Robert Maxwell – The Bouncing Czech

Mystifying Death of a Media Mogul

Who finally stopped the bouncing Czech? The extraordinary life and death of Robert Maxwell.

In 1940, Jan Ludvik Hoch did what many young Jews in Eastern Europe were doing at that time, and ran away to England to fight the Nazis. The seventeen-year-old refugee then fought his way from the beaches of Normandy to the centre of Berlin. After the war he went on to become a publisher, a Labour MP, a football club owner, company chairman, owner of the Mirror Group Newspapers, owner of the New York Daily Times, embezzler and fraudster, before finally slipping from the back of his yacht and into oblivion. The official autopsy report concluded the cause of death had been ‘accidental drowning’, but, as in life, mystery shrouded the death of Jan Ludvik Hoch, a man who courted controversy from the moment he arrived in England and changed his name to Ian Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell joined the British army under a series of aliases, presumably because the War Office had suggested refugee soldiers should serve under invented names in case they should be captured. Because he went by the name of Jones and du Maurier, in addition to Maxwell, it is hard to find out much about what he got up to in the Second World War, although he did earn himself a medal. This was in January 1945 when his unit, the 6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, were based at the River Mass in Holland. He had recently been promoted to second lieutenant and his men were tasked with clearing a block of flats occupied by German soldiers. Maxwell led the assault and charged straight for the building, drawing heavy fire. Luckily for him, although not so luckily for his future employees, every bullet aimed at him missed. It was an act of bravery that won him the Military Cross.

But not all of his wartime exploits were quite as distinguished. His authorized biographer, Joe Haines, reveals how Maxwell’s unit attempted to capture a German town by calling for the mayor to meet with Maxwell in a neutral location. He then told the mayor that the German soldiers would have to surrender or face destruction by mortar bombardment. In a letter to his wife, published in Haines’s book Maxwell (1988), he wrote: ‘But as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us. Luckily he missed so I shot the mayor and withdrew.’ Maxwell showed no remorse at killing an unarmed man in cold blood, and it was a sign of things to come.

As the war drew to a close, Robert Maxwell found himself working for the Control Commission, an Allied organization formed to manage the economy, state industry and government of the defeated German people. His natural intelligence and gift for languages had been noticed by the High Command of the Allied forces, and he soon found himself organizing various sections of the West German services, including the national newspapers. Back in Britain, his entrepreneurial spirit was quickly in evidence and he became a shareholder in a London import and export company originally owned by a German, but Maxwell was soon in sole command.

Two years after the end of the war, Robert Maxwell’s company was distributing scientific literature and manuals to both Britain and America after a deal was hatched with the German publishing heavyweight Springer Verlag (later Axel Springer) that established Maxwell in the market place. Another two years would pass before he launched his own publishing company, Pergamon, after securing heavy investment from Springer. Such was his initial success he was able to buy Springer out of the contract and take over as sole owner, while settling into the business of becoming seriously wealthy during the 1950s.

In 1959 he became the Labour candidate for Buckingham and won the seat in 1964 as the new Labour government led by Harold Wilson swept into power. He remained an MP until 1970 when the Conservatives under Ted Heath defeated Wilson at the general election of that year. Maxwell also lost his seat but, by then, had already realized that true power lay in journalism: the pen really was mightier than the sword. In 1969 Maxwell had unsuccessfully tried to buy the News of the World, having been beaten to it by the Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch. Maxwell did not take defeat well and accused Murdoch of ‘employing the laws of the jungle’, claiming he had made a ‘fair and bona fide offer which has been frustrated and defeated over three months of cynical manoeuvring’. In response Murdoch stated that News of the World shareholders had judged him on his record of newspaper ownership in Australia and were confident in his ability. This was a clear slight on Maxwell’s character as well as the start of a bitter and lifelong rivalry between both men.

In 1969 Maxwell had opened negotiations with American businessman Saul Steinberg, who had declared an interest in buying Pergamon Press Ltd (PPL) on the understanding that the company was making vast profits. Discovering this to be untrue, the American, despite months of negotiations, abruptly pulled out of the proposed purchase. An investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry followed, in which inspectors revealed how transactions between private Maxwell companies had been used to inflate the PPL share price. Steinberg issued legal proceedings against the former MP and in 1974 it was discreetly announced in New York that he had received a payment of $6.3 million from Maxwell and his investment bankers. In their 1970 report the DTI inspectors had concluded: ‘Notwithstanding Mr Maxwell’s acknowledged ability and energy, he is not, in our opinion, a person who can be relied upon to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.’

He lost control of Pergamon and so the company’s investment bankers appointed a new chairman in the shape of Sir Walter Coutts who, with three independent directors, reversed the fortunes of Pergamon spectacularly and returned control of the company to Maxwell in 1974. Naturally, the ‘bouncing Czech’ as he had become known due to his questionable integrity and to his ability to bounce back from adversity, claimed the credit for the successful turnaround of his company. Coutts was later quoted by a biographer as saying: ‘Maxwell has an ability to sublimate anything that stops him getting what he wants. He is so flexible he is like a grasshopper. There is no question of morality or conscience. Maxwell is Number One and what Maxwell wants is the most important thing and to hell with anything else.’

Building on the success of Pergamon, Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers from Reed International for £113 million on 13 June 1984. Behind the scenes, he had already built up a mini empire consisting of, among other things, a record label, Nimbus Records, a printing company, a book publishing house, half of MTV Europe, 20 per cent of Central Television in Britain, a cable television company and two newspapers, the People and Sporting Life. As his empire, now called Maxwell Communications Corporation PLC, grew so did his interest and influence in politics, especially as one of his various companies published the speeches of Chernenko, Ceausescu, Brezhnev, Andropov, Kadar, Husak and other Eastern European leaders. He also published sycophantic biographies of world figures and used the opportunity to meet and interview them, which caused him to be ridiculed at home but strengthened his links with several totalitarian regimes.

Maxwell also claimed to have influence in Israel and during a magazine interview for Playboy he boasted that it was he who had been responsible for persuading Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to exercise restraint in the face of Scud missile attacks from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. What’s more, he also boasted of close ties with the Israeli secret service, Mossad; indeed after his death it was revealed that Maxwell had worked with the organization for many years and was known to a handful of elite Mossad agents by his codename ‘the Little Czech’.

