Attention producers/editors: Video/audio soundbites from Buddy Levy are available for download.
Info at end of story. (Video by Matt Haugen, WSU News)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Forty years ago, a man in a dark business suit and tie committed one of the biggest whodunits in U.S. history. D.B. Cooper skyjacked a jetliner and bailed out at 10,000 feet between Seattle and Portland with a parachute and $200,000 in ransom money strapped to his waist.
FBI composite sketch of D.B. Cooper, left, and photo
of Northwest airlines employee Kenny Christiansen.
He was never seen again. Was it the perfect crime or a reckless plunge into the great hereafter?
In trying to solve the nation’s only unsolved skyjacking, the FBI has examined 1,000 suspects, according to the agency’s website. A Washington State University professor who has researched the skyjacking believes one name should stand out among them:
“For me, it’s an accumulation of evidence that makes him the strongest suspect,” said Buddy Levy, a clinical associate professor who teaches English at WSU and is the author of several historical books, including “River of Darkness” (Bantam 2011) and “Conquistador” (Bantam 2008).
Unraveling historical mysteries is in his blood, Levy said, and when it comes to the high-flying mystery of D.B. Cooper, “The truth is, you couldn’t make up a better story.”
Stuff of legend
The story goes like this: On Thanksgiving Eve, 1971, a man in his mid-40s boarded a Boeing 727 going from Portland to Seattle. He took seat 18 F, ordered a bourbon and soda and smoked Raleigh cigarettes, according to witness accounts given to the FBI.
After telling flight attendants that his briefcase contained a bomb, he calmly demanded $200,000 and parachutes.
During the landing in Seattle, he released all 36 passengers and ordered the plane back in the air. Somewhere over southwestern Washington, he opened the plane’s rear stairway during a frigid rainstorm and jumped into American folklore.
Levy was 11 when Cooper pulled off the heist, and the riddle of his identity and what happened to him has intrigued him ever since, he said.
Last year, he had a chance to do detective work as co-host of Brad Meltzer’s “Decoded” television program on the History Channel (aired Jan. 6, 2011). Levy and two other members of the investigative team examined the theory that the skyjacking was an inside job carried out by Kenny Christiansen, an employee of Northwest Orient now called Northwest Airlines which operated the plane.
“Based on the people we interviewed and the evidence we reviewed, he fits the profile of Cooper,” said Levy.
Labor disputes a motive?
Christiansen’s name surfaced several years ago when his brother, Lyle, claimed that Kenny, who died of cancer in 1994, had closely resembled the FBI sketch of Cooper. Because Kenny worked for Northwest and had been a WWII paratrooper, he knew about commercial planes and how to skydive in challenging conditions. And because he lived in Washington state, he knew the terrain.
Levy, who traveled to Minnesota to meet with Lyle Christiansen, pored over Kenny’s letters, photographs, pay stubs and receipts. The portrait of a man with so many of Cooper’s characteristics became more complete, he said.
“He drank bourbon,” Levy said. “He smoked Raleigh cigarettes. Because he worked for Northwest, he knew the layout of its 727s.”
Furthermore, Kenny wrote in letters to relatives that he was dismayed over Northwest’s labor disputes and his subsequent lack of pay.
“He was a disgruntled employee. I think that was the motive,” said Levy.
Ultimate vanishing act
Nine years after the skyjacking, a boy playing along the banks of the Columbia River uncovered $5,800 of the ransom loot, which the FBI identified by the bills’ serial numbers.
The remaining money stayed with Christiansen as he melted back into society, said Levy. Less than a year after the skyjacking, he started doling out $5,000 in loans to friends and he paid cash for a ranch in the small mountain town of Bonny Lake, Wash.
“Here’s a guy making 200 bucks a month as an airline purser who suddenly pays cash for a house and starts giving people money. He also made a substantial bank deposit,” said Levy, who examined Christiansen’s property records and bank deposit slips.
Levy also points to Ralph Himmelsbach, the retired FBI agent first assigned to the case, who assisted the “Decoded” team in its investigation. Though Himmelsbach said he’s doubtful the skyjacker survived the jump, after examining the evidence he told team members that Christiansen should be considered a strong suspect.
Even so, the FBI says Christiansen’s height, weight, eye color and skin tone were too far off. Besides, Christiansen lived until 1994. Cooper didn’t.
“It’s highly unlikely that Cooper survived the jump,” said Seattle special agent Larry Carr on an FBI Web page devoted to Cooper. While the case remains open, the agency no longer focuses much time on investigating tips with no hard evidence, he said.
If Cooper did die, then Levy wants to know: “Where’s the body? Where’s the parachute? Where’s all that cash? How about one of his shoes? For the FBI, Cooper is a thorn. It’s easier to say he died during the jump than to say he got away.”
Still among us
And so, as the legend of a fugitive folk hero turns 40, Cooper aficionados from around the country recently gathered at the Portland Hilton to compare notes at the 40th Anniversary D.B. Cooper Symposium. That same weekend, fans turned out at the Ariel Tavern in southwest Washington for its annual festival with fireworks and a Cooper look-alike contest.
“He was an individual who took on the system and got away,” said Levy. “He was polite. He let the passengers off. He wasn’t about terrifying people, but acted in self-interest. I think he leapt into the abyss and pulled off the heist, leaping straight into immortality and folk legend consciousness.”
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