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GH residents help solve hijacking mystery

Becky Vargo • Jul 26, 2018 at 12:00 PM

The cinematography for a documentary that claims it has solved the mystery of an infamous hijacking of an airliner nearly 47 years ago was done at a small home studio in Grand Haven.

If anyone had reason to be skeptical, it was the residents of a small town in the state of Washington, where the legendary D.B. Cooper allegedly landed after hijacking a passenger airliner on Thanksgiving Eve 1971. But the documentary that shows what happened to the hijacker was well received following its July 14 premiere in Cle Elam, Washington, according to Principia Media filmmaker Dirk Wierenga of Grand Haven.

“It was the only unsolved hijacking in the history of America,” Wierenga said during an interview in the basement studio in his home.

The former Grand Haven marketing agency owner teamed up with producer Vern Jones as co-owners of Principia Media of Grand Rapids to create the film.

Wierenga said that he received a call from one of his editors in January 2016 about a manuscript she was reading that allegedly solved the D.B. Cooper hijacking case.

“I was skeptical,” Wierenga said, “but it was an intriguing story.”

After talking to the manuscript’s author, Carl Laurin — a Michigan native and current Florida resident — Wierenga contacted Jones, who lives in Florida, and asked him to stop in DeLand to talk to Laurin. 

“Vern is not known for staying in a meeting for more than a few minutes,” Wierenga said. “Eight hours later I got a call. ‘He solved the case,’ Vern said.”

The hijacking

In late November 1971, a man who signed in as Dan Cooper boarded a Boeing 727 Northwest Orient flight in Portland, Oregon, that was bound for Seattle, Washington. He sat down next to a flight attendant and handed her a note saying that he had a bomb. He demanded money and a parachute.

The plane landed. The passengers were allowed to leave. Then the plane took to the air again, this time with Cooper in possession of $200,000 and a parachute.

Twenty minutes into the flight, Cooper exited with his stash and a parachute through a rear exit only found on the 727, Wierenga said.

The filmmaker said that it is believed Cooper landed near Cle Elum, and then walked to a local café where he contacted someone to come and get him.

Walter Reca was D.B. Cooper?

Laurin, a retired airline pilot, suspected that his friend, Walter Reca, was D.B. Cooper. Reca was a Detroit native and one-time resident of Oscoda. But it wasn’t until a skydiving club reunion in 1998 when he asked his friend if he was involved, Wierenga said.

Laurin, now 84, has compiled information and evidence ever since that time, Wierenga said.

Once Jones was presented with evidence to prove Laurin’s allegations, only made public after the hijacker’s death, a decision was made to not only publish Laurin’s book but also to produce a documentary on it. 

Jones, Wierenga and their Principia Media team spent the better part of the next two years corroborating the evidence put forth by Laurin, and working with forensic linguist Joe Koenig to verify that the conversations between Reca and Laurin were based in truth.

Wierenga said that during that time he visited 30 states, drove 110,000 miles by road with 300 pounds of camera equipment, spent hundreds of hours interviewing people and many more hours editing the video. 

The documentary also includes B-roll acting by members of Wierenga’s family and the family of his business partner, Sherry Baribeau.

Wierenga’s brother, Jeff, played a pilot in scenes shot on an old 727 kept at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. Jeff is a pilot who actually flew the route in the D.B. Cooper story.

Baribeau’s brother, Dave Palmer, performed some of the music used in the documentary.

Wierenga said it was an “immersive” experience. Having the studio in his home made it easy to go to work if he woke up at 2 a.m. with an idea.

“You live it, you sleep it,” he said.

All of the evidence gathered was stored in Wierenga’s house for more than a year, although it has since been moved for secure storage.

Sales of the documentary, “D.B. Cooper: The Real Story,” have been strong since its recent release on internet sites such as Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes, Wierenga noted. He said the documentary, made in four 45-minute segments, can be purchased in its entirety for $10.99. Each episode can be purchased separately, as well.

Carl Laurin’s book, “D.B. Cooper & Me: A Criminal, a Spy, my Best Friend,” is also available in stores and online. Wierenga said the book deals more with the skydiving aspect of Laurin and Reca’s lives, and how the closeness of the skydivers affected the entire story.

More information on the D.B. Cooper story can be found online at therealdbcooper.com.

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