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.

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

At the request of William J. Smith’s family, I have removed his picture from this page.

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 and Croatian ancestry.
  • Was well known to be a gentleman.
  • Scored extremely high on his Navy aptitude tests. Also took physics and Latin in High School.
  • Had a fold of skin on his neck and chin that would be noticeable, possibly from an accident or surgery. Witness Bill Mitchell described a “fold of skin” like look on Cooper’s neck. He also had a protruding lower lip, which was described by witnesses via the FBI sketch artist Roy Rose.
  • Understood aerodynamics of planes from his Navy experience, to include larger reconnaissance aircraft such as the B-24 variant (PB4Y-2 Privateer) used by the Navy.
  • When he joined the Navy he stated his reason was “a desire to fly.” He also listed his hobbies as model airplanes, photography, and printing. Could a printer have modified the stolen $20s and put those in circulation?
  • 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 pensions. 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/co-worker and possible accomplice 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. Dan Clair was born in Canada (mother was Canadian), a possible connection to the Dan Cooper comic books.
  • 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 (Navy training). 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.
  • Was Catholic. One FBI profile suggested Cooper was Catholic and of Italian descent.
  • 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.” See my blog post here on the site for more info on that.
  • A common observation of Smith is that his nose appears wider in his picture than in the composite sketches. There are actually a number of witness statements that indicate the sketches should show a wider nose. This one below references the “B Sketch” which is the color sketch and indicates a wider and flatter nose, just like William Smith’s.

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