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I’ll bet you’ve heard this story: A mysterious man boarded a 1971 shuttle flight from Portland to Seattle, then politely told the stewardess that he had a deadly bomb in his suitcase. He demanded the authorities in Seattle give him $200,000, then the crew fly him to Mexico city. But he never made it to Mexico. In the dark of night he grabbed a parachute and disappeared. His airplane ticket only read “Dan Cooper.”

Fifty-two years later, this remains the only unsolved sky-jacking in history. Despite the fact that $5,800 of the money was recovered in 1980, buried in the Washington wilderness. And despite the fact that at least two separate men have confessed on their death bed that they were actually the high jacker. The FBI looked into all supposed confessions and found the stories don’t check out. And finally, despite the fact that the high jacker left his clip-on tie behind, loaded with molecules such as DNA. In 2016, the FBI closed the case.

The Seattle skyline, mountains visible in the background.
Seattle skyline | Jeffery Hayes via Wikimedia Commons

But this year, a private investigator has requested the case be reopened. All because of a bit of steel and titanium.

The FBI published information on several of the more unique molecules found in the fibers of D.B. Cooper’s tie. One in particular caught Eric Ulis’ attention. Ullis is a D.B. Cooper investigator who has been featured on the Discovery Channel and Netflix. And recently his investigation focused on a metal particle caught in the lost tie.

What’s fascinating about the molecule in question is that it is pure titanium, smeared with stainless steel. And here’s where it gets really wild: the process of combining titanium and stainless steel in this way is called “cold rolling” and is critical in assembling jets–including the Boeing 727 Cooper highjacked.

Orient Eastern airline ticket used by sky-jacker "D.B. Cooper" in 1971
D.B. Cooper’s plane ticket | FBI via Wikimedia Commons

So the titanium somehow came off the plane? Not quite. Ullis maintains that this particle was the byproduct of the cold rolling process, not from a finished plane. And in 1971, there were only a few places in the world capable of cold rolling titanium and steel.

As Ullis dug deeper into the case and interviews with the stewardess, he realized that D.B. Cooper’s language had been peppered with aeronautical engineering lingo. The precision of his plan also suggested he intimately knew how the Boeing 727 worked. For example, you can’t safely parachute from most commercial jets without getting hit by the tail.

In 1972, Boeing only had one supplier capable of cold rolling titanium and steel. That is how Ullis arrived at Crucible Steel in Pittsburgh, PA. And well the workers there might have had bits of steel and titanium in their clothes, they weren’t wearing ties to work. And they didn’t have the inside knowledge of a Boeing 727 that D.B. Cooper did. Ullis believes D.B. Cooper was an engineer named Vince Petersen.

Torn and burned twenty dollar bills stolen by D.B. Cooper and buried in the Washington forest
Ransom money stolen by D.B. Cooper | FBI via Wikimedia Commons

Petersen was a merchant marine before becoming a metallurgy engineer. He worked at Crucible Steel, which suffered massive layoffs in 1971. If “D.B. Cooper” was caught up in these layoffs, it might explain why he told one stewardess, “I don’t have a grudge against your airline, miss. I just have a grudge.”

Vince Peterson died in 2002. But when Ullis dropped his name on a news program, his daughter reached out. She isn’t buying the story. She said of her dad:

“He wouldn’t have abandoned the family the day before Thanksgiving and flown out to Washington, decided to hijack a plane and asked for four parachutes and $200k, and then jumped out of the plane in the dark of night when it was raining…he didn’t do anything on the spur of the moment.”

Julie Dunbar (The Sun)

Ullis told her that with just ten minutes with the tie and some DNA from Peterson, he could settle it once and for all. So she happily provided an envelope that her father had licked to seal. Then the two of them requested the FBI give them access to the tie. But so far, the Bureau has refused.

Undeterred, Ullis is suing for access to the tie. He speculates that the FBI worries about the optics of closing the case, only to have a private investigator solve it. Does he worry what will happen if DNA proves him wrong? No. He is confident D.B. Cooper worked at Crucible Steel, and that means, “We’re dealing with a very small universe of people.”

If Ullis is right, we can expect to know D.B. Cooper’s true identity soon.

See Fox 13 out of Seattle’s coverage of the latest developments in the video below: