Longtime readers will probably recall my affection for a certain category of stories that swirl around in the basement of our popular culture. You know, those romantic half-legends that always involve some open-ended mystery: Did Butch and/or Sundance somehow escape death in Bolivia, return to the U.S., and live until well into the 20th century? Was Brushy Bill Roberts actually Billy the Kid, or just an elderly nutcase? Did Melvin Dummar really give Howard Hughes a lift one dark night in the middle of nowhere and get written into one of Hughes’ many wills? Could those three guys who broke out of Alcatraz have survived the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay? And lastly — and most importantly for today’s blog entry — whatever happened to D.B. Cooper, the man who bailed out of a 727 over the Pacific Northwest in 1971 with $200,000 in ransom money on his person?
Some of that money was found in 1980 by a young boy camping with his family along the Columbia River, and many people have taken that as evidence that Cooper — if that was his real name — died during his parachute jump and the money washed away downstream. However, earlier this week, the word went out that the FBI was investigating a new lead on a person it described as a “credible suspect,” and he didn’t die in ’71. The Feds were pretty tight-lipped in the initial reports, but further details were released Wednesday, and they are compelling. You can read the complete story from the Salt Lake Tribune here, but in a nutshell, there’s a woman named Marla Cooper who believes her uncle, known to the family as L.D. Cooper, was in fact the notorious skyjacker who called himself D.B. Cooper. She claims to have childhood memories of L.D. and another uncle planning something that involved walkie-talkies, and of L.D. returning to the house after the hijacking was reported looking “bloody and bruised and a mess,” which would certainly seem the likely outcome of a skydive over a heavily forested area. Tragically (depending on how you view these things), if L.D. was in fact D.B., he apparently lost the money during his jump — all that effort and risk ultimately amounted to nothing.
Marla Cooper lost touch with her uncle and believes he died in 1999, after raising a family somewhere in the Northwest. The FBI is currently trying to obtain some good-quality fingerprints belonging to L.D. to compare with partial prints left behind on the plane by D.B.
Marla’s story certainly seems plausible enough. I kind of hate the thoughts of a definitive answer laying the mystery to rest, though. Much of the fun of these stories is the speculation (especially when it has a local angle; a book I picked up in college makes the case that D.B. Cooper was actually a Utah resident named McCoy), and knowing for certain what happened robs them of their larger-than-life quality. But in this case, I suppose an interesting story could still be told of an ordinary joe and his brother who planned an unprecedented crime in order to improve their working-class lives, and who actually managed to pull off the actual crime part, only to lose the damn money during the escape phase of the scheme. Yeah, that still makes for a pretty good tale, doesn’t it?