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Originally published August 1, 2011 at 2:57 PM | Page modified August 2, 2011 at 1:44 PM

FBI: Lead in D.B. Cooper case is man who died 10 years ago

The FBI's "promising lead" in the D.B. Cooper skyjacking case has led to a man who died 10 years ago, an FBI spokesman said Monday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The FBI's "promising lead" in the D.B. Cooper skyjacking case has led to a man who died about 10 years ago, an FBI spokesman said Monday.

Special Agent Fred Gutt said the bureau's Seattle office has been investigating for more than a year a lead that has "more credibility and detail" than other tips regarding the unsolved skyjacking of a Seattle-bound flight on Thanksgiving Eve 1971.

Gutt declined to identify the man, who died of natural causes.

"There is a basic story that seems logical," Gutt said.

If the man is identified as the legendary hijacker in America's only unsolved skyjacking, it would mean he lived some 30 years after parachuting from the plane with $200,000 in cash, defying those who concluded he couldn't have survived the leap.

Gutt said the FBI's vetting of the case warrants further investigation, noting little contradictory information has emerged that would rule out the possible suspect.

But he said that doesn't mean the case is about to be solved.

The FBI laboratory has determined that a guitar strap that belonged to the man is not conducive to lifting fingerprints to compare to partial prints found in the plane, Gutt said.

"It doesn't mean it's a dead end," Gutt said, adding that the case agent is working with the man's family to obtain other items with better surfaces to lift fingerprints.

The FBI has learned that the man reported an auto injury in 1971, perhaps to explain injuries suffered in the jump, KING-TV reported.

Gutt said the FBI is still actively pursuing a number of different leads in the fabled skyjacking, in which the hijacker jumped from the rear of a Boeing 727.

FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich said on Sunday that agents were investigating the "promising lead," a day after a British newspaper reported the development in a lengthy feature story on the notorious case.

Dietrich said the FBI received a tip from a member of law enforcement about a credible person with information on the case.

The passenger who jumped from the Northwest Orient Airlines jet on Nov. 24, 1971, identified himself as "Dan Cooper." A day after the skyjacking, FBI agents checked out a Portland man with the name "D.B. Cooper." Although that man was quickly cleared, the name stuck in news-media accounts.

The tall, dark-complexioned man paid $20 cash for a one-way flight from Portland to Seattle. The jet was barely in the air before he told a flight attendant he had a bomb and showed her a briefcase holding several red cylinders and a nest of wires.

When the plane landed in Seattle, passengers were exchanged for parachutes and ransom money paid by the airline. The plane took off and headed south toward Mexico, with the hijacker and the flight crew.

About 30 minutes later, a cockpit warning light showed the rear stairway was fully extended. The pilot asked over the intercom, "Is everything OK back there?"

The hijacker yelled back, "No," and bailed out the back from 10,000 feet into freezing darkness. It wasn't until the plane landed for more fuel in Reno, Nev., with the rear stairway still down, that the crew and FBI knew for sure he was gone.

Authorities estimated he landed near the small community of Ariel, Cowlitz County, east of Woodland, in a rugged, wooded region.

The man was never found, and only $5,800 of the ransom money — whose serial numbers the FBI had recorded — turned up when a child digging in a sandbar on the north bank of the Columbia River west of Vancouver in 1980 unearthed a bundle of $20 bills.

The FBI has partial fingerprints from a magazine left on the plane and parts of the airliner cabin, Dietrich, the FBI spokeswoman, said Sunday.

Information from The Associated Press and Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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