On November 24, 1971, a man in dark glasses and a neatly pressed suit boarded a Northwest Orient airplane with a bomb in his briefcase. The man, known today only as D.B. Cooper, demanded $ 200,000 in “negotiable American currency” and four parachutes—or else he’d blow up the plane. The ransom was paid, the passengers were let go, and D.B. Cooper leaped out the back of the plane and parachuted into the darkness and disappeared.
The identity of D.B. Cooper remains a mystery to this day. It is the only unsolved case of its kind in history, and after 45 years, we still don’t know who did it. Some names, though, have come up more than once—and one of them just might be the real D.B. Cooper.
10 Ted Mayfield
On the day of the hijacking, six people called the FBI to finger Ted Mayfield. He was a skydiving teacher with a criminal record that included armed robbery and stealing an airplane. Although no one knew exactly that he’d done it, they were all pretty sure it was him.
Mayfield was crossed off the list of suspects pretty quickly. The FBI didn’t just get calls about him. They got a call from Mayfield himself. Four hours after Cooper jumped out of the plane, Mayfield called the FBI to offer them a list of local skydivers who might have been behind it.
This, the FBI thought, was proof that he was innocent—although some argued that four hours was plenty of time for Mayfield to get to a phone and stage the call as an alibi.
The FBI investigators also believed that Cooper was an amateur skydiver, not an expert. One of the parachutes they gave him was sewn shut and didn’t work. Cooper chose the useless one as his reserve parachute, suggesting that he couldn’t tell the real thing from a fake.
In 1994, though, Mayfield was arrested for that exact reason. He’d given two of his skydiving students parachutes that didn’t work and sent them plummeting to their deaths. Apparently, Mayfield couldn’t spot a broken parachute after all.
9 Richard Floyd McCoy Jr.
Over the next 12 months, 15 copycats tried to hijack airplanes by following Cooper’s method. But some think that one of these copycats—Richard McCoy—was D.B. Cooper himself.
McCoy demanded a $ 500,000 ransom as he hijacked a plane with an unloaded gun and a paperweight that looked like a hand grenade. He escaped by parachuting off the aft stairs, just like Cooper. But unlike Cooper, McCoy left enough fingerprints to get caught.
McCoy ended up breaking out of prison with a fake handgun made of dental paste. He spent three months on the run before FBI agents tracked him to Virginia and killed him in a shoot-out.
The agent who shot him, though, insisted he’d done more than kill McCoy. “When I shot Richard McCoy,” he said, “I shot D.B. Cooper at the same time.” McCoy, he explained, had done more than just copy what he heard in the news. He followed a few of Cooper’s steps that weren’t made public.
McCoy’s family insists it’s ridiculous. They say that McCoy was in Nevada celebrating Thanksgiving with them when Cooper made his heist. Some, though, think they’re just giving McCoy an alibi and that Cooper really was gunned down in Virginia.
8 Kenneth Christiansen
In 2003, Lyle Christiansen was watching a documentary on D.B. Cooper when he had an epiphany. This, Lyle believed, wasn’t just a story about some stranger. This was a story about his brother Kenneth.
Kenneth had been a paratrooper in World War II. After it ended, he had worked as a flight attendant on Northwest Orient. Kenneth had never been particularly wealthy—until 1972, when he suddenly had enough to buy a new house with cash.
Dying of cancer in 1994, Kenneth called his brother over and said, “There is something you should know, but I cannot tell you.” Lyle didn’t press him. But after Kenneth died, Lyle found out that his brother had over $ 200,000 in his bank account and a collection of gold coins.
He also had a folder full of Northwest Orient news clippings from dates until the day of the hijacking—and then it stopped. For some reason, Kenneth didn’t take any clippings of the D.B. Cooper incident, despite it being the biggest Northwest Orient news story there was.
When Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant who spoke to Cooper the most during the hijacking, saw a picture of Kenneth Christiansen, she said he was the best fit she’d seen yet. After looking at the picture, Schaffner said, “I think you might be onto something here.”
7 Barbara Dayton
According to the Forman family, D.B. Cooper isn’t a man. She’s a woman—and her name is Barbara Dayton.
Barbara Dayton was a transwoman born and raised with the name Robert until a sex change operation in 1969. She was unhappy with her original gender but even angrier about her eyes. She’d wanted to be a pilot her whole life. But because of an eye condition, she was turned down by the air force and commercial airlines time and time again.
After becoming Barbara, she was broke and depressed and, according to the Formans, started plotting to hijack a plane. She switched back to her male appearance, keeping her wig in a bag and her blouse under her suit, and hijacked the plane. After jumping out, Barbara just had to take off the suit and slip on the wig and she was nearly unidentifiable.
A hospital worker noted that Barbara came in two weeks after the hijacking and seemed “strangely unworried” about money, despite being unemployed and depressed about it for the last few months. The Formans also claim that she confessed to being Cooper in 1977.
If the Formans are telling the truth, Cooper died in 2002—and there’s a pretty good reason nobody could find him.
6 William Gossett
Cooper told the plane to drop down at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. He’d spotted it from the sky and recognized it. But he knew more about the area than just that. He told his hostages that McChord Air Force Base was a 20-minute drive away from the airport—suggesting that he was a military man.
At the time, the CIA was using 727s (just like the one hijacked by Cooper) to drop parachuting agents and supplies behind enemy lines in Vietnam. It’s possible, the FBI considered, that Cooper got the idea when parachuting off one of those planes.
That’s what makes William Gossett such a strong suspect. He was an Army Air Force veteran in both Korea and Vietnam, specially trained in parachuting and wilderness survival.
