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Was William J. Smith the real D.B. Cooper?

William J. Smith makes for a compelling D.B. Cooper suspect.

  • Had experience gained as a combat air crewman and reconnaissance photographer in the Navy during and after World War II.  He was rated as an Aerial Gunner and Aerial Photographer.
  • Fits the description of the hijacker.  He was 43 in 1971, and was approximately 5’10” and 170 pounds.  Had olive skin and dark brown eyes due to his Hungarian ancestry.
  • Was well known to be a gentleman.
  • Understood aerodynamics of planes from his Navy experience, to include larger reconnaissance aircraft such as the B-24 variant used by the Navy.
  • Familiar with parachutes and survival from his training in the Navy.
  • Understood maps and how to identify targets from the air due to his military training.  He would have known his general location from the air.
  • Had a sudden need for money due to the Lehigh Valley Railroad bankruptcy that caused layoffs and loss of pension.  This bankruptcy was part of the Penn Central bankruptcy, the biggest in U.S. history up until that time.
  • Had a significant grudge against the airline industry for their role in bringing about the bankruptcies and downfall of the railroads. His father and many friends worked for the railroads too.
  • Had the means to escape from the area where he landed, by boarding a train at a rail yard or at a station.
  • Was familiar with the Seattle area through his friend Dan Clair and an uncle who were both stationed at Fort Lewis during World War II.
  • Lived far enough away that he would not be a suspect to local and state law enforcement.
  • Familiar with refueling operations of airplanes from the Navy, and from diesel trains. He knew the fuel truck issues could have been to stall him on the tarmac in Seattle.
  • 1971 was high time for railroad furloughs, so being gone from work for a few days or weeks would not be unusual.
  • As a railroad Yardmaster would have been familiar with handling the many stressful situations on the plane. A Yardmaster is the railroad equivalent of an air traffic controller.
  • Had a childhood acquaintance named Ira Daniel Cooper who went by Dan Cooper and lived in his neighborhood in Jersey City, NJ and attended his high school. Both collected stamps and were in the orchestra. Ira Daniel Cooper was later killed in World War II.
  • Worked around machinery, to include drill presses as well as coal and freight that could account for particles found on the clip on tie.
  • Lived a normal life, not one of luxury.  He would never have raised a red flag by spending the money.
  • Had access to railroad flares that could have been used to make a realistic looking fake bomb.
  • Familiar with the use of Benzedrine pills from his time in the Navy, to stay alert. It is believed D.B. Cooper had Benzedrine pills for the crew.
  • Could easily have used the anonymity of train travel to arrive in Portland and get back to the East coast.
  • Was skilled with knots. Could easily have tied the money bag to his body.
  • Had a scar on his right palm, which may have been seen by the flight attendant Tina Mucklow while sitting to his left.
  • He had excellent cursive penmanship. The note handed to the flight attendant was written in very good cursive.
  • He is believed to be the man who communicated with author Max Gunther in 1972, claiming to be D.B. Cooper.
  • Note: A full set of William J. Smith’s fingerprints from his military service were provided to the FBI in November of 2018.

William J. Smith was born in 1928 in Jersey City, New Jersey, he died in 2018 in Bloomfield, NJ.

At a minimum I believe William J. Smith is the man who contacted Max Gunther for his 1985 book “DB Cooper: What Really Happened”


 

D.B. Cooper’s Grudge

Tina Mucklow: (flight attendant): “Do you have a grudge against Northwest?”

D.B. Cooper: “I don’t have a grudge against your airlines, Miss.  I just have a grudge.”

The public has been led to believe that D.B. Cooper had a grudge against the government over the Vietnam War, or against Boeing due to layoffs.  However, when looking at the big picture, one could think about what former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes said on The History Channel episode of “Case Closed.”  Fuentes commented: “Could he have been trying to scare the world, scare the public, tell everybody aviation is unsafe?”  This begs the question of who would have a bone to pick with the airline industry? Maybe someone whose livelihood was severely impacted by the airlines, like a railroader.

Certainly D.B. Cooper would not come out directly and say, “I have a grudge against the airline industry.”  However, a railroader would have many good reasons to hold a grudge against the airlines, the transportation industry, and the government.  In the 1960’s, railroads were forced to cut costs, merge with other railroads, and lay off workers. This was a necessity due to the increase in highway use and air travel, reduced reliance on coal, and government regulations.

