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 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.


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.

“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.  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.
  • Dan LeClair joins the Army and serves in World War II, just like Dan Clair. Dan was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, just a few miles from where the Cooper hijacking would take place.
  • 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.
  • When writing Happy Birthday Clara, there is a letter X’d out before Clara. This letter was a D, which could possibly have been meant to say Happy Birthday Dolores (William’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. Medical records confirm this.
  • Had a son who lived in Boston. Dan Clair’s son lived in Boston at the exact same time as listed in the book and was in the hospital for a major accident just like in the book.
  • Clara’s family had a cabin by a lake. William Smith’s wife’s family had land and houses on a lake in New Jersey.
  • An uncle who is an avid hunter is mentioned in the book. William had an uncle who grew up in Portland, Oregon who was an avid hunter, and worked for the railroad.
  • References to Rutgers University could have been towards William Smith’s sister who worked there.
  • The character in the books was voted Most Likely to Succeed. There is reference in William’s yearbook to a Barbara Smith (his sister’s name) who was voted most likely to succeed in her class.
  • Dan LeClair works odd jobs for a time. William Smith stocked shelves at the local A&P after his shift on the railroad.
  • Dan’s mother moves from Canada to Detroit and then to New Jersey. William Smith is buried with his wife and on the same headstone is the name of their friend Valeria who emigrated to Detroit and then to New Jersey. They were very close, so close as to all be buried together.
  • Dan LeClair is born in Canada. LeClair and Clair are French names. The real Dan Clair was born in Canada. This could be the connection to the Dan Cooper comic 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 Dan LeClair (aka Paul Cotton aka Dan Cooper aka DB Cooper)

  • Born around 1924-25 in London, Ontario, Canada.
  • Only child.
  • Lived in Newark, NJ as a child, along with his mother’s widowed sister.
  • He was shy, organized class dances, and was into photography.
  • Voted most likely to succeed in high school, graduated in 1942-43.
  • Served in Europe during World War II, in Belgium, Army paratrooper.
  • His father died around 1949.
  • He went to Rutgers, probably graduating in 1949.
  • Went to college on GI Bill, was on the track team, liked to hike. Did oil painting.
  • Scar on left hand running from thumb to pinky finger.
  • Visited parachute center near Los Angeles in summer of 1971.
  • Wore a jumpsuit under his suit, that’s why he was sweating.
  • Clara described him as 6 feet tall and 180-190 pounds.
  • Dark complexion, like an American Indian. Dark brown eyes.
  • Looked like actor Ben Gazarra.
  • Wore glasses.
  • Had big feet.
  • Sent letters to Ed Kuhn of Playboy and Mark Penzer of True Magazine.
  • Had a son and a daughter born in the 1950s.
  • Daughter went to college in Boston.  Was in a car accident around 1972.
  • Tried to disappear once by faking a drowning, but was unsuccessful
  • Successfully disappeared by leaving the office one day. First went to Washington, DC by train, and then to California to work in a hotel
  • Very attractive first wife
  • Took his new ID from a drunk who lost his wallet in Hartford, CT
  • Dated a woman whose brother was a skydiving enthusiast
  • Learned about planes and jumping at Elsinore Skydive Center near Los Angeles in in the summer of 1971
  • Said the bomb was fake. He made it.
  • Bought the suit and tie at a pawn shop
  • Didn’t leave fingerprints.
  • Buried the money. Some of the money was dragged away by an animal because he left food in the bag.
  • Landed in a rocky area by a creek. Nursed back to health by Clara.
  • After the jump, visited a doctor in Cowlitz or Clark County for a broken ankle.
  • Worked for a company that manufactured small electronic components in New Jersey. Also worked for a company selling industrial chemicals as well as a company that did cellar waterproofing.
  • Bought stock in Miller-Wohl and made a decent profit.
  • Paid taxes in California and New York under new name.
  • Had a driver’s license in California, lived in New York.
  • Audited by the IRS in the mid 1970’s.
  • First tax return filed under false name in 1971.
  • Belonged to a country club.
  • Had a heart attack.
  • Died of natural causes in 1982 at a New York hospital.

Clara  (his rescuer and future wife)

  • Birthday is March 2.
  • Born in Longview, Washington on the banks of the Columbia River.
  • Youngest of 3 children, her father was a hunter, he died in 1950.
  • Was in her middle 30’s in 1971.
  • Wore glasses.
  • Went to college, worked in Seattle, got married in her 20’s and then divorced, no children.
  • Lived in a lake house in Clark County. This is where she met Paul Cotton/DB Cooper after the hijacking.
  • The lake house was her uncle’s.  He went on a long overseas trip and she watched the house and his German shepherd.
  • Called Max Gunther a half dozen times in 1982, just after DB Cooper’s death.

Below is a book review of Max’s book, right next to a review of a book that came out at the same time from retired FBI agent Ralph Himmlesbach. Himmelsbach was a main agent on the D.B Cooper case from the night of the hijacking. Himmelsbach was vocal in his criticism of Max. I think this criticism played a role in the FBI not taking more interest in Max’s claims.

Max Gunther Book Review Next to Review of FBI Agent Ralph Himmelsbach’s Book

Jo Weber (wife of suspect Duane Weber) had contact with Max Gunther. Her reports indicate that Max truly believed that Clara was a real person. So if Clara was real, was she really connected to DB Cooper?

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. Update: The price was $10 in 2018, but in 2022 I am seeing copies for around $30.

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.