An attorney named Galen Cook told newspapers that Gossett was Cooper. Gossett had been obsessed with the hijacking story his whole life, and according to Cook, Gossett had even confessed to a friend that he’d done it.
Cook mostly got his story out to tabloids, but Gossett’s son thinks it’s true. William Gossett, his son says, was a compulsive gambler who never had a penny—except in December 1971, when he showed up with “wads of cash.”
If Gossett is Cooper, the money didn’t last long. Shortly after the hijacking, his son says, Gossett went to Las Vegas and blew every penny he had.
5 Robert Rackstraw
Robert Rackstraw was a military man with parachute training, too—right up until the Cooper hijacking. In 1971, Rackstraw was kicked out of the military for lying about his education. Suddenly, he was strapped for cash.
Rackstraw spent 1971 living with his stepfather and floating $ 75,000 in fake checks to get by. Shortly after D.B. Cooper jumped out of that plane, a warrant went out for Rackstraw’s arrest for using fake checks. The police knocked on his door looking for him and found his stepfather lying dead with a bullet in his head.
By then, though, Rackstraw had already fled to Iran. He stayed there until 1978, when he was lost his job and was forced to leave. As soon as he set foot in America, Rackstraw found himself undergoing questioning for murder and hijacking.
There wasn’t enough evidence to convict him, but some people have kept the theory alive. In particular, the History Channel aired a documentary about him. But they got in trouble when leaked emails revealed that they had tried to bribe Rackstraw into saying he did it.
The History Channel promised Rackstraw that he could make a million dollars in book and movie deals if he agreed to say he was Cooper in their documentary. Rackstraw turned them down, and the History Channel released a show saying he was guilty anyway.
4 Richard Lepsy
Two years before Cooper’s hijacking, a grocery store manager and father named Richard Lepsy abandoned his family. He drove his car to the airport, left the key in the ignition, hopped on a plane, and never came back.
For a year, the Lepsy family struggled to understand why their father had left and where he had gone—until November 25, 1971, when they saw the police sketch of D.B. Cooper on TV. The whole family gasped, “That’s Dad!”
They didn’t report it right away. But in 1993, Lepsy’s daughter, Lisa, had a strange encounter that made her nervous enough to talk about it. Two strange men who claimed to be from the John Hancock Insurance Company showed up unannounced at her door. “Have you found your father yet?” the men asked. When she said she hadn’t, they said, “We just wanted to make sure you haven’t found your father.”
Lisa called the insurance company, but they didn’t know who these men were. Years after he’d vanished, Lisa was determined to find her father once more.
She has talked to the FBI and supplied them with a DNA sample. But they don’t seem to have taken her seriously enough to check it. At the very least, they’ve made no comment and are no longer investigating the D.B. Cooper case.
3 Lynn Doyle Cooper
D.B. Cooper didn’t really call himself that. He called himself “Dan Cooper,” but a reporter made a mistake and the name “D.B.” stuck. “Dan Cooper,” though, just might be the key to cracking the case.
He is the hero of a French comic book about a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who’s usually shown parachuting on the cover. And he just might be the inspiration behind the caper.
If so, that makes Lynn Doyle Cooper a strong suspect. Lynn was obsessed with Dan Cooper and kept one of his comic books thumbtacked on the wall. Lynn’s niece Marla Cooper is convinced that Lynn and his brother, Dewey, were behind the hijacking.
On the day of the hijacking, Marla claims, her uncle came home with a bloody shirt and said he’d been in a car accident. When he thought she wasn’t listening, though, she heard him tell Dewey, “We did it, our money problems are over. We hijacked an airplane!”
The FBI tested Lynn’s DNA against a sample they had from D.B. Cooper’s tie. They didn’t get a match, but there’s no guarantee that their sample is really from Cooper. So some haven’t ruled out Lynn Doyle Cooper.
2 Duane Weber
In 1980, an eight-year-old boy named Brian Ingram was wandering along a riverbank near Seattle when he found a stash of badly burned money. He showed it to his parents, who reported it—and found out they were holding D.B. Cooper’s ransom.
It’s one of the biggest points against Duane Weber—a man who was at the very same spot just four months before Ingram found the money. Weber had told his wife that he wanted to go for a walk alone by the river, which gave him a chance to drop off the money. She didn’t think much of it until three days before he died, when he told her: “I am Dan Cooper.”
Weber’s wife went to the library and took out a book on Cooper, only to find out that her husband’s handwritten notes were all over the margins. She started to put things together—like her husband’s nightmares during which he would mutter something about leaving fingerprints on the aft stairs.
Weber was eliminated after a DNA test, although the test wasn’t conclusive.
1 A Boeing Employee
D.B. Cooper was unusually knowledgeable about Boeing planes. He picked the safest plane from which to parachute, and he corrected the pilots on some of its technical abilities. For a long time, it was believed that he’d worked on a plane before. But a new discovery suggests that he might have built it.
A group of researchers analyzed the tie left behind by D.B. Cooper. They found pure, unalloyed titanium particles all over it, along with cesium and strontium. In the early 1970s, these particles weren’t common—except in a Boeing factory. The researchers believe that these particles prove that Cooper worked for either Boeing or Tektronix, a company that did outsourced work for Boeing.
If they’re right, they might have some strong evidence against Lynn Doyle Cooper. Lynn’s brother, Dewey, worked for Boeing and could easily have gotten those particles on his tie. It’s possible that the tie worn by Cooper was borrowed from Dewey—and that the DNA on it is his, too.