Skyjacker—the Richard McCoy Jr. Story - Part 2
In the first of this two-part series (Parachutist, March), skyjacker Richard McCoy Jr. had just extorted $500,000 and leapt from a commercial airliner in flight...
The sensation was nothing like the three night jumps McCoy had made in the past; he felt as if he were falling from a tall building. Then the blast of freezing air hit. McCoy later said that it practically tore his head off.
He arched and got into a belly-to-earth position, but something was wrong. He was in a spin. The heavy duffle bag dangling between his legs had shifted left, and he could not counter the effect. He became weak, dizzy, nauseous and even blacked out momentarily. When he regained consciousness, he was still spinning, but he fought to control it by leaning his body toward the bag. This only made the spin faster and more violent.
Despite his predicament, he noticed the huge searchlights of the C-130s in the distance—the agents following him knew he had jumped. He didn’t want to be under canopy under the searchlights, but he decided to pull high anyway since he didn’t know how much longer he could hold onto consciousness. He reached for the ripcord handle and pulled. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. The handle was stuck.
The third time, he grabbed the silver handle with both hands and pulled, and the round Para-Commander canopy deployed—hard. It opened in tight line twists that went all the way up to the very top of the line set. Because round canopies open and fly with tension evenly distributed in a circle, line twists generally don’t cause the canopy to dive, and they usually untwist themselves without input. McCoy’s canopy did just this. As soon as the twists reached the top of the lines, they began untwisting, spinning him around like a rag doll.
Though the canopy finally stopped turning, the cars and lights on Interstate 15 below him seemed to be spinning until he was finally able to recover his senses. It’s unknown at what altitude he pulled, but he claimed that the searchlights were bright enough for him to see his altimeter. He could also see the lights of at least 12 police roadblocks on the freeway. On one side of the freeway was a cow pasture; on the other side was 150-square-mile Utah Lake.
McCoy turned his canopy toward the cow pasture, and a slight breeze slowed his forward speed. He passed over the interstate at about 300 feet. During this era, jumpers expected their landings under round canopies to be hard. There was no flare, and the canopy descended at a consistent speed until the jumper hit the ground. Jumpers routinely prepared to make parachute landing falls (PLFs), and they almost always wore lace-up army-type boots, like McCoy did, to protect their ankles.
McCoy carried a 10-foot-long rope with him, planning to tether and drop his duffle bag to the ground before landing. But the bag proved to be too heavy and awkward to release this way. McCoy braced himself for a rough landing and lifted his right ankle, which had previously been sprained, to protect it. But somehow, with the gentle breeze and the deep, freshly plowed soil, McCoy landed softly and rolled to a stop, flat on his back. With his canopy gently blowing in the wind around him, McCoy stayed on his back, looking up at the dark sky for at least 15 minutes with wonderment and joy on his face.
While McCoy was exiting the airliner, onboard, the captain noticed a distinct change in the sound level at 11:27 p.m. There was a very loud drone inside the cabin and cockpit when traveling depressurized with the aft door open, yet there was a moment when that drone increased and then decreased momentarily. The captain suspected that the aft stairs hanging down into the jet’s airstream were not fully extended, but when McCoy stepped onto them, his weight dropped them more fully into the wind. This increased the noise, which suddenly decreased as the stairs bounced up (and then back down again) when McCoy stepped off.
At this point, the captain repeatedly called for the hijacker on the intercom. There was no answer. After a few moments, one of the crew members ventured into the dark cabin, only to find it empty.
The captain radioed the federal agents and trail planes that the hijacker was gone and had exited somewhere over Provo, Utah. Hundreds of police officers, volunteer law-enforcement officers and federal agents rushed to the area. Authorities immediately filled 65 miles of I-15 with intermittent roadblocks. The small town filled with hundreds of police and undercover vehicles. Officers lay on the roofs of their cars with guns and rifles pointed toward the sky. They conducted house-to-house searches. Officers in boats and helicopters searched Utah Lake, looking for McCoy or a canopy floating in the water.
All this time, McCoy lay in a field, 40 yards from I-15 and about four miles from his home. He could hear bloodhounds in the distance searching for him, and helicopters with searchlights flew above. Magnesium flares floated in the air under miniature parachutes, illuminating the sky and ground. He eventually got up, threw the duffle bag and parachute over the barbed-wire fence surrounding the pasture and climbed over. Then he noticed a dry metal culvert. Carrying the parachute and money into town under the searchlights and through the roadblocks was impractical, so he took off his skydiving gear and jumpsuit, took about $30 in cash from the bag of money and hid everything else in the culvert.
Hitching a Ride Home
McCoy walked the mile and a half to town wearing his business clothes and army boots. He was in the search zone and jumped to hide in the ditch beside the road every time a car went by. He soon found a drive-in restaurant that was about to close. He bought a soft drink and approached a young man, offering him $5 for a ride to Provo. They didn’t talk much in the car except when the young man asked how the search flares stayed suspended in the sky; McCoy explained they were attached to parachutes.
“Richard Would Love This!”
