D.B. Cooper: Mystery Man, Astonishing Hijacking for Money

John Dillinger, whose fantastic escapes I profiled last week, has earned himself a place in the pantheon of American folk icons. Likewise, the subject of this week’s case has attained near-mythical status. I’m talking about the legendary hijacker, D.B. Cooper.

D.B. Cooper in the Age of Skyjacking

The 1960s and 1970s were, as writer Brendan Koerner put it in The Skies Belong to Us, the “golden age of hijacking.” In the four years between 1968 and 1972, hijackers commandeered more than 130 flights. Motives ranged from political (“Take me to Havana”) to demands for money. Airlines in this period either complied outright or tried negotiating with the hijackers.

D.B. Cooper emerged from this air piracy melee. On November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, a man approached the Northwest Orient Airlines counter at the airport in Portland, Oregon. Witnesses recall him having dark hair and brown eyes, wearing a black or brown business suit, and carrying a black attaché case. He paid cash for a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a thirty-minute trip to Seattle’s Seattle-Tacoma airport. He gave his name as Dan Cooper (a reporter’s error changed “Dan Cooper” to “D.B. Cooper”).

Early FBI composite sketch of "Dan Cooper" (FBI, November 1971)
Early FBI composite sketch of “Dan Cooper” (FBI, November 1971)

On board the Boeing 727, Cooper sat in seat 18-E in the last row and ordered a bourbon and 7-Up.

Color composite sketch of D.B. Cooper (FBI)
Color composite sketch of D.B. Cooper (FBI)

D.B. Cooper Hijacks Flight 305

Flight 305 took off on time at 2:50 p.m. PST. Once it was in the air, Cooper handed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner. Thinking he was making a pass, Schaffner dropped the note in her purse without opening it. The man leaned toward her and whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

Ms. Schaffner did as the hijacker requested. She asked him to show her the bomb, and he opened the attaché case. The contents of the case looked like a bomb. Of course, there was no way she could tell if it was real.

A Boeing 727 in the livery of Northwest Orient Airlines (Clint Groves)
A Boeing 727 in the livery of Northwest Orient Airlines (Clint Groves)

Cooper told her he wanted: $200,000 in negotiable American currency, two front parachutes, and two back parachutes.

Captain William A. Scott told passengers that a “minor mechanical difficulty” would delay their arrival in Seattle. The plane circled Puget Sound for almost two hours while police and the FBI mobilized and prepared to meet Cooper’s demands.

D.B. Cooper Parachutes into American Legend

Flight 305 landed at SEATAC at 5:24 p.m. and parked in an area away from the terminal. Flight attendant Tina Mucklow retrieved the ransom money, after which Cooper allowed the passengers to deplane.

Cooper gave explicit instructions to the cockpit crew. He wanted a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft—approximately 100 knots (115 mph). The plane, he said, should fly no higher than 10,000 feet. Cooper also specified that the landing gear must remain deployed, the wing flaps lowered 15 degrees and the cabin unpressurized. Captain Scott told the hijacker that under those conditions, he would have to refuel before reaching Mexico City. They agreed on Reno, Nevada, as the fueling stop.

FBI sketch of D.B. Cooper from late 1972 (FBI)
FBI sketch of D.B. Cooper from late 1972 (FBI)

Problems with the refueling process delayed matters, and Cooper became impatient. But at 7:40 p.m., the plane took off again. Cooper wanted flight attendant Mucklow to lower the rear stairway. When she resisted, fearful of being sucked out of the plane, Cooper said he’d lower it himself.

Boeing 727 with the aft airstair open taken in Bozeman, Montana, in 1974 (R.W. Rynerson)
Boeing 727 with the aft airstair open taken in Bozeman, Montana, in 1974 (R.W. Rynerson)

Around 8:00 p.m., a warning light lit up in the cockpit, indicating someone had deployed the after staircase. At 8:13, the aircraft’s tail pitched up suddenly, forcing the pilots to trim the plane.

