In Search Of… S04E11 DB Cooper
The intro for this episode is very different from the usual In Search Of… into. There’s the usual quick cutting between images and even a re-enactment (of a parachute jump) but it’s all done in that driving, matter-of-fact style of true crime reporting – a quick walk rather than the show’s frequently ambling gait. Nimoy’s narration takes on a hard-edged, somewhat urgent tone as he gives a quick overview of the case of DB Cooper.
I don’t know much about the DB Cooper skyjacking, other that the name of the hijacker ‘DB Cooper’ was an alias, he was a robber rather than a terrorist, he was never captured, and got away with the then-princely sum of $US200 000. Is this episode going to be straightforward crime reporting or is are we going to discover that he was a Minoan agent of the Martians?
It certainly looks very straightforward to begin with. We mix stock footage of Portland International Airport with a re-enactment of Dan Cooper (his actual alias — DB Cooper is erroneous!) walking ominously through the terminal, carrying a bag. It’s quite nicely done. Nimoy keeps up the factual/slightly urgent tune and the re-enactment is pretty good. It’s well edited and the clever decision not to show the face of the actor playing Cooper lends an air of mystery.
Nimoy explains more – he’s wearing a slightly ill-fitting jacket and an open necked shirt which combine with his moustache to make him look like he could be playing a detective on a 1970s telemovie. He talks about how Cooper’s hijacking was copied by terrorists, which is interesting if correct. Nimoy denounces Cooper’s greed in a speech that seems to suggest Cooper’s moral inferiority to politically motivated skyjackers which is… interesting.
Anyhoo, Cooper showed an airline stewardess what looked like a bomb, and gave a note of demands. We talk to a couple who were on the plane during the hijacking. The husband said that he got a good look at the man on the way to the bathroom. This is intercut with shot of the interior and exterior of a plane while tense music plays. It works quite well.
We move onto a sequence about the parachutist who was tasked with getting Cooper the money and parachutes he asked for. Shot of an ENORMOUS 1970s typewriter with a $20 bill clipped to the front. The typist is recording all of the serial numbers. So cool!
The plane lands, and we go back to that couple from earlier. The wife talks about how organised Cooper was in the selection of the landing place. She’s very matter of fact (as was her husband) which works well with the serious tone of the episode.
The passengers were disembarked but the flight crew remained. This next bit is almost all stock footage, as Air Force fighters are scrambled. It mostly works, except some of the Air Force footage is clearly on much older filmstock than the rest.
The camera zooms in on a plane exit, illustrating Cooper’s jump from the plane. He jumped over stock footage of heavily forested hills… and the factual portion is over. The next half of the episode is trying to identify Cooper.
Shots of planes taking off and wonderful footage of FBI computers, which look exactly like 1970s FBI computers should look. These computers apparently suggested Cooper jumped near a particular dam, which should have been well lit up.
The sheriff of the county where this dam is talks in a very slow, laconic way about searching the area with aircraft. This is illustrated with footage of a helicopter flying over the area. It’s not very interesting, and Nimoy basically overrules the Sherriff (who thinks they would have found Cooper, were he there) by saying that Cooper could easily have avoided being spotted from the air. A survival expert goes walking through the woods, saying that someone with survival skills could walk through the woods. It’s quite hard to dispute this last point.
After the very well-done opening half, this episode has taken a turn for the boring. Next up is Nimoy talking about how Cooper could have passed through a particular town because everyone was in church for the wedding of the music teacher of the local high school.
Now tense music and a plane landing. Yes! Supposedly a light plane mysteriously rendezvoused with a boxy 1970s car in the week before the hijacking. Nimoy says that this is probably a furphy, but it does make for a few gripping minutes of TV.
We move onto another plane, this time piloted by the FBI agent who was still looking for Cooper when this episode was made. It’s not clear if he was being paid to do this by the FBI, or it had become a hobby by this point. Over some beautiful aerial footage of the Pacific Northwest, the agent shoots down the idea that Cooper was a brilliant and meticulous planner, instead painting a picture of a desperate man who took a chance. He says that we still don’t know anything about Cooper, though (based on his clothes) he possibly he worked in hospitality.
A skydiver suggests that Cooper’s shoes suggest that he was ex-military – oh! What lovely footage of a skydiver! In a jumpsuit with flared pants. Stay classy, 1970s! Nimoy takes this rather slim piece of evidence to suggest that Cooper may have been a military pilot in Vietnam, or at least a civilian pilot working for the army. In this capacity, he might have learned how to parachute and some survival skills. Well, maybe. I guess.
Footage of someone walking up a corridor, to introduce Dr David Hubbard, a psychiatrist who is supposedly an expert on the psychology of skyjackers.
Best! Speciality! Ever!
Hubbard, (who looks like he could be Detective Nimoy’s angry captain) claims that Cooper was probably a former pilot who was also a complete loser. He backs up the ‘Vietnam’ theory.
Detective Nimoy briefly brings up the possibility that Cooper simply died in the jump. Briefly. But then we go talk to a plaid-shirted woodsman hunting in the forest. People of North America, are you a plaid-shirted woodsman? Do you have an unusual story? Talk to In Search Of… They may or may not believe you, but they will always put you on television.
The hunter (who is clearly trying to tell a hunting story while an off screen producer gestures for him to stay on topic) says that he found the label from an airplane emergency-door handle. A re-enactment of finding the label backs up his claim. He didn’t connect the label to Cooper at first, but later handed it over to the sheriff’s department. The hunter believes that Cooper died and that his label is evidence of that — which is interesting given that Nimoy claimed it as evidence that Cooper lived.
Mugshot of a guy who was arrested on unrelated charges, briefly suspected to be Cooper, but exonerated. He doesn’t look much like the drawing of Cooper, so probably correctly exonerated. Over footage of a sunset through a plane window, Nimoy says that Cooper’s identity is still a mystery.
The FBI guy says that the FBI knows nothing but will find out because FBI, dammit. More footage of planes. Nimoy points out that none of the ransom money has ever turned up. Spooky music. End.
Okay I do a little quick research and like any high-profile unsolved crime there are literally dozens of theories about who ‘Cooper’ was. My personal favourite is that he changed his name and became Tommy Wiseau. But nothing has ever been proven, and would it be any fun if it had?
Anyway, a the idea that Cooper was a skilled parachutist has fallen into disrepute. This is important. The ‘skilled parachutist’ characteristic is necessary if we are to assume he survived, jumping in poor visibility with winds, low temperatures with little weather protection, over difficult terrain. However, among the things that establish a parachutist as ‘skilled’ are: an unwillingness to jump in poor visibility, in low temperature etc
In addition, when some of the ransom money was recovered in 1980, it showed signs of having been washed about in a river for a very long time, suggesting accidental abandonment consistent with, you know, death. The FBI kept the case open mostly out of pride, it being the only skyjacking case in the USA never to be solved. Probably, Cooper died, and his body and most of the money have never been recovered.
But that is what this show is about, isn’t it? That little gap between ‘probably’ and ‘definitely’. And here there’s room to think that Cooper just plain got away with it – that he’s out there somewhere, lying on a bed of marked bills that he can never use. But perhaps they’re good for his back, what do I know.
Tense, true crime story: 10/10, Intriguing story of investigation: 5/10, Nimoyness: 9/10, Music: 9/10, Airplane footage: 8/10. Overall: 41/50. Distinction.