The Woman Who Might Have Been D.B. Cooper

The man is 50 years old, or maybe 40. Either 6-feet, two-inches or 5-feet, 9-inches. Nervous or composed.

In the interviews following the event on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 on November 24, 1971, there were few things eyewitnesses could agree on. All authorities could take for an absolute fact is that a passenger who gave his name as Dan—later misidentified by a reporter as “D.B.”—Cooper had boarded the Seattle-bound plane in Portland, Oregon, ordered a bourbon and soda, and then handed stewardess Flo Schaffner a note. When it appeared she wasn’t about to read it right away, Cooper asked her to open it up.

Miss,

I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.

What happened next became a legendary part of the FBI’s case files for nearly 45 years. Cooper demanded $200,000 in ransom and four parachutes, which the airline’s president and authorities gave him. After letting the 36 passengers and two attendants off the plane upon arrival in Seattle, Cooper asked the remaining flight attendants to head to the front of the aircraft while it cruised at an altitude of 10,000 feet toward Reno, Nevada, for a scheduled refuel. Moments later, Cooper disappeared, the retractable stairs in the rear having been engaged to allow for an exit.

A search of the expansive drop zone where Cooper could have landed amounted to nothing. There was precious little physical evidence to follow up on. For decades to come, both the FBI and amateur sleuths tried to find someone who could potentially fit the profile.

They assumed witnesses had gotten at least one detail correct—that the hijacker was a man. But in a small airplane hanger in Puyallup, Washington, two aviation enthusiasts had their doubts. They had struck up a friendship with a fellow pilot named Barbara Dayton. The more Dayton talked, the more her friends suspected the investigation had a fatal misconception. D.B. Cooper was not a man at all, but a woman who disguised herself as one in order to pull off the most audacious air heist in history.

To understand how it might be possible for someone to convincingly portray a man for the purposes of a skyjacking, it helps to understand that Barbara Dayton was born Bobby Dayton in 1926. As a child living in Long Beach, California, Dayton later recalled, she had always been able to more readily identify as female, sneaking looks at her mother’s undergarments and buzzing around her bedroom like Tinkerbell.

When Bobby Dayton was 18, he tried to join the Air Force to satisfy his love for flying; an eye condition disqualified him. Frustrated, he joined the Merchant Marines instead, traveling the world and sneaking cross-dressing sessions on the ship while his peers were sleeping.

After his service, Dayton hopped on a carousel of odd jobs—fishing, machine work, prospector, laborer. Between these gigs and the armed forces, he had picked up parachuting skills; on a few occasions, he helped his father blast through rocks on his property with dynamite. He married once, and then a second time. Money was scarce, and he sometimes joked about robbing a bank.

Irregular flying lessons became more frequent when he got a steady job at a car garage in the late 1950s. Dayton eventually logged enough time in the air to get his private license in 1959. But a commercial license—one that would allow him to merge his passion for flying with a steady income—was out of reach. Twice, he failed the written portion of the test. The math formulas had always stymied him, and he felt the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was too focused on formulas and other requirements that he didn't think mattered.   

Bobby went to Johns Hopkins to plead for a gender-reassignment surgery to cure his sense of feeling trapped in the wrong body. They declined. When he made the same effort at Seattle’s University Hospital, they had him evaluated before agreeing to perform the procedure: Bobby became Barb in December 1969.

After a second surgery, Barb convalesced in Renton, near Seattle. Eight days prior to the skyjacking, Dayton visited with hospital staff as part of a follow-up visit. She was lonely and depressed. Money was low and work was scarce. During another appointment two weeks after the incident, a physician noted that her mood had considerably improved. Despite her welfare being set to run out, the hospital's notes read, she was "strangely unworried" about money and seemed disinterested in looking for work. Dayton might as well have had all of the money in the world.  

Bobby Dayton, pre-surgery, compared to composite sketches of Cooper. Legend of D.B. Cooper

In 1977, Dayton was working as a librarian at the University of Washington and tuning up her Cessna 140 on weekends. At Thun Field in Puyallup, she ran into Pat and Ron Forman, a married couple who were just about ready to buy a small propeller plane of their own.

Although Dayton was a loner, she and the Formans developed a friendship over their mutual interest in flying. The couple had her and other pilots over for meals; they sometimes visited her at her apartment in Seattle, which was sparsely furnished. She told them a family inheritance had run out.

