Author Geoffrey Gray on Why the Nation Loves D.B. Cooper, the Danger of the "Cooper Curse," and Why the Latest Lead Is "Bullshit"

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Geoffrey Gray.
Earlier this week the FBI announced that it had received its "most promising lead to date" in the 40-year-old hunt for D.B. Cooper, the mastermind behind the nation's only unsolved commercial-airplane hijacking. Since then, the country has once again been infected with "Coopermania" as media nationwide have fawned over a potential answer to the mystery.

Coincidentally, investigative journalist and New York Magazine contributor Geoffrey Gray had been awaiting the Aug. 9 release of his exhaustively reported new book SKYJACK: The Hunt for D.B Cooper when news of the new lead broke. Needless to say, the timing of Gray's book has been significantly improved.

Seattle Weekly caught up with the author and asked him about his four years of research into the D.B Cooper case, the new lead, and why the country can't help but be fascinated by this mysterious criminal.

Seattle Weekly: What makes the D.B. Cooper case so compelling?

Geoffrey Gray: The mystery of Cooper is really not as compelling as it is compulsive. It's a story that's impossible not to be seduced by. One of the reasons it's so entrapping and dangerous is once you get into Cooperland, there's so many mysteries within the mystery itself.

How did you get involved with looking into the case?

I was so starving for lunch one day that I couldn't even think. I got a call from a friend, a private investigator, he said "I've got something for you."

So we met for lunch. He told me about Lyle Christiansen, who suspected his brother Kenny was D.B. I'd never heard of D.B. before. I was too young--was born too late.

At first I was fascinated, I mean the hijacking is impossible to look away from. But what interested me from a storytelling perspective was these two brothers: Lyle Christiansen himself who's this quirky, retired postal worker/inventor who lived in the middle of Minnesota, who suspects his brother is the hijacker.

I was interested in that phenomenon. Why is it that so many people are turning each other in?

In looking for Kenneth Christiansen, I started finding more Kenneth Christiansens. It was weird because I didn't think there was anyone on the planet who could have a better connection to D.B. Cooper than Kenneth Christiansen.

Why would people do that--turn in their loved ones and relatives?

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D.B. Cooper sketches.
When the FBI released that [composite sketch], everyone put that sketch against their own fears, their own thoughts, their own suspicions.

It's no accident that there's a thousand suspects.

What do these informants want?

In a way it's an elephant hunt. So to he or she who uncovers the truth go the spoils--though I don't know that the spoils are what people think they are.

I think to truly understand this case it's essential to understand Seattle. Seattle is a crucial character in the case. This was back when someone put up the sign of "last person out, put out the lights," when some of the most talented Boeing engineers were trying to find jobs mowing lawns. Homeless shelters were filled, drugs were everywhere.

The nation was becoming a lot more efficient. Corporations became more efficient. People had used to think of themselves as individuals. As technology became more advanced, people became alienated.

The Cooper hijack defied all that. How was one guy able to outdo the system? How was he able to do what we all secretly want to do in our lives, but don't have the guts to do? To break free; be free; have guts.

What do you think about Marla Cooper and Uncle L.D., the FBI's new "most promising lead"?

We now know that a lot of that story is kind of bullshit. There is the idea that the FBI said she wasn't seeking publicity. But now she's writing a book and went on ABC News.

But let's talk about the lead and the suspect. What we now know is a retired police officer called and introduced police to a suspect that overheard him confess when she was 8 years old. And even though [Marla Cooper] said she rediscovered the memories after talking with her parents, she said she didn't believe her father sometimes because he was a conspiracy theorist.

In a case this big, with the stakes so high, that kind of evidence doesn't cut it. The Cooper files is littered with better suspects and better evidence than that.

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L.D. Cooper.
Is there anything that's compelling about the new lead?

What's compelling about uncle L.D., from an evidentiary point of view, well, I like the photo. I think there's some stuff there. But it's only one photo.

If you were to ask me what's interesting about this right now, to me, it's Coopermania. Right now, despite the serious lack of evidence, people want to believe in L.D. I want to believe in L.D.

Why now then? Why are people so amped on the case, if the lead is weak?

What's going on in the moment right now is very similar to what's going on in 1971. In 1971 people were paranoid from wiretapping, everyone's wiretapping everyone. Now the technology is increasing on the web, people are worried they're being spied on on the web. The economy sucks. People are really anxious.

We need heroes. People who will stand up. People who can do all the things we want to do but can't.

What's the most interesting thing you found out about who D.B. Cooper was as a person?

I don't want to say it's the most interesting. But here's something: The hijacker goes through all this effort; he's got his sunglasses, clip-on tie, fake leather briefcase, the note, he's got it all planned out, it's his show. And everything more or less goes as planned. They comply, the FBI doesn't raid, and instead his parachute and cash is brought to him.

But when he actually gets the money, the stewardesses report in the file, his whole mood changed. He got really giddy, almost like he didn't think he could pull it off. And for the first time, he broke character. He took a look at the money, grabbed a stack of $20 bills and and offered the money to stewardesses. One stewardess later reported that he was "acting childish."

What does that mean? You know? Did he not plan to get the money?

So who did it? Who's D.B. Cooper?

It's tough to say. In investigating this story, I came to this point on my own hunt where I thought four people were D.B. Cooper.

But this is the story about why and how, not who.

Finally, tell me about the Cooper Curse, the plague that haunts people who look too deep into the case.

Well, I don't want to give too much away. Just beware. I think the clues in the book will help people understand the curse. But it's a curse, so there's nothing you can do to avoid it.

Has the curse ever gotten you?

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My house just burned down a few weeks ago. Really. It was a defective refrigerator--a recalled item. So I don't know if it was the curse. But still.

Geoffrey Gray is the author of SKYJACK: The Hunt for D. B. Cooper, which comes out on Aug. 9. Get it here. He will appear at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 366-3333) at 7 p.m. Tues., Aug 16.

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