The crew of Flight 305 after landing at Reno: (L to R) Captain William Scott, copilot Bill Rataczak, flight attendant Tina Mucklow, and flight engineer Harold Anderson (Washington State Historical Society)
The crew of Flight 305 after landing at Reno: (L to R) Captain William Scott, copilot Bill Rataczak, flight attendant Tina Mucklow, and flight engineer Harold Anderson (Washington State Historical Society)

No Hijacker Aboard

At 11:02 p.m., the aircraft landed at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. A cadre of law enforcement surrounded the plane but didn’t approach. Captain Scott searched the cabin and found no sign of Cooper. A thirty-minute search by an FBI bomb squad determined that neither the hijacker nor his purported bomb was aboard.

FBI wanted poster for the hijacker
FBI wanted poster for the hijacker

The FBI launched a massive investigation. The physical evidence gathered included fingerprints, Cooper’s clip-on necktie, hair samples, and cigarette butts. But the FBI was unable to match the fingerprints to any suspect. And it was decades before DNA testing could have yielded results from the hairs or cigarette butts that would help the investigation. D.B. Cooper had vanished into the November night.

Did. D.B. Cooper Survive?

From the beginning, the FBI doubted Cooper survived the jump. Several factors led to this conclusion. First, although he had some knowledge of parachutes, Cooper did not appear to have much experience with them. Second, he didn’t have the equipment to survive in a remote area under inclement weather. Finally and perhaps most persuasive, no one ever spent the ransom money.

Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however. Three copycat hijackers, Martin McNally, Frederick Hahneman, and Richard LaPoint, did survive jumps in conditions similar to what Cooper faced. So, maybe D.B. Cooper did make it after all.

Epilogue

The FBI developed more than a dozen suspects but could not positively connect any of them to the hijacking of Flight 305.

In 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram found three packets of the Cooper ransom money totaling approximately $5,800 along the banks of the Columbia River. It was the only portion of the money ever recovered.

Part of the ransom money recovered from the banks of the Columbia River in 1980
Part of the ransom money recovered from the banks of the Columbia River in 1980

On July 8, 2016, the FBI announced it had suspended the active investigation of the Cooper case. Sources cited the need to focus investigative resources and manpower on higher and more urgent priority issues.

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Camp Scott: Odd Murder at a Girl Scout Camp

Our previous case dealt with Ruth Ellis, a young English woman who killed her playboy lover in 1955. Sentenced to death, she refused to appeal her conviction or her sentence. She became the last woman to be hanged in England. Her case gave impetus to the movement to abolish the death penalty in the UK. This week, we return to the United States and the heart of America, to Camp Scott in Locust Grove, Oklahoma. There in the summer of 1977, three girls ages 8, 9, and 10 were brutally slain at a Girl Scout Camp. The case ignited tremendous public interest but officially remains unsolved.

Camp Scott, Oklahoma

When someone mentions Girl Scouts, it’s likely to conjure up wholesome images of young girls in green uniforms peddling cookies. Or you may think of girls sitting around a campfire singing songs while they toast marshmallows. Summer camps have been part of the scouting life since Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in 1912. In northeastern Oklahoma, camping meant one of two camps in near Locust Grove, east of Tulsa. Camp Garland, a Boy Scout camp was the easternmost of the two. Camp Scott, the westernmost of the two, was where the Girl Scouts camped.

Happier times at Camp Scott near Locust Grove, Oklahoma
Happier times at Camp Scott near Locust Grove, Oklahoma

Camp Scott took its name from H.J. “Scotty” and Florence Scott, two volunteers with the Tulsa Boy and Girl Scouts. In 1924, the Scotts donated 24 acres of land that would be the core of Camp Scott. Over the years, the Magic Empire Council of Girl Scouts used the proceeds from cookie sales and other funds to buy additional land. By the summer of 1977, Camp Scott consisted of 410 heavily wooded acres.

Trail sign at Camp Scott
Trail sign at Camp Scott

Camp Scott had ten camp units, each named after a Native American tribe. Besides the campsites, there were several buildings for offices and gatherings. There was also a health center and a cabin where the camp ranger lived with his family.

