The FBI announced on July 12, 2016, it was closing the D.B. Cooper case. The unsolved investigation of the 1971 hijacking of a Seattle-bound airliner and the disappearance of the suspect is now one for the history books.
It had been an annual routine for reporters to look for more details in order to do stories on the anniversary of the November 24, 1971, hijacking. In early August of 2011, TV reporter Joe English was looking for local color at one of Cooper’s alleged possible landing places near Lake Merwin, WA.
His queries lead to a conversation with an adult friend of my grandchildren. As a result of that conversation he called me and said that he had interviewed a woman who said something about my being the man who had driven Cooper to the airport (PDX) in Portland,OR, before the hijacking. My grandkids knew the story but apparently something got lost in the translation when it was shared with their friends.
I had never written anything about the incident but after a call from a second reporter, my wife encouraged me to write it up and submit it to the newspaper to clarify what had been misinterpreted. Vancouver’s The Columbian “Everyone has a Story” forum seemed to be a good choice for the story. It was published in the on August 21, 2011 as: “Carjacking still has media asking about Cooper.”
In 1971, I was a married student with three children and at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA. On the evening of November 23, I was leaving our Student Village housing for a Boy Scout leader meeting when I was approached by a young man, in his early 20s by appearance, who asked for a ride to the bus station.
It was not an unusual request; it was the eve of Thanksgiving break at the university and hitching an in-town ride was a common student-to-student request any time of the year. I just assumed him to be a fellow student. Neither was it unusual that he wore brown cotton gloves and combat boots. November is cold in central Washington and web upper, military surplus combat boots were common footwear even for war protesters on and off campus.
I was already tired from working a graveyard shift as a shelf stocker and checker at an Ellensburg grocery store, and attending classes most of the day. The Greyhound station was only a little out of the way for me and taking him there would make me only a few minutes late for my meeting.
As we neared the traffic light controlled intersection near the station in my Chevy Nova, he asked me to turn left. I told him that the station was straight ahead. He displayed a pistol.
My military and other weapons experience helped me recognize it as a .22 automatic, perhaps a Ruger. I followed his directions to State Highway 821 South, locally known as ‘canyon road’ because it follows the Yakama River between basalt cliffs in the Umtanum Ridge Water Gap.
I glanced at him to get a complete description of him in my mind as I drove. Each time I looked, he told me to keep my eyes on the road. When we got to Yakama, I plotted an escape and told him that I was nearly out of gas. That was true, but I thought I could get to a well-lighted place with witnesses or help. He told me to keep going south on US-97 to Union Gap and stop at the cash station.
I didn’t know the location. He directed me there. I hadn’t seen one before, but as I remember it was a new concept being tested. The pumps were set up to take fives or ones and dispense gas after the deposit. I immediately planned to make a break for it if I saw an attendant, but there was none and his pistol was displayed the entire time I was outside the car. I thought he was going to take the car after I put gas in the tank, but he didn’t.
He directed me back onto US-97 and I continued driving south on the road I had not driven before. We approached the toll bridge crossing the Columbia River to Biggs Junction, OR, and I made a quick plan to jump out and get help from the attendant. As we neared the booth and I slowed my car, my unwelcome passenger hid the pistol under the military field jacket he wore.
The man at the booth was what I considered elderly and there were no other cars stopped to pay the toll. I thought, for whatever reason, it would not make sense to endanger him too. In retrospect, if his intent was to get rid of me, it would have been done on the isolated road we had already traveled.
He directed me onto Interstate-84 towards Portland. I developed another plan; I would speed and get stopped by the Oregon State Patrol. But as I gradually increased my speed, I was told to keep it at the limit.
I had never been in downtown Portland but his directions were explicit. It was not difficult by that time for me to realize that he knew exactly where he wanted to go and how to get there. I’ll not forget where he got out of my car – Fourth and Jackson.
I found a phone booth on the next block and called the Portland Police. A marked patrol car responded to my location within minutes.
I related my situation to the officer and gave a description of my abductor. The officer said it fit many young men they commonly see in that area. I didn’t know I was just a few blocks from Portland State University. Within a few minutes of his broadcasting a description on the radio, another patrol car brought someone for me to identify. Not him! Only the young man’s outer clothing matched. We left my Nova on the street and went into the station so I could call my wife in Ellensburg and make a written statement. They brought another young man into the station. Again, only the clothing matched.
I was told I needed to make another report in Ellensburg since the incident started there, and that the FBI would be contacted. When they took me back to my car, it wouldn’t start – dead battery. They gave me a jump start and gave me directions to I-84.
I arrived back in Ellensburg in the early morning of the 24th, Thanksgiving Eve, before I was officially a missing person. I made a report at the Ellensburg Police Department later that day and they put together a composite picture for publication in the Ellensburg Daily Record.
An FBI agent contacted me that evening. He asked, actually insisted, that we talk in his car because he wanted to keep apprised of another situation being broadcast on his scanner. My telling him about the previous hours was frequently interrupted by radio updates about a passenger aircraft commandeered by a man calling himself Dan Cooper after leaving Portland.
There were a few similarities to the description of the hijacker and the person who had taken me to Portland. However, the dissimilarities were enough to discount the person to whom I had given a ride as a possible suspect.
My being carjacked the day before the mystery man hijacked the Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727 on that Thanksgiving eve is only another contribution to the multiple myths and speculations about the real story.
I’m sure the myths and speculations will continue and I’ll still be thankful that my coincidence was only as it was.