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Amateur sleuths pursue Cooper case clues

WASHINGTON — It’s among the coldest of cold cases.

While a team of citizen sleuths, with the help of the FBI, have turned up some tantalizing new clues, the fate of D.B. Cooper after he jumped out of a hijacked airplane with a parachute and $200,000 in cash nearly 38 years ago may never be known.

Over the years, Cooper has become a folk hero in the Northwest, the subject of movies, songs and Internet chat rooms. He’s the only person in U.S. history to hijack a domestic airliner and escape. The hijacking led to the first of the tougher security procedures for passengers boarding planes that are now standard at airports.

Diverse group

The informal team of detectives includes a fossil hunter who works with the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle, a well-known scientific illustrator, an Egyptologist who speaks 12 languages, a metallurgist, and an Arkansas man who discovered $5,800 of the loot in $20 bills while throwing a Frisbee on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980 when he was 8 years old.

“We are looking down every rabbit hole,” said Tom Kaye, a paleontologist who spends part of his time searching for dinosaur bones in Wyoming and the rest staring through an electron microscope at particles lifted from a black J.C. Penney tie that Cooper left behind on the plane.

The team is scouring a French comic book series that featured a Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot named Dan Cooper. The comics were popular in France and French-speaking Canada at the time of the hijacking, leading to speculation that Cooper borrowed the name of the fictional comic book hero. Cooper used the name Dan Cooper when he purchased his ticket for Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. The media, mistakenly, dubbed him D.B.

The team also spent several days in March along the Columbia River using satellite maps and global positioning systems to try to locate the exact spot where the money was found.

Though no one knows for sure, it’s thought the money washed downstream more than 20 miles from where Cooper may have landed in southwestern Washington state. Kaye and his team think the money reached the Columbia River sandbar where it was found months after the hijacking. Previously, it was thought to have taken several years.

“We are looking at everything,” said Carol Abraczinskas, a scientific illustrator who teaches at the University of Chicago.

The hijacking

On Nov. 21, 1971, a nondescript man wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie bought a one-way ticket on Flight 305, bound to Seattle from Portland. After boarding the plane and ordering a bourbon and soda, the man handed a note to a flight attendant telling her he had a bomb in his briefcase. He opened the briefcase, which contained bundles of wires and red sticks. He demanded $200,000 and parachutes.

After the flight landed in Seattle, he released the 36 passengers. The plane took off again, headed for Mexico City. The hijacker told the pilot to fly at 200 mph at 10,000 feet and ordered the crew to stay in the cockpit. Twenty minutes or so after takeoff, the man lowered the stairs at the back of the Boeing 727 and jumped.

It may have been the perfect crime. He was never seen again.

The FBI suspected he might have landed in a heavily timbered area near the small town of Ariel. A search by agents and soldiers from Fort Lewis failed to turn up any sign of Cooper, his parachute or the money. Over the years, the FBI has run down thousands of leads and conducted thousands of interviews. None led anywhere.

Skeptical of survival

Decades later, the FBI’s Seattle Field Office is tired of talking about Cooper and declined to comment, saying there was nothing new.

The special agent leading the investigation, Larry Carr, has said it’s “highly unlikely” that 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,” Carr said on an FBI Web site.

Whether he survived or not, one fundamental question remains unanswered — who was D.B. Cooper?

“Even if he is dead, everyone wants to know who he was,” Abraczinskas said.

Carr thinks Cooper:

Ÿ Served in the Air Force and, at one point, was based in Europe, where he may have read the Dan Cooper comic books.

Ÿ May have been a loner with little or no family or friends who would have reported him missing.

Ÿ May have worked as a cargo loader because of his knowledge of airplanes.

Ÿ Knew about parachutes, though wasn’t an expert because few experts would have jumped out of a plane in the conditions he faced.

Though the investigation has remained open, Carr said it didn’t make sense for the FBI to spend a lot of time, money or manpower on it. So the agency asked the public for help and offered access to its voluminous case files.

“It’s the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history,” said Kaye, the de facto leader of the team. “The FBI doesn’t have the money, but they don’t want to give up.”