Forty years after parachuting into folklore, the mysterious skyjacker identified as D.B. Cooper may soon be identified.
"We do actually have a new suspect we're looking at," says FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandolo Dietrich in a story in the British newspaper, The Telegraph. "And it comes from a credible lead who came to our attention recently via a law enforcement colleague."
Cooper became an iconic American folk figure just before Thanksgiving in 1971, when he hijacked a Northwest Airlines flight from Portland to Seattle, demanded and received a $200,000 ransom, and jumped out of the plane with his loot near Ariel, Washington.
Some of the money was found in 1980 along the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon, but there's been no trace of Cooper since. A folk hero to some and common criminal to others, Cooper's stunt sparked wild speculation about his possible survival or death, and his identity. Several books have named people who seemed to fit Cooper's profile and several people claimed to be the legendary skyjacker. But the FBI has said the available evidence did not identify any of them as credible suspects.
The FBI has also said the investigation remains active. The new evidence comes four months before the 40th anniversary of the skyjacking, which helped prompt tighter airport security across the country.
Cooper claimed he had a bomb and held the crew and about three dozen passengers hostage. When the plane landed in Seattle, the FBI provided the $200,000 ransom and parachutes. Cooper sent the passengers off the plane.
The plane took off again and was headed for Mexico when Cooper lowered a rear stairway and jumped.
The hijacker left behind DNA and fingerprints on a magazine he handled during the hijacking, on a cigarette and on portions of the plane. Dietrich is not specific about the new piece of evidence but she told The Telegraph, "We're hoping there are fingerprints they can take off of it. It would be a significant lead," she continued, "And this is looking like our most promising one to date."
Telegraph reporter Alex Hannaford tried to get Dietrich to say whether the new suspect is still alive.
"Generally, the large majority of subjects we look into now are already deceased based on the timing of this," she responded.
Dietrich later cautioned the Seattle Times that the case "is not on the brink of a solution." But she again said, "We do have a promising lead" and "it is the most promising lead we have right now."
Dietrich did not immediately return NPR's request for additional comment.
Update at 11:55 a.m. ET. Fingerprints From Plane 'Virtually Useless':
Writer Geoffrey Gray is skeptical. Gray is about to publish the latest in a long string of D.B. Cooper books.
"The evidence the FBI uncovered on the plane, from my sources at least, has proven inconclusive for conclusive testing," Gray writes on his website for his book, Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper (read an excerpt). "During the three years that I reported on the Cooper case and was given exclusive access to FBI files... I learned through then case agent Larry Carr that the fingerprints uncovered on the plane that night were virtually useless."
Gray says that the real question posed by the FBI's "reveal," as he calls it, "is not whether the Bureau has a new suspect — thousands of names have come in before for testing, and names from law enforcement sources too. The real question is the condition of the physical evidence."
In an interview with NPR, Gray adds that the FBI's teasing statements add to "an irresistible maze. It is an irresistible chase. It's become an obsession for many — including me."
Update at 3:15 p.m. ET. FBI Says Case Is Not A Priority:
FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandolo Dietrich is now out of the office for two weeks but Special Agent Fred Gutt provided us with a few more details. The new suspect is dead, so no-one will be brought to justice, as he put it, if the new lead pans out.
The new evidence, he said, is fingerprints. Gutt acknowledges imperfections in fingerprints left on a magazine handled by the hijacker. Agents at an FBI lab will still seek a match but Gutt says the case is not a priority matter.
"It'll happen but when I don't know.," he said. "You know it'll certainly be below a current missing child case, a current terrorism investigation and many other things."
Update on Aug. 2 at 12:40 p.m. ET. More From The FBI:
We've rounded up new details from the FBI in a new post.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: A long-unsolved crime may soon be explained - at least, that's what an FBI spokeswoman indicated this weekend, tantalizing reporters with new information about the skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper. In 1971, he hijacked an airliner over Washington state, demanded a $200,000 ransom, then jumped out of the plane with the loot and a parachute. He hasn't been seen since. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, the FBI now claims to have a promising new lead.
HOWARD BERKES: D.B. Cooper was an uncommon criminal, sticking it to the man - in the lingo of the times - by skyjacking an airliner full of people; claiming he had a bomb; and convincing the FBI to give him 10,000, $20 bills and four parachutes if he let the passengers go. The exchange was made when the plane reached Seattle, and it then took off for Mexico. Cooper jumped out over Ariel, Washington. Some of the money was found, wet and torn, but there's been no sign of Cooper. Dona Elliott runs the general store in Ariel.
DONA ELLIOTT: Let's see, I've been here 21 years and if I had been smart enough I should have started a book, taken pictures of D.B. Cooper could-bes, for look-a-like. And I'd say there's probably been at least 20 or more.
BERKES: The FBI had a thousand leads and some identifying evidence, including cigarette butts, fingerprints and saliva. So imagine the excitement in Cooper Country this weekend when an FBI spokeswoman told a reporter for the British paper The Telegraph that there's a fresh lead. She called it credible and promising. And it points to a new suspect never considered before. The spokeswoman did not provide details. Dona Elliott is skeptical because, as she puts it:
ELLIOTT: I mean, the government's pulled so many stinkies on us ,it could just be another one. I mean, they are - FBI's government.
BERKES: Well, there is someone who is taking a good-faith look at this new lead, and trying to find out as much as he can about it. Geoffrey Gray is about to publish "Skyjacker: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper," which follows three years of what Gray calls obsession with the case.
GEOFFREY GRAY: The forensic evidence that they have to use is incomplete. The fingerprints themselves are partial. The DNA strains that they have - and have retrieved from saliva found on the hijacker's clip-on tie - are also partial and may not even be the hijacker's.
BERKES: So Gray was not impressed when the FBI spokeswoman said agents have and are testing an item from their new suspect, and that the source of the item is a reliable law-enforcement colleague. Today, Special Agent Fred Gutt provided a few more details. The new suspect is dead, he says, so no one will be brought to justice, as he put it, if the new lead pans out. And the new evidence is fingerprints. Gutt acknowledges imperfections in the hijacker's prints. Agents at an FBI lab will still seek a match, but Gutt says the case is not a priority matter.
FRED GUTT: It'll happen but when, I don't know. You know, it'll certainly be below a current missing child case, a current terrorism investigation, and many other things.
BERKES: So it's not clear whether D.B. Cooper will be identified before the 40th anniversary of the skyjacking, on our next Thanksgiving eve. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "D.B. COOPER")
TODD SNIDER: (Singing) Now, some people say that he died up there, somewhere in the rain and the wind. Other people say that he got away but then his girlfriend did him in. The lawman say if he is out there, someday they're going to bring him in. As for me, I hope they never see D.B. Cooper again... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.