June 1977 at Camp Scott

On Sunday, June 12, 1977, about 140 girls arrived at Camp Scott for the first day of their two-week summer camp. At the Kiowa unit, counselors assigned girls to their tents. They put three girls in Tent #7: Lori Lee Farmer, Michelle Guse (goo-SAY), and Doris Denise Milner. None of the girls, ages 8, 9, and 10 respectively, knew each other previously, but they quickly became friends.

Lori Lee Farmer, 8, was the youngest of the three girls in Tent #7. She wrote her family just before going to bed on June 12 that she was having a lot of fun.
Lori Lee Farmer, 8, was the youngest of the three girls in Tent #7. She wrote her family just before going to bed on June 12 that she was having a lot of fun.

(Note: there is some confusion over the numbering of the tents. The Girl Scouts numbered the campers’ tents 1 through 7, not counting the counselors’ tent. This put the three girls in Tent #7. Subsequent police reports did count the counselors’ tent, placing the three in Tent #8.)

Michelle Heather Guse was an excellent student with a lot of friends. She wrote a letter to her Aunt Karen the night of June 12.
Michelle Heather Guse was an excellent student with a lot of friends. She wrote a letter to her Aunt Karen the night of June 12.

At roughly 5:45 p.m. on June 12, the campers sat down to dinner in the Great Hall. After the meal, campers and staff moved the Great Hall’s front porch. Counselor Dee Ann Elder led the group in camp songs until it started storming and raining heavily. Counselors then dismissed the girls back to their campsites.

Doris Denise Milner was the oldest girl in Tent #7. She wrote her mother that she didn't like camp, a letter that was never mailed.
Doris Denise Milner was the oldest girl in Tent #7. She wrote her mother that she didn’t like camp, a letter that was never mailed.

At the Kiowa unit, Dee made sure the campers got their tents and changed into dry clothes. She then secured all the tent flaps to keep the rain out. Around 10:00 p.m., she checked on each tent again, making sure the campers were okay and that they had enough blankets.

At 1:30 a.m., the counselors heard the latrine door slam. Counselor Carla Wilhite left the counselors’ tent to escort the noisy campers back to their own tent.

Horrible Murders at Camp Scott

Carla Wilhite’s windup alarm clock rang at 6:00 a.m. in June 13. The alarm also woke Dee Elder, but she decided to stay in bed. Counselor Susan Emery apparently slept through the alarm. Carla got up and headed to the staff house to take a hot shower. She returned moments later, yelling that the counselors needed to count the kids. Carla said that she’d seen something in the road, and they needed to check on the children. Dee ran to Tent #7 while Carla and Susan bolted to Tent #1. They would meet in the middle at Tent #4.

Carla Wilhite, counselor at Camp Scott
Carla Wilhite, counselor at Camp Scott

Tent #7 was empty. Dee called out to the other counselors. Carla and Susan converged on Tent #7. They noticed that the sleeping bags and mattress covers were missing from the cots and there was what appeared to be a large amount of blood on the floor. Checking the other tents, they determined that three campers were missing.

The ill-fated Tent #7 in the Kiowa unit of Camp Scott (photo taken in 1971)
The ill-fated Tent #7 in the Kiowa unit of Camp Scott (photo taken in 1971)

Then Susan saw a dead child lying on the ground. Dee told Susan to stay at Kiowa while she jumped in her car and drove to the Staff House to get help. With reinforcements arriving and the police on the way, Dee came up with a plan to get the campers out of the area using a back road. Later, the entire camp was evacuated, and the campers sent home on buses.

The body Susan had seen was that of Denise Milner. She was partially clothed and lying on top of her sleeping bag. Soon, the bodies of Michelle Guse and Lori Farmer were discovered nearby, zipped up in their sleeping bags. All three girls had been sexually assaulted in some manner. Autopsies conducted later on June 13 determined the Lori and Michelle had been bludgeoned to death while Denise had been strangled.

