Marla Wynn Cooper first came to the attention of the American public in August of 2010. During an interview with ABC news, she claimed that two of her uncles (now deceased), Lynn Doyle Cooper, and his brother Dewey, were the real perpetrators behind the famous D.B. Cooper skyjacking. She testified that Lynn Doyle Cooper was the actual hijacker, and that his brother Dewey was his accomplice on the ground. This occurred, she says, while several of her family members had gathered for Thanksgiving at Marla's grandmother's house in Sisters, Oregon. She was eight years old at the time.
According to her account, the two men were seen testing expensive walkie-talkies shortly before the hijacking, and then announced they were going turkey hunting. On early Thanksgiving morning, she says, the two men returned and Lynn Doyle Cooper had to be helped from the car to the house. He was injured, she said, and she was told by her other uncle, Dewey, that it was due to a traffic accident. Marla says she knows now that this was not true, and that her Uncle L.D. was actually hurt in the landing after parachuting from the hijacked Boeing 727. To support this, she says that the alleged accomplice, Dewey Cooper, told her father later:
'We did it. Our money problems are over. We hijacked a plane...'
The Cooper case itself began on November 24, 1971 when a man boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 in Portland, Oregon. It was headed for Seattle. Shortly after takeoff, the man handed a note to stewardess Florence Schaffner:
'I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked...'
Although the name the hijacker gave to a ticket agent in Portland was 'Dan Cooper,' due to a wire service snafu, he soon became known to the world as 'D.B. Cooper'. After demanding $200,000 in cash, four parachutes, and meals for the crew, the plane landed in Seattle and his demands were met. In exchange, Cooper released all the passengers and two members of the crew. The Boeing 727 took to the skies again, headed for Reno. Approximately twenty minutes after leaving Sea-Tac Airport, the hijacker donned two of the chutes, secured the bag of money and the briefcase to himself, and jumped from the rear airstairs of the jet.
Except for an instruction placard for the airstairs that was later found by a hunter, and $5,800 in cash discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980, neither Cooper, his parachutes, or the remainder of the money were ever seen again.
That was forty years ago. To date, the F.B.I. has investigated over a thousand suspects and run down ten times that many leads - all without result. The Cooper hijacking remains the only unsolved air piracy case in U.S. history.
Ever since Marla Cooper went public with her story about her uncles and the Thanksgiving gathering in Sisters, her case has taken a few turns. The F.B.I. called her a 'credible witness' early on, but later, a family member's DNA did not match the samples the F.B.I. has from a black tie the hijacker left on board the plane. Ever since that time, the Seattle F.B.I. office has refused to comment on her story.
Marla did provide a possible link between her uncle and the famous Dan Cooper comic, claiming that he kept several copies posted to the wall of his bedroom at her grandmother's house. (The F.B.I. and some Cooper sleuths believe the hijacker may have taken his name from the parachuting hero of the French comic book.) There have been questions about this, since the possible comic book link was not revealed until 2007, and Lynn Doyle Cooper died in 1999.
More recently, the F.B.I. sent in some of L.D. Cooper's personal items for fingerprint testing. After the hijacking in 1971, the Bureau was able to obtain sixty-six prints from the Boeing 727 that could not be matched to any of the crew or passengers, including a partial print from an in-flight magazine in Cooper's seat. If a match is made, then the F.B.I. will finally know the true identity of Cooper and close the case. If there is no print match, the investigation continues.
Or perhaps not. In a more recent interview, Marla Cooper alleges that Seattle F.B.I. Special Agent Curtis Eng (Cooper case agent) told her that he believed L.D. Cooper was probably the hijacker. In addition, she said Agent Eng had shown photographs of L.D. Cooper to some of the surviving crew members of Flight 305, and that at least one of them said it was the closest match they had seen to the hijacker. Marla also says Agent Eng told her that regardless of the results of the fingerprint test, the F.B.I. would be closing the case soon. None of these statements have been confirmed by the Seattle F.B.I. to date. Special Agent Fred Gutt, the media contact agent for the Seattle office, has refused to discuss details, saying only that the case is not closed, and they are awaiting the results of fingerprint matching attempts from personal items belonging to L.D. Cooper.
The staff of Adventure Books of Seattle has been following the Marla Cooper case closely in recent months. We have a book out there alleging that Kenny Christiansen, a former Army paratrooper and an employee of the hijacked airline, was probably D.B. Cooper. I serve as managing editor. After I read the interview where Marla said the F.B.I. might be closing the case, I decided to approach her and ask for an interview. She agreed.
Robert: When your uncles showed up at your grandmother's house in the early morning after the hijacking, you say he was injured. What was he wearing and how badly do you think he was hurt?
Marla Cooper: He was wearing a bloody white t-shirt. He was badly wounded. I would say he was delirious. I don't remember him speaking at all.
Robert: About $5,800 of the ransom money was found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980. It is known that this money could not have arrived at that location until at least 1974, because tons of sand were dredged from the river and dumped there before that time. But there are many theories about it. Tom Kaye, a Cooper case researcher who works at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, says his work shows the money was probably a plant, or arrived 'by non-natural means'. Do you have a theory on how the money ended up there?
