This much you can say about Eric Ulis: he doesn’t give up.
The true-crime investigator, who organizes the annual CooperCon in Vancouver, believed for years that a man named Sheridan Peterson was the celebrated skyjacker D.B. Cooper. He told The Oregonian/OregonLive in 2019 he was “98 percent” certain Peterson was the pseudonymous criminal who’s inspired songs, countless books and even a feature film.
But unlike many other dedicated “Cooperites” trying to bust open the only unsolved airline hijacking in U.S. history, Ulis is willing to reevaluate his assumptions when the evidence doesn’t quite line up.
He abandoned the late Peterson as a suspect about a year ago when he couldn’t find anyone in the former smokejumper’s long life who knew him to puff on cigarettes. The skyjacker, who bought a $20 plane ticket at Portland International Airport on Nov. 24, 1971, under the name Dan Cooper — and later jumped out of Northwest Orient Flight 305 with $200,000 in ransom – smoked cigarette after cigarette while onboard the Boeing 727 that day.
But while Ulis gave up on Peterson, he didn’t give up on the Cooper case.
On Friday at 10 a.m., less than a week before his annual D.B. Cooper convention gets underway on Nov. 17, Ulis will hold a press conference at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre to talk about “a compelling new person of interest.”
Once again, Ulis believes he may have solved the case.
After walking away from Sheridan Peterson, he rededicated himself to detective work, this time zeroing in on the evidence from a 2017 scientific examination of the tie worn by the well-dressed skyjacker and left behind on the plane.
The lab analysis found a variety of metals on the tie – most notably a unique and rare titanium alloy that Ulis’ research indicates was produced by only one company: Crucible Steel – formerly Rem-Cru Titanium.
Ulis contacted the company, now known as Crucible Industries, tracked down former employees still alive who worked there in the 1960s and ‘70s, and traveled to Pittsburgh, where Crucible Steel was located. This ultimately led Ulis to the man he now believes was probably D.B. Cooper, the late Vince Petersen – yes, the same last name, with the exception of one letter, as his previous favorite suspect.
“I’m satisfied D.B. Cooper came from this company,” Ulis told The Oregonian/OregonLive this week.
Ulis, 56, has dug into Vince Petersen’s life and work, finding what could be connections to the skyjacking. He’s also searched the voluminous FBI case files that have been made public and found nothing about a Pittsburgh suspect (most names in the files have been redacted), suggesting he’s covering entirely new ground here.
The possible motive for Petersen to hold a plane full of passengers hostage for money: In 1971, the steel industry was beset by labor strife and economic upheaval, with some 47,000 steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania alone “officially laid off or temporarily idled,” The New York Times reported at the time, though Ulis hasn’t been able to determine if Petersen himself faced a pink slip in the months before the famous skyjacking.
Petersen worked in Crucible’s Pittsburgh-based titanium research laboratory. He died in 2002 at 83.
The skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper became a folk hero in the 1970s, an audacious criminal who stuck it to The Man without hurting anyone — and got away. (Many people chose to believe he successfully escaped. The late FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, who led the bureau’s investigation for a decade, believed Cooper most likely died somewhere in the Northwest woods on the night of the crime.)
Decades later, thanks to social media and the FBI’s decision to finally abandon the case, public fascination with D.B. Cooper returned. The past few years have seen amateur and professional sleuths investigate every lead, documentary filmmakers and authors take up the subject, and new “confessions” pop up.
Ulis is one of the best known of this second wave of Cooper chasers, featured on the History Channel’s “History’s Greatest Mysteries” and the Discovery Channel’s “Expedition Unknown,” as well as appearing in the Netflix documentary, “D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!”
He admits he likes being in front of a camera, but he says ultimately his work is about closing this half-century-old case.
Has he really done that by pulling a new name out of the conspiracy-theory-stuffed D.B. Cooper haystack? He’s not willing to say he’s quite as certain about Vince Petersen as he once was about Sheridan Peterson.
Ulis notes that he’s talked to Vince Petersen’s son, and that the son doesn’t believe his dad was the famous skyjacker. “As far as he knew, his father was an honest person,” Ulis said.
Petersen’s son also said he wasn’t aware of his father having any experience with skydiving, Ulis added.
But Ulis is completely convinced he’s onto something with Crucible Steel, prompting him to go public.
“I consider it a substantive break in the case,” he said. “Unless someone can explain how these (titanium) particles got on this tie.”
— Douglas Perry; firstname.lastname@example.org
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