Journalists would later point out how Maxwell’s companies would invariably take a downturn financially whenever Mossad was engaging in expensive covert operations, leading to speculation he was an important source of funds. Mossad was even rumoured to have funded Maxwell’s first big business venture, prompting suggestions that the whole of Maxwell’s business empire was in fact a Mossad fundraising venture. Stranger things have happened.

But in early 1991, the Little Czech was beginning to lose his bounce. A recent Panorama documentary for the BBC had drawn attention to the DTI’s conclusion in the 1970s and suggested Maxwell had been bolstering the MCC PLC share price through transactions with secretly owned companies in Lichtenstein and Gibraltar. The inevitable libel writs were issued but a number of biographers followed with similar accusations. During the summer of 1991, Maxwell’s relations with Israel soured when his repeated requests to Mossad to apply pressure on Israeli bankers to refinance his business were ignored. By now even the British Parliament were also keeping a close eye on Maxwell’s international business dealings.

Ministers had known for a long time about Maxwell’s influence with the various world leaders he had connections with. After all, it had been Maxwell who had liaised between Moscow and Tel Aviv during the August Coup of 1991, in which the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other hardline Communists had attempted to oust Mikhail Gorbachev from power. (Who can forget the images being broadcast live by satellite during the early days of Sky Television of Boris Yeltsin standing on his tank with a loudhailer, organizing the defence of the White House in Moscow.) Maxwell had been involved in arranging a meeting between the Israeli secret service and high-level KGB officials, including Kryuchkov, to discuss Mossad support for the plot to replace Gorbachev, the first Russian president to show any sign of being about to work closely with Western governments.

But then, according to the sworn testimony of former Mossad agent Ari Ben-Menashe, Maxwell had made the mistake of threatening Mossad with revealing information about the meeting unless they supported him financially. According to Ben-Menashe, both Maxwell and the Daily Mirror’s foreign editor were long-time Mossad agents, and it had been Maxwell who had informed the Israeli Embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu had revealed details of Israel’s nuclear capability to the Sunday Times. Vanunu was immediately lured from his Sunday Times-provided safe house in London to Rome where he was snatched by Mossad agents. He was later returned to Israel, convicted of treason and spent the next eighteen years protesting his innocence from prison before finally being released in 2004.

On 21 October 1991, two members of Parliament, Labour’s George Galloway and Tory Rupert Allison, were persuaded to bring up the Vanunu affair, and Maxwell’s part in it, in the House of Commons. Protected by parliamentary privilege, in which they could make allegations without fear of litigation, newspapers began to report a wide range of Maxwell-related intrigues and mysteries.

The Israeli secret service were also concerned by the whole Robert Maxwell situation. And as soon as he began to threaten them, his fate was sealed. Agents quickly agreed to the meeting of ‘great urgency’ called for by a now cash-strapped Robert Maxwell. They were well aware that Israel’s reputation in the West, particularly with America on whom they were heavily reliant, would be severely tarnished should it become known that they were in any way connected with the attempt to prevent democracy in the Soviet Union. Mossad could not longer afford to take any further risks with the Little Czech.

According to Ben-Menashe, in his book The Profits of War published in 1992, Maxwell was instructed to travel to Spain the following day where arrangements for a money transfer could be made. His orders were to sail his yacht to Madeira and wait on it there to receive further instructions. Maxwell breathed a sigh of relief as he left England for Spain, believing his recent growing financial problems were about to be solved and, on 31 October, he boarded the Lady Ghislane at Gibraltar and berthed at Madeira, where he dined alone.

The following day a specialist Mossad team, in Spain to cover a series of Middle Eastern peace talks, were sent south. Maxwell then received a message instructing him to meet instead on the island of Tenerife on 5 April. It is then alleged that Mossad agents boarded the boat near the Canary Islands during the night of 3 April, removed Maxwell to another vessel, interrogated him throughout the following day and then killed him by injecting air into his veins, which would have induced a heart attack.

But that’s not the end of the story, because Ben-Manashe had also claimed that he personally delivered the CIA share of the profits from an earlier arms deal between Iran and Israel to Robert Maxwell in London who, in turn, was supposed to forward it on to America. Instead, the money disappeared into the gaping hole in Maxwell’s balance sheet. Ben-Manashe alleged that Maxwell threatened the CIA with ‘damaging disclosures’ should they press him for the return of the money. Now, I’m no expert in world politics but when it comes to the wrong groups to annoy, the CIA and Mossad are two key ones to avoid, let alone blackmail.

It later transpired that as Robert Maxwell left for the Canary Islands he had also been told he was under investigation by the police for war crimes connected to the revelation about shooting that unarmed mayor in 1945. In March 2001, it was revealed, under the Freedom of Information Act, that weeks before he died detectives had started questioning members of Maxwell’s former platoon but had yet to find any witnesses to the shooting. The former lieutenant was advised six months prior to his death that he faced a possible sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty. The Metropolitan Police file notes: ‘The reported circumstances of the shooting gave rise to an allegation of War Crimes. To some extent, the reporting of the shooting incident was confirmed by Mr Maxwell in an interview he gave in 1988 to the journalist Brian Walden on 30th October 1988.’ Quite clearly there had been two shootings: by boasting of his wartime exploits, Maxwell had shot himself straight in the foot.

Following his death, Maxwell’s body was released to the Israeli authorities, who performed a second autopsy, revealing that the injuries to the body were not consistent with falling off a yacht and that he ‘had probably been murdered’. He was then afforded the honour of a Mount of Olives funeral, the resting place of Israel’s most respected heroes. During the service televised worldwide, the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir cryptically announced that Maxwell ‘had done more for Israel than can today be said’. A remark that could simply be seen as a nod towards his fundraising efforts for the Israeli secret service – or rather more.