Among the pilots in the Seattle area, shop talk would sometimes turn to the Cooper case. Some thought there was no way Cooper could have survived the jump; others believed he had pulled off the perfect crime. At that point, the FBI was no closer to finding a plausible suspect.

When someone voiced an opinion Dayton perceived as silly, she became agitated and vocal. After Ron playfully told her she probably was D.B. Cooper, she sternly told him to never make a joke like that again.

As their relationship deepened, Dayton confided two secrets to the Formans. The first was that she had formerly been a man and had undergone surgery. The second was that she was indeed Cooper.

According to the Formans’ book, The Legend of D.B. Cooper, Dayton told them the following: Feeling resentful of the FAA and mired in a depression following her gender reassignment, Dayton decided to pull off an airborne heist. She drove to a bus station in Woodburn, Oregon, wearing a suit and tie that concealed a blouse underneath. She ran shoe polish through her hair to make it look darker. Her wig was in a paper bag, and a makeshift bomb rigged with dynamite was in an attache case. At the bus station, she parked her car, took public transportation to Portland International Airport, signed a fake name to her boarding pass, and boarded. The ransom demand followed.

After parachuting out, she navigated toward a predetermined landing area near a hazelnut orchard in Woodburn by using lighted checkpoints visible in the night sky en route to Reno. She walked to an irrigation cistern, stashed the money and suit, donned the wig, and returned home. Dayton had borrowed her former gender only long enough to become a hijacker.

Barbara Dayton. Legend of D.B. Cooper

The Formans didn’t quite know what to believe. For one thing, Dayton’s eye color (blue) differed from descriptions (brown) given by witnesses. She was also 5-feet-8, a good deal shorter than some reports of Cooper being over six feet.

Then again, the eyewitnesses had been inconsistent. Dim cabin lights, Dayton told them, could account for the different descriptions of her eye color. And how well could you judge a person’s height while they were sitting down?

Dayton eventually cooled on the Cooper talk, denying she had ever been serious. It’s possible she had been mistaken about the statute of limitations regarding the case. While it was originally set to expire in 1976, officials managed to get an indictment for a John Doe that kept the case open and charges available indefinitely. The Formans believed Dayton didn’t realize that when she made her confession in 1979. 

As Dayton’s interest in flying waned in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Formans saw less and less of her. A lifelong smoker, she died at the age of 76 in 2002 due to pulmonary disease. When the couple approached the FBI with their suspicions, they dismissed it: She was the wrong height. The Formans handed over DNA samples from Dayton’s belongings, but the agency appeared to only have incomplete samples from a clip-on tie Cooper had left behind. Geoff Gray, author of the comprehensive SkyjackThe Hunt for D.B. Cooper, later drove with Ron to the cistern where Dayton had said she stashed the money. It was empty. The Formans believe Dayton might have gambled it away during a stay in Reno, Nevada.

In July 2016, officials formally closed the case on Cooper. Gray, who wrote of several possible Cooper suspects in his book, summed up Dayton’s story: “I can’t prove she was Cooper,” he wrote. “I can’t prove she wasn’t.”

 

Additional Sources:
Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. CooperThe Legend of D.B. Cooper

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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Prices subject to change.

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Take Two: When Kim Jong-il Raised North Korea's World Cinema Profile By Kidnapping Two South Korean Stars

Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Choi Eun-hee knew there was trouble even before the needle sent her into unconsciousness.

It was 1978, and Choi, one of South Korea’s most prominent actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had achieved earlier in her career. A promise of a possible film partnership by a man claiming to be from Hong Kong had lured her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront locale in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, where she exited a vehicle and noticed a group of men standing near a boat. Choi sensed something wasn't quite right, but before she could consider it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown onboard.

When she awoke, Choi found herself in the captain’s quarters. Above her was a portrait of Kim Jong-il, then the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of the country, a communist regime that had now seemingly absconded with Choi—for reasons the actress couldn't imagine.

Roughly eight days after being kidnapped, Choi found herself in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been forcibly subdued and delivered to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, she was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who would soon join them, also involuntarily) were the very people the country needed to spearhead a new era in North Korean filmmaking, one that would make the entire world sit up and take notice.

That both Choi and Shin would be captives of the state was of little concern to those in charge. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were there. And Kim had no intention of letting them leave.

