The Odd Story of Richard Floyd McCoy Jr
I’ve been working hard on volume two of Without a Trace and, of course, I can’t resist a chapter on Dan Cooper, who successfully hijacked a Northwest Orient aircraft and disappeared mid-flight, never to be heard of again.
As a part of this, I investigated the story of Richard McCoy Jr, whom some believe to be same man. Personally, I think that’s unlikely — his hijack was not as well executed and I suspect it is more likely to have been a copy-cat — but his story is nevertheless fascinating.
On the 7th of April in 1972, McCoy boarded United Airlines flight 855; a Boeing 727 flying from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with 85 passengers, three flight crew and three cabin crew on board. McCoy escaped the aircraft using a parachute, mimicking the famous hijacking by Dan Cooper just four and a half months earlier. The jump was successful; however the FBI arrested McCoy three days later and were quickly able to prove that he had been the hijacker. He was indicted on the 14th of April and found guilty two months later.
Richard McCoy was a devout Mormon who had lived in Provo, Utah since 1962, when he enrolled at Brigham Young University. He dropped out to join the army, where he served two years in Vietnam as a demolition expert and pilot. He was wounded in action, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart in 1964 and was sent home to recuperate. He returned to Brigham Young University where he met his future wife. He then agreed to serve another term in the Army on the condition that he could go to Vietnam. This time he was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for heroism. In 1968 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a rescue he flew as a combat helicopter pilot.
WARRANT OFFICER MCCOY distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions during the early morning hours of 8 November 1967, while serving as a Helicopter Pilot with the Air Cavalry Troop, llth Armored Cavalry Regiment, in the air over a Vietnamese Popular Forces compound at Xa Duy Can, 7 miles northwest of Tanh Linh, Vietnam. Upon hearing that the compound was in the process of being overrun by a large Viet Cong Force, Warrant Officer McCoy volunteered to fly his aircraft to the scene in support of the friendly forces, in spite of poor visibility due to thick ground fog and intermittent cloud layers, and a complete lack of tactical maps for the area. Flying by instrumentation and radio alone. Warrant Officer McCoy located the compound and came under automatic weapons and small arms fire. With the position of the compound marked by a flare and the firefight marked by tracer rounds. Warrant Officer McCoy began a series of firing passes., launching rockets directly into the Viet Cong positions until all his ammunition was expended. Due to his courageous flight and highly accurate fire, the enemy was completely routed, leaving 20 bodies behind. Warrant Officer McCoy’s outstanding flying ability and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
When he returned to Utah, he considered a third tour of Vietnam but his wife refused. He volunteered as a warrant officer in the Utah National Guard and took up skydiving as a hobby. He taught Mormon Sunday school and returned to Brigham Young University again, this time to study law enforcement. He told friends that he wished to become an FBI or CIA agent.
But money was tight. He received $243 a month from the GI bill (veterans’ benefits) which wasn’t enough to support his wife and two children. The family were in serious financial problems and his marriage began to suffer under the stress of their situation. His wife, whose salary was supporting the family, threatened him with divorce. McCoy also believed that his income from the GI bill would be terminated soon. He needed to get money from somewhere.
Dan Cooper’s daring hijacking was all over the news and, at the time, McCoy told a friend that he thought Cooper should have asked for $500,000 instead of the $200,000 Cooper received. He told the same friend that he had come up with a foolproof plan for hijacking a plane.
He convinced his wife to give him $500 in order to carry out this foolproof plan: he needed flight tickets, guns and a disguise. She later said that she didn’t think he would actually do it, but she bought him a parachute and typed up his list of instructions for the pilots before driving him to Salt Lake International Airport. It was a fifty mile drive and they argued the entire way. She left him at the airport, still not believing that he would actually go through with it.
McCoy took a flight to Denver, Colorado. Using the alias ‘James Johnson’, he booked himself onto United Airlines flight 855 which was on a stopover on its flight from New Jersey to California. The aircraft was a Boeing 727, the same aircraft type as Dan Cooper had hijacked four months earlier. The Boeing 727 had a rear set of airstairs built in, which Cooper had used to exit the flight after his demands had been met. McCoy planned to do the same.
He boarded the aircraft and sat in his assigned seat, 20D, at the back of the 727. After he sat down, a passenger agent entered the aircraft to say that someone had left an envelope in the waiting room. McCoy claimed it and the agent handed it over. Inside the envelope were the two pages of instructions which his wife had typed up, a hand grenade pin and a bullet.