Before the dust had, quite literally, settled on Maxwell’s grave, calls of foul play could be heard. Maxwell’s own daughter, Ghislane, announced on television that his death had ‘not been an accident’. Others insisted he had committed suicide to escape the shame of his collapsing empire, not to mention the jail sentence that would certainly have followed if he had been found guilty of fraud. But his life insurance company quickly paid out a thumping £20 million, indicating that they, at least, were certain Maxwell had not jumped. So, if his insurers had apparently ruled out suicide (and it was very much in their interests, after all, to prove that he had taken his own life), only two options are left to consider. Did Robert Maxwell have a heart attack and fall overboard, or was he murdered by the Israeli secret service? There is further suggestion – put forward by those ever-busy conspiracy theorists – that Maxwell did not die but quietly slipped away from his problems, leaving another poor soul in the water to be found, misidentified and then buried on the Mount of Olives.

Either way, his death was followed by repeated revelations into his controversial business methods and accusations were made with impunity. It began to emerge that Maxwell had used £1 billion from his companies’ pension funds in order to service his debt liability and fund his flamboyant lifestyle. MCC PLC filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992 and Maxwell’s two sons, Ian and Kevin, were declared the world’s largest bankrupts, with debts of in excess of £400 million. In 1995 they were charged with fraud but acquitted in 1996. No doubt neither man was too impressed with his father’s legacy.

Perhaps the final word should come from Lady Coutts, whose husband had rescued Maxwell all those years earlier. After dinner at Headington Hall, Maxwell’s country house and business headquarters near Oxford, the newspaper man was bidding his guests goodbye in some of the nine languages he, by then, boasted he could speak. When it came to Lady Coutts, she deliberately spoke to him in a language Maxwell had no knowledge of, Swahili: ‘Kwaheri ashante sana sitaki kukuona tena’, which means: ‘Goodbye and thank you very much. Now I never wish to see you again.’ And fortunately for her, she never did.

Albert Jack books available for download here


Gone Missing

Gone Missing is available as an ebook now



Mystery 1 – The Missing Lighthouse-Keepers of Eilean Mor
Mystery 2 – The Mary Celeste Mystery
Mystery 3 – What Happened to Glenn Miller?
Mystery 4 – The Lost King of France
Mystery 5 – The Missing Navy Diver – Buster Crabb
Mystery 6 – John Dillinger – The FBI Did Not Get Their Man
Mystery 7 –  Agatha Christie’s Real Life Mystery
Mystery 8 – The Invisible D.B. Cooper     
Mystery 9 – Who was the Real Mona Lisa
Mystery 10 – The World’s Strangest Unsolved Crimes

Albert Jack books available for download here

St Valentine’s Day Massacre

Who was really behind the notorious mass shooting in Prohibition era Chicago?

On the evening of 14 February 1929, Chicago police made a grisly discovery. Inside a garage complex at 2212 North Clark Street lay the bodies of seven well-dressed men, who had all been brutally executed.

The investigators were puzzled. The victims were all mobsters with violent reputations who worked for the Irish bootlegger George ‘Bugs’ Moran. As Moran’s gang were known to be feuding with other gangsters, they should have been heavily armed and fully prepared for one of the shootouts that were becoming increasingly common in Prohibition era Chicago. How had so many of them ended up unarmed in a run-down warehouse in the back streets of the city? And why had none of them fought back – indeed, how could such experienced criminals have been led so tamely to their fate? It was a mystery to the police and a mystery to Bugs Moran. The American press and public wanted to know what could have possibly led to the horrific events of that bleak winter’s night.

The place to start in any murder investigation is motive: finding out who would benefit most from the killing. The motive in this instance was obvious, and the person likely to benefit most from the killing seemed pretty obvious too. It was the height of the Prohibition years and many mobs and gangs were competing for the lucrative (and illegal) trade in alcohol, drugs, gambling and prostitution. Bugs Moran had formed an impressive smuggling and supply racket in Chicago. He also had a small army of followers, mainly from the Irish community. Taking on the Irishman would be akin to going to war, which ruled out all the small-time operators. For a suspect, the investigators kept returning to one name and one name alone, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone.

Capone’s gang of Italian mobsters were well known to the authorities. His network of prostitutes, gambling dens, smugglers, bootlegging of illegal alcohol and his protection rackets had created an impressive empire and he was estimated to be worth in the region of $65 million, a staggering sum of money in 1929, worth approximately $7.2 billion today. He was a force to be reckoned with in Chicago and his policy of expansion through killing his business rivals placed him top of the list of suspects. It seemed obvious that he was behind it. But he denied all knowledge. His rival, Moran, had neither been killed nor even threatened, and the men lying dead in that garage were mere foot soldiers whose death could not have benefited Capone in any way. He had also been in Florida on Valentine’s Day.

Even the single eyewitness to the shooting couldn’t shed any light on the identity of the perpetrators. The police had found Frank ‘Tight Lips’ Gusenberg lying amongst the carnage and choking on his own blood. He was rushed to hospital and, on finally regaining consciousness, was immediately asked who had shot him. Gusenberg carefully looked around the room before replying, ‘Shot? Nobody shot me!’ He died soon afterwards and the general belief was that he had recognized somebody in the room, although his silence hadn’t helped him survive.

The police returned to the scene and tried to piece together the events leading up to the shooting from what little evidence they had. It was statements from the inhabitants of North Clark Street that provided their first real breakthrough. Several residents confirmed they had heard gunfire but swore they had then seen two uniformed policemen leading two civilians away at gunpoint. The two ‘suspects’ had been handcuffed and bundled into a police car and then driven away. Reassured that the police were already present and everything appeared to be under control, no one made any effort to report the matter to the authorities. But the Chicago police had no record of any shootings or arrests made in North Clark Street on the night of 14 February. The investigators followed up every clue and lead they had, but they were all dead-ends and no convictions were ever secured for the brutal murders in the warehouse on that cold February night.

Despite the fact that there was no proof linking Capone to the massacre, Bugs Moran had got the message. He promptly moved his gang out of the North Side, leaving all business in that area for the Italians. But he had already made a major error by commenting publicly to a journalist, ‘Only Capone kills like that.’ These five short words were a serious breach of the gangster code of silence, after which even his own gang members began to lose respect for their boss.

