SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – In 1971 D.B. Cooper became a legend after hijacking a plane in the northwest.
He threatened to blow up the plane and demanded $200,000. D.B. Cooper parachuted out of the plane with the money and was never seen or heard from again.
It happened again six months later in Utah.
But this time, authorities got their man.
Richard McCoy was arrested two days after the hijacking. The 29-year-old was a family man, a BYU student and a pilot with the Utah National Guard.
McCoy boarded the United 727 in Denver headed for Los Angeles. But shortly after takeoff he gave the flight attendant a written message that he had a bomb and demanded $500,000.
The plane landed in San Francisco where the airline handed the money over to him along with several parachutes. He ordered the pilot to steer the plane to Mexico but as it flew over Utah, McCoy parachuted out of the plane.
He landed near Springville on a Friday night and made his way into town. Outside a drive-in, McCoy asked Pete Zimmerman for a ride to Provo. Zimmerman was 16 years old at the time.
“He said ‘I really need a ride bad, would you consider it?'” recalled Zimmerman. “‘It’s right on the south side of Provo. It’s not very far at all you know. I can really use some help.'”
He took the stranger who was dressed in military fatigues and boots to his home in Provo. Zimmerman said the stranger also revealed something about himself while commenting about flares that were appearing over Utah Lake. The flares were being used to search for the man who parachuted out of the airplane that same night.
Zimmerman said he never forgot their conversation.
About the same time, a McCoy family member and a close friend contacted authorities after they heard about the hijacking.
McCoy’s sister-in-law and a pilot friend recalled him boasting of hijacking an airplane. They were also concerned that he could not be found that night.
Zimmerman also went to police after reading the headlines about the hijacking the next day.
The FBI executed a search warrant at the home where they found parachutes, a typewriter and nearly half a million dollars in cash. McCoy was placed under arrest.
It shocked his LDS ward in Provo where he taught Sunday school. Dennis Ash was in McCoy’s ward.
“It was a ward member?” Ash remembered people asking. “They were quite surprised.”
Former newsman Terry Wood was also in the Utah National Guard at the time, so was McCoy who Wood said joined the search the next day.
“Richard Floyd McCoy was piloting a Utah National Guard helicopter searching for himself over Utah County,” said Wood. “Unbelievable.”
The jury finds him guilty later that summer and was sentenced to 45-years at a federal prison in Pennsylvania, but McCoy managed to escape.
Months later, he died in a shootout with authorities in Virginia.
McCoy’s story was just beginning.
In a 1991, book titled: D. B. Cooper: The Real McCoy, the authors theorized McCoy and D.B. Cooper were the same person.
It was co-authored by Bernie Rhodes and Russell Calame.
Rhodes was a Utah probation officer. In 1972, his job was to interview defendants and made sentencing recommendations for the judge. Calame was the FBI’s Special Agent In Charge in 1972. He retired prior to collaborating on the book.
In their book, they took note of the appearances of D.B. Cooper from a composite and pictures of McCoy. They bear a strong resemblance.
They wrote of other similarities. Example, during the hijackings, each typed messages using similar paper and also handed them over to the flight attendant.
“In both instances, the hijacker sent the initial message advising the crew of the hijacking forward to the pilot’s cabin rather than taking it forward,” the authors said in their book.
“Cooper ordered a stewardess to take it forward; McCoy showed (a) passenger an envelope with ‘hijack’ on it and told him to have the stewardess come back. In both hijackings, the hijacker was thoroughly acquainted with pilot terminology.”
Each also requested the flight attendant sit next to them. And the authors said both hijackers ordered four parachutes.
“In both cases it was obvious that the hijacker was familiar with military chutes and also the packaging of the chutes,” according to Rhodes and Calame.
They wrote that Cooper was disappointed when the parachutes lacked specific equipment to strap the money bag to his waist. As a result, authorities believed Cooper lost most of the money when he parachuted and it became dislodged.
During his request for the parachutes, McCoy made improvements and demanded that equipment on the parachutes. As a result, he succeeded in landing with the money still strapped to his body.
D. B. Cooper and McCoy demanded fueling trucks park in identical strategical locations during refueling stops. It was done so that the hijacker could see whether authorities would try to board the plane which was sitting on the tarmac.
Both men knew about aviation, weather conditions and skydiving. They also used the stairways at the back exit of the plane to jump.
McCoy was a skilled parachutist and demolition expert while serving in Vietnam.
In an FBI memo, linking the two men, evidence suggests McCoy drove to Las Vegas, then to Portland days before the D.B. Cooper hijacking. Credit card receipts and phone records showed that McCoy returned to Las Vegas and back to Provo.
Rhodes also noted that Cooper left a unique clip-on tie and clasp on the seat of the airplane. It was turned over to the FBI. Calame noted his agents showed it to McCoy’s family who identified it as belonging to McCoy.
Despite their theory that McCoy was D.B. Cooper, the FBI didn’t agree.
“We’ve obviously looked at their case, whatever bits and pieces we’ve been able to find,” said John Fox, an FBI historian. “We’ve tried to track down DNA from the tie and have never been able to firmly connect the D. B. Cooper hijacking with any of the allegations with others who might have done it.”
In their book, Rhodes and Calame claimed the FBI bungled the D.B. Cooper investigation. After Calame retired he turned over notes to the investigation of McCoy to his successor who he claimed showed no interest in pursuing their theory. Also, they noted the Northwest 727 that D. B. Cooper hijacked was not properly dusted for fingerprints.
The book offered insight about the fingerprints.
“One of the stewardesses on the Cooper plane said she saw Cooper thumb through airline magazines from his seat pocket,” an FBI agent disclosed to Calame. “Just like our man McCoy. But you know what, Mr. Calame? No one bothered to send any of those magazines back to the crime lab.”
And then there’s the issue of the unique clip-on tie and clasp. FBI agents who searched the plane couldn’t recall coming across it. Yet through a Freedom of Information request, Rhodes was able to learn the tie and clasp were in the evidence room of Seattle’s FBI.
D. B. Cooper’s identity still remains a mystery and his flight through the night sky is legendary.
McCoy became a shooting star in the annals of Utah history.
Pete Zimmerman still holds on to the 1972 subpoena requiring his presence at McCoy trial.
“It was interesting, especially for a young kid,” recalled Zimmerman. “I remember him (McCoy) looking at me with a look of anger.”
And for others McCoy met along the way, it’s a tale not forgotten.
“It’s one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever covered,” said Wood. “It really is. It just had all the elements of a great story.