Who was D. B. Cooper?
In the past, many people have been suspected of being the man who famously hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 24th of 1971. However, there are various different reasons why all but one of them can be discounted. The thing is that it’s not my intention to explain why William Gossett, Jack Coffelt, Kenneth Christiansen, John List, Lynn Doyle Cooper, Robert Rackstraw, Ted Mayfield, Richard McCoy, Duane Weber, William J. Smith, and all the other alleged hijackers were not the real culprit. Each of these persons of interest could generate full reports of their own, but that is not my intention here. I only want to explore how the real skyjacker was able to pull off the only unsolved act of air piracy in US history. The way I see it, D. B. Cooper was and still very much is a pop-cultural phenomenon, but most people don’t even know the half of it. That’s why this essay will explore the life and times of the man behind the mystery, and thereby hopefully debunk all the myths. This is the true story of the Cooper caper as perpetrated by Walter Richard Peca (Reca).
Walter Richard Peca Jr. was born on September 20th of 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. To make matters worse, the poor kid grew up on the mean streets of Detroit, Michigan. He was a Polish boy from a Catholic family with really strong ties to the unions. Moreover, although he learned a bit of Latin and Christian theology as an altar boy, young Walter quickly became a juvenile delinquent. After his father died at work in 1939, Walt started getting into trouble with the law. He gave up on wanting to study medicine and become a physician. Instead of trying hard in school, he and the Stahl brothers routinely got into trouble running the streets, fighting with other kids, stealing whatever they wanted, and most importantly doing whatever it took not to get caught by the cops. He was a reckless little bastard, to say the least. That’s why, in 1943, the mischievous little brat was sent to juvenile detention after stealing money from payphones.
Years later Walter Peca joined the service. He actually served in two different branches of the military, both of which gave him the skills that he would use to pull off the greatest unsolved heist in the history of air piracy. He joined the Army in 1950, becoming a paratrooper. Then he was in the Army National Guard, the Air Force, and even the Special Forces. Finally, he was in the US Air Force Reserve as a Rescue and Survival Specialist. That made him ideally, and quite possibly uniquely suited to pull off a bold new kind of skyjacking heist, the likes of which our country had never seen before. Walter Peca was a top-notch soldier, who would go on to become a daredevil skydiver in the Michigan Parachute Club, and then D. B. Cooper.
Along with the Armed Forces, and the Michigan Parachute Club, Walt was influenced and inspired by a fictional person as well. When he was 21 years old, a comics series about a Canadian military flying ace came out. It featured a rather significant superhero named Dan Cooper, who also made daring daredevil dives of his own. This is the name that Walt would use to board the Boeing 727 in the infamous heist, but a miscommunication would lead to the cooler sounding name “D. B. Cooper”.
In June of 1965, when Walt was 32 years old, he was in desperate need of cash, and more than willing to do just about anything to get money. His lifelong motto was “I’d rather be dead than broke” and that sentiment was the basis of his personal philosophy. That’s why at 4:00 in the morning on the 22nd, he committed armed robbery at the Big Boy on East Eight Mile Road, of all places.
The thing is that the Tommy gun he used wasn’t even loaded, not that anyone else knew that, of course. Regardless, during the armed robbery, Walt rather drunkenly said to all the customers:
“Don't get up, finish your meals, then leave when you’re done.”
Walter then had the pretty blonde manager escort him to the safe in the basement. Then, he had her give him all the cash inside. When they went back upstairs people actually applauded the gentleman thief. Walt then gave the employees some of his spoils. Then, after the manager walked him to the door, Walt looked at her and said:
“You’ve been nice to me, young lady, and I didn’t have a chance to give you a tip.”
Then, he gave her a few twenties that she quickly stuffed away in her bra. That’s just the kind of guy he was. Unfortunately for him, Walt stepped outside to find the cops talking to his buddy in the getaway car. So, he ditched the submachine gun in the bushes and went to try and talk his way out of it. The next day the Teamsters bailed him out, but then Jimmy Hoffa personally fired Walter Peca himself. To make matters worse, Walt decided to jump bail. Whenever Walt got himself into trouble he would always call Don Brennan, and that’s exactly what he did. He took a thirty-hour bus ride to go see him, and Brennan provided Walt with a fake ID and a place to stay.