Moran became an increasingly marginalized and desperate figure. In 1946 he was finally arrested for robbing a bank messenger of $10,000, a far cry from the high-level crime and luxurious lifestyle he had enjoyed during the Prohibition years. Moran was sentenced to ten years imprisonment but immediately rearrested on his release. He was given another ten years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he died of cancer in 1957. His body lies in a pauper’s grave within the prison walls.

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre also led to the downfall of Al Capone himself because it brought his activities to the attention of the Federal government. Despite no evidence being found to connect him to the killings in North Clark Street, the gangster was soon convicted on charges of income tax evasion and, in 1931, sentenced to eleven years at the notorious high-security prison at Alcatraz.

While in prison, Capone’s mental health began to deteriorate: towards the end he was convinced that the ghost of James Clark, one of the St Valentine’s Day victims, was haunting him. It was the only clue he ever gave of any involvement in the killings. After his release, Capone spent the last five years of his life quietly in his luxury estate in Miami, Florida. On 25 January 1947, he died of a heart attack thought to have been caused by the third-stage complications of syphilis.

Meanwhile the garage on North Clark Street – the site of the infamous events – was demolished; the area is now a landscaped car park for a nursing home. The infamous wall Moran’s men were shot against was dismantled, sold at auction and shipped to Canada where it was rebuilt in the toilets of a Vancouver theme bar, the BanjoPalace. When that business closed down, each brick of the famous wall was sold off, as macabre souvenirs.

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre itself remained a mystery until recently. The true events of that fateful night were discovered long after the deaths of everybody involved. In January 1929 Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn, one of the Capone mob, was making a telephone call on the street when Peter and Frank Gusenberg’s car drew alongside. When the two Moran mobsters recognized McGurn, they opened fire, but missed him, which was to prove to be a major error for the brothers. Both Capone and Bugs Moran were struggling for control of the bootlegging business in Chicago and the tension between them had begun to degenerate into street warfare. But with many other mobsters muscling in on the action, it was sometimes unclear who was responsible for which act of violence. This time there was no mistake; McGurn knew exactly who had tried to kill him.

Capone was already aware of the might of Moran’s army and a month or so earlier had secretly discussed with an associate how to eliminate the ‘Moran risk’. When he was allegedly warned he would ‘have to kill a lot of people to get to Bugs Moran’, Capone joked that he would send plenty of flowers. So when ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn approached his boss with a plan to avenge the phone-box shooting, Capone saw the perfect opportunity to start eliminating Moran’s gang, from the bottom upwards.

With the boss’s authorization, McGurn created a six-man team headed by Fred Burke with the intention of luring the Gusenbergs, with as many of Moran’s other henchmen as possible, into a trap. Burke, a little-known Capone man at the time, invited the brothers to a warehouse meeting, claiming to have many crates of hijacked bootleg whiskey for sale.

Both Capone and McGurn left town to make sure they had watertight alibis. The meeting was to take place on the night of 14 February and, with more of Capone’s men placed as strategic lookouts along the surrounding streets, the plan swung into action. Four of McGurn’s gang pulled up at the deserted garage, watched by Moran’s lookouts who, deciding the coast was clear, signalled for the seven-strong Gusenberg gang to approach. But after they were inside, two more of McGurn’s gang dressed as Chicago police officers approached in a stolen patrol car. Moran’s lookouts fled the scene, fearing a police bust, while Capone’s remained in place, on standby in case the real police should arrive.

Inside the garage, the fake patrolmen found the suspicious-looking group and ordered them to drop their weapons. All of the gangsters complied, McGurn’s men believing their captors were the relatively harmless police force, many of whom were already on the mob’s payroll anyway. However, as they lined up, Capone’s four men peeled away, leaving the seven Moran men alone against the wall. Within a split second the gangsters dressed as policemen had opened fire using two Thompson submachine guns. They were quickly joined by the remaining gangsters, who pumped bullets into their surprised and defenceless rivals. All seven – James Clark, Adam Heyer, Johnny May, Al Weinshank, Frank and Peter Gusenberg and Dr Reinhardt Schwimmer – were left either dead, or bleeding to death, on the garage floor. The gunfire had attracted the attention of other residents in the street, but they were soon comforted to see two uniformed policemen in a patrol car ‘arresting’ those responsible. But when neither of the policemen were ever seen again, it led to one of the bloodiest murder mysteries the world has known and, ultimately, not a single conviction was ever secured.

Extract from Mysterious World

Albert Jack books available for download here

Weird and Wonderful World

Weird and Wonderful World is available as an ebook now



Mystery 1 – The Famous Aurora Spaceship Mystery
Mystery 2 – Beware of the USOs
Mystery 3 – Try to See It from My Angle: The Bermuda Triangle
ystery 4 – The Magnetic Strip
Mystery 5 – The Strange Case of Kaspar Hauser
Mystery 6 – The Piano Man
Mystery 7 – The Terrifying Affair of Spring-heeled Jack
ystery 8 – The Dover Demon
ystery 9 – It’s Raining Frogs
Mystery 10 – The Men Who Cheated Death

Albert Jack books available for download here

Mysterious World

Mysterious World is available as an ebook now



Mystery 1 – Bigfoot
Mystery 2 – Crop Circles
Mystery 3 – Who Killed Marilyn Monroe?
Mystery 4 – The Loch Ness Monster
Mystery 5 – The Death of Robert Maxwell
Mystery 6 – Will the Real Paul McCartney Please Stand Up
Mystery 7 – The Awful Fate of Edgar Allan Poe
Mystery 8 – The St Valentines Day Massacre
Mystery 9 – The Chilling Tale of The Chase Vault
Mystery 10 – Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden

Albert Jack books available for download here


The Mysterious D. B. Cooper

What happened to famous hijacker who jumped off a plane and into thin air carrying a fortune in banknotes?

The offence on the face of it was a simple one, but the mystery surrounding its aftermath has passed into legend. On 24 November 1971, a man going by the name of D. (‘Dan’) B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 on a domestic flight and demanded $200,000 from its owners, Northwest Orient. Confident they would catch the hijacker, the company agreed to pay the cash in exchange for their passengers.

