D.B. Cooper was one hygenic getaway artist. Aboard Northwest Orient 305, the flight he hijacked and jumped out of 40 years ago, Cooper was extremely cautious about, if not obsessed with avoiding, leaving his fingerprints on anything he touched.
He'd written his original ransom note in black, felt-tip pen. He demanded that the flight crew return it to him. He'd tossed a book of matches in the seat pouch in front of him. He retrieved it and stuffed it back in his pocket.
After spending three years researching the case and gaining access to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's files, I discovered that Cooper was a fingerprint-phobe. According to one FBI report on the physical evidence in the case, Cooper was so careful not to leave his mark that Bureau scientists could not find fingerprints on the eight Raleigh filter-tipped cigarette butts that he smoked and left for agents to find in the ashtray.
So why is the Bureau so confident that they can uncover the identity of the unknown hijacker by comparing the fingerprints of suspects against partial prints that agents found so many years ago on the Northwest Orient in-flight magazine that was found in front of Cooper's seat?
Since Sunday, there's been a blizzard of Cooper news about a new development in the case, namely what the Bureau has called a "our most promising" suspect. The Bureau found the suspect, who passed away 10 years ago, so credible that they sent a guitar strap he once used to Quantico for testing.
This forensic Hail Mary was in hopes of matching those prints to those found on the in-flight magazine. Since the disclosure of a new suspect has triggered an international news storm, the Bureau has downplayed the lead, suggesting it's a long shot.
"There's a lot of 'ifs' in this one," Ann Dietrich, the media rep for the Seattle field office, told me about the new suspect.
Still, it's not even clear if Cooper flipped through the in-flight magazine. According to the Bureau's files, stewardess Tina Mucklow specifically details how Cooper used matches to light the cigarettes as the hijacked flight circled around Seattle. As for Cooper flipping through the in-flight magazine?
No mention, at least not in the hundreds of documents I perused.
What is certain is that Cooper was wary of the prints on his fingers. In one report, agents noted that "at one time [Mucklow] lit a cigarette for him with the last match in the empty card folder. When she attempted to discard the empty card folder, the hijacker decisivley took it from her and placed it into one of his pockets, stating he did not want her to throw it away."