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The Hunt for D.B. Cooper, the 20th Century’s Greatest Outlaw, Lives On

John Dower, director of ‘The Mystery of D.B. Cooper,’ explains why he’s not interested in unraveling the skyjacker’s true identity — even though several people believe they know who was behind the heist

Once you hear about D.B. Cooper, it’s hard to think about anything else. He’s infamous but not that well-remembered — an odd bit of trivia who, for a time, captured the imagination of the American public. Around Thanksgiving 1971, the man (who used an alias to commit his crime) boarded a 727 departing Portland and headed to Seattle. Once airborne, he told a flight attendant, Tina Mucklow, that he had a bomb. Some tense negotiations later, they landed in Seattle, the other passengers (unaware of what was transpiring) deplaned, and Cooper was given $200,000 and four parachutes, as he’d requested. The plane left Seattle on its way to Mexico, but along the way, Cooper instructed the flight attendants to go to the front of the plane — and then he jumped out of the back.

Airjackings weren’t uncommon in the early 1970s, but there had never been anything like Cooper’s stunt — partly because his was the only one that the FBI never solved. His parachute was never found. Neither were his remains. A few years later, some of the money was uncovered, but Cooper’s true identity remained a mystery. The authorities simply couldn’t find the guy. Finally, in 2016, the FBI admitted defeat, ending its active investigation into the case “in order to focus on other investigative priorities.” Whoever Cooper was, he got away with it — if, of course, he didn’t simply die when landing in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

For decades now, there’s been a whole world of D.B. Cooper obsessives offering theories into who he was and what happened to him. There have been books and movies made about the crime. (There’s even a boat tour you can take in Oregon where some of his ransom money was recovered.) And on Wednesday, HBO will premiere The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, which highlights four different possibilities of who Cooper was. Those theories are expressed by individuals claiming they knew the skyjacker, and the proof they lay out is fairly persuasive. One, a Florida widow named Jo Weber, believes it was her late husband Duane. A married couple, Ron and Pat Forman, insist that Cooper was their friend Barbara Dayton, who’d undergone gender confirmation surgery. A Seattle woman, Marla Cooper, feels certain the hijacker was her uncle. And Ben Anjewierden believes that his buddy Richard Floyd McCoy Jr., who’d hijacked a plane a year later, had also been behind the D.B. Cooper crime. 

Are any of them right? What’s best about The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is that British filmmaker John Dower isn’t particularly concerned with the answer. His documentary’s title isn’t meant to suggest the solving of a riddle — rather, he’s interested in the phenomenon around this story. Similar to Errol Morris’ portraits of colorful individuals with quirky passions, The Mystery of D.B. Cooper is a study of undiluted certainty, an examination of why people grasp onto particular beliefs and won’t let go. Not that Dower is snarky about his subjects and their fantastic claims: He lets them speak their truths, and we sense the emotional investment they have in these stories. Their conviction becomes a kind of truth — and don’t we all cling to certain sureties because we need them to make sense of the world?

When I speak to Dower over Zoom from his home in London, he’s rocking a John Deere hat and exudes a wry, self-deprecating demeanor. Other documentarians are exceedingly sober about the gravity of their work — that isn’t the case with the smiling, easygoing Dower, who was born the same year as Cooper’s audacious heist. Dower has often chronicled strange pockets of American culture, whether it’s Britney Spears (Britney’s Redneck Roots) or Scientology (My Scientology Movie). In conversation, he’s quick to puncture any appearance of pretension, and it’s that same breezy, thoughtful tone that makes The Mystery of D.B. Cooper so appealing but also surprisingly moving. “I’m always a bit wary of overhyping something,” he admits. So I’ll do it for him: I think the movie’s really great as a study of human nature and our collective fixation with outlaws.

During our interview, we touched on his abiding love of American arcana, the importance of not mocking your subjects and why he thinks we all have voids we’re trying to fill by telling stories. Even though he finished this documentary last year, he still hears from some of his subjects, and he remains happily obsessed with this particular rabbit hole he’s gone down. “There has to become a moment where you’re like, ‘Okay, now I’m moving onto something else,’ because that’s just what happens with documentary filmmaking,” Dower tells me. But he isn’t ready to let D.B. Cooper go just yet either.

While watching The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, I thought, “This isn’t one of those documentaries where the filmmaker is trying to crack the case.” You’re clearly interested in something much bigger than “Which of these people was the real D.B. Cooper?” 

Definitely, I’m not an investigative filmmaker anyway. Also, the FBI couldn’t solve it in 50 years, so why would some bloke from South London be able to? 