But the hijacker had other plans. After the aircraft had taken off again, minus its passengers and with D. B. Cooper $200,000 richer, he strapped himself to a parachute and jumped out into the cold night. He was never seen or heard of again, so if he survived the jump, it had been the perfect crime. If not, of course, he had been the perfect idiot. Either way, D. B. Cooper became an instant celebrity among the tie-dyed, hash-smoking hippies of the early 1970s, when hijacking had rather more of a romantic/revolutionary feel about it than it does today when terrorists are suspected at every turn. Despite one of the biggest manhunts in American history, including amateur investigations, books, TV documentaries and films, nothing more is known about D. B. Cooper today than was known on the day of his daring, airborne stunt.

So let’s look at the events in a bit more detail. At 4 p.m. on that particular day in 1971 – the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Eve – a soberly dressed businessman approached the counter of the Northwest Orient Airline at Portland International Airport and bought a one-way ticket to Seattle for $20. The businessman, who gave his name as D. B. Cooper, was allocated seat 18C on Flight 305, which left on time at 4.35 p.m., climbing into the cold, rainy night with thirty-seven passengers and five flight crew on board.

Shortly after take-off, the passenger sitting in seat 18C beckoned to an attractive young stewardess, Florence Schaffner, and passed her a note. This was such a common occurrence between businessmen and the flight crew that Schaffner, believing Cooper had given her his phone number, simply smiled and placed it, unread, in her pocket. The next time she passed seat 18C, Cooper whispered, ‘Miss, you had better read that note. I have a bomb.’ She duly read the note and rushed to the cockpit to show Captain William Scott. The captain then instructed Schaffner to walk to the back of the plane and, so as not to alarm the other passengers, quietly sit next to Cooper and try and gather more information. As she sat down, the hijacker opened his briefcase and wordlessly revealed a device consisting of two cylinders surrounded by wires. It certainly looked like a bomb to the young stewardess.

Captain Scott then radioed air traffic control with Cooper’s demand of $200,000 in used notes, together with four parachutes; two for him and the others for two of the crew he intended to take with him as hostages. The FBI were alerted and ordered Northwest Oriental’s president, Donald Nyrop, to comply fully with Cooper’s demands. After all, they reasoned, where was he going to go? No one could survive jumping from a jet passenger airliner and survive. There was also the safety of the other passengers to consider, together with the negative publicity such a hijacking would generate if the company refused to comply; Nyrop felt $200,000 was a small sum to pay in the circumstances. Cooper then instructed the pilot to stay in the air until the money and parachutes were ready, and soon heard Captain Scott announce to his passengers that a small mechanical problem would require the jet to circle before landing. The rest of the passengers remained unaware of the hijacking and Flight 305 finally landed at 5.45 p.m. at its intended destination.

Once Cooper was satisfied that the money, all in used $20 notes, and the parachutes had been delivered, he allowed the passengers to leave. At 7.45 p.m., with only the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant and himself remaining on board, Cooper told Captain Scott to fly towards Mexico. He instructed him to fly at a low altitude of 10,000 feet (instead of the usual 30,000 feet), and with its landing gear down and the wing flaps set at 15 degrees, thus indicating a detailed knowledge of flying. Unknown to him, however, the plane was being closely tracked by two United States Air Force F-106 jet fighters, using a state-of-the-art radar detection system.

As the flight crossed southwest Washington, Cooper then ordered the pilot to slow his speed to 150 knots and the rest of the crew to remain at the front of the plane with the curtains closed. At 8.11 p.m. the rear door warning light came on and this was the last anyone saw of the mysterious D. B. Cooper. Even the air force pilots shadowing Flight 305 in their jet fighters failed to see him jump.

After landing safely in Mexico at Reno airport, the intended destination, the crew waited in the cockpit for ten minutes for further instructions. None came and air traffic control also confirmed they had not received any instructions from Cooper. Cautiously Captain Scott called the hijacker over the intercom and, on receiving no response, nervously opened the cockpit door. Cooper had vanished, having taken everything with him, including his briefcase bomb, the canvas bag full of $20 notes, his hat and coat. All that remained were the three unused parachutes. Cooper had done the unthinkable. He had jumped out of a commercial passenger jet and into the cold, wet night, thousands of feet above the ground. He had completely disappeared, never to be seen again. Nobody could prove he had survived and therefore got away with his crime, but, as even the FBI admitted, nobody could prove he was dead either.

The FBI calculated that the likely landing area for the skydiving hijacker was southwest of the town of Ariel, close to Lake Merwin, thirty miles north of Portland, Oregon. The eighteen-day manhunt that followed failed to reveal a single trace of the hijacker, but then all the FBI had was a description of a fit, six-foot, olive-skinned man, of Mediterranean appearance, clean shaven and wearing a dark suit, which narrowed the search right down to about a billion people, worldwide. They had some work to do.

It was soon apparent to the authorities that they were dealing with a meticulously planned crime, well thought out in every detail. First of all, Cooper had had no intention of taking any hostages with him: his request for four parachutes was simply to ensure that no dummy parachutes were delivered. Cooper had also worked out the weight of the ten thousand $20 notes as twenty-one pounds. If he’d asked for smaller denominations, they would have weighed considerably more and created a risk when landing, while larger denominations would be harder to pass on, thereby creating a risk of being caught. Hence $20 bills were perfect for Cooper’s purposes.

He also knew that the Boeing 727-100 has three engines, one high on the fuselage immediately in front of the vertical tail fin and two others on either side of the fuselage just above the horizontal tail fins. This meant that neither the engine exhausts nor the intakes would get in the way when he lowered the rear steps and threw himself out into the night, which led to speculation he had targeted Flight 305 specifically for its engine layout.

Cooper also insisted the pilot did not pressurize the cabin, knowing he would be able to breath naturally at 10,000 feet (but no higher) and reducing the risk of air rush as the door was opened. And as he was fully aware of the 727’s minimum flight speed with a full load of fuel, as well as the wing-flap settings required, and appeared to know that the 1,600 mph F-106 fighters would no longer be able to escort the jet once the aircraft speed had reduced to around 150 knots, this gave Cooper the window of time he needed to jump unseen, suggesting to many he was either a serving or retired airman.

