up by physical data has convinced him he's closer than ever to solving the Cooper case.
"When that happened, it urged me on to pick up the pace and the cold trail of the skyjacker."