The FBI Agent Who Has Tracked D.B. Cooper for Nine Years Retires, but the Frustrating Search Goes on

When 8-year-old Brian Ingram and his cousin Denise, 5, found a mysterious bundle in the sand along the Columbia River near Portland, Oreg. two weeks ago, it seemed for a moment that they had cracked a notorious mystery as well. The package contained the remains of several dozen $20 bills whose serial numbers were traceable to D.B. Cooper, the man who parachuted from a Northwest Orient 727 into a rainy November night nine years ago, never to be seen again. Until the money, no trace of the skyjacker had ever turned up; no parachute was found despite an intensive search; none of the $200,000 ransom had made it into circulation—and Cooper, the only uncaptured skyjacker in the U.S., had become a legend, arguably in his own time.

Ralph Himmelsbach does not count himself among the fans of folk hero D.B. Cooper, but he was probably happier than anyone to hear of the Ingrams’ discovery. “If Cooper is alive, he’s the only one in the world who knows more about this case than I do,” says Himmelsbach, the 54-year-old Portland FBI agent who was assigned to the case the day it began—and has since tracked hundreds of cold trails, interviewed scores of experts in meteorology and skydiving and even parachuted from a plane himself to experience what Cooper went through. As he retires from the bureau this week, Himmeisbach says the $20 bills constitute “the first tangible clue since this thing happened—I’d have been real disappointed if they had turned up after I retired.” He believes more than ever that the case will never be closed. “We’ll keep looking for Cooper,” he says. “But I can’t help thinking he’s dead.”

Minutes after Cooper’s plane left Portland for Seattle, he demanded ten thousand $20 bills, claiming to have a bomb in his briefcase. Himmeisbach sped to the Portland airport. The Northwest crew picked up the money in Seattle, then flew southeast. The FBI agent, a World War II fighter pilot, took up the chase in a National Guard helicopter. He lost the jet in heavy weather, but conditions that night convinced him Cooper could not have survived. The 727 was flying at 10,000 feet through freezing rain, wind gusts up to 70 mph and sub-zero temperatures. The ground below was rough and dangerous. “Expert parachutists have told me they wouldn’t have jumped out of that plane for anything,” Himmeisbach says. Cooper, dressed in a light business suit and raincoat, “should have had all kinds of equipment—a helmet, gloves, goggles, flight suit—but he didn’t and he didn’t ask for any. It’s almost certain that when he hit that air at 200 miles an hour he tumbled ass over teakettle. It would have blackened his eyes—like being hit with the stream from a fire hose—and he probably lost his shoes. He took two parachutes with him, but if he got them open at all, I’m sure he was hurting pretty bad when he got down.”

Though Himmeisbach holds out hope that one day a hiker in the wilderness may discover new evidence—either of Cooper’s death or escape—he thinks it’s more likely that nothing new will surface. “The money was identifiable,” he says, “but human bodies are much more biodegradable. If Cooper died, within a few months small animals would have taken care of his flesh and pretty much scattered his bones.” He thinks that logging crews now moving into the area may inadvertently destroy whatever traces of Cooper remain.

Himmeisbach is sorry to be retiring with the case unresolved. “We have a lot of suspects and leads still to check out,” he says. “And every November anniversary generates a new batch of them. Finding the money gave the investigation a real shot in the arm.” But he will not be caught up in the D.B. Cooper romance. “People keep trying to suggest that I’m obsessed, but that’s a lot of hokum,” he says. “It’s just another case to me.”

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