When the F.B.I. or any law enforcement agency investigates a major crime, one of the things they do is to hold back a known fact or two from the public. They do this to weed out false confessors to the crime, or to eliminate (or confirm) suspects. The D.B. Cooper hijacking case was no different. It has recently come to light that the F.B.I. decided to hold back a key bit of evidence about the bomb the hijacker used to force Northwest Airlines to hand over $200,000 in cash and four parachutes.
Over the last forty-six years, only four things have ever been revealed about the bomb itself. First, that it was housed in a briefcase. Second, that there was a battery inside similar to the one in the picture. Third, that there were wires attached to both the battery and the bomb. Fourth, that the bomb was composed of red sticks. This last bit originated from stewardess Florence Schaffner, who was allowed a quick glance inside the briefcase. Schaffner was passed a note from the hijacker shortly after takeoff from Portland, OR that read:
Miss. I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.
As soon as Schaffner did as she was told, the hijacker opened the briefcase for a quick moment. She later told the flight crew what she saw. Red sticks, lots of wires, and a battery bigger than one you would put into a flashlight. That’s been the story for several decades now, although FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach has said occasionally that he was sure the bomb was phony because dynamite sticks are generally tan in color, and not red.
Red sticks. Could they have been road flares? The problem with road flares isn’t that they are red. It’s that they have an ignitor on one end, and a lot of instructions printed on the outside. Even a stewardess who only got a quick look would be able to tell the ‘dynamite’ was phony. So if they weren’t dynamite, and they weren’t road flares, then how could they pass for a real explosive? If the F.B.I. had even a clue that the bomb was a phony, they probably would have stormed Flight 305 right on the tarmac after it reached Seattle. But something created doubt in their minds about the whole thing, and somehow they assumed the bomb could be real, even if the alleged dynamite was the wrong color.
The answer was both simple – and a brilliant move by the hijacker. He not only fooled the F.B.I. and the flight crew, but the bomb itself had a purpose beyond just being a bomb.
It was a key part of the hijacker’s escape plan.
How could the bomb itself be a part of the hijacker’s escape plan? The answer is, if it was only made to resemble a bomb, but actually served another purpose entirely. That purpose was to provide money to the hijacker in the form of quarters, believe it or not. This discovery came about in a two-pronged manner.
During my long investigation into Cooper suspect Kenny Christiansen, and his friend (the alleged accomplice) Bernie Geestman, family members of Geestman have occasionally come forward. One interview was with Geestman’s niece, now 59 years old, who was living with the Geestman couple with her mother (Bernie’s sister) at the time of the hijacking. This situation happened because Bernie’s sister had just divorced her husband back in Minnesota, and had brought her family all the way to Bonney Lake, WA to move she and her kids in with Bernie and his wife Margaret for a while. The whole family stayed with the Geestmans’ for about a year, before Geestman’s sister (witness Dawn Androsko) purchased a house of her own in nearby Buckley. (Doing it on money she borrowed from Kenny Christiansen) But just before the hijacking, and for some time afterward, Dawn and her kids were living with the alleged accomplice. What’s more, everyone got to know Kenny, since he was a frequent visitor to the house.
On one memorable afternoon a few years back, I met the niece and one of her sons at a restaurant in Sumner, WA. It was a place all of us knew well, the old Dairy Freeze across from Sumner High School. She had requested to speak to me in person, after she and her family saw the famous episode on Brad Meltzer’s Decoded about Kenny Christiansen. They had seen the previews, and since some of them knew Christiansen, they watched the show. However, they were shocked at the end of the program when the last person the cast of Decoded questioned was none other than Uncle Bernie. He had not told anyone he would be on the show and it was a complete surprise to the whole family. When Bernie Geestman appeared, some family members of his were shocked again when Geestman told the cast that Kenny could be the hijacker because yes, he looked like the FBI sketch:
“You’re asking me for MY opinion?” Bernie said. “Sure. He looks just like him.”