Then, one day in the early 1970s Walt saw a TV show in which hijackers asked for a bus and a plane for their hostage getaway. He thought to himself: “Why not eliminate all that by just getting a plane?” He realized that he could use a parachute to get away with ransom money, and all he would need is his trusty pocketknife, 8 packs of Raleigh cigarettes, some glue to cover his fingertips, and a makeshift disguise. He decided to darken his hair to match his tan skin and pass himself off as a businessman with a briefcase. After plotting the heist, Walt went to the thrift store and with only 10 dollars he purchased a black suit, white button-down shirt, black clip-on tie, black loafers, and a raincoat. He also went to a local stationers shop and rented a typewriter, to type out some notes to give to the stewardesses. Then, he rigged up a fake bomb in a briefcase out of road flares, a battery, a clock, and other various odds and ends.
The weekend before the heist, Walt called his old friend Don Brennan to get together for a drink. They met up at a tavern just east of Seattle on Highway 2. Walt ended up telling Don that he was going to hijack a plane. Don didn’t say a thing. They just left it at that. Then, on November 23rd of 1971, Walt hopped in his car and drove 80 miles to Spokane. He got more nervous the further he went. In Spokane, he got on a bus to Portland. There he checked in to a motel and got to work. He cleaned his fingers with rubbing alcohol to remove his skin’s oil. Then, he covered each fingertip with quick-drying glue, so he wouldn’t leave any fingerprints. Even after a drink and telling himself he could just back out if he wanted, Walt had a very restless night. On the morning of Wednesday, November 24th of 1971, Walter Peca got up and got ready to pull off the greatest caper in US history. He dressed in thermal underwear and a black suit with a white shirt, black tie, black socks, loafers, and wraparound sunglasses. Then, he got his briefcase and slung his raincoat over it. He was a completely nondescript white male, just as he intended. Walter Peca purchased a one-way airline ticket for 20 dollars using the alias “Dan Cooper”, as an homage to the comic book character.
He specifically chose a Boeing 727 in the airspace between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. He also waited to be the last person to board Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. Walt took a seat in 18-E, in the middle of the last row. He kept his sunglasses on and flagged down a stewardess named Flo Shaffner.
Walt ordered a bourbon and 7-up and lit up a Raleigh cigarette, but soon had to put it out. Then, Flo sat behind him in the stewardess section, and thirty seconds later Walt turned around and handed her a note. Of course, thinking it was something flirtatious, Flo just put it in her pocket. However, Walt was looking at her very insistently, so she read it. The note had the word “Miss” typed out on it, followed by a handwritten message:
I have a bomb in my briefcase and want you to sit by me.”
At that point, she nervously looked at him and said:
“I can’t believe you’re hijacking this plane.”
To which he replied:
“I can’t believe it either, but I’m serious.”
Then, the other flight attendant, Tina Mucklow came to the back, as well. That’s when Flo stood up, dropped the note, looked at Tina, and sat down next to Walt. So, naturally, Tina picked up the note and read it.
This is when Walt opened the briefcase to show Flo the “bomb” and he told her to write down his demands. This is what she wrote in her notepad:
I want $200,000 by 5 p.m. in cash. Put it in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff, or I’ll do the job.
When she finished taking down his demands, Walt looked at Flo and said:
She simply muttered:
Then, Flo took her note and the note that Tina had and went to give them to First Officer Rataczak and Captain Scott. So, Tina sat down behind Walt and asked him if he was hijacking the plane because he had a grudge against Northwest Airlines. Walt chuckled and said:
“It’s not because I have a grudge against your airline, it’s just because I have a grudge.”
Moments later, a passenger came wandering down the aisle toward them looking for a sports magazine but Tina quickly gave him a copy of the New Yorker instead. Being rather suspicious of the incident, Walt exclaimed:
“If that is a sky marshall, I don’t want any more of that.”
The stewardess reassured him that there weren’t any marshals on board. Walt made sure that everyone was moved to the front of the plane by Flo and Tina. He told them not to let anyone know what was going on. The pilot was instructed to make up an excuse about why the flight was being extended. Then, Walt demanded that all the notes be given back to him. So, Tina called the cockpit and Flo brought him back the notes. He then repeated his previous instructions, demanding that all of the items that he requested be on the ground before he would allow the plane to land. Once they did, Tina was sent to get what had been requested. She returned with the money in a canvas drawstring bag, not a knapsack. Walt was pissed about that and about how heavy the bag was. After everything was brought onto the plane, Walt ordered that all the shades in his section be drawn. There were snipers waiting to take him out and he knew it.
