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Not convinced D.B. Cooper film gets it right

At left above is a sketch of skyjacker D.B. Cooper from information a flight attendant on the plane gave officials. At right is a photo of Kenneth Christiansen. Law enforcement investigated more than a thousand possible suspects, but the flight attendant said Christiansen's photo was the closest to her recollection of what Cooper looked like.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

A National Geographic Channel documentary that aired for the first time last weekend claimed it would shed new light on the D.B. Cooper hijacking mystery using modern technology and the expertise of citizen sleuths.

But after seeing the film, a Morris man who believes the legendary sky pirate was his brother said he isn't convinced the evidence presented in the film proved anything definitively.

Lyle Christiansen still believes his late brother, Kenneth, was D.B. Cooper and that he not only survived the parachute jump from a jet with $200,000 in cash in 1971 but lived another 23 years and used much of the money to help people who were down and out.

"I think they did a good job with the show, but a lot of it was barking up the wrong tree," said Lyle Christiansen.

He said statements made by FBI agents in the documentary about Cooper are contradicted by other evidence, and he can't buy the idea that a bundle of the money that was key to their presumption that Cooper died in the jump hinged on the bank bag somehow being snagged on the propeller of a ship.

D.B. Cooper is the focus of the hour-long reenactment documentary that will be rebroadcast at 2 p.m. Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.

The documentary, "The Skyjacker That Got Away," was first broadcast last Sunday.

Lyle Christiansen has said he has evidence that D.B. Cooper very likely was his brother, Kenneth, who died in 1994.

Some of the documentation and photographs Christiansen supplied to a private investigator and the documentary's production company, Edge West LLC, was used in the film.

Christiansen said that until a few years ago, he had never heard about D.B. Cooper, even though the November 1971 skyjacking and extortion ploy - seen by many as a modern-day Robin Hood story -- captivated millions, spawned songs, a movie, books, countless searches and thousands of suspects, and led to sweeping security changes in the airline industry.

In a nutshell, D.B. Cooper - more accurately, Dan Cooper -- is the alias used by a passenger who boarded a Northwest 727 on Thanksgiving eve 1971 and told a flight attendant that he had a bomb in his brief case. The plane, which took off from Portland bound for Seattle-Tacoma Airport, landed and $200,000 in $20 bills and four parachutes were brought aboard. Then, he instructed the flight crew to take off for Mexico City.

Once on the ground, passengers and much of the flight crew left the plane, and the FBI and Northwest officials met all of Cooper's demands. Minutes after the plane took off, aft stairs unique to the 727 were lowered and Cooper leapt into the rainy, cold darkness with two of the parachutes, the money and the brief case.

Except for the discovery of about $5,800 of the ransom, found nine years later, neither Cooper nor the bulk of the money were ever found.

Lyle Christiansen, who until a few years ago, never knew about D.B. Cooper, has spent many hours researching the subject after becoming convinced by an "Unsolved Mysteries" segment on the hijacking and extortion.

Two years ago, a private investigator, Skipp Porteous, began looking into Christiansen's claims and his work led to a long piece in "New York Magazine" that strongly suggested that Kennenth Christiansen was D.B. Cooper.

Lyle Christiansen also points to a 1985 book, "D.B. Cooper: What Really Happened?", by the late Max Gunther. In it, Gunther claims to have spent many hours on the phone talking to someone claiming to be D.B. Cooper. Lyle Christiansen said numerous details in the book -- some that only Christiansen would know about his brother -- almost positively ID Kenneth Cooper as the instigator of one of the most famous crimes in U.S. history.

Lyle Christiansen has compiled a graph -- which he calls "Same History Association" -- that lists 14 points brought up in Gunther's book that coincide with Kenneth Christiansen's life. Lyle Christiansen believes other details were deliberately faked by the caller to conceal his identity, but that nonetheless contain hints that Kenneth Christiansen had to be the caller.

Many of D.B. Cooper's mannerisms -- including the type of cigarettes he smoked, his drink order of bourbon and 7-UP, his language -- were in keeping with Kenneth Christiansen's way of life.

In the "Skyjacker That Got Away," FBI agents who have worked on the case over the decades claim that D.B. Cooper almost certainly died in the jump from the plane.

Kenneth Christiansen was a Northwest Orient flight attendant who had pay grievances against the airline. He told a flight attendant on the plane, "It's not that I have grievances against your airline. I just have grievances."

He was an expert paratrooper who also knew how fast and at what altitude the plane would need to be flying for him to survive a jump. He also knew that the 727 was the only plane with aft stairs, which would allow him to jump without being smashed into the plane.

Other evidence shows that Kenneth Cooper bought a house with cash just weeks after the hijacking. The flight attendant who spoke with Cooper also stated that, of the thousands of possible suspects, Kenneth Christiansen's photo came the closest to matching her recollection of the hijacker.

In the documentary, a photo of Kenneth Christiansen was superimposed with a sketch of the hijacker and the match was striking.

"That was pretty telling," Lyle Christiansen said.

Lyle Christiansen also noted that, as Kenneth battled cancer, he told Lyle that "There's something you should know but I can't tell you."

"He probably didn't want to end up in jail at the end of his life," Lyle Christiansen said. "He couldn't tell me because he was afraid it would get out."

But FBI agents and other experts in "The Skyjacker That Got Away," presented evidence -- particularly relating to the bundles of money found nine years after the hijacking -- that Cooper fell in water and either drown or succumbed to hypothermia before he could get ashore.

Lyle Christiansen shakes his head. He notes that one retired FBI agent said in the documentary that there's a good possibility Dan Cooper survived that night.

Although he's knocking on 80 years old, Lyle Christiansen said he'll be keeping his ears pricked for more on D.B. Cooper, no matter what the experts say.

Learn more about the case by watching "The Skyjacker That Got Away" at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2, on the National Geographic Channel, and see a November 2007 Sun Tribune story on Christiansen's research, "Cracking the Cooper case?", on the paper's Web site at

To see the story that reinvigorated the D.B. Cooper mystery, see the October 2007 New York Magazine story, "Unmasking D.B. Cooper," at