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Crimes on Ice

Shira Isenberg

What cases have been left unsolved by the United State’s top crime-fighting agency? Despite the bureau’s best detectives and the most sophisticated methods, the FBI doesn’t always get its man

Thursday, October 27, 2016

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COPS & ROBBERS Why do crimes remain unsolved? A murder today has only about a 65 percent chance of being solved — compared to 90 percent half a century ago. Are modern criminals that much smarter?

T he FBI has officially given up on identifying a man who hijacked a plane and got away with it — along with most of $200,000. On November 24, 1971, en route from Portland to Seattle, a passenger named “Dan Cooper” — described as a serious-looking man dressed in a suit and tie — showed the flight attendant the bomb he was carrying in his briefcase. The plane was allowed to land in Seattle, where Mr. Cooper let the passengers get off, as long as he received cash, four parachutes, and a flight to Mexico. With his escape plane flying at low altitude, at his request, Cooper put on the parachute, strapped the bag of money to his chest, and jumped out somewhere along the border between Washington and Oregon.

The planes tailing the hijacked airplane didn’t see him jump, and the searchers who combed the forested area below were unable to find any trace of D.B. Cooper, as the media called him. It was as if he had vanished into thin air. In 1980, the FBI received a clue when a child, digging on a beach along the Columbia River, discovered $5,800 buried in the sand. The serial numbers on those stacks of $20 bills matched the ones given to Cooper.

However, the area where the money was found was apparently not where Cooper was thought to have jumped, so the discovery only heightened the mystery of the case. Did the cash slip out in the jump? Did Cooper bury the bundles in the sand after safely landing and escaping? Many believe Cooper couldn’t have survived the jump into a forested area at night or the dangers of the wilderness below. Yet others claim he may have been an experienced parachutist, possibly with army training, who was just very good at getting away.

Over the years, the FBI has chased a number of leads and suspects, but has yet to crack the case. In July of this year, to better direct resources, the FBI decided to close the case for good.

The Prison Busters

From 1934 until 1963, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary — a federal prison located on Alcatraz Island, in the waters of San Francisco Bay — was the place to send troublesome prisoners, especially those with prior escape attempts. (Al Capone was one of the prison’s infamous inhabitants.) And while officially no prisoner ever successfully escaped, the FBI admits that it still doesn’t know exactly what happened to three particular inmates.

At some point during the night of June 11, 1962, brothers Clarence and John Anglin, along with fellow inmate Frank Morris, snuck out of the maximum-security prison. The escape was the culmination of months of planning. A fourth inmate was supposed to have joined them, but he remained behind. In fact, investigators discovered how the inmates planned their getaway from the prisoner who remained behind.

The Anglin brothers and Morris were highly creative and industrious. Over time, each of the trio had managed to cut through the wall around the vent in the back of their cells without being detected, using homemade tools. (The fourth inmate couldn’t loosen the vent in his cell in time for the escape.) To trick the guards, they had created “heads” in their likenesses, using soap, toilet paper, paint, and even real human hair from the prison barbershop. In the darkness on the night, the guards didn’t realize the prisoners weren’t actually in their beds.


Once on the other side of their cells, they went through a utility hallway to access the ceiling of the prison. In the months leading up to the escape, they had made a raft and life-vests from the dozens of prison raincoats they had hidden there. With their gear, they climbed down the side of the building, and presumably jumped into their raft to make their getaway to nearby Angel Island, over a mile away.

Their disappearance wasn’t noticed until the next morning, when the FBI was called in. Over the next few days, searchers found debris related to the escapees, including a makeshift life-vest, but no bodies were ever recovered. Still, the FBI never found any evidence that the three survived: no stolen cars or discarded clothing in the days after the escape, nor contact with their families over the years. The FBI continued the investigation for 17 years, finally closing the case in 1979.

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