On Nov. 24, 1971, a mystery man carrying $200,000 jumped out of a Northwest Orient 727 into a rainy night sky.
The man called himself Dan Cooper (a reporter’s misunderstanding changed it forever to D.B.). He had boarded the Portland-Seattle flight, claimed to have a bomb in his briefcase and demanded money and a parachute.
The initial manhunt proved futile, as did ceaseless efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yet Cooper can be found everywhere as folk hero, celebrated in songs and annual parties, in a 1981 movie starring Treat Williams, in numerous nonfiction books and at least one novel.
Geoffrey Gray opens his entry in the Cooper library, “Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper,” with tantalizing details about a private eye named Skipp Porteous, who thought he had a big break in the case a few years ago through a client who wanted to interest director Nora Ephron in making a movie about it. Gray goes on to describe how he, like so many over the past four decades, went from curious to obsessive in trying to nail down Cooper’s true identity.
Gray’s digging includes exclusive access to FBI files --“a morgue of dead-end leads, futile reports and bureaucratic bilge” -- and following tips like Porteous-Ephron. (A man who said he could I.D. Cooper wanted the director of “Sleepless in Seattle” to make a hijack movie, maybe called “The Bashful Man in Seattle.”)
Bay of Pigs
The writer will also encounter a link to James Earl Ray, a stewardess who becomes a nun, a connection to the Bay of Pigs, and a theory that “the vast majority of hijackers had effeminate mannerisms and homosexual urges.”
“I can’t remember what I am looking for,” Gray writes amid myriad frustrations. “The ghost of a closeted airline purser who lived with young boys and looked exactly like an FBI sketch that may not have looked like the hijacker at all?”
Gray learns that his prime suspect seemed about to confess on his death bed, and then didn’t: “’There’s something you should know, ... but I can’t tell you!’”
The private eye appears to have the goods, but “‘I can’t tell you’” Porteous says. Why, Gray asks. “‘I’m writing my own book.’”
So Gray writes his own book, and it’s a lot of fun, maybe the perfect beach read, full of intriguing facts and factoids, conspiracies and context, delivered at times with Elmore Leonard pace and punch, and with a reporter’s good intentions. The author wants after all to be first with a huge piece of news.
Gray Gets Around
So what happens 10 days before his book’s scheduled publication?
July 31: In a New York magazine blog, Gray comments skeptically on a report that the FBI has a new suspect.
Aug. 2: Leading the New York Times National section is a headline reading, “Forty Years Later, A Tip With Potential in a Famous Case.” It’s the new-suspect story. The paper provides an expert’s comment from one “Geoffrey Gray, a journalist who has contributed to The Times.”
Aug. 3: The Times website reports that a woman named Marla Cooper has told ABC News and CNN that her uncle was D.B. Cooper. The woman says she “is working on a book about her uncle.”
Aug. 6-7: The Review section of the Wall Street Journal’s weekend paper carries an article headlined “The Curse of D.B. Cooper” that sketches 4 decades of frustration in the hunt for Cooper. The peg is the FBI-Marla reports. The first sentence reads: “The fix is in.”
Aug. 7: The Times carries an opinion piece under the headline “A Mystery We Really Don’t Want to Solve.” The peg is the FBI-Marla reports. The first sentence reads: “The guy is dead.”
The author of those last two articles? One Geoffrey Gray, described both times as the author of “Skyjack.”
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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