Unsolved Mysteries: The D. B. Cooper Hijacking

It remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the United States, a startling crime that captured the American imagination, inspiring songs, movies, TV shows and books.

In 1971, a man who called himself Dan Cooper hijacked a passenger plane from Oregon to Seattle where he freed the 36 passengers in exchange for $200,000 in cash. As the nearly empty flight took off again, flying south, he parachuted out of the airplane with the ransom. He was never seen again. In the 45 years since that event, no trace of Cooper’s body has been found, fuelling speculation he survived the jump.

In 1980 a young boy digging in sand north of Portland unearthed bundles of cash that matched the serial numbers of Cooper’s ransom money. The cult status surrounding Cooper grew, but the mystery remained. “The fascination with Cooper has survived not because of the FBI investigation, but because he was able to do something that not only captured the public imagination, but also maintained a sense of mystery in the world,” author Geoffrey Gray wrote in his book Skyjack: The Hunt for DB Cooper.

The D. B. Cooper Hijacking The D. B. Cooper money

There have been theories, of course, about who D.B. Cooper was. He certainly wasn’t Dan Cooper, the name he gave airline officials when he bought his ticket. (He became D.B. Cooper because of a reporter’s mistake. Perhaps because the initials somehow heighten the myth, it stuck.)

But even after the FBI shut the book on the mysterious case of DB Cooper, armchair detectives have refused to give up the search for answers. They’ve continued to investigate who this well-dressed businessman was, why he hijacked a US domestic flight 45 years ago, and how he then disappeared without a trace.

This week, scientists working for Citizen Sleuths – a group that took up its own investigation into the Cooper case in 2007 – claimed they had a breakthrough.

Their work has attracted the attention of an impressed FBI, which some years ago let them examine clues, including a tie. The black, JC Penney clip-on necktie had been left behind on Cooper’s seat – 18E. And that tie, the citizen sleuths said, has given them a solid clue about the man’s identity.

Unsolved Mysteries: The D. B. Cooper Hijacking Unsolved Mysteries: The D. B. Tie

“A tie is one of the only articles of clothing that isn’t washed on a regular basis,” the group explained on their website. “It picks up dirt and grime just like any other piece of clothing, but that accumulation never truly gets ‘reset’ in the washing machine. Each of those particles comes from something and somewhere and can tell a story if the proper instruments like electron microscopes are used.”

The scientists used a powerful electron microscope to find more than 100,000 particles of “rare earth elements” on the tie, including pure titanium, which most caught their eye. They said titanium was a rare metal in 1971, and linked Cooper to a “limited number of managers or engineers in the titanium field that would wear ties to work”.

Based on this finding, the scientists said they believed Cooper worked for Boeing – the maker of the very plane he hijacked. At the time, Boeing happened to be working on a Super Sonic Transport plane that used those elements.

The FBI has said it would preserve evidence from the case at its Washington, DC headquarters but won’t act on further tips unless Cooper’s money or parachutes were found.