Some Thoughts on D. B. Cooper
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On Thursday, 1971 Nov 24, a man calling himself Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington. A few minutes into the flight he revealed that he had a dynamite bomb and he took control of the flight. When the plane landed in Seattle, Cooper demanded that it be refueled and that he be given $200,000 and four parachutes. He ordered the plane flown south again, giving very specific instructions on how the control surfaces were to be set, and somewhere over southwest Washington he lowered the planeís rear staircase. At 8:13 PM, inferred from the motion of the plane, he jumped and both he and the ransom money disappeared.
Due to a mix-up in the reporting, the hijacker has come to be known as D. B. Cooper. Heís a minor celebrity in American culture, largely because of the mystery he left behind him Ė Who was he? What happened to him? And where is the ransom money?
I paid no attention to the case until early in 2011, when I saw on the History Channel the episode of Brad Meltzerís Decoded in which Meltzer and his three researchers (two engineers and a lawyer) revisited the case. They focused their attention on Kenneth Christiansen, a former paratrooper who worked as a purser for Northwest Orient Airline, and they made a good case. But I was also irritated that they ignored what I see as two obvious features of the case, one involving Cooperís disappearance and the other involving the disappearance of the ransom money.
On rare occasions, as I lie in bed spinning my mental wheels, I revisit the case and re-examine those two features. When, after a recent such revisit, I saw that the Wikipedia article on the case doesnít mention those two features, either, I decided to write them up and put them onto the Internet to add to the conversation. We thus have two parts to consider.
Initial estimates of Cooperís landing zone put it southeast of the little hamlet of Ariel, Washington, which lies on the south side of State Highway 503 at the west end of Lake Merwin. Presumably he used dead reckoning to figure where the plane was during its flight south and then, out on the stairway, he used the lights visible below to guide his jump. If he succeeded in landing near Ariel, he would have been eleven to fifteen miles up the Lewis River from the town of Woodland, where he had the means to complete his escape.
Some people believe that Cooper died in the jump, but the fact that no one has ever found his parachute or any remains that could be attributed to him implies strongly that he landed safely. Once he was on the ground, he rolled up the parachute, tucked it under his arm, and walked away. In taking the parachute with him he denied the searchers a clear starting point for their pursuit (a precaution that he likely didnít need, but he was taking no unnecessary risks). At some point, perhaps on the Lewis River, perhaps on one of its tributary creeks, he could have put the parachute into the water and piled rocks on top of it to hide it. It would have taken him ten to fifteen minutes and, whatever he did, it was fully successful: to this day, nearly half a century later, no one has found that parachute.
Cooper made his jump at about a quarter after eight. Given the amount of time it took for him to make his landing and get organized, we can guess that he began walking at about nine oíclock. If he could have maintained a pace of about two miles per hour, he would have reached Woodland sometime between two-thirty and four-thirty the next morning. There he found his ultimate escape vehicle Ė a slow-moving, southbound freight train.
Interstate Highway Five passes through Woodland and people have focused their attention on that fact. Cooper, they say, must have had an accomplice waiting to pick him up. But that seems unlikely. Woodland is a very small town and a stranger sitting in a parked car in the middle of the night would likely have drawn suspicious attention, especially once the excitement over the hijacking began to blossom over the area. No, itís more likely, I think, that Cooper followed the Lewis River under the freeway, went to the railroad track, and hopped a train, as hoboes had been doing for over a century.
Once he was on the train, Cooper was essentially home free. It was dark in the wee hours of the morning; it was cold; and it was raining: no brakeman would have left his cozy caboose under those circumstance to look for hoboes grabbing a free ride.
When the train crossed the Columbia River something went wrong. Cooper lost at least three packets of the ransom money. Those packets fell into the river, floated downstream together, the washed up onto a beach called Tena Bar and were silted over. In 1980 picnickers found those packets when they dug a fire pit on the site.
As the train passed through Portland, Cooper jumped off at a certain point, hiked to where he had parked his car, and drove home. He had successfully completed part one of his escapade Ė he had left the scene of his crime, leaving no discernible trail, and vanished into the general population.
Cooper got home with the better part of $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills. If the three packets that fell into the Columbia River were all that he lost, then he had 9700 bills left. What could he do with them?
Certainly he did not want to take that money anywhere near a large financial institution, such as a bank. He had to know that the serial numbers on the bills had been recorded and, in fact, the FBI had photographed the bills onto microfilm so that agents could extract those numbers later to make a list. Cooper did not want his real name associated with even a small deposit of those bills.
There was only one safe ploy for him to use. First he put the money into a safe but convenient location, perhaps in the space above the ceiling in one room of his house. In many houses thereís a hatch in the ceiling to permit access to the space under the roof. By putting the money next to the hatch Cooper gave himself his own personal, private ATM: all he had to do was stand on a chair, lift the hatch, and make a withdrawal whenever he wanted to use some of the loot. In that way he ensured that nobody would find the money accidentally.
