The true-crime mystery of “D.B. Cooper” is all on display for armchair sleuths and historians to view and ponder as they set out to solve the long-unsolved heist. Washington State History Museum’s latest exhibit, “COOPER,” steps back in time to study one of America’s iconic unsolved mysteries and its lasting aftermath. The exhibit includes never-before-seen artifacts, crime scene photos and displays, first-person accounts and FBI documents associated with the events of Nov. 24, 1971. On that day, a passenger known only as “Dan Cooper” boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland International Airport to Seattle. Early news reports would incorrectly name him “D.B. Cooper,” a name that stuck. He had a bomb and wanted cash. He got what he wanted and parachuted from the plane, sparking a search that continues to this day.
“Many, many, many pieces in the collection are from private collections,” said curator Gwen Perkins. “It really was a scavenger hunt.”
The exhibit chronicles that tale.
“The story of Cooper is a complex and fascinating one, with many political and cultural factors that played into the infamous skyjacking,” said Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society. “Through this exhibit and the accompanying programs, we hope to give people a 360-degree view of this single event and its enduring mystery and ramifications.”
The exhibit takes the “Cooper file” methodically and chronologically with displays of air travel during the 1970s, an age before security screeners, metal detectors and shoe removals. Passengers simply walked from the ticket counter to their seats on the planes. That all changed with the skyjacking. Despite an extensive manhunt for Cooper and an ongoing FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been located or positively identified. The case remains the only unsolved air piracy in American history.
A mockup of the Boeing 727 cabin and cockpit anchor the exhibit that includes piped-in audio of the actual dialog between the pilot and air traffic controllers during the heist. Cooper sits in the back row seat. The same model of the back staircase from where he jumped with a parachute and $250,000 in cash rests nearby.
The crime scene turned historical display fleshes out the room. Actual money from the skyjacking is there. Interviews with investigators and witnesses are there too, as is one of four parachutes Cooper was given. But so are artifacts from the pop culture industry that mushroomed up around the case, including a Skyjacking board game and comic books.
What visitors won’t find in the exhibit are answers. Only the skyjacker knows those since the crime is unsolved…for now.
“I think the potential is there for it to be solved. New information about the case comes up all the time,” said Perkins, noting the FBI made much of the case evidence and notes open to the public. “But I don’t know if I want it to be. There are so few mysteries left.”
To unveil the Dan Cooper exhibit, the museum will be hosting a members’ gala and preview on Friday, Aug. 23, and a grand opening public event on Saturday, Aug. 24.
The members’ gala will feature an evening of 70s-themed dancing, cocktails, and a sneak preview of the debut exhibit, which opens to the public the following day. Exhibit curators will lead behind-the-scene tours throughout the Saturday morning with Gary Young, a parachute expert and professional stuntman, holding a demonstration and discussion at 11 a.m. on what it's like to jump out of a Boeing 727 at night. At 2 p.m., citizen sleuth investigator Tom Kaye will present on his notorious search for Cooper.
The museum will also host an ongoing educational series on forensic science and history mysteries, interactive shows with a professional Cooper impersonator, and partner on the fall symposium featuring Geoffrey Gray, bestselling-author of “Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper.”
General admission is $9.50 for adults; $7 for seniors and students; free for children age 5 and below, and History Museum members are always free. Washington State History Museum is located at 1911 Pacific Ave. in downtown Tacoma. For more information, visit http://www.washingtonhistory.org.