McCoy then left his seat to go to the lavatory and then didn’t come back out. Eventually, one of the pilots came to ask him to please return to his seat for take-off. He came out, apparently wearing his disguise — some passengers reported that he had put on a wig and a false moustache, others reported that a second person came out of the lavatory.
Twenty minutes after take-off, passengers reported to the cabin crew that there was a ‘finely dressed’ man at the back who was holding a hand grenade. She asked an off-duty pilot, who was on board as a passenger, to assess the situation. Meanwhile, the captain announced a diversion to Grand Junction airport.
As the off-duty pilot approached the back of the plane, McCoy pulled out a pistol and handed the man a sealed envelope upon which was written ‘hijack instructions’. It’s hard to believe that the envelope was so clearly labelled when the gate agent brought it to him; it must have been the case that there was a smaller envelope in a big one, although none of the reports mention this. Otherwise, can you imagine being the person who handed it back?
In any event, McCoy told the man to give the envelope to the cabin crew member so she could take it to the captain. He instructed the other passengers in rows 19 and 20 to move to first class in the front of the aircraft, which they were more than happy to do. According to one account, the first class cabin crew member spoke to a doctor on board to ask if he had a medical bag with him, as there was a man on board with a grenade. The doctor reputedly said that yes, he did, but it wouldn’t much help if a hand grenade blew up in a plane full of people.
The typed-up instructions told the captain to land at San Francisco International Airport and park at Runway 19 left. The letter gave strict orders as to how many people could be near the plane at any time and the distance from the aircraft that all vehicles had to maintain, with the exception of the fuel truck. While the aircraft was being refuelled, authorities were to deliver $500,000 in cash and four parachutes to the aircraft.
The captain decided that the safest course of action was to comply with the hijacker demands. The passengers were told that Grand Junction airport could not handle the necessary repairs and that instead, they were diverting to San Francisco. The flight crew notified San Francisco International Airport that they had been hijacked and were inbound.
United Airlines were contacted and agreed to meet the demands of the hijacker. When the aircraft landed at San Francisco, they delivered two flight bags with $500,000 in cash and four parachutes.
The Boeing 727 was refuelled to full. This would give the 727 a range of over 3,000 miles (5,000 km), enough to fly to the east coast. By now the sun had set and darkness was falling.
The passengers and one cabin crew member were released and the hijacker asked for all cargo to be removed from the plane. He handed over his baggage check slip, so that they could deliver his luggage to the cabin. The remaining crew members were told to remain in the cockpit while he stayed in the rear. McCoy then used the rear intercom to tell the cabin crew member to come to him for the next instructions.
He gave her a hand-written note which told the flight crew to take off towards the east and climb to 16,000 feet. Further notes passed to the pilots via the hijacker instructed them to fly 180 knots exactly via specific waypoints, leading to a zigzag pattern over central Utah, and finally to depressurise the cabin. He collected the notes back from the cabin crew member so there would be no record.
Two coast guard aircraft, C-130 Hercules, followed the 727 but one of the hijack notes warned that if McCoy saw any pursuit planes, he would blow up the aircraft after he jumped, detonating a hidden explosive device. The captain asked the C-130s to stay out of sight.
All 727 cockpit doors had been equipped with a fish-eye peephole in reaction to the Dan Cooper hijacking. It didn’t help: McCoy simply placed a piece of tape over the peephole. However, the Second Officer found that he could see into the cabin from the gap under the cockpit door. He watched as McCoy put on a jumpsuit, a helmet and one of the parachutes. He then shut off the cabin lights and sent one last note via the cabin crew member, asking for wind, ground and airspeeds of the aircraft, altimeter settings and local weather conditions.
After the 727 had passed the last Utah waypoint on his route, a cabin crew member left the cockpit to check and found that the cabin was empty. The flight crew diverted to Salt Lake City International Airport. It had been five hours since the man with the grenade had been spotted at the back of the plane.
The aircraft landed safely and the FBI rushed to the scene and searched the aircraft for evidence. They collected everything the hijacker might have touched, including seat belts, gum wrappers, cigarette butts and a copy of United’s passenger publication, “Mainliner Magazine” which was found on the seat next to the hijacker’s. They also had one handwritten note which the hijacker had accidentally left behind: the cabin crew member noticed that he’d forgotten to ask her for it and quickly hid it from sight. The FBI now had samples of the hijackers handwriting and a clear fingerprint on the cover of the Mainliner Magazine.