Itís also known that, aside from the packets that fell into the Columbia River, none of the ransom money has ever been seen anywhere. Those 9700 bills have simply vanished. But that fact does not mean that Cooper did not use those bills: it only means that nobody spotted any of them. The bills could have circulated and simply not been noticed. That scenario is not at all unlikely, because spotting one of the bills depended on people looking for them.
Banks certainly would have been involved in that search. Any deposit including twenty-dollar bills would have been thoroughly scrutinized. But that scrutiny could only have been accomplished through eyeballs and a magnifying glass: computers and scanners that could read the billsí serial numbers did not exist in 1971. The task would have become stultifyingly boring very quickly. All Cooper had to do was to let his loot sit and "cool off" for a year or so. After a year of not finding a single bill from the ransom the searchers would have been thoroughly discouraged and demoralized: the search would have been cut way back, if not called off altogether. If Ken Christiansen was Cooper, he could afford to be patient: he continued to work for Northwest Orient and deposited a paycheck every two weeks.
At the end of his self-imposed cooling off period, Cooper began to spend the loot. He almost certainly used it only for cash-and-carry purchases, such as buying groceries, putting gas in his car, or buying clothing or household goods. Further, he would have made those purchases under circumstances in which people would be disinclined to look at the bills he gave them.
Consider grocery shopping as an example. Cooper would have gone to the supermarket when the store was relatively busy, filled up a shopping cart, and gotten into line at a checkstand. The clerk wants to process that line of customers through his checkstand as quickly and expediently as possible, so heís not going to give the twenties that Cooper hands him a second look. That would be all the more true because Cooper did not make the same fatal mistake that Bruno Hauptmann made in 1934.
Hauptmann was caught spending the ransom money from the kidnaping and murder of Charles and Anne Lindburghís infant son. He was caught basically because he was an arrogant putz and he rubbed a gas station attendant the wrong way. Suspecting that Hauptmann might be a counterfeiter, the attendant wrote the license number of Hauptmannís car on the ten-dollar gold certificate that Hauptmann had used to pay for the gasoline. When a bank clerk saw that the bill had a serial number that matched the random money, the police hunted Hauptmann down and that was the end of Hauptmannís story. That was not going to happen to Cooper.
Ken Christiansen has been described as an amiable fellow, a friendly person who would not attract hostile suspicion. The same was said of Cooper. According to the witnesses, during the hijacking Cooper was courteous and polite. He gave every impression of being a nice guy who had just made a very wrong turn somewhere. No gas station attendant or grocery clerk was going to suspect him of being a criminal mastermind.
So Cooper has taken his groceries home and the bills that he gave the clerk have been put into the supermarketís bank deposit. They went in with a lot of other twenties that people had used to pay for their groceries. What are the odds that someone would spot one of the ransom bills?
When I worked in a small market in the early 1970's we typically did several thousand dollars worth of business every day. A supermarket would have done much more, especially on a busy day. A deposit from Cooperís supermarket might include as many as a thousand twenty-dollar bills, of which one or two were ransom bills. To borrow the old needle-in-a-haystack metaphor, we can say that finding one of the ransom bills in that deposit would have been like finding a silver needle among five hundred to a thousand stainless-steel duplicates.
At the bank the bills went unnoticed as the clerk processed the deposit. The ransom bills were bundled up with the other twenties and eventually they were put back into circulation through customer withdrawals. A little less than eight years later, on average, the worn bills were removed from circulation and destroyed. No one noticed them in that time because people had stopped looking for them.
So how long did the loot benefit Cooper? If he spent one twenty per week on groceries (which would be reasonable for a man living alone in 1973), two per week on gas for his car, and one for other expenses (such as liquor and cigarettes), he would have used sixteen bills per month, about two hundred ($4000) per year. In the last three decades of the Twentieth Century inflation roughly doubled prices every ten years, so we can use a simple exponential function (like the one used in calculations involving nuclear decay) to calculate how long 9700 bills would last. The answer is twenty-one years, from 1973 to 1994, the year that Ken Christiansen died.
If Christiansen was Cooper, we have one final aspect of the money to consider. Christiansen continued working for Northwest Orient after the hijacking, so every two weeks he was depositing a paycheck into his bank account. When he started spending the loot, he was taking that much less out of that account. That untapped money accumulated. If he had transferred it to a savings account that paid five percent interest per annum and transferred $4000 per year, he would have had a little less than $139,000 in his account at the end. Of course inflation and pay raises increased the amount he was saving each year, so his actual total would have gone higher. We may note with interest that when Ken Christiansen died his family found that he had $200,000 in several bank accounts, a substantial collection of gold coins, and a highly valued stamp collection, a sizeable chunk of wealth for someone who had worked as a purser for a minor airline.
Whatever we may think of Cooperís technical achievement, we must also state the what he did was wrong, that it was an act of evil. In all too many of these discussions people ignore the moral dimension and even present the perpetrator as some kind of folk hero. There is a part of us that revels in the perfect crime and we must force ourselves to regain our awareness that it was, indeed, a crime.
