DB Cooper and Me

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fter 46 years, a news teaser said new evidence has been discovered that may lead to the infamous D.B. Cooper’s identification. However, on July 12, 2016, the FBI announced it was officially closing the Cooper investigation. The unsolved case of the 1971 hijacking of a Seattle-bound airliner and the disappearance of the suspect became considered one for the history books – or was it?

Documentarian and author Thomas J. Colbert believes there was an FBI cover-up. He cites discovery of an FBI concealed note from the hijacker received by authorities 17 days after the event.

It seems there’s an annual routine for reporters to look for more details to do stories on the anniversary of the November 24, 1971, hijacking. In early August of 2011, KATU (Portland, OR) TV reporter Joe English was looking for local color at Ariel, WA. Each year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Ariel Store & Tavern hosts DB Cooper Days – a celebration of the man, the myth and the legend that is DB Cooper.

English’s queries lead to a conversation with a parent of my grandchildren’s friend. Because of that conversation he called me saying 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’d never written anything about the incident, but after a call from a Vancouver newspaper reporter the day after Joe English’s call, my wife encouraged me to write it up and submit it to the newspaper to clarify what had been misinterpreted.

My granddaughter suggested that I post pictures side-by-side:

Cooper and him

Vancouver’s The Columbian “Everyone has a Story” forum seemed to be a good choice. It was published on August 21, 2011 as: “Carjacking still has media asking about Cooper.”

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n 1971, I was a 35-year-old married student at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA, with three children. On the evening of November 23, I left our Student Village housing for a Boy Scout leaders meeting. I was approached by a young man who appeared to be in his early 20s.

His asking for a ride to the bus station didn’t seem unusual to me. 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. 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 Vietnam war protesters on and off campus.

I was already tired from working a graveyard shift as a shelf-stocker and checker at Zittings, an Ellensburg grocery store, and attending classes most of the day. The Greyhound station was only a little out of the way for me, but taking him there would make me only a few minutes late for my meeting. As we neared the traffic light controlled intersection near the bus station in my Chevy Nova, he told me to turn left. I told him that the station was straight ahead.

He displayed a Ruger .22 automatic pistol I recognized from having owned one several years before.

I followed his directions to State Highway 821 South, locally known as ‘canyon road’ because it follows the Yakima River between basalt cliffs in the Umtanum Ridge Water Gap from Ellensburg to Yakima.

I glanced at him to get a complete description of him in my mind as I drove. Each time I looked, he told me, in authoritative tone, to keep my eyes on the road. When we approached Yakima, 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 a cash station 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 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 a road I’d 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 a toll. I thought, for whatever reason, it wouldn’t make sense to endanger him too. In retrospect, if the man with the gun intended to get rid of me, it would have been done on the isolated road we’d already traveled.

He directed me onto Interstate-84 towards Portland. I developed another plan; I increased my speed hoping to get stopped by the Oregon State Patrol. But, as I gradually increased my speed, he told me to stay in the right-hand lane at the speed limit.

I’d never been in downtown Portland, but his directions were explicit. It wasn’t 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 and disappeared into the night – Fourth and Jackson.

I found a pay phone on the next block and called the Portland Police. A marked patrol car responded within minutes. The officer took my description of the abductor and said it fit many young men they commonly see in the area around 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 to the station. I called my wife in Ellensburg, and she told me about the people out looking for me.

While I was making a written statement, another young man was brought into the station. Again, only the clothing matched. The interviewing officer told me I needed to make another report in Ellensburg since the incident started there, and he had already contacted the FBI.

An officer drove me back to my car. It wouldn’t start – dead battery – I’d left the lights on. They gave me a jump-start and directions to I-84. I’d been up for nearly 24 hours and was dead tired, but I didn’t have money for a motel. Rather than try to sleep in the car, I coffeed up and opted to make the 4-hour drive back to Ellensburg in the early morning of Thanksgiving Eve.

I slept a few hours and made a report at the Ellensburg Police Department. They put together a composite picture for their records. The sketch was used in an article published 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 a situation being broadcast on his scanner. I wasn’t surprised by his starting our conversation with a caution about giving miss-information or false reporting to a federal agent.

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.

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here were a few similarities to the description of the airplane 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 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.

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