 

Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films—including a great deal of pornography—and ordered traveling diplomats to bring back copies of international films for his enjoyment. Kim even authored a book, 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, that was intended as an instructional guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a singular, unified vision and bemoaned that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. All but ignored by the rest of the film world, Kim wanted the North producing features that would be embraced by film festivals.

Kim Jong-il loved movies so much he decided to abduct some talent.Getty Images (Kim Jong-il) // JurgaR/iStock via Getty Images (Movie Theater). Photo composite by Mental Floss.

At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to fill a need for trained workers simply by kidnapping them. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; between 1977 and 1978, they abducted five South Korean high school students who became instructors for future undercover Northern operatives. They also once attempted to kidnap a concert pianist, who grew wise to the situation when he arrived for his private appointment and heard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim used a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way to achieve his movie aspirations.

Choi was only one part of the plan. Once she was grabbed, Shin began a desperate search for her. The two, who had once been considered a “golden couple” in South Korea, had divorced in 1976 following Shin's affair with a younger actress, but they remained close.

Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar in his own right. Though his career had also recently cooled off, he was a celebrated director who had once been referred to as "the Orson Welles of South Korea." Though there are different stories as to how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help locate his missing ex. And when that trail eventually led him to Hong Kong, Shin, too, soon found himself with a bag over his head, being hustled to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned herself to some acceptance of her fate—she was living in a luxurious villa surrounded by guards—Shin was more combative. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to prison.

For four years, Shin subsisted on a diet of grass, salt, and rice, never once seeing Choi or getting any update about her safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Finally, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither one knowing the other had been there the entire time.

Kim apologized for the delayed meeting, saying he had been busy. On the subject of Shin being imprisoned for four years, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. It was only then that Kim explained why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, so he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the movie business.

None of it was presented as a choice. That same year, the couple remarried—also reportedly at Kim's suggestion.

The filmmakers spent years trapped in North Korea.NatanaelGinting/iStock via Getty Images

There was discussion of escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to scout locations for productions, but Shin dismissed it.

"What's the matter with you?" Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir, Kingdom of Kim. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead."

Instead, Shin pondered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $3 million as an annual salary, for both personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from some firm edicts—Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan, while somehow softening its image as a totalitarian terror—Shin had a large degree of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. He made Runaway, a 1984 film about a wandering Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, that Shin believed was the best film of his career.

Most famously, he directed Pulgasari, a monster movie clearly inspired by Godzilla that featured an oversized monster aiding an army of farmers looking to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who worked on the Godzilla films to come to North Korea to assist with the production by guaranteeing their safety. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second person to wear the Godzilla suit, performed as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.

 

Kim was very happy with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which grew to seven films. Some had even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually, he gave them more and more freedom to travel, eventually allowing them to take an escorted trip to Vienna in 1986 to help stir up a possible European distributor that would make a North Korean film easier to circulate. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.

"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," Shin wrote.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers & the Despot (2016).Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards in pursuit, Shin and Choi took a taxi to the American embassy and explained their eight-year ordeal as creative captives of Kim. Within a week, they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the CIA.

North Korea denied that the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had seen to it that they came back with evidence. She had snuck an audio cassette recorder into her handbag during one meeting with Kim, who advised that if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea, to say that they were there voluntarily. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before escaping, a stunt that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government gathering intelligence on North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice had ever been heard.

Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced several more movies under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They eventually returned to South Korea in 1999, though some South Koreans believed Shin had gone to the North and pledged allegiance to communism voluntarily and treated him with suspicion.

"I could not dare return [to South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North," Shin said in an interview. "If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it."

Shin and Choi's story was explored in depth in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's documentary The Lovers & the Despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi said that she still had nightmares about being pursued by North Korean agents. "Even though [Kim Jong-il] did not use the right means to get what he wanted, I understood his desire to develop the North Korean movie industry," she said. "He mentioned that he wanted to bring about change to North Korean movies, all of which were similar in terms of directing and acting. But please don't misunderstand that my forgiveness of him means that I agree with the North Korean system, because I don't."

Though North Korea never did admit to abducting the pair, in 2002 Kim Jong-il did come clean about snatching several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and issued a formal apology.

When it finally received a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as silly. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has yet to make any impact on the international film scene.