It was the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, 1971. As Northwest Airlines Flight 305, from Portland, Ore., to Seattle, sped along the runway preparing for takeoff, the man in Seat 18C, wearing sunglasses and a dark suit, handed a flight attendant a note. It said he had a bomb and threatened to blow up the Boeing 727 unless he received $200,000 cash and four parachutes when the plane landed. The man in Seat 18C purchased his ticket under the name "Dan Cooper."
After receiving his booty at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, the man released the 36 passengers and two members of the flight crew. He ordered the pilot and remaining crew to fly to Mexico. At 10,000 feet, with winds gusting at 80 knots and a freezing rain pounding the airplane, Dan Cooper–mistakenly identified as D.B. Cooper by a reporter–walked down the rear stairs and parachuted into history.
What followed was one of the most extensive and expensive manhunts in the annals of American crime. For five months, federal, state, and local police combed dense hemlock forests north of Portland. D.B. Cooper became an American folk icon–the inspiration for books, rock songs, and even a 1981 movie. Over the past three decades, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has investigated more than 1,000 "serious suspects" along with assorted crackpots and deathbed confessors. Most–but not all–have been ruled out. The case was back in the news just last month when FBI agents investigated a skull discovered nearly 20 years ago along the Columbia River. It turned out to belong to a woman, possibly an American Indian. Today, the D.B. Cooper case remains the world's only unsolved skyjacking.
In March 1995, a Florida antique dealer named Duane Weber lay dying of polycystic kidney disease in a Pensacola hospital. He called his wife, Jo, to his bed and whispered: "I'm Dan Cooper." Jo, who had learned in 17 years of marriage not to pry too deeply into Duane's past, had no idea what her secretive husband meant. Frustrated, he blurted out: "Oh, let it die with me!" Duane died 11 days later. Jo sold his van two months after his death. The new owner discovered a wallet hidden in the overhead console. It contained a U.S. Navy "bad conduct discharge" in Duane's name and a Social Security card and prison-release form from the Missouri State Penitentiary, in the name of "John C. Collins." Duane had told Jo that he had served time for burglary under the name John Collins. Still, says Jo, a real-estate agent in Pace, Fla., Duane rarely spoke of his past. "His life started with me, and that was it," she says.
In April 1996, Jo discussed Duane's criminal and military past with a friend. She also mentioned that just before he died, Duane had revealed the cause of an old knee injury. "I got it jumping out of a plane," Jo recalls him saying. "Did you ever think he might be D.B. Cooper?" the friend asked.
Handwriting match. In May 1996, Jo checked out a library book on D.B. Cooper. "I did not realize D.B. Cooper was known as Dan Cooper," Jo says. The book listed the FBI's description: mid-40s, 6 feet tall, 170 pounds, black hair, a bourbon drinker, a chain smoker. At the time of the hijacking, Duane Weber was 47, 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and weighed around 185 pounds. He had black hair, drank bourbon, and chain-smoked.
The similarities between a younger Duane and the FBI's composite drawings struck Jo. "It's about as close a match as you can get," agrees Frank Bender, a criminal forensic reconstructionist who has worked with the FBI for 20 years.
Jo never knew Duane to go to the library. Yet in pencil in the book's margins was what looked to her like Duane's handwriting. On one page he had written the name of a town in Washington where a placard from the rear stairs of Flight 305 had landed. "I knew right off the bat that handwriting was his," says Anne Faass, who worked with Duane for five years.
Jo called the FBI the night she read the D.B. Cooper book. "They just blew me off," she says. Eventually she began a dialogue with Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI agent in charge of the case from 1971 until his retirement in 1980. At his urging, the FBI opened a file on Duane Weber in March 1997. They interviewed Jo, as well as one of Duane's former wives and his brother. They compared his fingerprints with the 66 unaccounted-for prints on Flight 305. None matched, although the FBI has no way to know if any of the prints were Cooper's. Himmelsbach finds Jo Weber, who has agreed to take a polygraph test, to be credible. There is no reward money to motivate her. He thinks she simply wants to learn the truth about her spouse. "The facts she has really seem to fit," he says. But the FBI dropped its investigation of Weber in July 1998. More "conclusive evidence" would be needed to continue, they say.
Though the facts are few, the circumstantial evidence is compelling. Retired FBI agent Himmelsbach believes the skyjacker must certainly have had a criminal record, military training, and familiarity with the Northwest. U.S. News has confirmed that Duane Weber served in the Army in the early 1940s. He also did time in at least six prisons from 1945 to 1968 for burglary and forgery. One prison was McNeil Island in Steilacoom, Wash.–20 miles from the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
The skyjacking was a desperate act by a desperate man. In 1971, Duane Weber's emotional and physical health were failing. He was on the verge of separating from his fifth wife and had been diagnosed with kidney disease; he was not expected to live past 50. Himmelsbach believes the skyjacking may have been a criminal's last hurrah and says Weber is one of the best suspects he has come across.
A skeptic at first, Jo Weber now believes her husband of 17 years was D.B. Cooper. "If he is not," she says, "he sure did send me on the wildest ride any widow has ever been on."