[I made the film because] I didn’t know the story, and I like to think I know all the great, iconic American stories, because I do a lot of filmmaking in America. I was like, “Shit, I don’t know this story. Why don’t I? This story’s insane.” You pitch it to a friend in the pub, and it’s a great story: “It’s a stormy Thanksgiving evening. Guy in a black suit, black sunglasses, black attache case gets on the plane, and there’s a bomb, and there’s parachutes…”

The problem with a hijacking as a film is that it’s such a passive heist — the passengers don’t know it’s happening. I’m like, “Well, that’s not enough.” But then I started reading about all these various suspects. There were these people that I read about, and then spoke to, that believe [that they knew Cooper], and I was reminded of a line that Spielberg [said] when he was doing Close Encounters of the Third Kind: “Look, I don’t necessarily believe in UFOs, but I believe in the people that believe in them.” I think that was key for me. 

Obviously, [my subjects’] stories have got to have enough of a sense that they could be true. Some [viewers] may be like, “Oh, but that bit can’t be right,” or “That bit’s ridiculous.” But I say, “I don’t care.” The fact that they believe it — why is this so important to them? You risk sounding slightly pretentious, but it sort of crosses over into that idea that we all create these narratives — we have stories we tell ourselves to somehow get through life. That interested me as much as the crime itself. 

The key thing for me is that tone in these films is always difficult, because it’s not a serious film. But at the same time, we have this expression in the U.K. called “taking the piss” — I never wanted to feel like the filmmakers were taking the piss out of these people, that we were somehow mocking them or gently satirizing it. I can’t do that, anyway, because I’ve become one of them — I fell down the rabbit hole as well. 

So you didn’t tell your subjects, “Okay, convince me that your story is right”?

No, I just said, “Look, I just want you to tell me your story.” A couple of them were a little resistant at first, but generally they want to tell their story. 

You’re not there to please the people in your film, but I do think in a documentary you have some sort of duty of care to the people in your film. Now, if I was making a film about Donald Trump at the moment, I wouldn’t worry too much about what he thought. [Laughs] But that’s a different kind of film. I got an email recently from Ron and Pat Forman, the friends of Barb, who saw the film. [Their email] was along the lines of, “Thank you for telling our story properly.” Essentially, “Thank you for not mocking us” is what they were saying in between the lines. 

I never wanted them to try and convince me. When there were bits [that didn’t add up] — “Hang on a minute…” — I’d ask them [about it], but I’m not trying to catch them out. That didn’t interest me. It’s boring. Nobody likes know-it-alls.

I’m assuming your subjects knew you’d be talking to other people who also believed they knew Cooper’s identity.

It’s a bit like having an affair — not that I’ve ever had an affair. [Laughs] I think with these things, as long as you’re upfront with people at the beginning, it’s always all right. I mean, it would have been much easier to say, “We want to tell your story and no one else’s. Yours is the most important story to us.” But I was always like, “We’re going to be telling others, and that’s what the film is. Ideally, one won’t get more weight than another.” We were honest about it. 

Did they feel competitive? Did they talk smack about the other theories? 

It happened a couple of times, but weirdly they didn’t talk smack. They were sort of respectful. [Laughs] Well, actually, apart from one moment where Jo… I don’t think there’s much love lost between Jo and Marla Cooper. Maybe that’s just an older woman talking down to the younger woman. 

But generally, they’re so wrapped up in their own stories that I don’t think they even really give the other ones [credence]. It’s like, “Well, mine’s obviously better than theirs.” Directors are a bit like that, aren’t they? “My film’s going to be better than that one” — I think it’s that kind of thing. 

But we did deliberately pick stories that weren’t out of the “Cooper vortex,” as it’s become known. We were careful in the selecting because — I won’t name the guy, but there was a guy in Long Island who came to us once he got wind of what we were doing. He was like, “Hey guys…” — it’s always a quite-tantalizing email — “…I know who it was.” He had this theory, which he reckoned he could prove, that it was the guy in Catch Me if You Can, which is obviously based on an actual character. He said, “If you give me $20,000, I will tell you that story.” Immediately, you fail the first test because, if you just want money, I’m questioning your level of belief and how seriously you take this. If you’re doing it just because you want to make some cash out of it, I’m not sure.

As a British filmmaker, was part of the appeal for you the very Americanness of this story? 

I’ve got an unashamed fascination with American stories, full stop. I love coming to America — I’m not so keen to go at the moment, but I love coming to America. I find it genuinely awesome — and not the current use of that word. There’s a sense of awe when I step out into bits of America. It’s a cliché, but some American stories just have that sense of scale and size and strangeness to them.

I made this film about Joe Frazier’s three fights with Muhammad Ali called Thrilla in Manila. It’s like, “Well, why are you doing that story?” I think it took an English guy to say, “Why do we never hear from that guy? I know all about the other guy, but what about that guy?” I think it’s having a slightly different take on an American subject. I mean, shit, man, I made a film about Britney Spears, for god’s sake.

