Three Hours Later, We Still Don’t Know “Who Be” D.B.

I watched a Netflix documentary called D.B. Cooper, Where Are You ? on the weekend. I knew a little background about Cooper and the story before; after seeing the four-part, three hour doc, I know a lot more…but, despite the trailer’s suggestion, not who “D.B.” is or where he is now. But it was interesting if a bit drawn out. It got me thinking about human psychology more than it did the mystery man Cooper.

D.B. Cooper, in case you’re unfamiliar, is the name given to a hijacker who disappeared in 1971; according to the film it remains the only unsolved air hijacking in the U.S. Cooper hopped on a commercial flight going from Portland to Seattle, a short flight they note is barely long enough to enjoy a cocktail on. He wore dark sunglasses and held a case in his lap. Shortly after take-off he passed a note to a stewardess (and yes, that was their title back then). It told her he had a bomb in his case and he needed her to relay information to the pilot. He asked for four parachutes and a bag with $200 000 in “negotiable U.S. currency” to be awaiting him in Seattle. Upon landing, a landing delayed while authorities on the ground tried to come up with a plan and the things he demanded just in case, he let the 30-odd passengers get off, keeping only the flight crew with him. He had a stewardess close all the window blinds so police snipers couldn’t locate him in the plane and shoot him. A flight crew member retrieved a bag from the tarmac, containing the $200 000 in American bills and the four parachutes he’d requested and gave them to him. The show speculates he wanted four because it would suggest he might jump off taking crew members as hostages, making it highly unlikely the authorities would deliberately rig the chutes to fail as they might if he asked for just one for himself.

He told the pilot they were going to fly to Reno, and for him to fly at a low altitude at only 250 MPH – a very, very slow rate for the 727 plane. The pilot doubted it was possible to fly under those conditions, but Cooper was sure it was and the pilot figured it would be better to comply than risk having the criminal blow the plane up. It turned out Cooper was correct, and somewhere along the flight path, he opened a rear hatch with a staircase (causing pressure problems and pain in the crew ears but not enough depressurization to cause a crash) and it’s assumed, jumped out with a parachute and the bag of money into the night. That was the last anyone saw of D.B. Cooper.

One can see why that generated interest in the day. Although hijackings were quite disturbingly common back then, most were done by known hijackers who wanted either to be flown somewhere else (often Cuba) or else to be paid a ransom which often involved political gains such as prisoners being set free. For one to get paid and jump off the plane, never to be found, was truly the stuff of action movies, not news reports… or so people would have believed until then.

The next day the hunt was on for Cooper. The name of course, was almost certainly an alias; he signed in as “Dan Cooper” but somehow the media changed it to “D.B.” but there’s nothing to suggest that was his real name in the first place. Finding him afterwards would make the proverbial needle in the haystack seem the stuff of child’s play. For one thing, the pilot didn’t know exactly where Cooper jumped out. It was night, he was flying an unusual route and while he had an idea of when the rear door opened, he hadn’t got exact co-ordinates. There were no onboard cameras, or computerized second-by-second data compiling on planes of the 1970s. So the police and others on the ground, and up in helicopters, had an area of several hundred square miles to look for him in. Several hundred square miles largely composed of dense Northwestern forest, lakes and rivers. Try finding one man in an entire county or two’s worth of overgrown forest!

Many think his ‘chute might not have opened properly and he may have plummeted to his death. Or that it did, but he was caught in a tree and couldn’t escape it. More think the might have drowned in the Columbia River nearby. But no one knows, and no trace of his body, or the parachute has ever been found. So perhaps he did indeed make it safely to the ground and took off. If so, he could have been living a good life for decades since…although as the passenger reports put him in his 40s at the time, he’d be well into his 90s by now. Time isn’t on the side of anyone wanting to find D.B. alive now.

It seems obvious that whoever D.B. was, he was somebody who was relatively fearless, had done some parachuting before and was familiar with aircraft. He knew the plane’s capabilities better than its own pilot did. Most assume with his demeanor and apparent training, he’d been in the military and likely served in Vietnam.

