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DB Cooper Skyjacking Mystery Deepens with New Find of Ransom Money

Steve Palace
Purported image of DB Cooper and the ransom money.

Has the infamous DB Cooper skyjacking and ransom money case of the 1970s been cracked? Some have argued yes, but the mystery deepens with a new scientific discovery which has uncovered intriguing new details. Seems a chunk of loot that Cooper apparently lost has a whole other story than first thought!

The truth lies in the color green – not of money but from a more natural source… algae! Part of Cooper’s $200,000 haul, totalling $5,800, was unearthed miles away from the vertigo-inducing crime scene. This was back in 1980 – 9 years later – on a riverbank in Washington State. A previous theory states the money came loose when Cooper landed after parachuting from the plane in a dramatic escape. But does that notion hold water, so to speak…?

Tom Kaye hit on the idea of examining algae – or “diatoms” – which grew on the money to unlock further clues. Quoted by website King5, Kaye says “the light bulb came on and we wondered if we could use these different species of diatoms that we found on the Cooper bills a long time ago to determine when the money got wet and when the money landed”.

DB Cooper

FBI sketches of Cooper, with age progression

Using an electron microscope, Kaye hoped the diatoms would provide an accurate, if somewhat gunky, historical record. His surprising findings are published in Nature.

“Some diatom species such as Asterionella formosa have a broad variation in seasonal abundance leading to the possibility that diatoms could constrain the time of year when an object was immersed in water” the report says. “Here we apply this technique to the cold case of DB Cooper’s money.”

DB Cooper

FBI wanted poster of D. B. Cooper

The “Washougal Washdown Theory”, put forward by investigating geologist Leonard Palmer, suggested the $6,000-odd bucks became detached from Cooper mid-plunge and wound up in the Columbia River. Kaye’s analysis reveals that while the cash certainly took a dunking, the algae dates to between May and June 1972. Strangely, the ill gotten gains only got wet for a matter of weeks, a few months after the Cooper hijack. “The find suggests that the money was safely stored somewhere dry for months after the landing before it was moved” writes the Daily Mail.

While the latest development is an eye opener for crime hounds, it asks more questions than it answers. Cooper’s whereabouts and what happened to the rest of the money remain a tantalizing mystery. The actions of this high altitude thief in November 1971 led to commercial aviation’s only unsolved hijacking case.

DB Cooper money

Portion of Brian Ingram’s 1980 discovery of the ransom money.

“Cooper boarded Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, he settled in his aisle seat at the rear of the 727, lit a cigarette, and ordered a bourbon and soda” writes History.com. So far, so normal. But when summoning flight attendant Florence Schaffner he had more than alcohol in mind.

The hijacker claimed to have a bomb in his luggage. “Opening a cheap attaché case, Cooper showed her a glimpse of a mass of wires and red colored sticks” states the FBI’s website. With 36 souls on board, he had a ready made group of hostages. Cooper then dictated a note demanding the cash plus four parachutes.

Stopping off at Sea Tac (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport) to collect the ransom, he released the passengers and took off again with most of the crew. Instructing them to make for Mexico, he made the alarming decision to bail out in the midst of a thunderstorm over Ariel, Washington. From there he disappeared off the face of the earth. Cigarette butts, a necktie and traces of hair on the seat were all that remained of the brazen skyjacker. A bragging letter was sent to the Portland Oregonian Newspaper in 1972, signed “A Rich Man”.

DB Cooper’s real identity has never been established. “The FBI’s extensive record on D.B. Cooper describe him as a ‘white male, 6’1″ tall, 170-175 pounds, age-mid-forties, olive complexion, brown eyes, black hair, conventional cut, parted on left.’” writes History.com. Over 800 suspects were identified, though the case was finally declared cold in 2016.

A variety of possible culprits have been mooted over the years. One of the most notable was Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran with a criminal past who passed away last year. “Rackstraw was interviewed about his link to the case in 1979, where he was asked explicitly to state whether he was or wasn’t DB Cooper” reports the Mail. “With a wry smile visible across his face, he told the KNBC reporter, ‘Uh, I’m afraid of heights’.”

The former soldier’s expertise is one factor behind the accusations. Yet Cooper was someone who chose to leap into a storm in the dark. Hardly pro behavior for a wily wrongdoer.

Related Article: Who was the Man in the Iron Mask? Classic Historical Mystery Explained

An individual who might express gratitude of a sort to Cooper is Brian Ingram. It was he who found the $5,800 at Tena Bar while camping as an eight year old. “Six years after he discovered the money, Ingram was allowed to keep $2,760 of it” says History.com, adding: “In 2008 he sold 15 of the fragmented $20 bills at auction for $37,433.38.”

Cooper also changed aviation via the introduction of the “Cooper vane”. This latch was installed on the exterior of planes to prevent the rear stairs being activated while in the air. This was how he managed his impromptu exit. Did Cooper survive the jump at all? Did he operate alone? If so, why did he ask for 4 chutes? Algae can only address so much…


Steve is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.