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

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

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3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

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4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

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5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

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6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

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7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

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8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

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9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

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10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

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New Online Art Exhibition Needs the Public’s Help to Track Down Lost Masterpieces by Van Gogh, Monet, and More

Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you wanted to compare both versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet in person, you couldn’t. While the second one currently hangs in Paris’s Musée d'Orsay, the public hasn’t seen the original painting since 1990. In fact, nobody’s really sure where it is—after its owner Ryoei Saito died in 1996, the precious item passed from private collector to private collector, but the identity of its current owner is shrouded in mystery.

As Smithsonian Magazine reports, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) is one of a dozen paintings in “Missing Masterpieces,” a digital exhibit of some of the world’s most famous lost artworks. It’s not the only Van Gogh in the collection. His 1884 painting The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was snatched from the Netherlands’ Singer Laren museum earlier this year; and his 1888 painting The Painter on His Way to Work has been missing since World War II. Other works include View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cézanne, William Blake’s Last Judgement, and two bridge paintings by Claude Monet.

Paul Cézanne's View of Auvers-sur-Oise was stolen from the University of Oxford's art museum on New Year's Eve in 1999.Ashmolean Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new online exhibit is a collaboration between Samsung and art crime expert Noah Charney, who founded The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art. It isn’t just a page where art enthusiasts can explore the stories behind the missing works—it’s also a way to encourage people to come forward with information that could lead to the recovery of the works themselves.

“From contradictory media reports to speculation in Reddit feeds—the clues are out there, but the volume of information can be overwhelming,” Charney said in a press release. “This is where technology and social media can help by bringing people together to assist the search. It’s not unheard of for an innocuous tip posted online to be the key that unlocks a case.”

The exhibition will be online through February 10, 2021, and citizen sleuths can email their tips to missingmasterpieces@artcrimeresearch.org.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]