Less obvious is that he might well have somehow been a fan of French comic books. Turned out that “Dan Cooper” – the name he put on his boarding pass and their flight log – is also the name of a hero of a French-Canadian comic book series published before the crime. In them, Cooper was a Canadian air force jet pilot who was daring, and in one adventure even jumped out of a plane, well, “Cooper-style.” It seems too much of a coincidence that the Oregon hijacker would pick that name, out of the countless thousands of ones he could have used, entirely randomly. However, the Cooper comics were never translated to English, so they only were popular in Quebec and Francophone areas of Europe. Many, including some Canadian military personnel are convinced “Cooper” was in fact a Canadian who’d worked in their air force. They note that he asked for “U.S.” money, something few Americans might actually think to request (to them, a “dollar” is automatically an American dollar.)

This however, wasn’t the film-makers tack. The main producer/creator/backer of the original concept, Tom Colbert, looked through a list of suspects once identified and interviewed by the FBI and focused in on one he came to believe – to know in his own parlance – was D.B., a man called Robert Rackstraw. When they found him and tried to interview him in 2015, he was an aging man operating a marina in San Diego, but by every account he was a bit of a hellraiser in his younger years, one convicted of some fraud charges and the like but accused of drug running and murder. Prior to that, he’d been a pilot and chutist in Vietnam with alleged ties to the CIA. Old photos of him closely resemble the sketches of the hijacker and while on trial in the ’70s for other things he enjoyed toying with journalists, neither confirming nor denying that he was the infamous Cooper, suggesting things like “I could be” or “if I was investigating, I wouldn’t eliminate my name from the list either.” He made an entirely reasonable suspect for the crime. The problem is, so too did several other people also looked at closely by the FBI but almost ignored by the film-makers. When they find Rackstraw, they try to ambush him for interviews, offering him money for talking and lying about filming him at the time. Although he doesn’t say he isn’t D.B., he doesn’t say he is either and after awhile tells them he talked to a lawyer who advises him not to speak to them. That does nothing to stop them, and on a subsequent day of stalking him around his work , he retreats to a large storage unit, which they use as more proof he’s guilty “ Innocent Men Don’t Hide In Storage Bins” they declare.

Which leads to the second part of the Netflix special’s story. That is the obsession people have with the story. They visit spots in Washington and Oregon that have festivals devoted to D.B. Cooper, bars that sell only Cooper-themed microbrews. A cold “Skyjacker IPA” anyone? And they go to forums reminiscent of Trekkie conventions, where the devout go, sometimes in Cooper costumes no less, to talk to other obsessed amateur sleuths and listen to obscure experts like long-retired local police discuss the case. More and more as the documentary drags on, it distances itself from its conceiver, Colbert. Others who’d taken part in it early on, and outside experts weigh in on how obsessed Colbert had become. “Confirmation Bias” one psychologist calls it. He became so sure of his own hypothesis he refused to look at any other opinion or possibility, and took even the most remote shred of evidence as more proof he was right. All the while discarding greater amounts of evidence that he was wrong. In one instance, he takes a letter Cooper alledgedly wrote a newspaper and converted some of the text into a numeric code (whereby each letter was given a numeric value and then were added together) and found one phrase used in the letter has the same numeric value as “I am Robert Rackstraw”. He sees it as proof and says it’s a verified top secret military code. A critic showed that “Spongebob Squarepants” also had the identical numeric value as the phrase in quesiton using his secret “code.”

It is an interesting time capsule. Short clips show some interesting fashions and autos of the early-’70s, and moreover, remind us of a much more innocent time. No one had to take off their shoes in airports back then, nor it would seem even show any ID. Just sign a book and hop on board a flight. If Cooper were Canadian, he would have likely had an easy time getting across the border to Vancouver, “U.S. negotiable” funds and all. Cameras were something families had one of to take vacation photos, not things set every few feet apart and running constantly in public places… there’s not one known photo of the hijacker at the airport nor on the plane. And police forensics were….well, not what they are now. The hijacker smoked on the plane, and while police collected the butts, they somehow lost them. Mind you, at the time, they wouldn’t have known they might contain DNA that could solve the case by way of D.B.’s identity, or at least clear other suspects. That would come about 13 years later. There isn’t even any mention of them checking things like the airport flight log for fingerprints, although hopefully they did!

But mostly, D.B. Cooper Where Are You? shows the problems of obsession. Hey, I like a good mystery as much as most people…and most people must given how Agatha Christie is a household name. I like to let my mind work out and see if I can come up with my own conclusion, maybe find one bit of evidence others overlooked, solve a tough case. But that is about the extent of it. I began to regret devoting three hours to watching the special. Thousands have apparently devoted most of their spare time for decades trying to do what the FBI and other police agencies couldn’t. One wonders what Colbert thinks after putting in over ten years and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to get to a dead end on it?