A Suspect and a Trial

Police quickly focused on Gene Leroy Hart as a suspect. Hart was a convicted felon. He was also a fugitive. While serving time for kidnapping, burglary, and rape, he managed to escape from the Mayes County Jail. He remained at large for four years, aided, authorities suspected, by the Cherokee community in the area (Hart was a member of the Cherokee Nation).

Gene Leroy Hart, the only person arrested or tried for the Camp Scott murders
Gene Leroy Hart, the only person arrested or tried for the Camp Scott murders

Arrested and charged with three counts of murder, Hart’s future looked bleak. But his attorney, Garvin Isaacs, himself a Native American, mounted a spirited defense. Despite what seemed like a formidable array of evidence against Hart, Issacs won an acquittal for his client.

DNA testing could have nailed or exonerated Hart, but it wasn’t available in 1977. As DNA testing emerged and matured, authorities made several attempts to test samples from the Camp Scott murders. None of these tests were conclusive and, over time, the samples degraded to the point where further testing is not possible.

Epilogue

Mayes County Sheriff Glen H. “Pete” Weaver insisted until his death that Hart was the man responsible for the Camp Scott murders. Subsequent sheriffs investigated new angles, some of which indicated the involvement of more than one person. But the case officially remains unsolved.

Gene Hart meets the press
Gene Hart meets the press

The parents of the three girls sued the Magic Empire Council of Girl Scouts and their insurer for $5 million in 1985, citing negligence. The plaintiffs presented considerable evidence that the design of Camp Scott introduced many security risks. Furthermore, camp directors and the Magic Empire Council were aware of several disturbing incidents at the camp prior to June 13, 1977. Inexplicably, the jury voted 9-3 in favor of the Magic Empire Council, a verdict upheld on appeal.

The Girl Scouts evacuated Camp Scott after the discovery of the three bodies. It never reopened.

Although acquitted of murdering the three Girl Scouts, Gene Leroy Hart returned to prison. He owed the State of Oklahoma 308 years for his previous sentences. On June 4, 1979, four days after his acquittal Hart dropped dead of a heart attack at age 35. He maintained his innocence in the Camp Scott case.

The Camp Scott murders inspired several books and documentaries. Someone Cry for the Children was the first book about the case, published in 1981. That was also the title of a later documentary film. The Camp Scott Murders includes a detailed timeline and excerpts from Gene Hart’s preliminary hearing. Gloyd McCoy’s Tent Number 8 purports to contain insight into the case that can’t be found anywhere else.

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UpStairs Lounge: Big Arson Fire Kills 32 People

My last blog dealt with the case of Timothy McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City Bomber. This week’s case is also horrifying but has had much less publicity. It’s the case of the arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

UpStairs Lounge

It was 1974. Only four years earlier, in June 1969, the so-called “Stonewall Riots” first brought public attention to the issue of gay rights. Not a great deal of progress had been made in those four years. Yet many in the LGBTQIA+ community no longer hid their sexual orientation.

It was this community that the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) served. Founded in 1968 in Los Angeles, MCC was a pro-LGBTQIA+ protestant denomination. For a while in New Orleans, the MCC met in the theater of the UpStairs Lounge. The UpStairs Lounge itself was a gay bar. It occupied the second floor of an historic three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iverville Streets.

Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire
Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire

UpStairs Lounge in Flames

Sunday, June 24, 1973, marked the end of nationwide Pride celebrations that were glaringly lacking in the Big Easy. That evening, the UpStairs Lounge held its usual “beer bust” between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Many MCC members were in attendance. After 7:00, the crowed thinned a bit but there were still between sixty and ninety customers in the lounge. They talked and listened to pianist George Steven “Bud” Matyi perform.

At 7:56, the downstairs door buzzer sounded. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to answer the door. When Boggs opened the door, he found the front staircase in flames. He also noticed the strong smell of lighter fluid.

The UpStairs Lounge burns
The UpStairs Lounge burns

A backdraft caused the fire to spread quickly. Bartender Rasmussen immediately led about twenty people to the roof, where they could access an adjacent building and climb down. Boggs tried to escape thorough one of the floor-to-ceiling windows but was severely burned in the process. He died on July 10, sixteen days later.

