August 3, 2011 / 9:20 PM / 6 years ago

Woman claims 1971 hijacker D.B. Cooper was her uncle

<p>Accused skyjacker D.B. Cooper is shown in these FBI sketches released to Reuters August 1, 2011. REUTERS/FBI/Handout</p>

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A woman claiming to be the niece of the mysterious skyjacker dubbed D.B. Cooper, who bailed out of a jetliner 40 years ago with $200,000 in ransom, says she recalls her uncle plotting the sensational caper at a family gathering in 1971.

Marla Wynn Cooper, 48, of Oklahoma City, said on Wednesday that she was the person who furnished investigators new clues to a previously unknown suspect, sparking a renewed probe of a case the FBI counts as the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. aviation history.

The woman told ABC News that she gave the FBI a leather guitar strap made by her uncle, now dead for over a decade, along with a photo of him with the same strap, to be examined for fingerprints that might match those from the plane.

The FBI has acknowledged that a leather guitar strap was submitted as evidence in the case, but to no avail.

“The material wasn’t suitable for extracting fingerprints from, so we’re in the process of obtaining other times that may provide a better source of comparison prints,” Fred Gutt, a special FBI agent based in Seattle, said on Wednesday.

He declined again to reveal the person who came forward with the latest information, saying, “We do not identify witnesses in an investigation.” The FBI said earlier this week its latest lead came from someone “close” to the new suspect.

But Marla Cooper said she is certain that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, who went by the name L.D. Cooper, was the man who seized a Seattle-bound Northwest Orient Airlines flight in November 1971 by claiming to have a bomb. He vanished when he jumped from the rear of the plane in mid-air with a parachute and $200,000 in cash, which he had ransomed from the airline in exchange for the release of the 36 other passengers.

The plane was flying at about 10,000 feet at night through a storm over wooded, rugged terrain in the Pacific Northwest, and the hijacker was presumed by many to have perished.

The sensational Thanksgiving eve caper triggered a massive manhunt, and the FBI went on to consider over 800 suspects in the first five years after the crime.

The only trace from his getaway was a crumbling batch of $20 bills matching the ransom money’s serial numbers, unearthed by a boy from a sandbar along the Columbia River in 1980.

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

Marla Cooper, a sales executive for a coffee company, told ABC News, and later CNN, that she decided to come forward after piecing together vague childhood memories that were reinforced by comments her parents made to her in more recent years.

ABC said she was working on a book about her story.

She recalled seeing L.D. Cooper and another uncle during a family gathering at her grandmother’s house in Oregon around Thanksgiving 1971, “planning something very mischievous.”

“I was watching them using some very expensive walkie-talkies that they had purchased,” she said, recounting that her uncles then “left to supposedly go turkey hunting.”

When they returned, “My uncle L.D. was wearing a white T-shirt and was bloody and bruised and a mess, and I was horrified. I began to cry,” she told ABC. “I asked them what happened, and they told me they’d been in a car accident.”

But she also recalled overhearing one of her uncles say, “‘We did it, our money problems are over, we’ve hijacked an airplane,'” and she recounted hearing them ask her father to “help them go back into the woods and find the money.”

She told ABC that her uncle had served in the Korean War but was not a paratrooper. She recalled he was obsessed with a Canadian cartoon skydiving hero named Dan Cooper and even kept a Dan Cooper comic book tacked to a wall.

According to the FBI, the man in the dark business suit who hijacked Northwest flight 305 called himself Dan Cooper when he purchased a one-way ticket in Portland, Oregon, but the moniker D.B. Cooper originated from media reports and stuck.

On her Facebook page, Marla Cooper said she last saw her uncle L.D. around Christmas 1972, just over a year after the hijacking. She said she believes he died in 1999.

Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune

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