D.B. Cooper was a criminal, not a hero. A smart one, it would seem, well-schooled in things like aeronautics among other things, but a criminal nonetheless. He shouldn’t be idolized; one might wonder what message we give the young when we hold people like him up as romantic heros. Not a hero, but a criminal… who is in all likelihood dead by now and even the FBI suggest they’ve given up on finding. My advice to you is if you’re obsessed enough to want to spend your vacation in Washington talking to other similar types about information you’ve already seen and heard, you might need to rethink your priorities. And if you think spending a decade of your life and a good chunk of your entire savings on it, it might be time to parachute out of the plane your life is on. It seems to be on a crash course right now.

(Image above from Salon.com) 

Time For Politicians Thoughts To Turn To Taking Action Not Offering More Prayers

If people had ever heard of Uvalde, Texas before last week, it was probably in context of being the home town of movie star Matthew McConaughey. In a matter of about 45 minutes one evil teenager changed all that, as we know. Now, wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute for the town to be remembered as the place where the straw broke the camel’s back and things began to change for the better?

21 dead, 19 of them small kids, because one piece of human refuse was having a bad day. Because he supposedly had been bullied when he was younger. Because he didn’t like his low-wage job at Whataburger. And mostly because he could go out and celebrate his birthday by buying two assault rifles, guns designed to be used by the army in a war. Days before that, Buffalo, New York made the headlines for reasons other than the usual snowstorms because another 18 year old was disgruntled to see so many Black people around and fancied himself an action hero in some sort of real-life killing video game. And had access to weapons of war.

The little bodies weren’t even put into the Uvalde ground before 10 people got shot at a wild party in Charleston, SC (where the party-goers met the responding police with more gunfire). It was the 151st mass shooting of this year in the U.S. I don’t know if it was just before or just after the six kids, under 16 years of age, were shot in Chattanooga; the police there note some of those youth were “unintended victims”…but you know what happens when some high school age, or junior high school age kids run into each other on the street and one looks at another in a funny way. Two nights back, in my home city area, four people were shot at one location, only two blocks and less than 24 hours or so away from where one woman shot another…while police were investigating another disturbance a further block away. They just followed the sound of gunfire. So routine is that becoming that it was only the fourth or fifth top story on most local news sites. A new high school principal being hired was ranked more important by one TV station website. And of course, last night an evil man with a backache decided to shoot up his doctor’s clinic in Tulsa.

We could go on and on, but by now we all get the point – we’re in a gun violence epidemic and it’s showing no signs of going away. As McConaughey put it eloquently, “we have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us.” He adds, “every American (needs) to take a longer look in the mirror and ask ourselves ‘what is it that we truly value? How do we repair the problem?”

Sadly, a complete repair probably won’t happen, at least not in our lifetimes. There are too many guns out there, too many irresponsible hotheads, too many who value the Second Amendment above all else to make the problem go away. However, I don’t believe that means we can do nothing to ease the toll, reduce the body count and make us somewhat safer, whether shopping at a grocery store or sending our little children to the classroom. It’s ridiculous to call for a ban on guns altogether or anything remotely like that. Few politicians would even consider it, and fewer citizens would bother obeying anyway. There are too many of them and they’re too much a way of life in parts of the land. But there are some things we could do that I think the majority might consider. Such as –

Ban sales of AK-47/AR-15 style assault weapons. Vice President Harris said, in response to the Uvalde shooting, “assault weapons (are) designed for a specific purpose – to kill a lot of human beings quickly. An assault weapon is a weapon of war, with no place in civil society.” Little surprise they are a weapon of choice then for uncivil street gangs and deranged loner gunmen. Just as banning guns is a non-starter, so too is outlawing hunting. But you don’t need one of those military-grade weapons to take a squirrel out of a tree or a canvasback out of the sky. Ban their sales and importation. Existing ones can be grandfathered in, but not sold or given away and if they are found in possession of criminals or used for any criminal act, they will be confiscated and destroyed. If that were to occur, even if (or when) evil psychopaths go on a rampage, the damage they inflict will be lessened if they’re restricted to ordinary hunting rifles or shotguns, or non-automatic handguns.

