One mystery solved in ‘D.B. Cooper’ skyjacking fiasco

One of the many unanswered questions surrounding the unsolved D.B. Cooper case appears to have been solved.

A CJR story on Monday attempted to explain how Clyde Jabin, a United Press International reporter in Portland, Oregon, came to identify one of the most famous American criminals as “D.B. Cooper” on Nov. 24, 1971. That was the day an unidentified man hijacked a Boeing 727 flying from Portland to Seattle. The man–who ultimately parachuted out of the plane with $200,000 and was never seen again–had purchased his Northwest Orient Airlines plane ticket that day under the name “Dan Cooper,” according to the FBI.

Jabin’s wire story that night identified the suspect as “D.B. Cooper,” and the name stuck. To this day, that is how the world refers to the mysterious hijacker. But where did Jabin, who died in 2001, get the initials D.B.? Two theories have endured for the last 45 years–one involves an error on Jabin’s part, and the other involves information an FBI agent gave Jabin that turned stale after it hit the wire.

On Tuesday, though, CJR editors received an email from James Long, a retired journalist in Oregon.

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“It was my mistake,” he wrote.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Long claimed responsibility for the error that renamed the alias of the man behind the only unsolved skyjacking in US history.

Long explained that he was working that day for The Oregon Journal, a now-defunct afternoon daily newspaper in Portland. He had just come into the newsroom when news of a hijacking began to circulate. When he learned it was a Northwest Orient Airlines flight, Long thought of a former co-worker at the paper named Duane Youngbar who had taken a public relations job with the Minnesota-based airline. Long said he had an office telephone number for Youngbar in his Rolodex.

“So I called as fast as I could, hoping to get through while every other reporter was piling up in line behind me,” he said.

Long said he discussed what happened next with Youngbar years later, and Youngbar did not remember the ensuing conversation. (CJR could not reach Youngbar for comment.) Long claims, though, to have spoken with someone at the airline’s headquarters that afternoon. Whoever it was, he said, told him the hijacking suspect’s last name was “Cooper.”

Long said that when he asked for a first name things got muddled. He could overhear his source talking with someone else on another telephone line. Also, it was a stormy afternoon in Portland. “There were times–this was one–that reception wasn’t great,” Long says. This added to the confusion.

He cannot remember how, but he wound up with “D.B. Cooper” as the suspect’s name. He guesses he asked the source to spell the name and somehow erroneously landed on the initials.

Long said that when he got off of the phone, deadline was upon him. He turned to his typewriter, wrote what he called a “quick and dirty” story, and sent it to his editor.

The Oregon Journal was located on the fourth floor of a building in downtown Portland. The same floor housed UPI’s bureau. Long said UPI reporters often got stories from The Oregon Journal. He feels sure that as soon as he turned in his story, a reporter from the bureau scooped up his carbon copy and culled information from it for the first wire story on the hijacking. Long said he did not know which UPI reporter was working that afternoon.

It was Jabin.

Long, a respected investigative journalist who retired from The Oregonian in 2003, said he has never tried to hide what happened.

Through the years, whenever the Cooper case would come up in conversation, he would share his connection. Still, he said with a laugh, “it’s not something you want to be remembered for.

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William Browning is a reporter based in Mississippi. He can be reached on Twitter @wtbrowning.