It remains the only unsolved hijacking in the history of commercial aviation, a fascination for true-crime lovers and fodder for pop culture such as David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”
On Wednesday night, the case is explored in HBO’s “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper,” an 85-minute documentary that examines four compelling suspects in solving his identity.
The film reenacts the night of Nov. 24, 1971, when D.B. Cooper boarded a Boeing 727 in Portland, Oregon, and handed a note to a flight attendant that he had a bomb. Upon landing, he traded the passengers for $200,000 in ransom money before taking flight again, only to parachute out over the Pacific Northwest. His body was never recovered.
Interspersed with the hijacking reenactment are present-day interviews with the actual pilots and flight attendants, who get emotional remembering the harrowing ordeal, as well as the FBI agents who remained puzzled and frustrated at the lack of closure.
Most compelling are interviews with the family and friends of the four leading suspects.
The first suspect is Duane Weber, who proclaimed to his wife on his death bed, “I’m Dan Cooper!” This followed a nostalgic road trip through the Pacific Northwest where he pointed to the woods saying, “That’s where Cooper came out of the woods.”
The second suspect is Barbara Dayton, a gutsy amateur pilot with jumping experience who was the first person to have a sex change in Washington state. Her friends recount how she revealed that she used to be a man named Robert Dayton and that she looked identical to a sketch of D.B. Cooper before admitting, “I am Dan Cooper.”
The third suspect is L.D. Cooper, whose niece claims that her father and uncle joked about a hijacking disguised as a hunting trip. As a young girl, she remembers finding her uncle bloody in her father’s car claiming, “We’re rich!” They swore her to secrecy.
The fourth suspect is Richard McCoy Jr., who staged a copycat hijacking in 1972. He escaped prison and and was killed by police in the manhunt. The style of the hijacking was so similar that authorities wonder whether it was not a copycat case at all, but rather Cooper staging a repeat crime after losing the money during his descent.
Viewers will decide for themselves which case they believe. For me, Weber is the most compelling, due to a motel stay where he was photographed reenacting a parachute jump before digging up a bag and tossing it into the river. Just weeks later, a boy found a bag of notarized bills with serial numbers matching Cooper’s specific ransom money.
In the end, it’s possible that they’re all misguided, but writer/director John Dower isn’t so much concerned with proving that they’re all lying but rather that they all might be telling their own personal truth. He argues that the mystery of D.B. Cooper means so much to their psyche, their family history, their own sense of self.
This thesis is clear as Dower closes with a collage of wannabe Coopers, articulated by a teary-eyed conspiracy theorist living in a trailer to devote his life to solving the case:
“People who think ‘I’m just not tough enough, I’m just not rich enough and I just don’t have enough opportunities. If I had a little more of something, I’d have a better life.’ Cooper figured it out. He got away with it. I want to be Cooper. I want to be tough enough to jump out of an airplane in November at 8 at night in the rain and not give a sh*t.”