Walt had finally successfully extorted $200,000 in ransom money, which would be equivalent to more than a million dollars now. More to the point, like with the Big Boy caper, in the D.B. Cooper caper Walt offered a bundle of $2,000 to Tina Mucklow, telling her:
“You’ve all been nice to me. I never had a chance to thank you.”
In the end, Tina refused the offer. Then, Walt ordered the flight crew to take off with the tail door stairs down. They told him that was impossible so after the unnecessarily long process of refueling they took off at 7:36 p.m. Walt then told them to fly to Mexico, but the captain said they only had enough fuel to get to San Fransisco, but Walt told them to fly to Reno instead.
Earl Cossey, the owner of a skydiving school, furnished the four parachutes that were given to Walter. Having rushed through the job, Cossey sent in the two backpacks and two reserves, as requested. The problem was that one of the main parachutes was a training model that was sewn shut and therefore could not be used. So, after thoroughly inspecting the gear Walter chose to wear the one good parachute with no backup chute. This was because he had a 23-pound bag of cold hard cash to deal with. After all, 10,000 twenty dollar bills is a bit cumbersome. So, Walt opened up one of the reserve shoots and cut several lengths of cord to wrap around the bag of cash and his own parachute pack. The money bag was tied to his neck, waist, and crotch. He then put on his overcoat and buttoned it all the way up. Finally, he put on his belt to secure everything in place, and he put a rubber band around his head to keep his wraparound sunglasses on.
He told Tina that he would take the bomb with him and told her to make sure everyone was safely secured in the cockpit. After she left, Walt opened the rear door. After about ten minutes, Walt became agitated and called the crew over the interphone, saying he couldn’t get the rear stairs down. The pilot said he would level the plane and reduce airspeed, then it would open. When it did, Walt could feel and hear the roaring and creaking of the plane and see the raging storm that went down 10,000 feet beneath him. It seemed insane for him to leap out into that bitterly cold whirling darkness, but he had come this far and had jumped in far worse conditions. So, he found the self-assurance that he needed and threw the faulty parachute and the fake bomb off the plane. Then, “Dan Cooper” looked at his watch and stepped off the shaky stairs into the stormy sky, not knowing where he would land.
After he jumped from the 727 and deployed his parachute, on the way down Walt took note of two cars’ headlights along a road and lights from what looked like a bridge. He also noticed a bright light off to his left just before he landed. Then, all of a sudden, he crashed into a dead tree in a forest in Cle Elum, Washington. As soon as Walt stood up he knew his leg was broken, but he had to keep moving. First, he bundled and buried his parachute and pack among the battered bits of the broken tree. Next, Walter Peca took the money off of his chest and bundled it up in his raincoat. Then, after cleaning himself up, Walt walked up the slight grade where he thought he saw the cars. That night, on Thanksgiving Eve, while Walt was walking down the road, a man named Jeff Osiadacz was driving a dump truck down the same road. However, since there was no room for any passengers, he didn’t pull over to give the guy a ride.
Neither of them knew that they would both end up at the Teanaway Junction Cafe just outside of Cle Elum. Nevertheless, after Jeff Osiadacz ordered himself a cup of coffee, Walter Peca entered the cafe looking like a “drowned rat” to the truck driving cowboy. Walt’s face was bright red and his hands were shaking like crazy, but he just sat next to Jeff and asked if he would be able to give his friend directions to come get him over the phone. Osiadacz was happy to help so Walt made the call and Jeff got on the phone and told Don Brennan how to get to Teanaway Junction. Shortly after that, Jeff Osiadacz got up to leave for the Grange Hall to play in a band. So, with lots of cash to spend, Walter offered to pay for his coffee. An hour and a half later, Don Brennan picked up Walter Peca and took him home, like nothing ever happened. Then, Walt gave Don a few bundles of cash to keep him quiet.
