WOODBURN, Ore. — The telephone calls always peaked around November. That was the anniversary of the crime that remained tethered to Ralph Himmelsbach.
He was the FBI agent who spent the final nine years of his career assigned to the 1971 D.B. Cooper hijacking, and the rest of his life answering questions about that case.
Reporters wanted to revisit what happened, especially in that month leading up to the anniversary. There were tipsters, too. Always earnest, often deluded, they were just certain they had crucial information to crack one of the most famous crimes in American history. Then there was that one lady from Florida. Her name was Jo, and she had a voice that sounded like a washing machine full of rocks, and once she got rolling, there wasn’t much that could make her stop. Jo drove Ralph’s wife nuts, the way she’d call and go on about how the insurance man she’d married confessed on his deathbed to being Cooper.
“She would call all the time,” says Joice.
Joice was Ralph’s wife of 30 years, from 1989 until his death in 2019 at the age of 94. She was the one who got him to start square dancing, and to travel to Mexico and Maui. She liked the mustache he grew, letting it get long enough he could curl it into a pair of points. Perfect for the barbershop chorus Ralph joined in Oregon. Joice remains an absolute firecracker, even now. No, especially now, and there were times she’d answer the phone and hear that rasp of a voice on the other end and decide that this was absolutely not the time for one of those calls.
“Thanksgiving, Christmas, didn’t matter,” Joice says. “So I’d say, ‘I’m sorry; we’re very busy. We’ve got company over. Call back some other time.’ “
Joice then mimicked her husband’s response: “You didn’t have to do that.”
Yes. Yes, she did, because while Himmelsbach was a landmark in the only unsolved skyjacking in American history, that case was just a footnote in Himmelsbach’s story. What happened to Cooper might have been a mystery. What happened to Himmelsbach was one hell of a life.
BEFORE D.B. COOPER inspired ballads and novels, he was the guy who interrupted Himmelsbach’s lunch. At least Dan Cooper did. That was the name the hijacker gave to the ticketing agent at Northwest Orient Airlines on the afternoon of Nov. 24, 1971. He paid $20 at the counter for a seat on the afternoon flight from Portland to Seattle, departing at 2:51 p.m.
He was the second-to-last to board the plane. He wore a dark suit and a tie with a pin, and had wraparound sunglasses. Aboard the plane, he ordered a bourbon and soda and smoked. A lot. And once the flight was airborne, he handed the flight attendant a note. She tucked it into her purse without looking at it. The passenger suggested she look at it, stating, “I have a bomb.”
Himmelsbach was eating a hamburger at Yaw’s Top Notch, a Portland institution. One of two pilots in the FBI’s Portland office, he was the one responsible for air-piracy cases. At that time, most of those cases were political and involved planes being commandeered to land in Cuba.
This crime was different, and it ended up changing the way we fly in this country. The hijacker demanded $200,000 and four parachutes delivered to the plane upon arrival in Seattle. He then wanted to be flown to Mexico City.
The flight landed in Seattle at 5:46 p.m. The airline decided to meet the demands of the hijacker. He was given the money requested, in $20 denominations, and the four parachutes. He released the other 36 passengers aboard the plane. After the plane was refueled, the hijacker released two of the three flight attendants. That left the two pilots and one staff member aboard with the hijacker.
At 7:46 p.m., the plane took off from Sea-Tac Airport. Immediately after takeoff, the hijacker sent the lone remaining flight attendant into the cockpit. He instructed her to close the curtain separating first class from the rest of the cabin.
The flight had headed on a specific path out of Seattle, known as Victor 23 in aeronautical terminology. Shortly after takeoff, a light came on indicting the aft stairway was open. At 8:05, with the plane flying at 10,000 feet, the pilots used the intercom to ask the hijacker whether he needed anything. “No!” came the response. This was the last time the hijacker was heard from. At 8:13, the plane’s instruments showed an oscillation in the cabin pressure, later shown to be consistent with what would have happened had someone jumped from the extended stairwell.
The flight landed in Reno, Nevada, the rear stairwell still extended and sparking upon arrival. The hijacker was gone. So was the money. Two of the four parachutes remained onboard.
HIMMELSBACH WAS IN the air the night Cooper jumped. He boarded a helicopter belonging to the Oregon National Guard. There were two fighter jets following the jetliner, too.
The problem was, the hijacked plane topped out at a speed of 200 knots, owing to the hijacker’s demand that the landing gear remain down. The fighter jets weren’t able to go that slow, and were essentially zigzagging to stay in contact. No one saw any evidence of a jump. The helicopter Himmelsbach was aboard topped out at 120 knots. They never saw the jetliner that night, let alone the fellow who jumped.
This was another era in American history, when you weren’t screened before you got on an airplane and could smoke after you boarded one. Negotiating with terrorists was common back then. The FBI could offer advice on what to do, but it was up to the airline how to respond to the hijacker’s demands. Northwest Orient decided to pay up.