William J. Smith worked for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, one of the nation’s oldest railroads.  The Lehigh Valley Railroad was well known for hauling anthracite coal in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.  In 1962 the Lehigh Valley became a de facto operating unit of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  In 1968 the Pennsylvania merged with the New York Central and became the Penn Central Railroad.  Two years later the Penn Central would file for the biggest bankruptcy in United States history up until that time.  A month later the Lehigh Valley Railroad was forced to file for bankruptcy as well.  This was a catastrophic event on the East coast that resulted in thousands of people losing jobs and life savings.  Many of these railroaders had family who also worked on the railroads.  This bankruptcy was so massive that it would take until the Enron bankruptcy of 2001 for it to be surpassed. Here is a good clip on the impact of the Penn Central bankruptcy on former Pennsylvania Railroad employees.  Click Here.  Go to about 45 minutes in to hear a compelling story of life savings lost.

The Penn Central bankruptcy was caused in many ways by poor management and corporate greed.  A number of executives were indicted for their roles in the event.  Congress held major hearings on the issue.  During the operations of the Penn Central it was not uncommon for furloughed employees to sneak back into work and hide locomotives.  Employees in St. Louis even threw Kodak film into the Mississippi River due to Kodak’s cozy relationship with the executives of Penn Central.  The “Wreck of the Penn Central” as it was often called, was a catastrophic event in the lives of many thousands of men and women on the East coast of the United States in 1970-71. Had the hijacking occurred in New York, then the FBI might have looked at suspects on the East coast.  However, most of the investigation was focused on suspects from the West coast.

For a working man who spent most of his life on the railroad, who had a family to support, being angry at the airlines and the government would not be so unusual.  The Penn Central bankruptcy in 1970 may very well have been the final straw for D.B. Cooper.

Timeline of Events

1941-1945: World War II is the peak of success for the railroads due to freight and troop transport.  However, the war effectively wears out the railroads.

1945: While still in high school, William J. Smith begins working for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, like his father, and his friend Dan Clair, and Dan’s father; the railroads are a family business.

1948: After serving in the Navy, William Smith returns to the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

1956: The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act is signed by President Dwight Eisenhower.  This ushers in the national interstate system in the United States, which is a boom for the trucking industry, but a blow to the railroads.

1958: Boeing introduces the 707 passenger airliner and begins the “jet age” of passenger travel.  Prior to this time most travel was done by rail.  The railroads lose more business.

1959: The St. Lawrence Seaway opens.  This allows ships to come from Europe all the way to Lake Superior without using the railroads.  This also works in reverse for grain being shipped east and exported to Europe.  Prior to this, ships relied almost completely on railroads.

January 22, 1959: The Knox Mine disaster in Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River effectively kills the anthracite coal industry in Northern Pennsylvania.

1960: The Lehigh Valley Railroad loses a large portion of their revenue in the form of cement hauling to the trucking industry.

1962: The Pennsylvania Railroad acquires over 85% ownership of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  The Lehigh Valley is now basically an operating unit of the Pennsylvania.

1964: Boeing introduces the 727 passenger airliner.  By 1971 they will have delivered over 800 of these planes.

1967: The U.S. Postal Service takes away much of the country’s mail service from the railroads and gives it to the trucking and airline industries.  This is another huge blow to the railroad’s freight revenue.

February 1, 1968: The Penn Central Railroad begins with a merger between the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads.

June 21, 1970: Penn Central declares bankruptcy and is relieved of its obligation to pay fees to other railroads (to include the Lehigh Valley) for use of rail cars and other operations.  Penn Central stock had traded at $84 in 1968 but will drop to less than $6 a share before the bankruptcy.  Life savings and pensions are wiped out.

July 24, 1970: Unable to survive after the Penn Central bankruptcy, the Lehigh Valley Railroad declares bankruptcy.  Company losses for the year are over $10 million.  Layoffs and furloughs are widespread.

1971: Since 1962, The Lehigh Valley Railroad goes from 210 locomotives down to 160, and reduces yard crews by over 40% from 38,000 to 22,000.

May 1, 1971: Amtrak begins service, taking all passenger service from the remaining railroads.

November 24, 1971: D.B. Cooper hijacks Northwest Orient Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle.

Cary Grant, D.B. Cooper, and the 1959 film “North by Northwest”

North by Northwest DB Cooper 3 pack

 

If you’ve come this far and are reading this post, then you possibly believe that William J. Smith could be D.B. Cooper.  Furthermore, you might believe, like I do, that he could have been the man who called Max Gunther in 1972.  If this is the case, then the following blog entry may not sound as crazy as it does at first glance. If you’re a fan of Cary Grant, or the 1959 movie North by Northwest, then this post may actually be of interest in a humorous or possibly serious way.  North by Northwest is considered one of the greatest movies ever made, as well as one of the greatest train & railroad related films of all time.  The name of the film has even been said to be a reference to Northwest Airlines.  The main character even looks like D.B. Cooper with his sunglasses, olive skin, and dark suit & tie.  Whoever wrote the letters to Max Gunther had a flair for dramatics.  So, using this famous film as a part of the hijacking might not be so hard to believe.