Aftermath of the fire
Aftermath of the fire

Firefighters from a nearby fire station found it difficult to reach the club as cars and pedestrians blocked their way. One engine tried to use the sidewalk but ended up colliding with a taxicab. When the fire department did manage to arrive on the scene, they quickly brought the blaze under control. It had been only sixteen minutes since Boggs first spotted the flames.

Epilogue

Thirty-two people died the UpStairs Lounge fire and eighteen suffered injuries. Police questioned a suspect, Roger Dale Nunez, but never developed enough evidence to charge him. Nunez, a gay man with a history of mental health issues, had been ejected from the club for fighting earlier in the evening. Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.

Firefighters attend to the injured
Firefighters attend to the injured

Local news outlets gave the fire prominent coverage but soft-pedaled the fact that LGBTQIA+ patrons comprised most of the victims. Editorials and right-wing talk show hosts made light of the tragedy.

The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)
The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)

You can read more about the UpStairs Lounge tragedy in Tinderbox by Robert W. Fieseler or The Up Stairs Lounge Arson by Clayton Delery-Edwards.

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Tera Smith: Strange Case of a Lost Teen Girl

From last week’s case of a bizarre murder-for-hire, we turn our attention this week to a missing persons case. As heartbreaking as homicide is, an unsolved disappearance, with its lack of closure, can sometimes be worse. Such was the case of Tera Smith, a California teen who vanished over two decades ago.

Tera Smith

In 1998, Tera Lynn Smith was a 16-year-old high school student from Redding, California. She made good grades and had a lot of friends. She worked at the Oasis Fun Center, the business near their home that her parents owned and ran. In all respects, she was a typical teenager. But, like many teens, Tera also had a rebellious streak.

Tera Lynn Smith (Shasta County Sheriff's Office)
Tera Lynn Smith (Shasta County Sheriff’s Office)

August 22, 1998 was the last Saturday before the school year started. Tera was due to work at the Oasis Fun Center at 7:00 p.m. Sometime that evening, but before she was due at work, Tera decided to go for a jog. Her sister, Sierra, admonished her, since the girls weren’t supposed to leave the house alone. Tera replied that she’d be back before her parents got home. Sierra watched as Tera jogged out of sight.

Tera Smith, Missing Person

The normally reliable Tera failed to show up for her scheduled shift at the fun center. Her parents were initially unconcerned but, when she hadn’t shown up by 9:00 p.m., they called police. What investigators found was disturbing.

Tera was due at the Smith's Oasis Fun Center when she disappeared (Google Maps)
Tera was due at the Smith’s Oasis Fun Center when she disappeared (Google Maps)

The last person known to see Tera alive was 29-year-old Charles “Troy” Zink. Zink was Tera’s Tae Kwon Do instructor. But her family found letters and journal entries that strongly suggested she and Zink had a sexual relationship. Zink denied this, although he admitted seeing Tera that August day. He said Tera called and they met near her home at 6:30 p.m. According to his story, she wanted to borrow $2,000 and he refused. At her request, he dropped her off at the intersection of Old Oregon Trail and Old Alturas Road. He then drove to Hang Glider Hill, where he claims he “prayed” until 11:30.

When police dug into Zink’s background, they found he pleaded guilty to rape seven years before Tera disappeared. Searching his home, they found several guns and arrested him for violating his parole. However, they didn’t find any evidence to connect him to Tera’s disappearance.

Charles "Troy" Zink at the time of the disappearance (Hard Copy)
Charles “Troy” Zink at the time of the disappearance (Hard Copy)

Epilogue

It’s been more than twenty years since Tera Smith disappeared. If she’s alive, she would be 40 years old. Her family, however, believes she is dead. There has been no trace of Tera since that early autumn day in 1998.

The family suspects Troy Zink is more involved in the case than he admitted, which Zink denies. Police have found no evidence linking him to the disappearance. Nor have they found anything to indicate that a crime was committed. Probably, though, Tera Lynn Smith died the day she disappeared.

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