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FBI Reopens Very Cold Case of D.B. Cooper

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The FBI is resuming the search for D.B. Cooper, the hijacker who 36 years ago bailed out of a jetliner with $200,000 and was never seen again.

Now the FBI is trying something new, asking the public to help them find Cooper, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE: Most people would consider a 1971 skyjacking as a matter of ancient history.

(Soundbite of archived news)

Unidentified Man: When he got on a plane in Portland, Oregon last night, he was just another passenger. But today, after hijacking a Northwest Airlines jet, ransoming the passengers in Seattle and making a getaway by parachute. The description on one wire service - master criminal.

KASTE: Even the media frenzy that the case inspired back then now seems dated. The folk songs, the 1981 movie and all those unsolved mystery TV shows.

(Soundbite of archived TV show)

Mr. LEONARD NIMOY (Actor): This is Leonard Nimoy. Join me for a perfect crime as we go in search of D.B. Cooper.

KASTE: But as far as the FBI is concerned, the D.B. Cooper case is more than just a historical curiosity.

Mr. LARRY CARR (FBI Agent, Seattle): It was never closed. It's always been open. It's always had a case agent assigned to it.

KASTE: That agent is now Larry Carr based in Seattle. He's well aware that he's the second generation on this case.

Mr. CARR: It's quite surreal here. Growing up a kid in Indiana, hearing about the case and giving it some thought at that point in time, and being 41 now and the lead investigator on the case. It's a little weird.

KASTE: Carr says the hijacking is no longer a priority for the FBI. It's not even very high on his own list. All he really has time to do is to try to publicize the case again, but this time he wants to share more of what the FBI knows.

Mr. CARR: If we want the public's help, they have to have the right information, and the right information isn't what's been circulating.

KASTE: For example, Carr wants to dispel the image of D.B. Cooper as some kind of master skydiver. The FBI, long ago, concluded that Cooper was no expert. He made too many amateurish mistakes. Carr also hopes that the publicity might attract some volunteers.

Mr. CARR: Perhaps someone who has a specific skill or access to new technologies - they get interested in the case.

KASTE: One clue for them to go for them to go on is the portion of the ransom money that was found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980. Carr thinks a hydrologist might be able to track it upstream, back to its source, and maybe to Cooper's remains.

Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI agent first assigned to the case is delighted with Carr's efforts.

Mr. RALPH HIMMELSBACH (Former FBI Agent): Good for him. Good for - I don't know him, but I'm rooting for him.

KASTE: Himmelsbach investigated the case for eight years and had followed him into retirement. He believes Cooper died during the jump, but he'd like to know for sure, especially because D.B. Cooper now seems to become a kind of folk hero for some people.

Mr. HIMMELSBACH: They say I hope he got away with it, but I look at it differently. I think he was just simply a sleazy, rotten criminal who was middle-aged, and his life had gone nowhere and he thought what a good idea and he might give it a try.

KASTE: Himmelsbach may be right that many people would rather not find out what happened. Special agent Carr says he's already getting e-mails from people begging him not to solve the mystery of D.B. Cooper.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

INSKEEP: You can find a link to the FBI's web page about D.B. Cooper at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.