“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.
  • 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.

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

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. I believe the book can be found on PDF.

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.