D.B. Cooper – An In-Depth Look at Alleged Accomplice Bernie Geestman – Part One of Three

Today, Bernie Geestman lives in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State, near the town of Sequim. (pronounced ‘Sk-wim’) Over the years, he has become a strong suspect as not only an accomplice to the Cooper hijacking, but helping hijacking suspect Kenny Christiansen to purchase a house a few months after the crime.
(If you’ve already seen Part One, you can skip to Part Two HERE.)

BernieonDecoded

Much of this suspicion Mr. Geestman brought upon himself with his dishonesty in dealing with both this author, and people working with the History Channel show, Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. (Link leads to the full episode done on Christiansen, in which Mr Geestman appears as the last guest.)

Geestman, as Decoded cast member (and former state prosecutor) Scott Rolle once said to this writer, is ‘a tough nut to crack’. When the show first aired on January 11, 2011, the cast agreed that Christiansen was probably Cooper, but that Geestman didn’t assist him. But at the time, they were not provided with all the facts, due to timing issues with filming. (This means that this writer, who had just received important information about Geestman, was busy collating this information at the time of filming.) When the cast were later provided the preliminary public report on these men that was later sent in an expanded version to the Seattle FBI, both Rolle (now an elected judge) and WSU professor Buddy Levy changed their minds in email messages to this author. Cast member Christine McKinley had no comment. Later, all cast members received the complete report on Christiansen that was sent to the Seattle FBI, which strengthened their opinion even further. If anything can be said about the six-year investigation done by the staff of Adventure Books of Seattle, it is that their investigation has always been an ongoing process. Figuring out exact details and events that happened forty to sixty years ago was both complex and difficult – especially when people sometimes try to take the easy way out by lying.

Bernie Geestman’s name first came up in 2007, during an investigation of Christiansen by NY private investigator Skipp Porteous. A high-profile PI who was often hired to sweep rock stars’ hotel rooms for bugs, Porteous got curious about Christiansen after Christiansen’s brother Lyle contacted him and named his brother Kenny as possibly being D.B. Cooper the year previously. Lyle, a retired postal worker in his eighties, was a bit naive about dealing with a private investigator, especially at first. He suggested to Porteous that his brother’s story would make a good film, and in fact his first move was to approach film director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally) with a personal letter. Ephron hardly remembered receiving the letter, but after Porteous finally dragged the details out of Lyle Christiansen, he began checking out Lyle’s allegations against his brother. He didn’t expect to find much. To Porteous’ surprise, what Lyle claimed started making sense – at least to Porteous. Along the way, Lyle said he got suspicious after watching a TV show about the Cooper case, but admitted he didn’t know whether his brother was Cooper or not. However, he did say that Kenny told him on his deathbed in 1994, “There is something you should know, but I can’t tell you…”

Below: The book that Porteous and yours truly (after driving around the Northwest interviewing witnesses) released on Christiansen. Since Geestman had not yet gone public on Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, we called him ‘Mike Watson’ in the book for legal reasons. His ex-wife became ‘Katy Watson’.

blastcoverfront

Below: Geoff Gray’s 2010 book about his investigation into the DB Cooper hijacking. Although Gray was unaware of Bernie Geestman, he still presents Christiansen as a strong suspect. In 2011, after this author read his book and realized Gray had been left out of the information loop on some things regarding Christiansen, I provided him with additional files. Afterward, PI Skipp Porteous agreed that he should have done that himself from the start.

skyjackcover

At about the same time, author Geoffrey Gray (Skyjack – The Hunt for D.B. Cooper) was also checking out the Christiansen story, and Skipp Porteous cooperated with him to a certain extent. However, Porteous held back some things from Gray (since he was planning his OWN book on Christiansen), and the biggest one was that he had been running background checks on everyone Kenny ever knew in his lifetime. And in many of those, the name Bernard Wayne Geestman kept popping up, along with Geestman’s ex-wife Margie. Porteous cross-referenced these names with other family members of Geestman’s and started investigating them as well. The more he dug into these peoples’ lives, the more he discovered how their lives were intertwined with Christiansen’s. Meanwhile, Geoff Gray was the first to go public on Christiansen in an article he wrote for New York Magazine on October 21, 2007, that detailed both the investigation by Porteous, as well as his own. The article was solidly done, but most of the interviews Gray did were with neighbors and co-workers of Kenny Christiansen later in life – not people Christiansen actually knew around the time of the hijacking in 1971. Porteous had withheld certain information from Gray, because he wanted to be the one to finally ‘break’ the Cooper case. In other words, he supported Gray’s efforts, but he wasn’t giving Gray the whole smash for free either.

Below: Skipp Porteous in 2009.

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For example, Porteous found out that Geestman’s sister, Dawn Androsko of Fox Island, WA had allegedly received a $5,000 cash loan from Ken Christiansen only five months after the hijacking to buy herself a house. (She later admitted this in interviews and said her brother Bernie was the one who approached Christiansen for the money, as well as delivering it to her.) Porteous already knew that Christiansen made around $6,000 a year from Northwest Airlines, and wondered where Kenny got the money to do it. There was also an early allegation that Christiansen had bought a house just after the Cooper hijacking for cash. (It was later discovered that half the house was financed on a suspicious promissory note written to the owners – Geestman was the Best Man at their wedding –  and the other half was financed legitimately.)