From Wikipedia;

North by Northwest is a 1959 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason. The screenplay was by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”.

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm which contains government secrets.

North by Northwest is listed among the canonical Hitchcock films of the 1950s and is often listed among the greatest films of all time. It was selected in 1995 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


There are a number of parts about the D.B. Cooper hijacking that seem out of place, and even almost staged (the sunglasses, the dyed black hair, hiding in the lavatory, the flight attendant lighting his cigarettes).  In the movie North by Northwest there are a series of scenes and quotes that make me think William J. Smith and D.B. Cooper were fans of the film.  North by Northwest begins in New York City, and is even filmed at Grand Central, just a few miles from where William J. Smith worked.  The main character is a dapper middle aged man with olive skin, slicked black hair, a dark suit, black tie, and dark sunglasses.  He is running from the FBI, yet ends up helping the government in the end.

Pictures are more telling here than words, so most of this post will be photos.


Bourbon plays a big role in this movie, just like in the D.B. Cooper hijacking.  Here Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is forced to drink a bottle of bourbon.  Later in the film he will order bourbon to calm his nerves in the hospital.  Also, he is here with his mother Clara pointing out the perpetrators.  Clara is the same name used in the letter to Max Gunther, and one of the main characters in his book.  Clara is played by Jessie Royce Landis, who coincidentally lived in the same town as author Max Gunther in Ridgefield, CT.


Newspaper2

DB Cooper newspaper

Roger Thornhill is falsely accused of murdering a diplomat.  The newspaper headline from November 25, 1958 describes the crime and the manhunt.  Exactly 13 years later, in 1971 on the same day, the headlines will tell of the hijacker D.B. Cooper.  Could D.B. Cooper have chosen the night of November 24th for a reason?  One of the busiest travel days of the year (with an almost half moon) is an odd choice to hijack a plane.


 

Phone booth.png

Here Roger Thornhill is talking to his mother Clara from Grand Central.  The dialogue goes like this:

“I’ll take the train, it’s safer”…“Because there is no place to hide on a plane if anyone should recognize me”…“You want me to jump off a moving plane?”


Following the murder, Roger Thornhill escapes by train at Grand Central in New York City.  He is now wearing sunglasses as a disguise, tries to buy a ticket in his gray suit & black tie, and boards a New York Central Railroad train.  The New York Central was one of the railroads that were part of the Penn Central Railroad, the same railroad that would put William J. Smith’s railroad the Lehigh Valley into bankruptcy.


On the train Roger Thornhill meets a beautiful blonde woman, they spend the rest of the film together.  Here he is having cigarettes with her, just like D.B. Cooper with the attractive blonde flight attendant Tina Mucklow on Flight 305.  Tina lit D.B. Cooper’s cigarettes, here Roger Thornhill lights Eve Kendall’s.


During the train ride, Roger Thornhill hides in the lavatory while law enforcement and train personnel are looking for him.  D.B. Cooper unusually went into the lavatory while Flight 305 was on the tarmac in Seattle.  This act seemed out of place, and was more than just to use the toilet.


NWO ticket line

Here is another coincidence from the movie and the hijacking.  Roger Thornhill is seen here walking through the ticket area for Northwest Orient Airlines, the same airline that D.B. Cooper would hijack in 1971.  D. B. Cooper had a choice of a number of airlines he could have hijacked, yet he chose Northwest Orient.


Towards the end of the film, Roger Thornhill communicates with Eve Kendall using a note written on a matchbook.  Could this be similar to the note D.B. Cooper used to communicate with the flight attendants on Flight 305?


At the end of the film Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall are hanging from Mount Rushmore.  The dialogue goes as follows:

Roger Thornhill: “If we ever get out this alive, let’s go back to New York on a train”

Eve Kendall: “Is that a proposition?”

Roger Thornhill: “It’s a proposal sweetie”

They end up surviving and the movie ends on a Southern Pacific Railroad train heading south.


Did North by Northwest in some way play a role in the D.B. Cooper hijacking? Maybe, maybe not.  It would be an interesting twist if so.  Another coincidence related to Cary Grant is from the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock movie To Catch a Thief starring Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and Jessie Royce Landis (again).  Bourbon plays a role in this film as well.  Also, Cary Grant’s character uses an alias Mr. Smith, who happens to be from Portland, Oregon. Coincidently, actress Jessie Royce Landis appears in both films, as well as the 1970 film Airport about a man who hijacks an airplane using a briefcase bomb. Jessie Royce Landis lived in Ridgefield, CT, down the street from Max Gunther who wrote “DB Cooper: What Really Happened”. Ridgefield was also the setting for the fictitious town named Bridgefield in Cary Grant’s film “In Name Only”.

