Throwback Thursday: Ogden man believes former WSU professor was D.B. Cooper
This story is part of the Standard-Examiner’s Throwback Thursday series, where each Thursday, we explore our archives to bring you interesting articles from the past. These articles will range from the quirky to the historic. Have an idea for a Throwback Thursday article? Let us know!
When the FBI announced Tuesday, July 12 that it would no longer pursue the infamous D.B. Cooper case, we were reminded that a former Weber State University professor claimed to be the man who hijacked a passenger plane from Oregon to Seattle in November 1971, and who disappeared after parachuting from the plane with $200,000 in ransom money. Read the story below.
Tall tale or actual account? Ogden man believes he’s the son of a free-wheeling man who had a parachute and $200,000 in ransom 37 years ago
Published July 27, 2008
SCOTT SCHWEBKE, Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — Even now, Maurice Richards is reluctant to talk about the strange encounter that may help crack the most baffling unsolved crime in FBI history.
The Ogden attorney believes that, about 30 years ago, he may have come face to face with D.B. Cooper, the hijacker turned folk hero who commandeered a Boeing 727 en route from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle.
After obtaining a $200,000 ransom, Cooper parachuted from the plane into the dark abyss of the Pacific Northwest and the psyche of a stunned nation, never to be seen again.
That is, perhaps until sometime around 1977, when William “Wolfgang” Gossett marched into Richards’ office. Richards was head of the state public defender’s office for Weber, Davis and Morgan counties, and Gossett was his investigator.
Richards recalled Gossett seemed eager to talk.
“He came into my office and said, ‘There’s something I’ve got to tell you,’ ” Richards told the Standard-Examiner. “He said, ‘You know, I’m D.B. Cooper.’ ”
Richards’ advice to Gossett was quick and to the point: “If it’s a joke, don’t spread it around. If it’s true, don’t tell anybody.”
The attorney has a gut feeling that Gossett, who was 73 when he died from a stroke in Lincoln City, Oregon, in 2003, was indeed Cooper.
“I thought it probably was true. I always knew him to be truthful.”
Over the years, Gossett shared his dark secret with several others, including a son, Greg Gossett, who lives in Ogden, and Jim Bjornsen, a close friend and attorney in Newport, Oregon.
Greg Gossett and Bjornsen were initially skeptical of William Gossett’s claim.
However, new information uncovered by Galen Cook, a Spokane, Washington, attorney who has been doggedly investigating the Cooper case for more than two decades, has changed their minds.
“A lot that he had dug up dovetailed with what Wolfgang told me,” Bjornsen said in a phone interview. “I believe William Gossett hijacked that airplane.”
Cook, who is working on a book chronicling his investigation that may be released by the end of the year, said William Gossett is the most credible Cooper suspect ever.
Not only does William Gossett look almost exactly like the FBI composite sketch of Cooper, he also had extensive military training enabling him to safely jump from a jet in poor weather, Cook told the Standard-Examiner in a phone interview.
“He had the opportunity, talent and motive to carry out the crime,” he said.
Cook has forensic evidence that could determine whether William Gossett was Cooper, including fingerprints from military identification cards and hair samples from a headband he wore.
Since William Gossett’s death, the items have been kept in a Depoe Bay, Oregon, storage unit.
One of the fingerprints has been provided to the FBI’s Seattle field office, Cook said, and hair samples were sent Thursday for DNA analysis.
FBI Special Agent Larry Carr, who is overseeing the Cooper investigation, said information accompanying the fingerprint supplied by Cook is incomplete.
Carr also recommended that Cook submit William Gossett’s hair sample to a private lab, then provide the results to the FBI for comparison to DNA gleaned from a clip-on tie worn by Cooper and left aboard the hijacked jet.
It would be difficult for the FBI’s crime lab in Quantico, Virginia, to get around to testing the hair sample because it is occupied with numerous high-priority cases, he said.
Carr disputes Cook’s claim that William Gossett and Cooper are likely one and the same because there isn’t any physical evidence connecting Gossett to the hijacking.
