A Ridgeland-based attorney, Madison County Native and amateur sleuth, along with a small team of fellow internet investigators, has developed a novel suspect in a well-known case that has left the Federal Bureau of Investigation scratching their heads for the past fifty years.
Just before Thanksgiving in 1971, an unknown man jumped out of Northwest Airlines Flight 305 with a bag full of $200,000 in cash- worth upwards of $1.5 million in today’s money- and a parachute over the pacific northwest.
He has never been identified-though his composite sketch is among the most famous of all time- and is only known by the fake name he gave the ticket counter, Dan Cooper. The case is most famously known as the D.B. Cooper case and remains one of the only skyjackings in world history where the perpetrator has never even been identified. Some say he got away with it while others speculate he died during his daring jump. The case would go on to ignite the imagination of many including around 15 copycats- nearly all of whom were shot or captured- and an unlimited army of enthusiasts.
To this day only about $5,800 of the money has been recovered when it was found on a sand bar in February of 1980. Investigators estimate the money was found some 20 miles outside of the area authorities searched in the aftermath of the crime nine years earlier. Serial numbers of the cash matched those the FBI had on record for the Cooper ransom money though no one has ever developed a satisfying theory about how the money got there.
To this day the FBI has come up empty and discontinued the investigation in July of 2016 after investigating hundred of suspects, eliminating all but ahandful.
An article recounting the facts of the case on the FBI website features the disclaimer noting that the bureau “redirected resources” to ‘focus on other investigative priorities” in 2016.
“The daring hijack and disappearance remain an intriguing mystery—for law enforcement and amateur sleuths alike,” The article reads.
Ryan Burns, a Ridgeland-based criminal defense attorney and Madison County native is one of those amateur sleuths. He has helped develop a unique suspect in the decades-old case, Milton B. Vordahl.
Burns describes Vordahl as a “mad scientist” who held a number of patents and worked on the Manhattan Project and helped develop the Fat Man bomb that decimated Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. he was also said to be an early advocate for jogging.
Vordahl passed away living his life in relative obscurity in 2002 in Washington state.
But how did Burns, along with other online researchers, develop Vordahl as a possible suspect?
During his time in law school, Burns became interested in the D.B. Cooper case. Burns graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2008.
Cooper, whoever he was or whatever his actual motives exists in the popular culture as a kind of gentleman thief. Though his threats involved an alleged bomb in a briefcase he had with him, no one was hurt and accounts from the crew members who interacted with him say he was charming, dressed in a suit and tie, cooly smoking cigarrettes while holding court with the lovely stewardesses.
A fan theory for the acclaimed AMC drama series Mad Men that circulated in 2015 as the final season was airing speculated that the show may end with its central character, the dapper adman Don Draper, could be revealed to be Cooper.
Burns says he does not want to downplay the severity of the hijacking-hijacking an airplane was a capital offense at the time- but noted that nobody was hurt on that November evening.
The interest he firs picked up in law school would spark a hobby that Burns enjoys to this day, learning everything he can about any and all aspects of the case.
“It felt like a mystery that could be solved,” Burns said. “I can't go to some island and look for Amelia Earhart’s plane. Somebody was Cooper and the more I learned about it the more, I saw it could be solved.”
Burn has done a number of tests himself including seeing how long rubber bands could last in a hole in his backyard and has made friends with skyjacker Martin McNally, the only Cooper copycat to make it off a plane with cash in hand, though it immediately went blowing in the wind, and Bill Mithcell, who sat across the aisle from Cooper on the plane.
With the wealth of information available and the FBI dropping 500 entries from their case files related to the investigation a month, Burns went on to describe the case as “the perfect crime for the internet era to m.”
Through the internet, a driven researcher or a team of driven researchers could pour over spreadsheets of data. This particular spreadsheet he and his associates chose was an itemized list of over 100,000 microscopic particles found on the discarded clip-on tie Cooper was said to have worn when he boarded the plane. The tie was examined by electron microscope by McCrone Associates of Chicago.
Three of the 100,000 particles recorded “stuck out like a sore thumb” to the team. An alloy with a unique combination of titanium and antimony, known as TiSb. The particular TiSb alloy they found was developed by a Pittsburg firm called Rem-Cru that worked closely with the Air Force and commercial air industry. Though the alloy was never mass-produced commercially.
“This alloy never left the lab,” Burns said.
All patents produced by Rem-Cru featuring this alloy had one name on them, Milton Vordahl.
Vordahl would have been in his late fifties at the time of the hijacking and lived in the Pacific Northwest. Using his draft card they were able to confirm he was the right height. At first, they thought he was too old. Vordahl would have been in his late fifties at the time of the heist and Cooper was believed to be a decade younger than that.
But then the words of Bill Mitchell came to mind. Mitchell, a college student at the time of the hijacking, was a bit jealous of all the attention Cooper received from the attractive stewardesses and dismissively described him as a “geeky old man.” The initial estimate of a flight attendant that interacted with Cooper put him in Vordahl’s age range as well.
Another feature nailed Vordahl for the team. His pronounced lower lip, a key feature of all the Cooper composite sketches made.
Burns and his team discovered Vordahl in July of 2022 and by September he had crept to the top of their list just in time to present their findings to a large assembly of fellow enthusiasts at Cooper Con in Portland, Oregon that November. Burns said when they showed Vordahls passport photo next to the famous composite photo they were met with amazed gasps.
Finally, Burns has met with and talked to living relatives of Vordahl who have not discounted his theory and even supplied Burns with soem pictures of the man.
Burns and his team have documented a number of other connections as well.
With all that research Burns is nowhere near saying he has cracked the case. He puts the likelihood at maybe four percent, but for a decades-long unsolved case that is pretty exciting.
“I am not saying he is Cooper,” Burns said. definitively. “We think he is somebody worthy of being looked into more.”
He went on to say they do not take the act of accusing someone of a capital crime lightly.
To view more of Ryan Burns’ work visit Norjak.org or to join the search go to the “D.B. Cooper: Mystery Group” on Facebook where Burns is an administrator and group expert. Burns said he is also working on a book on the FBI investigation on the case.