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) 

Think For Yourself – An Apology To Robert Wagner

Sometimes, a bit of thought and 90 minutes could make you rethink what you believe.

Last night my sweetie and I watched a relatively new HBO documentary, What Remains Behind. It was made by Natasha Gregson Wagner…actress and daughter of famous actress Natalie Wood. I recognized her from her bit role in High Fidelity (the journalist who flirts with Rob near the end, causing him to make her a mix tape before he began asking himself what was wrong with him and why he couldn’t be happy) . I knew Natalie Wood’s name, and that she was a pretty successful actress in the ’60s…and that she drowned under suspicious circumstances way back in 1981. She had been on a boat with her husband Robert Wagner, and actor Christopher Walken before she met her demise. Somehow, I hadn’t realized that Natalie was the little cynical girl in Miracle on 34th Street, nor the star of West Side Story. Nor that she was so very good looking as a young woman, nor that she was one of the hottest stars in Hollywood. I did know that she drowned, the California coroner considered her death accidental…and that many people for years accused Wagner of killing her. A few figured Walken might have. It seemed few believed the official report, and more gas was thrown on the fire when the boat captain wrote a book in the 2000s suggesting maybe she got knocked overboard in an big fight, be it deliberate or not. L.A. Investigators actually re-opened the case because of it. And I knew my sweetie, who was a fan of Natalie’s, firmly believed Wagner had killed her and struck some kind of deal to cover it up. It made sense to me, based on tabloid headlines and innuendo I saw.

Enter the movie. The whole fact that her daughter, not Robert’s biological one,  made the film and narrated it, and its whole context was to clear Wagner might be a clue. Not every conspiracy theory is really covering something sinister. Natasha, her half-sister and step-brother all talked at length about what a complex, warm but slightly troubled person Natalie was. Her childhood wasn’t happy, with her mom being very critical and pushing her to be a star in order to make enough money to pay the bills for her parents. She was a movie star by age eight. She was talented, pretty, and headstrong. Ahead of her time. She was perhaps a bit promiscuous as a teen and young star…nothing new these days but probably quite scandalous back then. And she knew what she wanted, be it in men, movie roles, or later, children and a a happy home. She usually got it, but not without a price. She had the looks and the acting chops to get them all, but at times she still struggled with depression.

Wagner, for some reason nicknamed “RJ”, entered the scene when they were both kids, and it didn’t work out. Initially. Years later, they hooked up again, more mature, and both with kids. They remarried and remained so, with no hints of black clouds on their marriage horizon, until her death. They became a family. Both Natasha and her siblings (be they from Natalie, Robert or both of them) spoke about how happy the house was and how both parents loved them unconditionally. Natasha interviewed Wagner and calls him “Daddy Wagner”. They talked about the family, their love of his boat, and the trips to Catalina Island on it. Oddly, Natalie was noted as being afraid of “dark water.”

Flash forward to Thanksgiving 1981, a rainy, stormy weekend in the L.A. area, and Natalie, Wagner, and Walken (whom she was in a movie with at the time) took off for a spin on his boat. Natasha said she had a bad feeling and begged her mom not to go; other friends said they were invited and felt guilty for not going out with them in the rain. Maybe they could have changed things and she’d still be alive. But, like it or not, hours later she was found dead in the water not far from the boat, with its dinghy floating around. Many piled on to accuse Wagner of killing her in a jealous rage.

The coroner found she drowned, and had quite a bit of booze in her system as well as sleeping pills and other (unnamed but presumably prescription) drugs. She had a bang on her head, but the ultimate demise came from the water. He called it accidental. But that wasn’t enough for many…especially supermarket tabloids who lured buyers with tales of lurid affairs and drugged out violent orgies, and other total fabrications of their imagination. Then came the boat captain’s book decades later, and it all came to the front again.

Not hard to imagine then that her mad, jealous husband beat her up and threw her off the boat in the dead of night. But, there is little to support that. Numerous police agencies investigated and found no evidence of it. And Natasha – her daughter – sat and talked to her stepdad, “Daddy Wagner” and clearly loved him like a real father. She recalled how he wouldn’t get out of bed for days after Natalie died. How the press would climb on top of fences to snap pictures at the funeral and while the kids walked around their home yard, distraught. She detailed the emotional toll it took on her, her brothers and sisters , and most of all, on Robert Wagner. And he seemed fully believable. Yes, he’s an actor, and yes, he admits to drinking a lot that night and being “a little high”. But it’s also clear she was the love of his life. He eventually got back on his feet and kept the kids – his and hers and theirs alike – close. He was breaking up thinking about Natalie and about that fateful night.

The most likely explanation, the original one. Natalie was, a bit drunk, a bit under the influence of sleeping pills, just wanting to sleep. She got up and went to the boat life raft/dinghy which was banging against the boat in the storm. Making noise. Her daughter said she was a light sleeper and had complained before of the noise the dinghy made banging into the boat. She probably figured she could tie it up tighter to keep it from banging around, and fell overboard in the stormy seas, perhaps banging her head off the little boat doing so. A tragic accident.

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy… I do believe there are at least some extraterrestrials flying around our planet at time and not all UFOs are ‘swamp gas’ … but this one seems like … the obvious answer was the real one. Moreover, my love, who for years fully believed Wagner to be a murderer, was turned around after watching it. Nothing pointed towards murder. She, and I, now fully believe it was a horrible accident, a result of poor choices by all involved regarding going out on a boat in a storm and drinking too much …but an accident nonetheless.

It was a good lesson. Sometimes bad things happen for no apparent reason, and remember, the entertainment and tabloid media need headlines to sell their product. At times they may uncover real dirt…but sometimes, they just fabricate it. And real people end up paying the price for it. And it showed the power of a good, thoughtful documentary.

Moral of the story – once again…examine all the evidence, then think for yourself. The truth is out there… and sometimes, it’s not as hidden as we might think.

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