The only mistake he made was to leave behind eight Raleigh cigarette stubs, his tie and tie pin, but even this evidence has led the police nowhere. There were also sixty-six fingerprints on the plane that could not be matched to the flight crew or any of the other passengers. Considering the number of people travelling on a commercial airliner in the course of a few weeks, this was regarded as unreliable evidence, although an exhaustive check with FBI records revealed no match anyway and D. B. Cooper’s real identity remained unknown. That he could recognize McChord Air Force Base as the Boeing 727 circled Seattle–Tacoma airport also provided a clue, as did his lack of a regional accent observed by the ticket agent who allocated his seat. This all led FBI investigators to conclude Cooper was local and with a background in either military or civil aviation, possibly from McChord Air Force Base itself.

Appalling weather the day after the hijacking interrupted the search through the vast wooded area Cooper had probably landed in. But the full-scale land and air search that took place over the ensuing weeks revealed no trace of Cooper, the distinctive red and yellow parachute or, most importantly, the cash. The police search team did discover the body of a missing teenager but Cooper himself had vanished, which seems to disprove the theory he had been killed during the jump or on landing. The FBI even checked the national database for any criminal by the name of Dan Cooper, or D. B. Cooper, in order to find out if, on the off chance, this otherwise meticulous and thorough hijacker had been stupid enough to buy a ticket in his own name. He wasn’t, although a genuine Dan Cooper in Portland did receive an uncomfortable few hours of questioning before being released without charge.

DB Cooper

The FBI circulated a wanted poster throughout the States, with an artist’s impression of Cooper based upon witness accounts, but it c s, the FBI interviewed over 1,400 people, but to no avail. The story held the popular imagination for a long time, the newspapers ridiculing the unsuccessful FBI investigation in the process. Eventually the hijacker, named as ‘John Doe, aka Dan B. Cooper’ was charged, in his absence, with air piracy at a federal court in 1976. (John Doe is the generic name America gives to persons, or bodies, unknown; for instance, unclaimed raffle-tickets are listed as belonging to ‘John Doe’ until claimed.)

The American public, on the other hand, was in the process of elevating D. B. Cooper to the status of a legend as the mystery around him continued to grow. Bars in the area of Ariel and Lake Merwin set up D. B. Cooper shrines, which remain to this day, and hold D. B. Cooper ‘days’, with local parachute clubs even re-enacting the jump on the day before Thanksgiving every year.

That is what we all like most about this sort of history. Nobody was hurt, it involved extraordinary courage and nothing has been found since. Not even Cooper’s hat, coat and briefcase. And that is why we all want Cooper to still be alive, and not to have been lying at the bottom of Lake Merwin all these years. We like the idea of Cooper jumping out of a passenger jet with the loot, landing and then dusting himself off, picking up his briefcase, putting on his hat, pausing only to straighten its brim, and being back in the office by nine.

But the FBI do not share our warmth towards the mystery man. Agent Ralph Himmelsbach spent eight years at the head of the investigation and was unable to hide his bitterness, calling Cooper a ‘dirty rotten crook’, a ‘rodent’, and nothing more than a ‘sleazy, rotten criminal who threatened the lives of more than forty people for money’, oh – and ‘a bastard’.

Himmelsbach once snapped at a journalist who enquired about Cooper’s growing status as a hero. ‘That’s not heroic,’ he shouted. ‘It is selfish, dangerous and antisocial. I have no admiration for him at all. He is not admirable. He is just stupid and greedy.’ Himmelsbach retired from the FBI in 1980, his work incomplete, to run his own charm school in the Deep South. In his subsequent book, Norjack – The Investigation of D. B. Cooper, Himmelsbach tried to promote what is known as the ‘splatter’ theory, meaning Cooper had been killed as he hit the ground. This is dismissed by most, as the body, highlighted by its bright red and yellow parachute, would have turned up sooner or later. When pressed by reporters about why the body had not been found despite a legion of police, the Army Reserve, volunteers and boy scouts all searching, Himmelsbach surprised everybody, including, I imagine, the FBI, when he insisted they had all been looking in the wrong area all the time, despite the Feds re-enacting the jump in an effort to pinpoint Cooper’s drop zone.

In 1980 an eight-year-old boy was playing by the river and discovered a bag of cash totalling $5,800, all in $20 notes. His father, aware of the D. B. Cooper mystery, immediately took the cash to the police, who checked the serial numbers and confirmed this was part of the missing money. Hopes of a conclusion were dashed on discovering the cash was found nearly forty miles upstream of where the police now believed Cooper to have landed. As did the geologists who claimed, having studied the notes and assessed their rate of deterioration, that the money must have been placed in the water in about 1974, three years after the hijacking. Despite these discrepancies, Himmelsbach considered this evidence proved his splatter theory. He claimed Cooper must have landed in the lake on that dark night and drowned. But the resulting search by scuba divers with modern sonar equipment failed to find any further clues.

Few people outside the FBI believe this theory. Instead many believe Cooper’s careful plan included dropping a few bags of money at a later date to serve as a red herring. It would appear that Cooper had thought of everything, which is why he is probably still at large. The hijacker had a further stroke of luck when on 18 May 1980 the volcano near the site of his purported landing, Mount St Helens, erupted with such force that the landscape was changed for ever, no doubt concealing many undiscovered clues. But there is, however, one more important piece of evidence for us to consider.

In 1972 an embarrassed FBI produced a 34-page booklet detailing the crime and, more importantly, including photographs of the money and listing every single serial number of the ten thousand notes. The booklet was sent to every bank and financial institution in America, with copies to the national media. But, despite rewards on offer of up to $150,000 for the production of just one solitary note, none have ever turned up in the American system (with the exception, that is, of the $5,800 discovered in the water). Like Cooper, they have simply vanished.

But this fact alone does not mean Cooper is dead, as most countries around the world, especially developing nations, trade in dollars and so the money could have turned up anywhere. But the police expected at least one to have turned up somewhere over the years, and that leaves investigators even more baffled. For nothing to have been seen or heard of Cooper, dead or alive, nor for a single bank note to have reappeared, is hard to imagine. And yet this quite literal vanishing into thin air is exactly what did happen.