“There is not one link to the D.B. Cooper case other than the statements (Gossett) made to someone.”
Still, the Cooper case remains an FBI priority and has received considerable publicity lately in connection with the agency’s 100th anniversary, observed Saturday.
Over the years, the FBI has eliminated 1,053 suspects, including four through DNA testing, as part of its probe into the crime that seems straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Carr said, “Everything about the case is just bizarre.”
It was, in fact, a dark and stormy night on Nov. 24, 1971, when one of the greatest mysteries in FBI history went down.
Earlier that afternoon, a man calling himself Dan Cooper went to the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines in Portland, Oregon, and used cash to buy a one-way $20 ticket on Flight 305 bound for Seattle, according to the FBI.
The hijacker was later misidentified by the media as D.B. Cooper, but the moniker stuck.
Cooper was described as a quiet man who appeared to be in his mid-40s, wearing a business suit with a black tie and white shirt.
While preparing for takeoff, Cooper ordered a bourbon and soda. On the plane shortly after 3 p.m., Cooper handed a stewardess a note indicating he had a bomb in his briefcase and wanted her to sit with him.
He opened the attaché case, displaying a mass of wires and red-colored sticks, and ordered the stewardess to jot down a note. The note, delivered to the plane’s captain, demanded four parachutes and $200,000 in cash.
After the plane landed in Seattle, Cooper exchanged the 36 passengers for the ransom money and parachutes. He kept several members of the flight crew aboard as the plane took off en route to Mexico City, flying about 200 mph at an altitude below 10,000 feet.
Sometime after 8 p.m., Cooper walked down the plane’s rear stairs and jumped. FBI agents swarmed over the aircraft when it landed in Reno, Nevada.
Cook believes William Gossett was well prepared to carry out the elaborate hijacking because of his extensive military training and nerves of steel.
“He was a guy who lived on the edge.”
William Gossett had a colorful life.
Born in 1930 in San Jose, Calif., he was married four times and had four children.
William Gossett was a career military man, serving in the Air Force, Marines and Army from the end of World War II through the Vietnam conflict, according to his obituary, published in the Newport (Oregon) News Times.
After his military career ended, he worked in the early 1970s as an ROTC instructor and military law professor at Weber State University.
“He was the kind of guy who could teach you survival skills,” Greiner said. “He would eat a bug or whatever would give him nourishment to live in the wild. He was a Special Forces type of guy.”
Greiner said William Gossett never told him he was Cooper but isn’t surprised some people believe he may be responsible for the hijacking.
“He was a guy who thrived in a tactically challenged environment. That’s where he would have felt best.”
William Gossett also worked as a radio talk-show host in Salt Lake City, where he moderated discussions about the paranormal.
Perhaps his strangest career move was his ordination to the priesthood in the Old Roman Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. As a priest, he dabbled in the occult and was known as a “bit of an exorcist,” Cook said.
He moved to Newport, Oregon, in 1994, and his hobbies included marathon running and storytelling, his obituary says.
Greg Gossett recalled his father was also a compulsive gambler and skilled survivalist who often left his family for days to camp alone in the wilderness.
“We would drop him off at North Ogden Pass and pick him up in Emigration Canyon,” more than 30 miles away.
Greg Gossett said that, in 1988, when he turned 21, his dad gave him a birthday surprise.
William Gossett took out the FBI sketch of Cooper from a filing cabinet and asked his son who the man in the picture resembled. Then he dropped a bombshell.
″‘I just want you to know, in 1971, that I hijacked a plane,’ ”
Greg Gossett said, recalling what his father told him.
Stunned, Greg Gossett managed to ask his father what he did with the ransom money.
It was then that William Gossett pulled out two keys that he said were for a safety deposit box at a bank in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the money was stored.
“He said that I could never tell anybody until after he died,” Greg Gossett said.
Kirk Gossett, another son of William Gossett, who lives in Gilbert, Arizona, said his father also told him numerous times he was responsible for the Cooper hijacking.
“He had the type of temperament to do something like this,” Kirk Gossett said in a phone interview.
