AMBOY, Wash. – A tattered, half-buried parachute unearthed by kids had D.B. Cooper country chattering Wednesday over the fate of the skyjacker, who leapt from a plane 36 years ago and into the lore of the Pacific Northwest.
While the FBI investigates whether the fabric came from the world's only unsolved skyjacking, the discovery re-energized a legend in the southwestern Washington woods where Cooper may have landed, and where time has helped turn him into a folk hero.
A hand-lettered sign outside Jim Ford's ice cream and espresso shop in Amboy, the area where the parachute was found, advertised a "D.B. Cooper Mystery Mocha" to honor the search. "Good fun," Ford said.
"He's seen now as not such a bad guy, even though he hijacked a plane and got away with the money," said Marvin Case, editor of the weekly Reflector newspaper in Battle Ground, about 12 miles south of Amboy.
In November 1971, a man identifying himself as Dan Cooper, later mistakenly but enduringly identified as D.B. Cooper, hijacked a Northwest Orient flight from Portland, Ore., to Seattle, claiming he had a bomb.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he released the passengers in exchange for $200,000 and four parachutes and asked to be flown to Mexico. He jumped out the back of the plane somewhere near the Oregon line.
He may have landed around Amboy, not 30 miles from Portland. That's the same area where children playing outside their home recently found fabric sticking up from the ground where their father had been grading a road, FBI agent Larry Carr said Tuesday.
The children, responding to a publicity campaign, urged their father to call the FBI, Carr said, and when their find became public this week, it reignited talk of the region's favorite folk hero.
In Ariel, about 20 miles northwest of Amboy, the Ariel Store has an annual D.B. Cooper party.
Dona Elliot, owner of the store, said Wednesday she thinks Cooper hid out in brush and trees for an accomplice to take him to the airport in Portland.
"It's the perfect place; no one would have looked for him there," she said.
The T-shirt for this year's party will have a parachute theme, she said, even though she's skeptical that the artifact the kids found is Cooper's.
"It will be 37 years in November," she said. "There can't be too much left of that parachute."
The FBI doesn't want to excavate the property until it confirms, either through an expert's examination or scientific analysis of the fabric, whether the chute is the right kind.
If it is Cooper's parachute, that will solve one mystery — where he apparently landed — but it will raise another, Carr said.
In 1980, a family on a picnic found $5,880 of Cooper's money in a bag on a Columbia River beach, near Vancouver. Some investigators believed it might have been washed down to the beach by the Washougal River. But if Cooper landed near Amboy and stashed the money bag there, there's no way it could have naturally reached the Washougal.
"If this is D.B. Cooper's parachute, the money could not have arrived at its discovery location by natural means," Carr said. "That whole theory is out the window."
Retired FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, of Woodburn, Ore., who worked the Cooper case, said Wednesday he doubts the remnant found near Amboy could be the nylon parachute Cooper carried when he jumped into poor conditions over rough terrain.
"Lying in the mud, mostly wet, would not be the kind of environment that would be good for a parachute," he said.
A parachute expert, however, said the nylon could have lasted.
"A parachute that was buried could last a very long time," said Gary Peek of the Missouri-based Parks College Parachute Research Group, which does parachute research on contract for the military.
Like cars, parachutes have serial numbers, and identification that includes dates of production and names of the manufacturers. And the man who supplied the parachute Cooper is believed to have used says he would be able to identify it.
"It was my parachute," said Earl Cossey of Woodinville, Wash. "So, yes, I'd be able to identify it to this day."
Cossey was a pilot and ran a skydiving school at the time in Issaquah, Wash. When Cooper demanded parachutes, the FBI got in touch with him.
"Maybe I owe him if he didn't get that parachute out and working," Cossey said Wednesday.
The FBI doubts Cooper survived because conditions were poor, the terrain was rough and Cooper was lightly dressed.
"The night it happened, I thought he had a 50 percent chance," Himmelsbach said. "... It has gone down since then."
Other theories abound. Richard Tosaw of Ceres, Calif., author of "D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive?" says, for example, that Cooper met a different death — when his plunge ended in the Columbia River.
Locals prefer to think he made it.
"I think he's out there enjoying his money," Gilbert said. "Most people here say they think he made it. We may never know."