September 2016 - We Never Got Our Man

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

FBI ends hunt for the mysterious D. B. Cooper.”

That’s what the headline said in my paper. The FBI is throwing in the towel. If D. B. Cooper is ever brought to justice, it won’t be the work of G-Men.

This requires that I begin my column with an apology. I know many of you feel all my columns should begin with an apology, but this one actually will.

If you’re too young to know who D. B. Cooper is, I apologize for requiring you to read a significant amount of material before you know what I’m talking about. Usually that only happens when you read my opinions.

If you aren’t too young to know who D. B. Cooper is, I apologize for my inability to do anything about the aging process. Which is probably another thing that has occurred to you when you read my opinions.

Either way, it is my distressing duty to inform you that D. B. Cooper has eluded us.

For forty-five years.

On November 24, 1971, D. B. Cooper parlayed $20 into $200,000 by buying an airline ticket and writing thirteen words of deathless prose. He bought a ticket to fly from Portland to Seattle, and handed a stewardess a note that said, “Miss, I have a bomb and would like you to sit by me.”1

That retired the trophy for worst pick-up line ever2 and got $200,000 and four parachutes loaded onto the plane in Seattle at his request. The passengers and flight attendants were off-loaded, a new course was set for Mexico City, and the plane took off again. Somewhere over southwestern Washington, D. B. Cooper put on one of the parachutes, jumped off into the rainy night and was never heard from again.

And apparently we’ve been looking for him FOR FORTY-FIVE YEARS!

According to my newspaper, the FBI spokesperson says the agency has “redirected resources allocated to the D. B. Cooper case in order to focus on other investigative priorities.”

Resources?! We’ve been directing resources—paid for with my tax dollars—into looking for D. B. Cooper for forty-five years? We paid for a press conference to announce we were no longer going to do that? Somebody—please—put a lock on that checkbook.

The guy got 200K. That’s chump change. Clayton Kershaw makes that much before he reaches the clean-up hitter every game.3 Madonna would not sing a scale for $200,000. Eric Clapton would not pick up his guitar. An A-list Clinton or Bush would not speak at your grandchild’s summer camp talent show for $200,000.

But the United States government—which prosecutes so many 200K frauds across the street from me that local restaurants give you a discount if you show them your indictment has fewer than six zeroes—has had the FBI turning over rocks on this case since I was waiting for bar results.4

I guess that represents a commendable commitment to duty. I mean, I understand the whole “We Always Get Our Man” thing.5 And anybody who’s ever played golf with me knows I’m a hard man to discourage.

But at some point you have to put your hands on your hips and call off the jam. Even chess allows you to resign when things get hopeless.6

Didn’t we reach that point somewhere around the time Fonzie jumped the shark? It’s been forty-five years, folks. The dogs should have been back in the kennel long ago.7

Yeah, I know we spent a long time searching for Whitey Bulger, but Whitey killed people. That was worth an extended search. This guy reduced a corporate profit for a year. The punishment for that nowadays is more likely to be a handshake and a $20 million dollar golden parachute.

Besides, there was no indication Whitey was dead, whereas8 D. B. probably didn’t survive the jump. None of the marked bills he was given were ever used, and six thousand dollars worth of them were found in the mud of the Columbia River right around where D. B. bailed out. I think it’s more likely that somebody banding wildfowl will trip over him than that somebody studying bank records will suddenly look up and shout “Eureka!”

So I think I might have pulled the plug on this one a decade or two earlier. And while we’re at it, let’s give up on Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart, The Northwest Passage, and the universal solvent.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t really begrudge my government the time they spent on it. Heck, every time I turn on TV, I hear a member of Congress calling for an investigation of something I consider a whole lot more ridiculous than looking for D. B. Cooper.

If those things are important enough to justify taking time away from whatever it is they do so they can demand an investigation, they must be more important than I thought. I mean, when you’re in session 139 days a year, you have to husband your time carefully. Time spent demanding an investigation is time you can’t spend . . . uh . . . umm . . . well . . . congressing.

So I’m confident the FBI resources freed up by abandonment of the D. B. Cooper search will be put to good use. Probably on another carpet with the Great Seal on it.


  1. (1) All right, maybe not deathless, but they’re still being quoted after forty-five years; that looks pretty good to us intermediate appellate court types.
  2. (2) Previously held by, “Excuse me, I seem to have dropped my congressional Medal of Honor; will you please help me look for it?”
  3. (3) If you don’t know who Clayton Kershaw is, do not look it up. It will just make you feel bad.
  4. (4) Yes, they did have a bar exam then—thank you very much for asking—and it was harder than today’s exam because hieroglyphic typewriters had not yet been invented.
  5. (5) No, that is not the motto of the Canadian Mounted Police. Their motto is “Defend the Law.” “We Always Get Our Man” appears to be available to the FBI or the SFPD or Batman or Antman or the Village People or whoever wants it.
  6. (6) Maybe Garry Kasparov could lend us one of those little clocks chess players use.
  7. (7) Cooper’s airline ticket cost twenty bucks. That’s just barely within the bounds of recorded history.
  8. (8) They taught me this word in law school and then they yelled at me every time I tried to use it.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.