But I think your interest in Cooper is something that makes sense to a lot of Americans, too. We can’t seem to get enough of these stories about outlaws and criminals.

You’ve got a great tradition — you guys love your outlaws. Without getting too historical, you’re a frontier country — your culture, you have that. We’ve grown up with this hierarchy of kings and queens — we’ve still got a bloody queen. We’re quite respectful of authority in some ways. About the biggest [outlaw] you get in our country is Robin Hood. We haven’t really had any others — that’s it, poor old Robin, and no one else. But you’ve got Bonnie and Clyde — you’ve got so many of them. You Americans love it. I guess you’re all outlaws anyway, aren’t you, to begin with? I mean, throw in a few Puritans, but otherwise…

It seems it goes back to the Revolutionary War. The narrative of America is this idea of breaking free. Whether or not that’s actually true, we’re very invested in that idea about ourselves.

Well, listen, I don’t want to get too political, but a review I got the other day seemed upset that I hadn’t mentioned Donald Trump [in the documentary] in respect to this idea that people will believe anything, which I thought was a bit fatuous. My Donald Trump comparison would be, “Well, Donald Trump’s one of these outlaw characters. He’s one of those saying, ‘I’m going to do it differently. Fuck those guys, I’ll drain the swamp.’” Obviously, the big irony with Trump is that he was never going to do any of those things, but people love the fact that he still won’t go [after losing the election]. They’re going to have to drag him out like Al Capone or whatever. It’s in your culture — and we love it. We get off on it sort of vicariously.

Did your subjects feel at all self-conscious about their theories? Or do they genuinely, genuinely believe?

They genuinely, genuinely believe. I was jealous at times — I, sadly, don’t really believe in much, apart from fine red wine and good malt whiskey. Not that I’m an alcoholic or anything [laughs], but my beliefs are pretty epicurean. Even when I was making a film about Scientology, I was a bit like, “God, sometimes I wish I had that level of belief. Life would be a lot easier when you get up in the morning.”

Sometimes people have a void in their life, and they fill it with a pet project. I thought about that while watching your subjects and wondered if there was a void for them.

Yes, although I’d start off by saying we all have a void in our life. I don’t want to get too existential about it, but we’re nothing until we make these choices and we become something. It’s filling out that void. We tell these stories for a reason. 

I think some of [my subjects’] stories are predicated on loss. I think Jo is still grieving [the loss of her husband]. I think Marla Cooper is grieving for a part of her lost childhood, which is tied in with not only the disappearance of this uncle but [also] her father. I think Ron and Pat just desperately miss Barb, who’s someone that came into their life and made them look at life differently, which is a great thing when it happens. 

Floyd McCoy, I think, is slightly different. Floyd McCoy was just one of those guys that didn’t give a shit. He’s like, “I’m going to fucking do this.” Floyd McCoy’s story is bonkers in that, after they arrested him [for his 1972 hijacking], he escaped, not once, but twice. This is a guy who managed to escape twice after being arrested for a crime that he may have committed twice. That guy’s batshit crazy, so that’s a slightly different one — that’s a more traditional sort of gung-ho action [story]. But if you dig into Floyd McCoy’s story, he got the Purple Heart in Vietnam — he missed that life. He had a loss: “Now I’m just a fucking regular guy. How can I reenact that excitement and adrenaline? I know what, I’ll hijack a 727 and jump out of it.” Even Jerry Thomas, [a civilian] who walks through the woods [in Washington looking for traces of Cooper], he’s trying to fill something. He’s another Vietnam veteran — I think he’s looking for not just Cooper’s parachute, but himself. I’m filling a void by making these bloody films.

What’s that void you’re filling?

Well, I guess I’m going to sound really pretentious, but a search for meaning. What does it all mean? This story makes me feel better — it comforts me, it reassures me, it explains things to me. In the film, I said to [author] Bruce [Smith, who wrote DB Cooper and the FBI: A Case of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking], “It feels like you’ve got a D.B. Cooper-shaped hole in your life.” And I was doing exactly the same thing.

Pat and Ron Forman

Do you think Cooper survived the jump?

Oh, I’ve always believed. If [some of the money] hadn’t been found eight years later — if it didn’t have that extra level to it — I’d have been slightly resistant. I’d have maybe even thought [this story] doesn’t have enough gears to get you to that extra bit of storytelling that you need in a feature doc. But because the money is found — and the circumstances the FBI work out that there’s no way it could have been there longer than a year — for me that just says, “This guy survived.” 

Also, you know what? Maybe I’m playing into the romanticism a little as well. I don’t want to believe that he died. Wouldn’t it be fucking boring if he did? Even the FBI agents involved in the case go, “Well, he could have died, but we actually think he survived.” It would be easier for them to say, “Oh yeah, he died, that’s why we didn’t find him.” 

