Northwest Now

Aug 1, 2011 9:25 AM by CNN Wire Staff

FBI working new lead in D.B. Cooper hijacking case

SEATTLE (CNN) -- It's been nearly four decades since a man calling himself Dan Cooper jumped out the back of Northwest Orient Flight 305, somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Nevada, carrying a parachute and some $200,000 in pilfered money.

It's not known where Cooper landed, or if he even survived the jump. But the case lives on in infamy, what the FBI calls "one of the great unsolved mysteries" in the agency's history.

The FBI "reignited" the case in 2007, releasing for the first time a number of pictures and information on the case. Now, agents are working a new lead and looking at a new suspect in the 1971 hijacking.

The tip, which came from a member of law enforcement, is not expected to be "a big break in the investigation," Ayn Sandalo Dietrich, an FBI spokeswoman in Seattle, told CNN on Sunday.

"We do actually have a new suspect that we're looking at," Dietrich told The Telegraph of London, which reported the development in a story Saturday. "... The credible lead is somebody whose possible connection to the hijacker is strong," she said. "And the suspect is not a name that's come up before."

She told the newspaper agents have sent an item belonging to the person for testing at its forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia. "We're hoping there are fingerprints they can take off of it," she said. "It would be a significant lead. And this is looking like our most promising one to date."

The newspaper said Dietrich refused to name the suspect or even say whether the person is still alive. "Generally, the large majority of subjects we look into now are already deceased based on the timing of this," she said.

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, Cooper -- the "D.B." apparently was a myth created by the press, according to the FBI -- approached the ticket counter of Northwest Orient airlines in Portland, Oregon, and used cash to buy a one way ticket to Seattle.

"Cooper was a quiet man who appeared to be in his mid-forties, wearing a business suit with a black tie and white shirt," the FBI said in a summary of the case on its website. "He ordered a drink -- bourbon and soda -- while the flight was waiting to take off."

But later, he handed a flight attendant a note saying he had a bomb in his briefcase and asking her to sit beside him. She did as she was told, and the man opened a "cheap attache case" and showed her a mass of wires and red-colored sticks and demanded that she write down what he told her. She wrote a note demanding four parachutes and $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills and walked it up to the captain, the FBI said.

When the flight landed in Seattle, the hijacker exchanged the flight's 36 passengers for the money and parachutes, the FBI said, keeping several crew members on board. The flight took off again after he ordered it to fly to Mexico City.

But Cooper jumped out of the plane on the flight. "The pilots landed safely, but Cooper had disappeared into the night and his ultimate fate remains a mystery to this day," the FBI said.

One clue came in 1980, when a young boy found a rotting package full of $20 bills -- $5,800 in all -- which matched the serial numbers of the ransom money. The FBI returned most of the bills to the boy, named Brian Ingram, and Ingram has since auctioned some of them, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported.

The "D.B." stemmed from confusion in a United Press International newsroom, the Post-Intelligencer said.

"We've run down thousands of leads and considered all sorts of scenarios," the FBI said in 2007. "And amateur sleuths have put forward plenty of their own theories. Yet the case remains unsolved. Would we still like to get our man? Absolutely."

The FBI appealed for help from the public, releasing pictures of Cooper's black J.C. Penney tie -- which he removed before jumping and which later provided authorities with a DNA sample -- along with some of the found money.

The agency reminded the public that Cooper was no expert skydiver. "We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper," said Special Agent Larry Carr in 2007. "We concluded after a few years this was simply not true. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky. He also missed that his reserve chute was only for training and had been sewn shut -- something a skilled skydiver would have checked."

Agents also believe Cooper had no help on the ground. If he had had an accomplice, he would have needed to coordinate closely with the flight crew and jump at just the right moment. "But Cooper simply said, 'Fly to Mexico,' and he had no idea where he was when he jumped," authorities said. "There was also no visibility of the ground due to cloud cover at 5,000 feet."

Two flight attendants who were in contact with Cooper gave nearly identical descriptions of him, as did those who encountered him on the ground. He was said to be between 5 foot 10 and 6 feet tall, weighing 170 to 180 pounds with brown eyes."

Carr said in 2007 he believed it was unlikely Cooper survived the jump. "Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open," he said.

By the five-year anniversary of the hijacking, the FBI said it had considered more than 800 suspects and eliminated all but two dozen from consideration.

Several high-profile suspects have been ruled out over the years. Duane Weber, who claimed on his deathbed to be Cooper, was eliminated by DNA testing, the FBI said. Another man, Kenneth Christiansen, did not match the physical description and was a skilled paratrooper. A third, Richard McCoy, who died in 1974, also did not match the description and was at home the day after the hijacking having Thanksgiving dinner with his family in Utah -- "an unlikely scenario unless he had help," the agency said.

CNN's Stephanie Gallman contributed to this report.

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