When we say that an action is wrong, we generally refer to the solution of a problem. If we want to keep our house warm in winter, for example, then opening the windows is wrong. If Cooperís goal was to obtain a large quantity of money with relatively little effort, then his actions achieved that goal, so how can we say that what he did was wrong? We do so by noting that he did not act in a vacuum. As John Donne noted, "No man is an island, entire unto himself." Other people were involved in Cooperís act and as a member of a society Cooper had certain obligations to those people. He failed to fulfill those obligations and thatís what makes his act wrong.
To start with Cooper threatened to murder nearly four dozen people and destroy an airliner, which would have caused additional damage on the ground where the pieces fell. I donít believe that Iím doing any great damage to the word when I define evil (as a noun) as any act that diminishes a person. By using forty-two passengers and a flight crew as pawns in his robbery scheme, Cooper committed an act of pure, unmitigated evil. I say "unmitigated" because none of those people had ever done anything that would tend to diminish Cooper, so Cooper had no excuse for what he did to them.
As a term of disapprobation the word evil seems to have lost some of its sting. We even make jokes about Satan, Cthulhu, or other embodiments of evil. But a decent, civilized society, especially one devoted to expanding personal freedom as widely as feasible, needs a clear demarcation of behaviors that are unacceptable and subject to social sanction. The definition of evil given above provides a good such demarcation. Itís an easily agreeable definition because no one wants to be diminished, especially not for someone elseís personal aggrandizement.
The other factor in Cooperís crime was his taking a large sum of money without offering just compensation: he stole $200,000. Again, some people would say that Cooper was a Robin Hood-like figure, robbing a big, soul-less corporation, so no real harm was done. But Cooper wasnít attacking an abstraction: a corporation consists of people and itís those people who have to make up the loss, through reduced wages, deferred raises, or cancelled bonuses form employees or increased rates for customers. Northwest Orient, though, didnít absorb the whole loss: their insurance company paid out $180,000 on the claim, which means that their people had to lose something. It wasnít much on an individual basis, certainly, but nonetheless people were deprived of money that was rightly theirs, deprived without gaining a compensating benefit, as the fundamental concept of money requires.
This brings us to Immanuel Kantís categorical imperative. In our egalitarian society, founded on the idea that "all men are created equal", it is the fundamental source of our morality. Ideally, no one is granted privileges that others do not possess. If I wish to commit a certain act, can I honestly will that all other members of my society commit the same act or, at least, be allowed to do so? If I answer in the negative, the act is illegitimate and must be proscribed. Certainly any act that diminishes a person, as by treating them as a slave, would be rejected by that calculation.
Cooper did actually use people as slaves, albeit indirectly. Using Northwest Orient and its insurance company as intermediaries, he took money that people had worked to earn and he did so without giving them any choice in the matter or compensation for their loss. By thus aggrandizing himself over others he committed one of the cardinal sins of an egalitarian society and only our scorn for it.
D. B. Cooper was no folk hero. He allowed greed to deform his understanding of just behavior and he became a crooked man. He benefitted only himself, at the expense of others. His case is a perfect example of true horror, the triumph of evil.
Appendix: A Note on Disguise
The first dilemma that Cooper faced was that of disguising himself without appearing to be disguised. He wanted people to see him as an ordinary air traveler and to remember him as someone different from who he really was. In the circumstances it was an easy goal for him to achieve.
In Brad Meltzerís Decoded the researchers focused their attention on Ken Christiansen and noted that he wore a toupee, but that after the hijacking he never wore it again. Cooper was depicted with hair and we know that a well-applied toupee can look natural. If the authorities are looking for a man with dark hair, they are not going to be looking at the bald guy.
One criticism of the hypothesis that Ken Christiansen was Cooper points to the fact that Christiansen weighed 150 pounds while Cooper was estimated to weigh between 170 and 180 pounds. But Cooper knew that he was going to be jumping into a very cold environment and wandering around in it for hours. He would have been suicidal not to be wearing thermal underwear. He may also have been wearing a wetsuit under his business suit. Those things would have made him look bulkier and led people to overestimate his weight.
Further, the extra bulk would have made Cooper move differently from the way Christiansen moved. If any member of the flight crew on that plane had encountered Christiansen, who continued to work for Northwest Orient after the hijacking, they would not have felt a flash of recognition based on his appearance or his movements. And that brings us to our final point.
In his science-fiction novel "Double Star" Robert Heinlein noted that a good disguise does not consist solely of a change of appearance, but also of a change in behavior. When he was in the Army, Christiansen received training as a paratrooper, while Cooper, according to the witnesses, gave the impression of being a novice skydiver. If Cooper had displayed the knowledge and skill of a paratrooper, the FBI would have had a short list of suspects and Christiansenís name would have been on it. By pretending to be an unskilled tyro, Cooper got the paratroopers knocked off the suspect list.
Thus Cooper created the illusion that he was not Ken Christiansen and was so successful at it that when Christiansenís brother tried to tell people that Ken was the hijacker, no one would believe him. Thatís a successful disguise.
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