Newsweek’s Unpublished Cover Story
By Ed Smith
There’s one Newsweek cover story you’ve never read in Newsweek -- the purported memoir of D.B. Cooper, the fabled airplane hijacker who parachuted into the night and was never seen again.
The reason is Kermit Lansner, the editor. Kermit learned of the Cooper cover, then virtually on press, when he returned from an overseas trip. Questioning its validity, he killed the story before it got into print, avoiding serious damage to Newsweek’s credibility and reputation.
The Cooper tale began on November 24, 1971, when an airline passenger who signed in as .D.B. Cooper singlehandedly hijacked a Boeing 727 in flight. He forced a landing in Seattle, where he demanded and got a $200,000 ransom in $20 bills. He then ordered the plane to take off, donned a parachute and, somewhere over rugged country south of Seattle, unlatched the 727s unique tail exit ramp and jumped into the night.
Ransom Number: The Cooper hijacking hit front pages around the world, a real Robin Hood caper. It was carefully planned—only 727s had tail exits-- and smoothly carried out by a very polite man. No one was hurt. His escape was spectacular. Despite a monumental FBI search, no trace of the hijacker was ever found. The FBI published the serial numbers of the ransom bills, but only a handful ever showed up.
Enter Karl. Karl Fleming had been an outstanding Newsweek correspondent in the south in the civil-rights era of the 60's. He later served as our Los Angeles bureau chief and roving national correspondent. Karl had just left Newsweek and was starting LA, an alternative weekly, in Los Angeles. Fascinated by the Cooper hijacking, he placed small ads in western newspapers asking Cooper to come forward and tell his story.
Full Story: Two men ultimately responded, one purportedly Cooper. Karl taped an extensive personal interview with “Cooper,” who gave a detailed, meticulous account of the hijacking and his aerial exit. He agreed to sell the rights to the story for $30,000 on one condition – because “Cooper” was a wanted criminal, Karl was forbidden to check out the story with the FBI or anyone else.
Lacking $30,000, Fleming offered the exclusive to Newsweek. In considering it, the editors found that on Karl’s taped interview, “Cooper” had ready answers to all of Karl’s questions. For instance, he knew where to jump because he had planted small radio transmitters along the route. Karl also had Xerox copies of two $20 bills bearing ransom note serial numbers. Karl said he had seen the actual bills but only Xeroxed them in fear of being charged with receiving stolen property.
“Cooper’s’’ story on the tapes seemed entirely plausible. A real scoop. But Newsweek refused to pay for information. Karl persuaded a wealthy backer to put up the $30,000. His new periodical, LA, would share in the scoop.
The Proof? As Newsweek’s counsel, I was dispatched to meet Karl’s lawyer in Washington (D.C.) to review Fleming’s information. Other than the Xeroxed bills, I found nothing to substantiate Fleming’s interview. And of course, his agreement with “Cooper” precluded checking with the FBI or anyone else.
These were serious reservations. But Karl enjoyed a solid reputation with Newsweek’s editors. They ordered up a cover story, written by Dick Boeth, a top Newsweek writer. Several sidebars were also laid on. The illustrations included a sketch of “Cooper” wearing dark glasses, a map showing the line of radio transmitters, and an imaginatively drawn cover.
Enter Kermit: The whole package was ready for publication when Kermit Lansner, the top editor, returned to New York from an extensive trip through Europe and the Near East with Kay Graham, Newsweek’s chair and publisher. Kermit had been out of the loop. Skeptical, he slammed on the brakes and insisted that Newsweek investigate Fleming’s investigation. Checking prohibited? Forget it.
Bill Cook from the San Francisco bureau got the passenger manifest from the hijacked flight and flew to Seattle to interview passengers. Henry Simmons, covering science in Washington, checked with the Federal Aviation Administration. Cook was the first to report back. He had shown our artist’s sketch of “Cooper” to several passengers but none recognized “Cooper” as the hijacker. Then Simmons called. The Wallendas, Newsweek’s top editors, were gathered around the speaker phone in Kermit’s office. I was present. Simmons’ first words: “It’s all balloon gas!”
“Cooper” on the tapes said he glimpsed a starry sky from the open tail exit of the plane before he jumped. The FAA meteorological records showed the skies were solid overcast all along the route that night. The radio transmitters? The FAA said flatly that transmissions from the devices described by “Cooper” could never be received through the skin of a plane.
Stop the Press: That did it. Lansner killed the Cooper story that Saturday morning — setting off a scramble for a last-minute replacement because Newsweek was going to press that night at six.
Since the wraps were off, I surreptitiously delivered our files to the FBI. The agents found that the only “hard” evidence – the Xeroxed $20 bills – were phonies too. They explained that currency is printed in large sheets, then cut into individual bills. Each bill carries not only a serial number but also a tiny letter and numeral indicating its location on the sheet by column and row. While the serial numbers on Karl’s Xeroxed $20 bills matched those of the ransom notes, their sheet location letters and numbers were wrong. They had to be counterfeit.
“Cooper” and his buddy were subsequently arrested, prosecuted and convicted of defrauding Karl’s friend of the $30,000. It turned out they had concocted their story simply by reading old newspapers in the public library.
Tidying Up: There was one loose end -- to keep Newsweek’s name out of the whole thing if possible. The U.S. Attorney trying the case in Seattle was coming to Washington for a Justice Department meeting. I flew down and took him to dinner at Sans Souci, then the classiest restaurant in town. I was a former assistant U.S attorney, therefore a member of the club. I was able to convince him that Newsweek had absolutely nothing to do with the fraud. Our aborted cover story never came up at the trial. Or later.
Well, almost. Fleming, still fascinated, couldn’t resist running the entire story in the first issue of his new magazine, LA. Its preface, “I don’t know whether it’s true or not but ... “
Ed Smith was counsel of Newsweek from 1971 to 1979.
Bill Cook Remembers
On Friday of that fateful week, I flew to Seattle, arriving late in the afternoon. In my calls I reached a student at the University of Oregon who had sat next to Cooper on the famous flight. I told him I was on a serious deadline. Could I come to Eugene and talk to him after midnight? He said fine. When I called New York, Fleming answered the phone. "They didn't see anything, did they?" he asked. I said to tell the folks I'd be out of pocket for a few hours.
I jumped into my rental car and raced 300 miles down Interstate 5 to Eugene at the fastest clip I dared. I arrived shortly after midnight and awakened the student. He turned out to have been an excellent observer. He described the real D. B. Cooper in detail, down to the color of his socks. He said Fleming's photo looked nothing like the man he'd seen on the plane. I reached Seattle before dawn and phoned Ed Kosner, then, I believe, the Nation editor. I told him what I'd learned. "Isn't this fun!" he exclaimed. I talked to some more passengers, but I'd already helped to deliver a death blow to the story.
Sad Post Script: When the two guys who tried to swindle Karl were prosecuted, I was sent back to Seattle to be Ed's man in the court to make sure Newsweek's name didn't come up. Karl was on the stand. The U.S. Attorney asked him some questions about his new publication. Karl said there wouldn't be any more issues. The man with the money, he said, "pulled the plug." Then, to everyone's shock and surprise, Karl put his face in his hands and began to weep, his shoulders shaking. The judge called a hasty recess. Newsweek's name was never mentioned in the trial.