But the biggest reason this specific crime resonated almost immediately is the way it fit the contours of that most American of literary genres: the mystery. This was a nonfiction story, but it had all the components of a first-rate caper. A man in a business suit and raincoat jumped from a plane into the teeth of a November storm over some of the most rugged terrain on the continent. He was carrying $200,000, all but $5,800 of which remains unaccounted for to this day.
From a literary perspective, this is what’s called a locked-room mystery. The crime itself seems highly improbable, bordering on impossible. The temperature was estimated at 7 degrees below zero at the time and altitude the skyjacker jumped. He had no foul-weather gear. He wore loafers or slip-on shoes, not boots. He had no goggles. Some looked at this and found it so amateurish, they were certain he perished. Others believed it was a sign of his confidence and expertise.
One thing was certain: The skyjacker was gone, leaving very few clues to his identity and only trace evidence of his presence. That note he initially gave to the flight attendant? He demanded it back. He did, however, leave his clip-on tie.
Himmelsbach had very little doubt about who this hijacker was. Not in terms of his identity, per se, but who this fellow was at his core.
“A sleazy, rotten criminal,” Himmelsbach said.
The noun would change over time. Sometimes Himmelsbach called him a crook. The adjectives remained the same, though: sleazy, rotten. When he retired from the FBI in 1980, there were T-shirts printed up bearing that phrase.
HIMMELSBACH ABSOLUTELY HATED the fact that some people found Cooper a hero, a reality that reflected a growing gap between generations. This was 1971, after all, the country in the midst of social upheaval. The United States was still fighting an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. Half a million people marched on Washington, D.C., that year, and the government was being eyed with not just suspicion but outright hostility by an increasing chunk of the country.
Himmelsbach was from an older era. Born in 1925 in the Bay Area, he grew up in Portland and attended Benson Tech. He followed his father into the military, enlisting in 1943 to become a pilot before there was even an Air Force. He was trained at Stevens Point, Wisconsin, as part of the Army Air Corps, though the war ended before he was deployed. He then graduated from the University of Oregon, briefly became a banker and then joined the FBI in 1951. He retired at age 54, never having fired his weapon in the line of duty. He was an expert marksman, though, and went on to be Oregon’s principal firearms instructor.
He was prone to folksiness. Ask him whether something was straight, and he liked to tell you, “A fellow running for his life wouldn’t stop to notice.” But he found nothing even slightly romantic or daring about his most famous case, the Cooper skyjacking.
“He used foul language to the stewardesses,” Himmelsbach said, according to a 1996 story in The San Francisco Chronicle. “He’s a sleazy, rotten scumbag, and I hope he died a miserable, wretched death.”
Himmelsbach was a man who believed in a right way to do things. His kids weren’t to be barefoot, not even in the house, and to this day his oldest daughter, Kristin, has socks on at all times.
He had three children with his first wife, and each Sunday morning he’d be up to make waffles before they went to church, and he played classical music. He thought men should have short hair, something he informed Kristin’s high-school boyfriend in the 1960s, advice the young man heeded.
He was a father who arrived home with flair, stepping in from the garage and shouting, “Hello to my little family-amily,” but he also had a look stern enough to make mischief wither. “The look,” Kristin calls it.
“I have a photo of him that has ‘the look,’ “ she says. “You wouldn’t dream of telling a fib or anything.”
He spent years hoping to train that look on the fellow who jumped out of that plane.
HIMMELSBACH WAS LESS than two months from retirement when the bills turned up. It was Feb. 10, 1980; a family visited a stretch of the Columbia River known as Tena Bar. One of the children – who was digging — found three bundles of $20 bills buried under about 6 inches of sand.
Before the airline paid the hijacker’s ransom in 1971, the bills had been scanned, their serial numbers logged. Those numbers had actually been distributed, too, published by several news outlets. The Oregon Journal offered $1,000 to anyone who had just one of those $20 bills. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer upped it to $5,000. Not until 8-year-old Brian Ingram found decomposing bills buried in the sand on a bank of the Columbia River, 9 miles downstream from Vancouver, had anyone turned one in. The three bundles contained a total of 294 bills, identified as having come from Cooper’s stash.
One of those eroded $20 bills is the centerpiece of a framed piece mounted on the wall of what was Himmelsbach’s office. There’s also a letter from J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, discussing the ransom bills.
Just how those bills came to be in that area is a matter that remains debated among the community of amateur sleuths who have congregated around the case. Specifically, the arguments have focused on whether someone buried those bills or whether they wound up there because they tumbled into the river upstream or they were buried by a subsequent dredging. Recently, microscopic examination of the bills focused on diatoms, a strain of algae found on the bills. The diatoms observed were consistent with algae blooms found in April, indicating the money entered the river in April, not in November, the month the crime occurred.