Raise the minimum age to buy guns to 21. It seems ludicrous that we don’t as a society, think 18 year olds responsible enough to have a beer or glass of wine…but we’ll allow them to buy as many weapons of war as they can afford. In many states, that 18 year old is too much a “boy” to be able to legally have sex with a girlfriend who’s six months younger than him, and in none of them can he buy a six pack of lite beer or a pack of cigarettes. What’s more, few lawmakers are clamoring to give them such rights. But there are few if any restrictions on the same “boy” buying semi-automatic, high-powered guns. Where’s the rationale relating to potential damage there?

Speaking of teens, if they’re old enough to be handling and using guns, they should be old enough to face the consequences. Treat young offenders in gun crimes like adult ones. By all means give 14, 15 year old non-violent offenders – the kids painting graffiti or maybe shoplifting a pair of shoes – a chance for redemption. For them the current system works. But the 14, 15 year olds who are killing others in gang fights, armed robberies, school shootings, and the like are not innocent children. They’re dangerous individuals who society should be protected from. If you like, house them in youth facilities until they hit 18 and move to grown-up jail… but don’t mistake them for little children who are just misbehaving a wee bit.

Institute tougher penalties – and mandatory mental evaluation – for animal cruelty offenders. I like animals, so I find these crimes abhorrent, but that isn’t relevant here. What is relevant is that a large percentage of mass-shooters have histories of abusing animals first. It’s seemingly the training ground for killing people with ease later in life. The Uvalde killer was reported beating a dog senseless in the weeks leading up to the school massacre. If we take such crimes more seriously, and get the offenders checked over by psychiatrists (with those found to have violent of sociopathic tendencies flagged to at least make their access to guns more difficult), tomorrow’s mass-shooter might be discovered today.

Work with social media to help do more to prevent it. I note, I do not blame the online sites – be it Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitch or anything else that comes along – for causing the killings or failing to prevent them. In many cases, including the Buffalo and Uvalde ones, the criminals put up messages on some of these outlets suggesting what might happen. The sites are just too busy to screen everything effectively. Instagram, for instance, report over 500 million people post to it daily. Even if they only put up one picture or clip per day, that’s half a billion posts to look through (and if you’ve ever looked at Instagram, you know that people and companies who like it like it a lot. Some seem to put up a post an hour more than a post a day.) However, with today’s technology, there must be AI filters around which can quickly find suspicious “red flags” – repeated pictures of multiple firearms, threatening phrases, gang (be they street gangs or cyber-extremist groups) code words. If Facebook can quickly see your face in someone else’s group photo and “tag” you, it should be able to quickly do the same with an AR-style rifle or racist dog-whistles for violence. Those posts could be more quickly looked at by authorities. We’ll never be ahead of all the criminals who are blatant enough to preview their attentions, but we could get the drop on some more than we do now.

And lastly, we need police to go back to acting like police all the time. I’m aware it’s a tough and demanding job and that right now, a sizable chunk of society look at them disapprovingly. I think the vast majority of them are good people trying to do a sometimes thankless, sometimes dangerous job. Rarely is it more dangerous than when confronted by sociopathic killers with semi-automatic weapons bent on destruction. But that is sadly, part of the job…even if they’re only street patrol officers or “school cops.” It was irresponsible for the police on scene at Uvalde to wait outside for upwards of 40 minutes as children and teachers were being shot, because they were waiting for an out-of-town, more highly-skilled SWAT team to come by. Forget the arguments that perhaps most of the victims were shot already by the time the first couple of police arrived. If so, it was only because the killer got bored. Seemingly he could have carried on and wiped out most of the students in the building before any police were willing to go in and confront him. This is not acceptable, even if it might be official policy on some forces which prefer SWAT to handle such things. It’s tough to make policy to cover every possible situation. Perhaps a robber holding hostages can be stalled and negotiated with while waiting for special squads to show. But the Buffalo supermarket freak and the Uvalde demon were not that. Bottom line is that if it’s an “Active” shooter, once there are at most a couple of officers on site, they need to go in and confront the killer and minimize his (or her) death toll. Give them bullet-proof vests by all means (most police wear them routinely already) and battle helmets if you like, but get them into the fray.

Mere suggestions, and I’m afraid, ones which won’t eliminate gun violence in the country. But we’d not be banning guns, stopping deer hunts or ownership of pistols or shotguns by law-abiding adults… nothing to step too hard on the toes of the advocates of the Second Amendment. And I believe they would significantly reduce the number of times we’re confronted with yet another Buffalo, or Columbine, or Uvalde. Once we take that McConaughey longer look in the mirror, it seems the very least we can do in good conscience.

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