Meanwhile, Provo City Police and the Utah County Sheriff’s Department searched the countryside near Provo, where they believed he had bailed out. They found no trace of him that night. The following day, McCoy was on National Guard duty and flew one of the helicopters involved in the search for the hijacker. Not surprisingly, they didn’t find him. No one was looking in the air.
However, the investigation was progressing. That morning, the FBI’s Salt Lake City Office received a phone call. The caller said his acquaintance had told him that he had a foolproof plan for hijacking a plane. McCoy’s friend remembered the conversation they’d held after the Dan Cooper hijacking and knew that McCoy had the skills to be able to pull this off. Now the FBI had a name.
The search in Provo also had a lead. A motorist reported picking up a hitchhiker wearing a jumpsuit and carrying a duffel bag at a roadside hamburger stand outside of Provo. The FBI took a photograph of McCoy to the restaurant, where an employee recognized him and said that she’d sold him a milkshake the night of the hijacking, around 11:30pm.
The FBI agents pulled McCoy in for questioning. He denied that he had anything to do with the hijacking and agreed to give them a sample of his handwriting. The Department of the Army were also happy to help, supplying McCoy’s fingerprints as well as samples of his handwriting which they had on file.
All three handwriting samples matched and the fingerprint on the cover of Mainliner Magazine matched the print which the army had on file.
On the 10th, three days after the hijacking, the FBI arrested Richard McCoy Jr at his home on a charge of air piracy. They also had a search warrant for the house, where they found $499,970 wrapped in bank bands in a cardboard box. They also took two electric typewriters, a parachute and harness and a pistol as possible evidence.
This was the seventh hijacking involving parachutes in the five months following Dan Cooper’s hijack.
What happened to the missing $30? No one ever knew, though it seems likely that he used some of it to buy the milkshake at the hamburger stand.
Two months later, McCoy was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
His story doesn’t end there, however. Two years later, McCoy was in the headlines again.
Four inmates, including a former Mormon Sunday school teacher involved in a bizarre hijacking in 1972, commandeered a garbage truck today and broke out of the Federal penitentiary here, the state police said.
Although the convicts were described as armed, it turned out that McCoy had created a fake handgun out of dental paste he’d stolen from the prison’s dental office.
McCoy went to Virginia Beach Florida but it took just three months for the FBI to track him down. McCoy found the FBI waiting for him at his home and fired a handgun (a real one this time). One of the agents fired back, killing him.
At the time of the arrest, the FBI had stated that they did not believe that Richard McCoy and Dan Cooper were the same person; there was no link between the two. However, FBI agent Russell Calame and federal probation officer Bernie Rhodes believed that there was a connection, and that they could prove it. Ten years after McCoy’s death, they began work on a book demontrate their evidence. The book was released in 1991 under the name D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy.
The book includes many quotes from Karen McCoy, McCoy’s wife, implicating her in the hijack and making other serious allegations, including that she conspired with the FBI to have her husband killed. The book implied that the FBI agents had spoken to Mrs McCoy and other witnesses directly… but Mrs McCoy had refused to speak to them and certainly hadn’t told them her part in the hijack planning.
It turned out that in 1972, after his arrest and sentencing, McCoy came up with a plan to publish a book about his heist and hired an attorney in Provo to act as his agent. This came to nothing after his death but the attorney kept the transcripts of interviews with McCoy and his family, including his mother, his wife, his brother and Mrs McCoy’s sister.
The FBI agents had learned of this and requested the files from the attorney. He “graciously” agreed to give them everything he had kept: almost two hundred pages of interview transcripts. Bernie Rhodes later explained that he reconstructed the information from those transcripts and then rewrote the interviews as though he had conducted them himself, “to give more immediacy to the dialogue”.
Mrs McCoy filed suit against her former attorney, the authors and the publishers, seeking an injunction to stop further sales of the book. She did not achieve this and, in fact, the court case focused attention on the book, increasing sales tremendously.
However, Wilkinson did prohibit the sale of any movie rights on the book if – only if – the movie would include four allegations in the book McCoy is currently protesting. Those allegations are: Karen McCoy threatened to throw her infant daughter under a passing truck, McCoy dated an FBI agent while married to Richard McCoy, she drove a getaway car used by Richard McCoy in the Provo hijacking and she conspired with the FBI to have her husband killed.
She settled in 1994. Her former attorney was ordered to pay her $100,000 and she also received $20,000 from the publisher. The settlements from the two authors’ are undocumented.
And there, finally, the story of Richard Floyd McCoy Jr ends.
What do you think? Could this be the same man who pulled off the ‘Dan Cooper’ heist?