For years, Himmelsbach would get calls late at night about someone up in the Washington hills who was spending liberally in $20 denominations. It never resulted in a viable suspect for the crime. No other bills have surfaced.
HIMMELSBACH PEGGED THE number of suspects at 933. That was how many individuals he said the FBI looked at as of 1986, when he published his account of the investigation in a 136-page book titled “Norjak.”
That number kept growing. At least it did until the FBI closed the case in 2016. It had been years since the case advanced even an inch despite all the tips and the leads.
The bureau decided the time spent evaluating that material would be more effective if applied to other cases. Unless there was a new development, the FBI was no longer looking for D.B. Cooper, which is the fatal flaw in this specific mystery. For all the time that has been poured into this case from authorities such as Himmelsbach to the amateur sleuths to the reporters whose calls picked up every November, there isn’t even agreement on the areas that are in dispute.
The problem isn’t so much a lack of good information, but the overwhelming amount of bad information. The attention trained on the case became one of the biggest obstacles to solving it. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but doing it on a farm overwhelmed with thousands of visitors, each of whom is screaming at the top of their lungs that they’ve found the needle when in fact they’re pointing at a cow pie.
There have been a dozen deathbed confessions. There was a filmmaker who decided Cooper was a Vietnam veteran and helicopter pilot who sent coded messages to newspapers in the years following the crime. A woman named Marla Cooper came forward in 2011, stating her uncle — whose name was Lynn Doyle Cooper — was the hijacker. She lived in Oklahoma at the time and said she would be writing a book. A few years later, Carl Laurin identified the skyjacker as a Michigan man named Walt Reca. His book was published in 2018: “D.B. Cooper & Me: A Criminal, A Spy, My Best Friend.”
THEN THERE WAS JO. She’s that lady from Florida who sounds like spiderwebs and hard living. She swore her husband, Duane, confessed to being Dan Cooper just before dying in 1995. She also said she traveled with Duane to Seattle in 1979, a sentimental journey, and wound up driving by the Columbia River mere months before those packets of $20 bills from the Cooper loot were discovered downstream from Vancouver.
She claimed to have seen all sorts of little tidbits. Like the Northwest Orient ticket stub she said she saw among her husband’s tax papers in 1994. She wasn’t able to ever find that again, though. There was a bank bag she remembered seeing, too. And a library book on Cooper that had her husband’s handwriting in the margins. She swore he once shouted in his sleep about having left fingerprints on the plane, too, and by now it should be clear why Ralph’s wife felt compelled to stop the conversations before they started.
Kim McKie-Nosen quietly hoped they’d find something.
She was Himmelsbach’s stepdaughter. Her mother, Joice, first dated Ralph after the end of his first marriage, and she remembers the way his voice boomed through the gym while he watched her high-school basketball games in West Linn, Oregon: “Get that ball back!”
“My teammates, they still ask me about Ralph,” she says.
Ralph and Joice wound up marrying other partners after that initial dating, but reconnected later and were married in 1989. They spent their golden years together in Oregon, first in a home outside of Medford, then near Bend in Central Oregon before coming back to the Portland area a little more than 10 years ago.
The Cooper case wasn’t some shadow that clouded either his career or his life. More like an itch that he could feel only when asked.
“I’d rather believe that he is dead,” Himmelsbach said as part of a 2016 interview.
The weather was so cold, the visibility so low and the situation so perilous that, Himmelsbach said, on the night of the jump he gave the hijacker a 50-50 chance of surviving, “And it has gone down ever since.”
When asked why no one ever found the body, he pointed to the terrain. Give him 5,000 men and five years, and only then could he guarantee they’d gone over every inch of the potential drop zone. He insisted he was not exaggerating. The country was that rough.
Himmelsbach was 46 when the crime occurred. He spent the next nine years investigating it, and as an avid pilot, he spent years flying over the terrain that Cooper was guessed to have jumped from. Himmelsbach had a four-seat Beechcraft with bright red wings; he was flying that sucker when he was in his 80s as a certified UFO: United Flying Octogenarian. He stopped flying when he could no longer pull the plane out of the hangar by himself, selling it to a fellow out in Michigan.
HOW DID HE deal with never getting his man? Like you deal with any other disappointment. You live with it, and Himmelsbach did a heck of a job with that. The second half of his life was as blessed and fulfilled as the first part. He sang in a barbershop chorus in retirement, grew out the mustache his wife liked and wore bolo ties.
There was a time in Mexico that he and Joice were targeted by a pickpocket, who was apprehended trying to run out of a hotel. Himmelsbach went to the police station in Mazatlan, where the pickpocket pleaded not to be sent to jail.
“You do the crime,” Joice remembers her husband saying, “You do the time.”
A lawman forever, and every year come November, the phone would ring. In later years, reporters tended to call his stepdaughter, Kim, who was a real estate agent. The day before one of his final interviews, she came in and saw Himmelsbach reading his own book.
“Just needed to brush up,” he said.