Bernie’s family, especially his niece, smelled a rat right away. Some older members of the family, as well as family friend Helen Jones, knew that Kenny and Bernie had gone off together for several days over the same Thanksgiving holiday the hijacking occurred. Why would Uncle Bernie throw Kenny under the bus like that? they wondered. Why didn’t he just tell them he was with Kenny that week? It was shortly afterward when some of them ordered Into The Blast, the book about Kenny and their uncle, and started reading some of the Christiansen articles out there on the internet. After they did, they contacted me.
The niece asked to remain anonymous, but had her son Jordan McCauley contact me by phone and email. He said his mother wanted to meet with me, and did I know anything else about either Kenny’s, or her Uncle Bernie’s involvement in the hijacking? I told them I had a preliminary report that I was preparing for the Seattle FBI. They wanted to see it, so I agreed and we met at the restaurant a couple of weeks later. I showed them a copy of the report, and that’s when Bernie’s niece told me about the time she had walked into a shed out back of the Geestmans’ place when she was thirteen years old. She saw Kenny doing something strange, she said.
According to the niece, about two weeks prior to the hijacking, Kenny Christiansen was taking filled quarter-size paper coin rolls and wrapping them with red electrical tape. He was taking them, she said, and making longer ‘sticks’ out of them by taping them end-to-end in twos. He was also attaching wires to these combined rolls. Kenny turned to her and said, “You’re not supposed to be in here.” So, she turned and left and didn’t give it much thought…until she saw the Decoded show on Kenny Christiansen many years later. Then it all made sense, she said.
I gave them a copy of the preliminary report and we went over it quite a bit that afternoon before we parted ways. (Later, they got a copy of the final one.) As far as the coin roll story, I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t see where it was very good as evidence and almost forgot about it. Then about a year later I stumbled across a video at YouTube that was shot in November 2013 at one of the famous ‘DB Cooper Days’ celebrations at the Ariel Store and Tavern in Ariel, WA. Done by Portland radio personality Clyde Lewis, there was a bit about a local resident who owned the original notebook from the Cowlitz County Sheriff with his notes on the search for the hijacker in 1971. The entries are dated from the day after the hijacking and contained details about the hijacker, where he probably landed, his demands, etc. The sheriff’s notes say he obtained the information from Thomas Manning, an FBI agent out of Longview, WA who was intially involved in the search for the hijacker.
Clyde Lewis interviews the local resident and as the guy is flipping pages and reading from the notebook, the cameraman is filming each page. One entry catches my eye:
‘Carrying briefcase (blk) containing 6″ stick wrapped in red plastic believed to be bomb..’
What? No one’s EVER said that before about the bomb. No one except the niece of the alleged accomplice, a mild-mannered woman with four kids, who is about as ordinary as they come – and FBI agent Thomas Manning.
It didn’t take me more than a minute to figure out what happened. This was one of the things that the FBI withheld from the public on the Cooper case, and it made perfect sense they would do so. If a false confessor came forward, they might ask about the bomb. How did you make it? What was it? Perhaps the confessor says: I used dynamite sticks. Or, he tells them they were road flares. The FBI knows both of those things are false, and if the confessor doesn’t know the sticks were wrapped in red plastic, they know he isn’t the hijacker. In my mind, this revelation was too much to be coincidence. The niece was telling the truth.
I immediately took still shots from the video, some of which are presented here. Video link: https://youtu.be/gtBPKuprO7A
Later, I informed the niece and her family what I discovered and told them they had been right all along. Kenny had made the phony bomb up at Geestman’s house a couple of weeks before the hijacking, and being a coin collector anyway, he had made a ‘bomb’ that served two purposes. The first was to fool the FBI and the airline into believing it was real. The second was to break it all open when he reached the ground, and use the quarters in a pay phone to call Geestman to come and pick him up. It was ingenious – and practical as well.
Recently, author Geoff Gray (Skyjack) released Part One of a series of unedited FBI files on the hijacking. Red tape is referenced in many entries about the construction of the bomb.
On a matter of point, two quarter coin rolls, taped end-to-end, measure exactly 5 3/4″ in length.