Tom Kaye has a saying about the D.B. Cooper mythos.
“In the D.B. Cooper world, if you have 10 investigations, you’ll have 11 theories on what happened,” said Kaye, the principal investigator for the Cooper Research Team, a group of citizen sleuths who have spent years looking at evidence in the case.
So, then, what happens if you pack nearly 100 Cooper fanatics into the Kiggins Theatre for the second CooperCon? Well, you get a lot of opinions, theories and talk about tie clips. Kaye wasn’t there in person, but the festival organizers replayed a presentation he made at last year’s event all about Cooper’s tie and the particles found on it. Other portions of the day included a talk on parachutes, a presentation on conspiracy theories surrounding the case and a trivia contest that quizzed guests on the names of flight attendants on the plane, what Cooper allegedly ordered to drink and the copycat hijackers who followed in the months after.
Later on Saturday, the Kiggins showed a Cooper-related movie, and today CooperCon guests have the option of taking a road tour of local sites pertaining to the case, or going to a Cooper-themed escape room in Vancouver. The Kiggins is also hosting a radio drama on Wednesday about Cooper.
A relative newcomer to the mystery, Bob Jacobs of Tumwater started digging into the Cooper saga about three years ago, and he won the trivia contest on Saturday. Jacobs, who drove down for the event, remembered living in Ohio in his early 20s when Cooper hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 on Nov. 24, 1971. Cooper leapt out of the plane somewhere over Southwest Washington with $200,000 in ransom; it remains the only unsolved case of sky piracy in American history.
Jacobs knows plenty about the case now, but he doesn’t have a grand theory about Cooper’s supposed masterful escape because the money was never in circulation.
“My theory is that he didn’t make it,” Jacobs said, “and that’s why he was separated from the money.”
Vern Jones of Grand Rapids, Mich., was never much of a Cooper theorist. He and his wife, Irene Jones, own a publishing company. A few years ago, he was approached to take a look at evidence of the case put together by Carl Laurin, who claimed that the real identity of Cooper was Walter Reca. Vern Jones published a book written by Laurin — “D.B. Cooper & Me: A Criminal, A Spy, My Best Friend” — that relies on Laurin’s evidence and conversations he had with Reca.
“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘there’s no way I’m going to think this nut job is telling the truth,’ ” Vern Jones said. “I went to visit him and thought we’d chat for maybe an hour. Six hours later, I was convinced.”
Eric Ulis, founder and organizer of CooperCon, said he thinks Cooper survived the jump and made it away safely. While many think Cooper landed somewhere close to Ariel, Ulis said the FBI has it wrong.
“I’ve read through many of the FBI files, and I think they made some mistakes,” said Ulis of Phoenix, Ariz. “I think he landed closer to Ridgefield or Woodland.”
Dan Wyatt, owner of the Kiggins Theatre, doesn’t have a favorite theory on what happened to Cooper. Actually, he doesn’t want anyone to know.
“My preference is it doesn’t get solved,” Wyatt said. “I’m more into the mystery of it and the lore of it.”
That’s a big reason Wyatt spent much of the last year pushing Ulis to bring CooperCon to Vancouver. Last year, the event was held in Portland.
“I’m trying to make Vancouver the center for D.B. Cooper,” he said.
He’s getting some help from Rob Bertrand, owner of Northwest Escape Experience, 1503 N.E. 78th St., Vancouver. In 2018, Bertrand opened a D.B. Cooper-themed escape room at his business, and it has become the most popular of his three rooms, he said.
“It’s family-friendly, so that helps,” he said. “People love the local history aspect to it.”
While many Cooper investigators have differing theories on what happened that night nearly 50 years ago, Ulis and Bertrand have similar thoughts on why the story has remained captivating for decades.
“There’s a few elements in play,” Ulis said. “Nobody was physically harmed, so you don’t have to feel bad about that when you research it. Then, you just have the grand mastery of it all. We don’t know his real name. We don’t know where he came from. We don’t know how he even got to the airport. What we do know is it really happened, and that’s it. It’s a real-life mystery.”