All images are for informational purposes only and are not intended for commercial use.

“D.B Cooper: What Really Happened” by Max Gunther. (1985)

Max Gunther

 

In February 1972, just four months after the hijacking of Flight 305, a man claiming to be D.B. Cooper contacted author Max Gunther.  Research suggests that it was William J. Smith who contacted Max in 1972.  See the letter Max received here.

Max Gunther was a very successful author and magazine editor. In 1985 he published a book entitled “D.B. Cooper: What Really Happened.”  In this book he chronicles the tale of D.B. Cooper and his rescuer Clara.  He based his book on letters and conversations he had with a man claiming to be D.B. Cooper.  He also used information gained from conversations with the woman named Clara who claimed to be D.B. Cooper’s wife.  The book was well researched and factual in regards to the hijacking.  The details of the character’s lives were changed for their protection.  The parts of the story that the characters changed is still an unanswered question.

This post will be updated at some point with more information on the book and how it is connected to a real group of people: Dan Clair, William J. Smith, William’s wife Dolores, and Dan’s wife Jeanne.  A majority of Gunther’s book describes events and people in the life of William J. Smith.  There are simply too many similarities between the book and the lives of William J. Smith & Dan Clair to be a coincidence.  Some of those similarities include:

  • The main character is named Dan LeClair who was born in Ontario, Canada and moved to Newark, New Jersey.  Just like Dan Clair.
  • His rescuer was named “Clara” which sounds very similar to Clair.  William J. Smith had a cousin named Clara as well.
  • His wife’s birthday was March 2nd.  Just like Dan Clair’s wife.
  • The character was a photographer in high school.  Just like William J. Smith was at Lincoln High School in Jersey City, New Jersey.
  • The character had an alias of Paul Cotton (the real Paul Cotton lived as a child down the street from William J. Smith’s wife).
  • He visits a skydive center near Los Angeles in the summer of 1971.  FBI documents released in 2017 describe this visit almost exactly.
  • He had a scar on his hand, almost exactly like a scar that William J. Smith had.
  • He works for a company, moves to another similar company, only to have it go bankrupt soon after.  Likely a reference to the Lehigh Valley/Pennsylvania/Penn Central Railroad mergers/bankruptcies.
  • The letters to Max were all postmarked New York City, one train stop away from where William J. Smith and Dan Clair worked.
  • Has heart disease later in life and eventually dies of it.  Just like Dan Clair.
  • Had a son who lived in Boston.  Dan Clair’s son lived in Boston at the exact same time as listed in the book.

Timeline and Details of Max Gunther’s Characters

November 24, 1971: Hijacking of Northwest Orient Flight 305.

November 30, 1971: Elsinore Skydive Center near Los Angeles calls the FBI to say that a man closely resembling the sketch of the hijacker skydived there in the summer of 1971.  This same man wore military style paratrooper boots and asked questions about jumping from a passenger airliner.

December 1971: FBI reviews jump records from Elsinore Skydive Center.

February 10, 1972: D.B. Cooper sends first letter to Max Gunther (postmarked New York, NY).  He asks Max to place an ad in the Village Voice (a New York City paper) if he would like to communicate.

March 2, 1972: Max places ad in the Village Voice.

March 10, 1972: D.B. Cooper sends second letter to Max. Phones Max a few weeks later.

Spring-Summer 1972: Max Gunther informs FBI about the letters and calls.

April 1982: Clara tells Max that D.B. Cooper has died.  Clara and Max speak about a half dozen times.

1985: Max Gunther publishes his book entitled “D.B. Cooper: What Really Happened.” In the book the man claiming to be D.B. Cooper describes a visit to a skydive center near Los Angeles in 1971.

2017:  FBI documents regarding the hijacker’s visit to Elsinore Skydive Center are released.  Somehow Max Gunther wrote about this event 12 years before the FBI files were released.  Either Max had an inside source, or he was in fact talking to the same man who visited Elsinore in 1971.


 

Max Gunther’s book is available on Amazon.com.  Below is a link to the used copies, which can usually be purchased for less than $10.

D.B. Cooper: What Really Happened.  By Max Gunther.

 

 

Images are from the book “DB Cooper-What Really Happened, by Max Gunther.”  Published in 1985.  All images are for informational purposes only and are not intended for commercial use.