The problem about the carrying out the perfect crime is that then everyone wants to try it too. The following year produced no fewer than four copycat jumps and although one, the first effort, did end in a splatter landing, the following three hijackers all landed safely but were arrested at the scene or soon afterwards. But then there was a new and interesting development. On 7 April 1972, four months after the Cooper hijack, a man checked in as James Johnson on United Flight 855 travelling from Newark to Los Angeles. Just after take-off, Johnson put on a wig, fake moustache and sunglasses and gave the stewardess a note. This read:

Land at San Francisco International Airport and taxi to Runway 19 Left [a remote part of the airport].

Send for a refuelling truck, but no other vehicles must approach without permission.

Direct United Airlines to provide four parachutes and a ransom of $500,000 in cash.

The captain carefully followed the instructions and the aircraft was soon back in the air again, this time heading for Provo in Utah. After an hour and a half, Johnson instructed the captain to reduce altitude, speed and depressurize the cabin, in a carbon copy of Cooper’s plan. Except that a co-pilot glanced around the cockpit door just in time to see Johnson expertly slip on the parachute, open the rear door and jump.

The FBI started their investigation the minute the aircraft landed at Provo. This time they had a cast-iron clue. Johnson had left a single, clear fingerprint on an in-flight magazine. They were initially baffled as Johnson had no criminal record and no match was found for the print. But then they had a breakthrough. In a telephone call to the FBI in Salt Lake City, a young man gave the police the detailed plan of the hijacking, including details not yet made public.

He claimed his friend Richard McCoy Jr had boasted about the plan to him, and the preparatory details he described were in fact identical in every way to those of the hijacking of Flight 855. McCoy was twenty-nine years old, married with two young children and studying law at BrighamYoungUniversity. He was also a Vietnam veteran, former green beret helicopter pilot and specialist parachute trooper. The FBI checked his service fingerprint record and found an exact match to the print found on the plane. The handwriting on the ransom note also matched McCoy’s samples in his military file. This time they had their man.

Two days later, McCoy was arrested at his home where police found a parachute suit and a bag of cash containing $499,970. The FBI asked the trial judge to make an example of McCoy to deter further copycat hijackings and the young man received a sentence of forty-five years without parole. But within months he had escaped from prison. He was eventually tracked to a house in Virginia Beach, where he was shot dead during the ensuing gun battle to rearrest him.

The similarities between the two crimes, in particular the evident flying expertise in each case, led to speculation that McCoy himself was in fact D. B. Cooper, and certainly the tie left behind by Cooper was similar to McCoy’s BrighamUniversity tie. It seems pretty unlikely, though: how would the D. B. Cooper money turn up in the river two years after McCoy’s death, for instance? Although it might explain why no money ever re-entered the system, as McCoy may have stashed it away for the future and it has remained hidden ever since.

The truth is that the identity of D. B. Cooper remains a mystery and each year the American media remind the public by way of anniversary articles and features, although to this day nobody has ever produced a credible theory, backed up with indisputable evidence, as to the identity or whereabouts of either Cooper or the money.

Extract from Gone Missing

Albert Jack books available for download here

Agatha Christie – The Queen of Mystery

How did the world’s favourite crime writer become involved in a mystery of her very own?

Agatha Miller was born in 1890, the youngest child of a wealthy American businessman. But after her father contracted double pneumonia, he was unable to provide for his young family and sank into a depression, dying when Agatha was only eleven. The poverty-stricken Millers almost lost their home as a result. The lesson was a harsh one for the young Agatha, and her continuing sense of financial insecurity was later to have disastrous consequences.

At a dance in Devon in 1912, Agatha, now an attractive 22-year-old, met a tall, dashing young army officer. Archibald Christie had trained at the Royal Woolwich Military Academy in London and had been posted to Exeter soon after he had been commissioned. Over the next two years, they slowly fell in love. When war broke out in 1914, Archie was sent to France. During his first return on leave later that year, the couple quickly got married. While Archie served in Europe, Agatha became a voluntary nurse at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay and spent her many free hours (not many casualties were sent to Torquay) reading hundreds of detective stories.

She was desperate to be a writer like her elder sister Madge, whom she idolized and whose stories were regularly published in Vanity Fair. In a moment of inspiration Madge challenged her to write a good detective story, Agatha’s favourite genre. At the time, Torquay was full of Belgian refugees, and her first story featured a Belgian detective – one Hercule Poirot – who would become one of the most popular fictional detective characters in the world.

After the war ended, Archie started work at the Air Ministry in London, and the couple had a daughter in 1919. The Christies were struggling to make ends meet and so Agatha decided to approach a publisher with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel. John Lane at Bodley Head read and liked it. He persuaded the inexperienced young writer to sign a five-book deal with them, heavily weighted in their favour. She grew to regret this, however, when despite the book’s success and sales of 2,000 copies in America and Great Britain, she received only £25 in royalties.

Her final book for Bodley Head, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), had a controversial twist – the book’s narrator turned out to be the murderer – and it received lots of attention in the press as a result. That same year, Agatha moved publishers. Collins offered her an advance of £200 for her first book, an impressive sum in the postwar 1920s.

The Christies moved into a new house in Berkshire which she called Styles, after her first novel. Flushed with her growing success and sudden minor celebrity status, Agatha failed to notice her husband’s increasing resentment at her refusal to share any of her new income with him. Despite the fact that they were now comfortably off, she insisted on careful economy and thrift, something clearly related to her own father’s previous loss of wealth. Unknown to Agatha, Archie now began to spend a lot of time with Nancy Neele, a secretary and ten years her junior, whom he had met on the golf course.

But as her financial situation improved, other aspects of her life took a turn for the worse. In April that same year, Agatha, en route to visit her mother in Torquay, felt a strong premonition that she was dead. Then, upon her arrival in Torquay, she was informed her beloved mother had, in fact, died suddenly and unexpectedly, from bronchitis. Later that year, returning from a foreign holiday, Agatha got wind of her husband’s adultery. She immediately confronted Archie and collapsed in shock when he admitted that he had indeed been having an affair for the previous eighteen months. Agatha begged Archie to stay so that they could try to save their marriage, but Archie refused, moving out of the family home and into his club in London.