The thing is that, as an expert parachutist and a man with numerous black marks on his record, Walter should have been a prime suspect in the FBI investigation. However, he was never interrogated about the skyjacking. The Deep State totally ignored him. As such, Walt assumed that he must have got away with it. So, the Monday after the skyjacking, Walter Peca returned to work with a limp from the fall. So, his supervisor sent Walter to the doctor and then to an office job in Spokane while his leg healed. For a little while, it seemed as though he had gotten away with everything. Still, Walt walked across the border into Canada and put most of the money in a safety deposit box. Then, about two months after the skyjacking incident, two strangers came to Walt’s job and said that he really ought to join them for drinks after work. So, they all met up at the Brown Derby Bar. As they sat in the tavern, one of the men turned to Walter and said:
“Mr. Peca, do you want to go to prison?”
Walter adamantly replied:
The man said:
“Then you work for us.”
Sure enough, a few weeks later, Walt’s phone rang. He heard a voice saying:
“Walter Peca, eight o’clock tomorrow morning, be at the Spokane Airport. There’s a plane ticket with your name on it. Get on that plane.”
The plane he boarded went to Boise, Idaho. There, Walt was questioned for the next four days. Surprisingly, none of the multitudes of questions ever involved the skyjacking. Over the next few years, he would receive more mysterious phone calls, marching orders, endless questions, and eventually training before returning home. Finally, in 1974 Walter received his first official assignment. Thus, he went from being a smooth criminal to a secret agent, albeit one who was totally being blackmailed in the process. That’s why Walt always felt like they knew too much and that he was just one wrong move away from getting locked up. In the meantime though, “Dan Cooper” was being protected, not prosecuted.
Walt was sent to places all around the world to do various different things for the government. In 1974 he went to Scotland, in 1975 he was in Iran, in 1976 he went to Saudi Arabia, in 1977 he went to Indonesia, and from 1978 to 1980 he went back to Saudia Arabia. He went to Poland and Nigeria, and so many other places. They just issued him one passport after another.
After dealing with all of that, at the age of fifty-two, Walt essentially stopped working for the CIA, other than a few small contractual assignments. Then, having retired, Walt frequently purchased new cars and gave his friends his used cars. He purchased a home in Oscoda, Michigan in the late 1980s, under the name Walt Richard Reca. Then, Walt’s mother stayed there with him until she died in 1999. His home soon became a fortress that was fortified by firearms and there were lots of them. In fact, on May 9th of 2003, the Michigan State Police and ATF raided his home with a search warrant to seize, quote:
“any firearms and or heavy weapons, including but not limited to pistols, rifles, shotguns, hand grenades and explosive devices.”
They confiscated several tasers, lots of 22 caliber rifles and pistols, rifle grenades, a grenade launcher and grenades, a Marlin model 60, a Winchester 1300, a Ruger M-77 Mark II, a Ruger M77 220 swift bolt action with bipod, a 357 mag pistol, a Ruger semiautomatic pistol, a 38 caliber revolver, and a 30.06 bolt action Mak-90 Sporter semi-auto rifle with a 30-round clip. However, the case against Walt had to be dropped after all the confiscated weapons disappeared, and all the records for Case 32–479 came up missing. The CIA totally got the ATF off of Walt’s back like it was nothing. You see, the FBI has known more or less right from the start that Walter Peca was D. B. Cooper, but as long as “Walt Reca” kept working for the Deep State, no one would ever know. That is at least until 2008 when Walt began to tell his friend Carl Laurin about the heist. Then, in 2012, Walter called Carl and finally gave a recorded confession, stating that he was “D. B. Cooper”. Although they had talked about the skyjacking for years, that was the first time that Walt ever actually admitted it out loud, and Carl got it all on tape. Then, he even typed out a transcript of the confession.
In the end, having lived a very full life, Walter “Walt” Richard (Dan Cooper) Peca Reca died on February 17th of 2014, having evaded apprehension and prosecution for 43 years. In the end, he effectively got away with the perfect crime and was quite possibly the best gentleman thief in history. As a sort of modern-day “Robin Hood”, “Cooper” was definitely one of the coolest criminals of all time. Let us give credit where credit is due. Walt, his family, his friends, and the feds all knew the truth, and so should you.
Walter R. P. Reca was D. B. Cooper