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

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

  • He 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.
  • A fellow railroader once referred to him as “the mild mannered radical”.
  • 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.  Another uncle was born in Portland, moved to Sacramento, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railway.
  • 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.
  • At a minimum I believe William J. Smith is the man who contacted Max Gunther for his 1985 book “DB Cooper: What Really Happened”
  • Note: A full set of William J. Smith’s fingerprints from his military service were provided to the FBI in November of 2018.
  • A final coincidence is that the flight attendant who received DB Cooper’s note was Florence Schaffner. “Schaffner” means train conductor in German. William Smith worked for the railroad.

FBI aged progressed sketch of DB Cooper next to William J. Smith aged 57

Aged Progressed DB Copper w William Smith

William J. Smith was born in 1928 in Jersey City, New Jersey to parents Joseph Kwiatowski and Elizabeth Gerzanich. He died in 2018 in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He is survived by two children and a number of grandchildren.



“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.
  • Clara’s family had a cabin by a lake.  William Smith’s wife’s family had land on a lake in New Jersey.

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.