The dramatic component of this crime narrative screams out for him to have lived and gotten away with it. If he died, it’s so unsatisfying. 

It’s much more romantic [for him to have gotten away with it], and don’t we all need a bit of romanticism in our lives now? A bit of escapism? Something sort of enjoyable? We’re assaulted on a daily basis with things that feel like they let us down. Let’s have something that we can believe in.

In the film, you mention how Cooper’s jump sparked something in Americans during a dark time in our country. While finishing the movie, did you feel like the story would resonate in another very dark time?

Well, actually, we did finish it pre-pandemic. This film was finished a year ago, so I don’t think there was any influence on that. There was part of me that just — I am drawn to these stories. 

I’m not going to be a director that wins many awards because I don’t make too many very serious films. And while we were making the film, we did have this debate: “Should we provide more social and cultural context?” I mean, I had one review — I don’t read my reviews… Obviously, I read all of them [laughs] — that said, “Oh, it needs more context in it.” At one point [in the edit], we had a sequence about this crisis of masculinity and the rise of feminism, but it started to feel a bit joyless. It sounded like we’re creating a thesis, and I’m like, “Let’s just enjoy the ride.” We could have made a socioeconomic political thesis, but we kicked all that out. I was just like, “Let’s just make it more of a Boys’ Own adventure.”

There is definitely a masculine, virile quality to this story. It’s about a dude jumping out of a plane and taking off with a bunch of money. 

You can see that particularly in Ron Forman when he’s telling his story: “This is great!” Everyone’s kind of like, “This is amazing!” I don’t want to downplay it for the aircrew — it must be absolutely fucking terrifying to be in that plane with the backdoor open and a potential bomb sitting there — but, otherwise, it has that caper quality to it. I think everyone responds to that.

The aircrew of the plane D.B. Cooper skyjacked

For the aircrew, they’ve lived with this story for nearly 50 years. I imagine it’s defined their lives in a way. Did they relish telling you about the airjacking?

No, not at all. In fact, they’ve avoided talking about it. [Co-pilot] Bill Rataczak and Tina, the main air hostess, did appear briefly on a sort of History Channel show two or three years ago. They were persuaded to — it was a very different film to ours, very sort of investigative, presenters, amateur sleuths, an evidence crime-scene restaged room. I think they’d been slightly put off by that experience. They were just shown a load of photographs: “Is it him? Is it him? Is it him?” So our opening pitch was, “We aren’t going to show you any photographs. We aren’t trying to get you to crack this. We want to hear your story about this.” I think they ultimately respected that. 

There’s a little bit of emotion that we keep in — particularly with the guys. Ironically, it’s the guys [in the aircrew] that tear up — not Tina, and she had to sit next to the [hijacker]! The guys tear up and get emotional.

That surprised me, too, how emotional the men got. Was it because they haven’t talked about it much, and all the memories and feelings suddenly came pouring out? 

For Bill, it was suddenly remembering that moment where Tina comes into the cockpit and he’s like, “Oh my God, she’s safe.” Then Andy [Harold Anderson], the second officer, he recollects when they get onto the plane that takes them away, and he’s recalling just that sense of relief — it must’ve been a pretty traumatic experience to go through. Jesus, I’ve been on flights with bad turbulence that I still wake up in the middle of the night and have flashbacks to. I imagine you’d have some PTSD from [being hijacked].

I also wonder if what’s appealing about Cooper’s story is that it’s pre-internet. We love seeing how primitive the technology used to be to catch criminals. 

Yeah, nostalgia goes a long, long way. It’s always easy to say it was a more innocent time — anytime feels more innocent to the bloody time we’re living in at the moment. But [back then] they didn’t have sophisticated [technology to find Cooper]. They co-opted the Boy Scouts to help them with searching the woods. Now, every man and woman would’ve got a drone up there — some member of the public would’ve seen him on one of the personal drones. 

Also, it’s so rare to get mystery anymore, isn’t it? Particularly in this internet age, where you can find out anything. But we can’t find out who this [was].

Are you prepared for how long you’re going to be hearing from random people with D.B. Cooper theories? 

That’s a good point. It was only recently that I came off of a Scientology newsletter that I used to get every day — and I finished that film four years ago. It was only in the last few months that I was like, “Okay, maybe I’m going to stop reading about this now.” 

That’s what obsessions are a bit like. I made a film about Greg LeMond’s Tour de France win. Then I made another cycling film. It doesn’t show in my physique necessarily, but I became obsessed with cycling. It’s one of the things I love about making documentaries — I have to live it, I need to read everything. I don’t want a researcher to do stuff for me and then go, “Okay, here are your questions.” I need to read all of the books — I enjoy the research. I love it that [one of my D.B. Cooper subjects] emails me and says, “I may have found a safety deposit box…” I’m like, “Really?!? Interesting….” I like the story still having a life after the film goes out.