The 'Real' D.B. Cooper Revealed
Intrepid journalist Darrell Houston obsessed over the mysterious skyjacker
-- and finally figured out his identity
Darrell Bob Houston was eating day-old noodles in bed when breaking news came over the radio. A Northwest Orient flight out of Portland had been hijacked. The Seattle-based freelance journalist, seeing the chance for a much-needed paycheck, dumped his food in the sink and raced out of his $50-a-month apartment.
His life would never be the same.
Houston wrote an article about the hijacking and sold it to the Los Angeles Times -- but that was hardly the end of it. He became obsessed with the unknown skyjacker, who had jumped from the Boeing 727 on Thanksgiving Eve 1971 with a parachute and $200,000 in ransom strapped to his body. The business-suit-wearing outlaw became popularly known as D.B. Cooper.
The crime, the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history, continues to fascinate the public all these years later. It’s been the subject of books and documentaries and feature films, and so-called “Cooperites” still dig up compelling new evidence.
But Peak D.B. remains the 1970s, and the satire-loving Houston was arguably the world’s foremost Cooper chaser of the time -- and inarguably the most entertaining one. “Every time a new clue would turn up -- a pair of underpants in a southwest Washington tree, the alleged sighting of a sasquatch playing building-blocks with a pile of $20 bills -- I would write another skyjack article,” he noted.
Along the way, Houston, who died of cancer in 1984 at age 55, also found himself admiring the infamous criminal.
“He identified with D.B. Cooper,” says novelist Tom Robbins, who worked with Houston at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1960s and was one of his closest friends. “He was taken with the man’s style, his bravery.”
This “hero worship,” as Houston himself called it, didn’t surprise people who knew the tall, long-haired journalist. Having grown up in a hardscrabble family during the Great Depression, Houston loved that Cooper had “screwed the System back -- nonviolently, nonpolitically. He didn’t hurt anybody, and he only took 200 grand.”
In his own way, Houston also dedicated himself to screwing the System -- even when doing so hurt his career or his marriage.
“Fair to say, my dad lived a double life,” his daughter Kerrie Houston Reightley said in an email. “He was a great, loving father, but he had his wild side.”
That wildness was regularly on display in bars, where he spent more time than Norm Peterson. He’d get his fellow beer guzzlers laughing at his exuberant stories or, when syllables became too difficult to manage, he’d overturn the jukebox or doff his clothes and run into the street.
Whenever the Oregon-raised journalist’s life became too routine, he’d take off for parts unknown -- once by stowing away on a ship. He spent time in Japan and Guam, Vietnam and Alaska.
“He was restless,” Robbins says. “We’d sit around talking about writing the Great American Novel. I said to him, ‘You are the Great American Novel.’ ”
Houston, for his part, considered D.B. Cooper the Great American Pulp Novel -- and so he wrote it, calling the book, “King of the Midnight Blue.” The little paperback original is, like most of Houston’s work, funny and weird and shot through with memorable prose.
Here and there the 1976 novel reads as a straightforward memoir, the hijacker himself tweaking all the amateur sleuths out there who are trying to track him down: “I checked into a downtown hotel in Portland, Oregon, the rainy afternoon of November 23, just two days before Thanksgiving. (No, I did not register as D.B. Cooper. Sorry.)”
But more often than not it veers into macho-goofy meditations on Cooper’s elevation to pop-culture phenomenon, the ultimate symbol of the anti-authority age. Thus the novel’s X-rated excerpts from a Hollywood script: “Their groans billow as the camera alternates shots, off the mirror, of the skyjacker’s dedicated expression and the dimples on the stewardess’ callipygian ass.”
Such purple-prose passages suggest Houston had developed a crush on Tina Mucklow, the blond flight attendant who interacted with the hijacker during the Thanksgiving Eve flight. Of course, he maintained a much bigger crush on Cooper.
Houston liked to gaze at the FBI’s wanted poster late at night, allowing his mind to fill in the details. “I was struck by the beautiful blandness of Cooper’s face,” he wrote. “No, you would not buy a used car from such a man. He’d give it to you, free.”
How obsessed was Houston with the high-flying thief? He insisted on being given Seat C, Row 18, on a flight out of SeaTac during one of his assignments: “That’s where Cooper had sat on Flight 305, chain-smoking his Raleighs and fondling that attache case with the five phony sticks of dynamite inside.”
He kept his Cooper file folder, filled with research and manuscript drafts, on his lap during the flight. He shuffled papers, a pencil between his teeth. He liked to look like an absent-minded hippie-intellectual.
“You’re a writer, aren’t you?” the stewardess (to use the parlance of the times) asked, a smile flashing. “What’s your book about?”
He was ready with an answer.
“It’s about a man,” he said. “A man who figured out that we’re all riding on an airplane. Its name is Earth and it’s zooming through the Void at something like 66,690 miles an hour.”
Hey, it was the ’70s. This kind of rap could work on the ladies.
The stewardess’ grin widened. “What’s the man’s name?” she asked.
“D.B. Cooper,” Houston said.
“Any relation to James Fenimore?”
Houston was momentarily struck dumb. Then: “The stewardess’ wink said it all. I pretended to sleep all the way to San Francisco.”
Did this conversation actually happen? Did even half of his D.B. Cooper adventures actually happen? Houston would argue it didn’t really matter. “My province was of the imagination,” he insisted. “But it was by no means an exclusive domain.”
The obsession did weigh on him. He knew his skyjacker articles for low-grade men’s magazines like Saga and Argosy delayed work on the culture-changing novels he had expected to put out into the world. This could lead to bouts of what Robbins calls “the deepest, darkest” melancholy.
“Part of his bitterness was that he never achieved success as an author,” Robbins says. “He was very talented, but he would sabotage himself.”
(He failed to sell the film rights to “Midnight Blue,” for example. He admitted he asked for too much: $200,000 ... in 20-dollar bills, plus four parachutes. Ba-dum-tsss!)
There have been plenty of D.B. Cooper hunters who came along after Houston, who were just as obsessed and dug even deeper. Investigative reporter Tom Colbert has announced he’s found evidence that indicates former paratrooper Robert Rackstraw pulled off the infamous 1971 skyjacking. A New Hampshire engineer named Bill Rollins reached the conclusion that Cooper was actually the career military man Joseph Lakich.
Houston wouldn’t have been impressed with their efforts. Their problem, he’d have said, is they were determined to catch Cooper. Houston knew that the chase -- and the absurdity of the whole tabloid-y spectacle -- was the important thing. The only thing.
“Cooper left more than a stack of cigarette butts when he bailed out into that freezing rainstorm,” Houston concluded. “He left behind a victim, one who doesn’t laugh at skyjacking jokes.”
Yet, inevitably, Darrell Bob Houston also wanted to figure out the mystery of the famous Thanksgiving Eve hijacking. And in the end, he believed he did.
One day, this most free-spirited of counterculture scribes recalled finding himself wearing a dark business suit, a thin clip-on tie and scuffed black brogans. The truth hit home like a failed parachutist’s landing. Houston pulled off the wrap-around sunglasses he hadn’t realized he was wearing, threw his head back and exclaimed to the heavens:
“It’s true. I know too much. I am D.B. Cooper!”
-- Douglas Perry; originally published in The Oregonian, 2018
Photo: A model in the 1970s shows off the latest D.B. Cooper fashions.