FBIcollagelowresChristiansen, who had died of cancer in 1994, or about twenty-three years after the Cooper hijacking, certainly LOOKED a lot like the FBI sketches of Cooper. His brother Lyle produced letters from Kenny written prior to the hijacking showing Kenny’s unhappiness with his employer – Northwest Airlines – the company that was hijacked by Cooper. The strikes at NWA, his lack of money, all were subjects of Kenny’s letters home to his family in Minnesota. But those things were happening after Kenny had been with NWA more than twenty years. His career with the airline had been one for the books, an on-again, off-again situation where he ended up working hard for years to move up the ladder. But even after twenty years, he still wasn’t making any money and had little to show for it.

Kenny had enlisted in the Army paratroops at the tail end of World War 2, and took his training during the toughest time ever for US Army paratroopers – when the US was preparing to invade Japan in 1945. Few knew the atomic bomb would soon end the war, which it did before any invasion was needed.  Kenny ended up serving with the Occupation Forces in Japan instead, where he took jumps to get extra pay. After he got out of the Army, he took a couple of odd jobs before signing up with Northwest Airlines at their main HQ in Minneapolis. He was sent to NWA’s new waystop on their famous ‘Orient Express’ route:  Shemya Island, a lonely rock out in the middle of the Bering Sea.

NWAorientexpress

Because fuel was a consideration for prop-driven planes trying to cross the Pacific back in the late 40’s and into the 50’s, NWA discovered it was easier to fly north to Alaska first and refuel, thereby shortening the routes to Japan and the Philippines.

And it was on Shemya Island that Kenny Christiansen first met Bernie Geestman. Kenny was assigned to work under Geestman, who was already an accomplished aircraft mechanic for NWA. Kenny helped Bernie with the oiling and fueling, and on the side did the trash pickup inside the planes, and any other work Bernie assigned to him.

Both men were originally from Minnesota, and both had joined Northwest Airlines from NWA’s main hub in Minneapolis. Both arrived on Shemya at nearly the same time. They soon became friends, and spent most of their off-duty time drinking or playing pool at the one watering hole provided. The usual rotation duty on Shemya was around 18 months. Geestman returned to Seattle eventually, while Kenny stayed on for nearly four years.

Below: Bernie Geestman oiling a plane on Shemya around 1950.
Picture courtesy of Rick Cochran, a former radioman on the island.

BernieGeestmanOilingPlane1950

Kenny Christiansen finally said enough to working for NWA in late 1953 and took a job as a telephone operator in a much warmer place:  Near Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. At the time, the US government was conducting nuclear tests in the area, and Kenny was present not long after ‘Castle Bravo’ on March 1, 1954. The Castle Bravo test so far exceeded expectations that traces of radioactivity from it were picked up as far away as Japan and India. The areas around Bikini Atoll received so much fallout that some were no longer inhabitable. The test was supposed to be secret, but caused an international outcry calling for an end to atmospheric atomic testing. Kenny’s decision to take the job in that same area may have caused his early death from colon cancer. His family believes this is the case. In any event, he quit the telephone job soon afterward and returned to Seattle – to give Northwest Airlines another try.

When he got back to Seattle, he and Bernie picked up their friendship where they had left off a few years earlier. Bernie now had a girlfriend by the name of Margie Miller, and was still working as a mechanic for NWA in Seattle. Kenny decided he wanted something better than helping Bernie fuel and oil planes, so he applied for purser training and was re-hired by the airline. It wasn’t his last visit to Shemya however.

Margie1950
He was quickly assigned to the Orient Express route.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below: A flight plan between Seattle and Japan, with a stop at Shemya.
Kenny’s name is shown on the crew list. Credit: Lyle Christiansen.

 

flight_plan

After Kenny came back to Seattle, he settled down in the Seattle suburb of Renton for a few years. Two or three times a month, he would work the Orient Express route to either Japan or the Philippines. Meanwhile, Geestman quit his low-paying mechanic job with Northwest and went to work for Boeing on their new 727 program for much better money, a move that may have turned out fatefully for both men. But by 1968, Kenny was still barely getting by on the paltry money paid out by NWA. And the occasional strikes at NWA continued. In his letters to his family back home in Morris, Minnesota, he made no bones about his situation:

“Those eight million dollar jets are just sitting on the ground…”
“I’m down to eating the peanut butter…”

Still, Kenny persisted. He stayed with Northwest. At different times he was forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet. Digging work for the Seattle World’s Fair, picking apples, and in 1970…the year prior to the hijacking…digging a septic tank ditch for Bernie Geestman.

Geestmanwedding

Geestman finally married his long-term girlfriend Margaret, and had moved on from Boeing to working for Foss Tugs in Seattle as a diesel mechanic. He and his new wife bought a house in Bonney Lake, WA. Christiansen decided he liked the area where they lived so much, he rented an apartment just down the hill from them in Sumner, WA. It was in the middle of the Puyallup Valley, a place of strawberry and raspberry farms, rivers, and low traffic. With virtually no friends from work, and knowing few people in the Puget Sound area, Kenny started spending more time with the Geestman couple, as well as members of their family. This included Dawn Androsko, (Bernie’s sister, who turned out to be a good witness later) and many of her friends and relatives.

However, things were about to change for Kenny, the Geestman couple, as well as some of the people they knew. And that change was that Kenny had finally had enough of giving his life away for peanuts to an ungrateful company. And his friend Bernie would not only encourage him to do something dangerous to end his financial problems, but would provide some of the means to do it.

Continued in Part Two

 

 

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Author: robertmblevins

Sci-fi writer and managing editor for Adventure Books of Seattle.

2 thoughts on “D.B. Cooper – An In-Depth Look at Alleged Accomplice Bernie Geestman – Part One of Three”

  1. it all makes sense…But two questions? One, did anyone think to show pictures of this Kenny guy to the Flight crew? And two, if he did jump, survive, get picked up and driven home by his buddy…then how did 6000$ end up on a river bank?

    Like

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