Marla Cooper: I agree with the theory that the money was dredged to the location where it was found. My dad told me that L.D. dropped the money when he had a problem with the chute.
Robert: One question some people have asked is about verification of your story from other family members, especially on the events at your grandmother's house the day after the hijacking. Your mother has gone on record in an interview that she had suspicions L.D. was the hijacker. Has anyone else in your family come forward to verify what happened?
Marla Cooper: No one was around when the two arrived on Thanksgiving morning. My mother and my grandmother had left the house. My brother and sister were probably sleeping. It was early in the morning. I'm not sure if anyone else has 'gone on record'.
Robert: In recent news articles, you have said that Curtis Eng, the Cooper case agent for the Seattle F.B.I., told you he thought L.D. Cooper was either the best suspect, or that he thought he was D.B. Cooper. You also mention that Eng said the Seattle F.B.I. plans to drop the case soon, even if L.D. Cooper's prints do not match any of the samples from the jet. Do you stand by these statements?
Marla Cooper: Yes. Except he said 'close,' not drop the case.
Robert: One quote from a recent news story claims the F.B.I. informed you that they had shown pictures of your uncle to some of the surviving crew members and that at least one identified L.D. as possibly being the hijacker. Which of the flight crew were shown the picture and which one(s) identified him?
Marla Cooper: The F.B.I. didn't invite me to tag along for their investigation, so I couldn't tell you which one. I was told that a crew member had said, 'Of all the photos you've ever brought to me, this one sure looks like him'. My guess would be it was one of the flight attendants who said that.
Robert: There has been much research done on the famous Dan Cooper comic book. Even the F.B.I. lists it as a possible clue on their website on the D.B. Cooper page. The comic is in French, and was mostly distributed in France, Belgium, eastern Canada, and some other parts of Europe. Very few copies reached the United States. Yet, you claim L.D. Cooper had several copies pinned to the wall of his bedroom at your grandmother's house. Do you have any theories on how he might have obtained them?
Marla Cooper: Yes I do. He had a car. I'm pretty sure he could drive it. The trek to Canada isn't impossible under those circumstances. One of my theories is that he bought them in Canada. Since I only saw him once a year, he had plenty of time to do things I wasn't privy to. However, it's more logical to me that he discovered 'Dan Cooper' while serving in the Navy during the Korean War.
Robert: You're quoted as hearing your Uncle Dewey, the alleged accomplice, say this shortly after the hijacking: 'We did it. Our money problems are over...we hijacked a plane.' Did anyone else in your family hear this statement?
Marla Cooper: Yes. He said this to my father.
Robert: When you looked more closely at your Uncle L.D.'s life, did you discover any evidence that he knew how to use a parachute?
Marla Cooper: Evidence? No. You seem to be assuming that my book research involves some type of sleuthing into all things Cooper. It does not. Someone in my family had told me that L.D. was a paratrooper. There has also been speculation that he could have taken skydiving lessons. Lots of people do that sort of thing.
Robert: Sisters, Oregon is the home of the Deschutes County Sheriffs Department. If someone there were to research old traffic accident reports and find one with either Dewey's or L.D.'s name on it at the time of the crime, this could hurt your story. How will you respond if they found such a thing?
Marla Cooper: Dewey told me they had been in a wreck, when I asked what had happened to L.D., who was sitting in the passenger seat. I know what I saw on Thanksgiving morning. The car wasn't wrecked. When the Deschutes County Sheriffs Department produces a document saying my uncles were in a wreck that morning, I will begin formulating my own conspiracy theories. Like maybe it was Kenny Christiansen wrecking cars and claiming to be my uncles! Kenny looks very happy.
Robert: Well, that's because some of us here think he was the hijacker, and lived to spend the money. But that's only a theory. One more question about your uncle. Did L.D. own a car while he was staying with your grandmother in Sisters, Oregon?
Marla Cooper: He had a car. It was a blue Triumph.
Final notes: There are still some unanswered questions regarding Marla Cooper's story, and most of her case is based on personal testimony alone. However, if the F.B.I. matches up just a single print from L.D. Cooper to the ones they have from the hijacked jet, then the mystery will be solved. If not, then without further evidence L.D. joins the other major suspects who may or may not have been Cooper. These people include John List, Duane Weber, Richard Floyd McCoy, William Gossett, Barb Dayton, Jack Coffelt, Teddy Mayfield and yes...even Kenny Christiansen.
UPDATE 12/12/2012: According to Doug Kenck-Crispin of Kick Ass Oregon History, Marla Cooper was a recent guest at a DB Cooper film screening in Portland. She has since backed away from some of her previous claims, according to Crispin. Not a real surprise. I met Doug while doing a video on that year's annual Ariel, WA 'DB Cooper' celebration. Most of the other staff were in attendance and voiced the same opinion regarding Ms Cooper's story.