Kirk Gossett recalled that, in 1973, his dad took him to Vancouver and left him alone in a hotel for several hours, which would have given his father ample time to deposit or withdraw ransom money from the safety deposit box.
After Greg Gossett learned of his dad’s secret, he scarcely thought about it. But that all changed on the night of Nov. 24, 2007, the 36th anniversary of the hijacking.
Greg Gossett was listening to Coast to Coast, a late-night nationally syndicated radio talk show that typically deals with topics involving the paranormal and conspiracy theories.
Cook, the show’s guest, was discussing the Cooper case. It was then that Greg Gossett remembered his dad’s confession and odd behavior over the years.
For one thing, William Gossett was obsessed with Boeing 727s, the type of jet Cooper hijacked.
Greg Gossett said that, when he was a kid, his dad frequently took him to airports, where he would point out 727s because they were the only passenger aircraft with a stairway that lowered in the back.
Also, around Christmas 1971, about a month after the hijacking, William Gossett was flush with cash, which was unusual because he was nearly always broke.
“He was proud as a Cheshire cat,” Greg Gossett said, describing his dad’s newfound wealth.
A few days after the Coast to Coast broadcast, Greg Gossett contacted Cook to tell him about his father’s claim of being Cooper.
Cook was skeptical until Greg Gossett e-mailed him a military photo of his dad taken in 1971.
“It shocked me,” Cook said. “I found the resemblance (between William Gossett and Cooper) dead on.”
Indeed, the photo and FBI sketch are eerily similar. Both William Gossett and Cooper have the same deep-set eyes, pronounced forehead, thin lips and widow’s peak.
Cook has sent the photo of William Gossett to a pair of flight attendants who were aboard the hijacked jet. He hopes Tina Mucklow Larson, who reportedly lives in Pennsylvania, and Florence Schaffner Wheeler, who resides in South Carolina, can make a positive identification.
Larson and Schaffner have not responded to the request, Cook said. The Standard-Examiner could not reach them for comment.
Cook believes William Gossett planned the hijacking to coincide with Thanksgiving week vacation at Weber State so that he wouldn’t be missed.
William Gossett’s military training prepared him to parachute from high altitudes in poor weather, Cook said.
“I wouldn’t doubt that Gossett jumped out of many airplanes in Vietnam.”
Cook also maintains William Gossett probably landed on the Oregon side of the Columbia River somewhere west of Portland. After spending the night in the woods, he probably made his way to Portland International Airport, took a plane to San Francisco and then traveled on to Utah, he said.
The FBI has long maintained that Cooper landed near Battle Ground, Washington, about seven miles north of the Columbia River, but didn’t survive the jump because the parachute he used couldn’t be steered and his clothing and footwear weren’t suitable for a rough landing.
In 1980, 8-year-old Brian Ingram found on the banks of the Columbia River a rotting package of $20 bills totaling $5,800 that matched serial numbers of the Cooper ransom money, further bolstering the claim that the hijacker was killed, according to the FBI.
Cook believes the money could have been planted by William Gossett to throw off authorities.
Earlier this year, the FBI recovered an old parachute from the area where Cooper is believed to have landed, but it didn’t belong to the hijacker.
Cook maintains that while William Gossett may have needed the ransom money to pay off gambling debts, there was possibly a “higher moral mission” for the hijacking.
He claims to have uncovered information indicating William Gossett may have committed the crime because he was upset about a clandestine government operation during the Vietnam conflict.
Cook also theorized William Gossett chose to confess to Richards and Bjornsen because of his need to claim responsibility for the hijacking, knowing that the two lawyers were legally obligated to keep the information secret because of attorney-client privilege.
Bjornsen said William Gossett explained to him in great detail his reasons for the hijacking.
“I’m the only person he’s told the whole story to,” Bjornsen said, declining to elaborate. “He told me many times.”
Meanwhile, Cook shuttles between a library in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he has sequestered himself to complete his book, and the banks of the Columbia River, where he has a bead on a possible location of one of Cooper’s parachutes.
“It’s a hell of a case,” he said.
“It’s one that begs to know the identity of the hijacker.”