Fans of modern American folklore may be familiar with the story of The Hijacker Who Vanished: The Mystery of DB Cooper (BBC Four), but even those who are not should relish this authoritative opportunity to pull up a seat and get out the popcorn. In November 1971, a passenger plane took off from Portland airport for a short flight to nearby Seattle. However, it was hijacked by a man who claimed to have a bomb in his suitcase. He quietly demanded $200,000 in ransom money. The plane landed, his unsuspecting fellow passengers disembarked, the cash was handed over, the flight took off again, and then DB Cooper parachuted out, at night and in bad weather, over difficult Oregon terrain. No trace of him was ever found. It remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in US history.
This wonderfully entertaining Storyville film goes some way towards finding a convincing account of who DB Cooper might have been. Writer/director John Dower talks to friends, family and acquaintances of different people who may have been the culprit. His interviewees claim to have known plans, heard confessions or seen documents that point the finger at the person they knew.
Jo Weber, the biggest character in a documentary filled with them, believes her late husband Duane was DB Cooper. “‘I’m Dan Cooper.’ Those were his last words. Except, ‘I love you,’” she tells Dower, as she leans back on her sofa, feet up, sipping from a coffee flask. Her husband died in the 1990s, and she has since attempted to piece together the puzzles of the complex life he left behind. She discovered fake IDs, a spell in prison, a tax return that suggests a windfall from around the time of the hijacking and a magazine in a secure lockbox featuring an article about Cooper. He seemed to know Oregon, where the hijacker left the plane, and offers a plausible solution to the mystery of how $3,000 of the ransom money ended up being discovered buried on the banks of the Columbia River, some distance from the assumed landing area.
The problem is that there are a lot of plausible explanations here, and not all can be true. Jerry Thomas, an amateur sleuth who has been gripped by the story since 1988, when he began searching the wilderness for a parachute, is convinced that DB Cooper didn’t make it alive. Marla Cooper believes her uncle, LD was the culprit. There is a theory that Richard Floyd McCoy Jr, who hijacked a plane for ransom a year later, was repeating his earlier crime, having somehow dropped the money on the way down the first time around. Most intriguingly, there is a theory that might have been ripped straight from a pulp fiction novel, such is its drama and intrigue. A likable couple called Pat and Ron Forman recall befriending a woman they met on an airfield, Barbara Dayton, who eventually told them she was transgender. Ron describes her as “a great pilot, very daring”. Eventually, the pair started to suspect that Barb bore some similarity to the mysterious Cooper.
The FBI lost a lot of crucial evidence in the early days, and eventually closed the case in 2016, but it lives on in the public imagination. As well as spending time with the characters involved in the main story – interviews with Tina Mucklow, the stewardess who sat with Cooper as he revealed the bomb in his case, and co-pilot William Rataczak, still moved by their own survival, are oddly touching – and the offshoot myths, Weber does a great job of exploring why this narrative is so fascinating. Obviously, it’s the mystery, which everyone is desperate to solve. But it is also the daring and the gumption, the sense of great adventure and defiance. Against a bleak economic backdrop in the region during the early 1970s, Cooper symbolised someone who stuck it to the man. Vox pop interview footage from the time shows that people were rooting for him to have succeeded, despite the criminality.
The Hijacker Who Vanished has a Twin Peaks feel, from the music to the scenery and quirks of character. When Dower notes that Marla Cooper’s home is Twin Peaks-esque, it is not accidental. As much as this gripping documentary is about the mysterious DB Cooper, it is about human nature, too. These brilliant characters, some deeply entangled in the story, some distant from it but connected, are believers. This film asks what keeps them believing, and it is a far bigger question than the mystery itself.