Then, on the morning of 4 December, a cold and wintry day, the Surrey police were called to the scene of a motor accident at Newlands Corner in Guildford. Agatha Christie’s car had been found halfway down a bank and partly buried in some bushes. The headlights were blazing, a suitcase and coat had been left on the back seat but there was no sign of the author. Upon discovering that the police suspected either suicide or murder, the press descended on Guildford and the Christies’ Berkshire home, thrilled at the prospect of a real-life mystery. By the following morning, the disappearance of the still relatively little-known author was a front-page story on every national newspaper. Agatha Christie was suddenly big news.

In one of the finest publicity coups of all time (intentional or otherwise, but for her publisher the cheapest), members of the public were offered rewards for sightings, and newspapers revelled in their ongoing real-life whodunnit, with new ‘evidence’ regularly being reported. Some observers suggested that it must have been Archie – with much to gain from his wife’s death – who had been responsible for her disappearance. But then it was discovered he had been at a weekend party with his mistress. The focus then moved on to Nancy Neele, and she was hounded by the press, eager to find a culprit. For ten days Surrey Police combed the area for evidence, and reports of sightings continued to pour in. People scoured her books for clues (the police actually dredged a pool that featured in one of Agatha Christie’s books and in which one of her characters had drowned) and followed the story avidly in the newspapers

The breakthrough finally came when, after ten days, the head waiter at the Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, realized that the mysterious novelist he had been reading about for nearly two weeks looked exactly like a stylish female guest who had booked in under the name of Mrs Neele, claiming to be from South Africa. For ten days ‘Mrs Neele’ had been singing, dancing and enjoying the company of the other guests while, like them, also following the Agatha Christie mystery in the newspapers.


The police were called and Archie Christie travelled to Harrogate to identify his wife. In a scene that could have come straight from a Christie novel, Archie placed himself at a table in the corner of the dining room, hidden behind a large newspaper. From there he watched his wife enter the room, pick up the papers containing her picture and the story of the continued search, and sit at another table. The hotel manager later said that as Archie Christie approached his wife, she ‘looked distant as though she recognized him but could not remember where from’.

So as the police were scouring the hills around Guildford on their hands and knees, Agatha had been alive and well up in Yorkshire rather than lying dead at the bottom of a lake somewhere in Surrey. Needless to say, the police were not impressed; indeed some newspapers claimed the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. The press pack raced to Harrogate nevertheless, but few believed Archie when he informed them that Agatha was suffering from memory loss. There was a public backlash with demands for the police to be repaid the estimated £3,000 cost of the search for the missing novelist – indeed Guildford residents blamed the next increase in their rates on her. Reviews of her next book, The Big Four, were spiteful as a result, but Agatha Christie was now nationally famous and sales of this new work topped nine thousand copies. The whole affair was a marketing man’s dream, with all of Agatha’s earlier books being reprinted and enjoying healthy sales.

But the personal outcome for the author was not so positive, as Archie promptly divorced her and married Nancy Neele. In 1930 Agatha met and married archaeologist Max Mallowan, with whom, having learned her lesson, she immediately shared her resources. None of the parties involved ever spoke of the writer’s mysterious disappearance again.

But the debate continued. Could Agatha Christie have had a nervous breakdown? After all, how could she have read about her disappearance in the newspapers and not even recognize a picture or description of herself. For that matter, how could the other guests not have recognised her earlier? Many commentators have suspected a conspiracy – a pact of silence between the writer and her fellow guests.

It was only after the death of Agatha Christie, in January 1976, that the mystery was finally unravelled. It is obvious from the detail that the whole affair was in fact far from a publicity stunt. Indeed Agatha was mortified at seeing so much made of her disappearance. The great mystery of the 1920s, involving the crime writer who was to become one of the most famous and successful in the world, is in fact an easy one to solve.

In 1926, as we have seen, Agatha Christie’s world was thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage. The mixture of grief, anger and humiliation that she felt following these events led Agatha to the verge of a nervous breakdown and, for the first time in her life, she began to behave irrationally. On the morning of Friday 3 December, Agatha and Archie had a major argument about Archie’s intention to spend the weekend in Surrey at the house of a friend. He didn’t want her to accompany him because, as the writer later discovered, Nancy Neele was going to be present. Such a public breakdown of her marriage was incredibly humiliating and so – fuelled by despair, vengeance and plain old attention seeking – Agatha, assisted by her sister-in-law Nan, hatched a plot worthy of one of her own novels.

At 10 p.m. on 3 December, after Archie had left for the weekend, Agatha drove to Newlands Corner, parked on the edge of the road and pushed her car down the bank, leaving a suitcase and coat on the back seat and the headlights on, presumably to ensure the car would be discovered. Carrying a second suitcase, she then walked or received a lift to West Clandon station nearby, from where she caught the train to London. After staying the night with Nan, she wrote a letter to Archie’s brother Campbell and posted it at 9.45 a.m. on the Saturday, informing him she was travelling to the hotel in Harrogate. She addressed the letter to his office, knowing it would not arrive until at least Monday morning. In the meantime, she was fully expecting the car accident to ruin Archie’s weekend, and that of the other guests who, she presumed, would all be out looking for her rather than having fun without her. When Campbell received the letter on Monday morning, she thought that everything would then die down, and she herself, no doubt, already had her own story worked out about how she could explain the events to her own advantage and to Archie’s further misery.

Unfortunately, when Campbell opened the letter that Monday, he hardly looked at it and then managed to lose it, leaving Agatha’s whereabouts unknown and the so-called mystery in the hands of the frenzied press. Agatha, clearly alarmed that her mind games had rapidly become so public and out of her control, decided to lie low to consider her next move. Perhaps she would have continued to hide – clearly she hadn’t expected anybody to recognize her; or perhaps she would have fled abroad to escape the growing scandal.

It is intriguing to think what Agatha’s next real-life storyline would have been if the head waiter at the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel had not finally recognized the author. But let us be grateful that he did, because some very fine stories subsequently began to flow out of this now famous author. I am off out now to leave my car at Beachy Head to see how many of you come looking for me. If, after a week or so, nobody has tracked me down, try the Old Swan at Harrogate. I don’t want to be left there too long.

Extract from Gone Missing

Albert Jack books available for download here