History’s Greatest Mysteries

Why Eric Ulis is 98% sure he's worked out the true identity of D.B. Cooper

D. B. Cooper is the pseudonym of an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in United States airspace between Portland and Seattle on the afternoon of 24th November 1971. He extorted $200,000 in ransom money (equivalent to approximately $1,260,000 today) before parachuting to an uncertain fate, never to be seen again. It remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in commercial aviation history. What happened to D.B Cooper is one of History's Greatest Mysteries and will be investigated in episode 3 of the series, in The Final Hunt for D.B. Cooper.

The episode follows D.B. Cooper expert Eric Ulis, who has spent over 7,500 hours investigating the mystery in his ongoing quest to uncover the identity of the elusive hijacker. Ulis has interviewed witnesses, evaluated DNA and read over 20,000 pages of FBI files in his exhaustive attempts to prove what really happened to the infamous D.B. Cooper and reveal his true identity.

Speaking over Zoom, to Sky HISTORY, Ulis talked about his investigation and why he is 98% sure he is 98% sure he's worked out the true identity of D.B. Cooper

Sky HISTORY: What explains the enduring interest in D.B Cooper?

Eric Ulis: The fact that we're talking about this guy 50 years later, and we don't even officially know whether he even lived, is pretty remarkable.

I don't want to call it a victimless crime because the flight crew were keenly aware a skyjacking was taking place but having said nobody was physically harmed. The passengers didn't even know the jet had been hijacked until they walked off the jet at Seattle and were met by law enforcement.

The other component is just D.B. Cooper himself and how he handled and presented himself on the flight. He’s wearing a dark suit with a dark tie, drinking a bourbon. There’s this James Bond-esque feel to it and this coolness factor. All of that, ultimately has helped to shape the legend of D.B. Cooper and goes a long way towards explaining why from the very beginning, this guy was treated as sort of a cult hero, like an anti-hero here in the United States. Arguably, that myth has only grown in the last 50 years.

From your extensive research into the case, what type of man was D.B. Cooper?

I think he's a very intelligent individual, but there was something basic and fundamental that was off with the guy. After all, what individual would resort to hijacking a jet to steal $200,000 and then jump out the back of a plane 10,000 feet up, in the middle of the night, in blustery conditions? It was a risky operation. So, I do think that there was a character flaw but that flaw notwithstanding, I think he was a very intelligent man.

How has the hijacking remained unsolved till this day?

It comes down to a couple of things, clearly the FBI underestimated the guy. I can read that in the files, they just had the swagger about him like, ‘Yeah, we’ll catch D.B. Cooper, but let me have my coffee first’.

Part of it was fault of law enforcement but I would say the biggest reason he got away with it is that D.B. Cooper was just very competent, very thorough and his plan was solid. He had a brilliant plan and he followed it through, almost flawlessly. So that too played a big part in his ultimately being successful. When I talk about his plan and how he carried himself I'm also talking about the discipline displayed on the part of D.B. Cooper not to land and immediately run to the bar and tell his buddies about how he extorted $200,000 from Northwest Orient Airlines.

What errors do you think the FBI made in their initial investigation?

The single biggest area I believe they got wrong was the flight path which is slightly askew. It is not entirely clear how this thing was cobbled together, other than say that it was the US Air Force. Simply put, they were just looking in the wrong area where D.B. Cooper landed.

What is the significance of the $6000 from the ransom money that was discovered in 1980?

My belief is that D.B. Cooper's original plan was to jump on the exurbs of Seattle and to jump shortly after taking off. There are a couple of things that prevented him from doing that, so he ended up having to jump 150 miles down the road closer to the Vancouver/Portland area.

He ended up in an area where he didn't intend on being. As he walked back to civilization – and he couldn't very well walk into town carrying a 20-pound white canvas bank bag with $200,000 cash inside – I think he temporarily stashed it at the one place that makes sense, on a sandy beach. It would be relatively easy to scrape out a hole throw the cash in there and bury it and then come back to later time to retrieve it.

What makes you so sure, you have identified D.B. Cooper?

My investigation has been a lot of years in the making. It centred initially on looking at the evidence in great detail and establishing a profile for who I thought D.B. Cooper was. And then, ultimately, I went through the FBI files looking at all the suspects that the FBI looked at trying to see if any of their suspects matched my D.B. Cooper profile. The reason being that I've always felt that the real D.B. Cooper was probably somebody that the FBI had actually come across at some point in time, during their investigation. There is a very real possibility that the real guy is buried in that stack of 1200 suspects.

And so, following that blueprint and focusing on that one individual that we profile on this show, I felt very confident, I was on the right path with respect to this guy. I've said many times before that I felt that there's a 98% chance that this guy was D.B. Cooper, which by definition means that there's a 2% chance that he wouldn't be. One out of 50 times he's not going to be the guy, because I have never been able to find that smoking gun.

You’ve investigated one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history, are there any others that fascinate you?

D.B. Cooper's kind of unique. While, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines 370 and Amelia Earhart and some others are fascinating to some degree, for whatever reason, it just doesn't have the sizzle. It doesn't have the sex appeal.

I've said many times before that D.B. Cooper just started out as this guilty pleasure, this thing that I just enjoyed reading about, and then somehow it ended up being this big deal, where now I’m on this show. It really kind of is my only guilty pleasure, so nothing comes remotely close to the interest that I have in that case.