A fellow Vietnam vet and friend of McCoy’s called his house in excitement at about 11:30 p.m. Like McCoy, Robert Van Ieperen was a Utah National Guard helicopter pilot, and he was a skydiver—he and McCoy would visit the local drop zone together. Van Ieperen was also a dispatcher with the Highway Patrol; that night, he was working the roadblocks.
With the excitement of a hijacking occurring right in their hometown and making national news, he wanted to make sure McCoy knew about it. McCoy’s sister-in-law, who lived with the McCoy family, answered the telephone. She told Van Ieperen that neither Richard nor his wife was home. Disappointed, Van Ieperen said, “He’s going to flip when he hears what’s going on. There’s been an airplane hijacking over Provo. We think the guy’s already jumped with half a million bucks. Richard’s gonna love it!”
Van Ieperen called again after midnight. He was surprised that McCoy still wasn’t home, especially during the monumental excitement of something they could both relate to. The sister-in-law wasn’t sure where he was but told Van Ieperen that she thought he said he had National Guard duty. But things weren’t adding up for Van Ieperen. The National Guard unit was closed that night, and no maneuvers were scheduled.
Then he started thinking about how McCoy often talked about D.B. Cooper’s hijacking of a plane over Oregon five months ago and how McCoy said he could have pulled it off. He thought about how this hijacking was happening right in their small hometown, by an experienced skydiver—a hijacker who demanded the exact same amount of money McCoy said he would have demanded...
There was a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the hijacker—that’s $261,000 in today’s currency. All it took was for Van Ieperen to make one call to investigators, and they began immediately processing Richard McCoy’s name. They were also investigating the fingerprints the skyjacker left behind and the handwritten note the stewardess had tucked away.
Reportedly, McCoy arrived home at around 1 a.m., and his wife was still out trying to find him at their prearranged location, not even sure whether he had jumped. His sister-in-law was hysterical, wondering where he had been and what was going on.
When his wife arrived home, McCoy calmly told her that he did indeed jump and that his gear and the money were hidden four miles away. At 3 a.m., they drove to the location on nearly empty roads. All the searchlights, floating flares and roadblocks were gone. The radio transmitters in the parachutes had long since expired.
He loaded the money and some of the gear into his car but left the open canopy and harness behind in the culvert. Back at home, McCoy tried to hide the cash in his backyard by digging a hole, but he couldn’t make one big enough. He ended up hiding it in a closet.
The next morning, soon after sunrise, a 13-year-old boy found the hidden canopy and harness in the culvert. Out of all the miles of lonely highway in that part of the country, the boy’s father had a flat tire and stopped, by sheer coincidence, near the culvert. While his father changed the flat, the boy found the hidden gear. They promptly took it to authorities.
The next day, having had virtually no sleep, McCoy served his National Guard duty, searching for the hijacker. The whole time he was being watched by the FBI.
Two days after the hijacking, at 5 a.m., federal agents banged on McCoy’s door. McCoy’s plan had fallen apart, and there was no escape. His fingerprints were on an airline magazine. The authorities confirmed that the handwritten note left with the stewardess was his by comparing it with his military records. The long-haired fugitive who helped carry the cash and parachute rigs onto the jet also positively identified Richard McCoy Jr. through a photograph. The agents handcuffed McCoy, arresting him for air piracy.
The agents easily found all of the money (except for $30) in the McCoy home. They also found an empty pistol, imitation grenade, jumpsuit and helmet. His carefully typed instructions for the hijacking no longer existed; he had burned them the night before.
Trial and Media
The media—including the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and national radio and television programs—featured news of the “skyjumper” heist. Lawyers from across the country offered to represent him pro bono, but McCoy asked for a court-appointed lawyer. He pled not guilty. The charge of air piracy carried the death penalty.
On the first day of the trial, NBC filmed outside the courthouse, and people formed long lines, trying to get a seat in the courtroom. The prosecution’s star witness was the stewardess who had spent the most time with McCoy on the plane and who hid his note in her bra. However, she did not identify Richard McCoy as the hijacker. Because of the peculiar disguise he wore on the jet, he simply did not look like the same person in the courtroom.
Nonetheless, he was found guilty. But before the jury went to deliberate, the judge made a stunning announcement: The Supreme Court just that morning suspended the death penalty in the United States. Consequently, instead of being put to death, Richard McCoy Jr. received a sentence of 45 years at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Soon after the trial, McCoy received devastating news from his church in a letter that stated, “… in accordance with the law of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, [the Council] excommunicated you from the Church on the grounds of skyjacking and extortion.”
As a third-year law enforcement student at Brigham Young University, McCoy was more educated than many of his guards at the maximum-security federal prison, and he was assigned to work as a clerk in the dental lab.
In prison, McCoy received bags of letters from admiring acquaintances, former high-school classmates, friends and strangers. He was reportedly a quiet and conscientious worker who treated the prison employees with respect. But he grieved terribly for his young son and four-year-old daughter. The thought that he would not be able to spend time with them until they were adults devastated him.
McCoy learned that fellow inmate Melvin Walker, who was a highly experienced criminal and armed robber, was concocting an escape plan. McCoy approached Walker with his own detailed plan. But Walker hesitated; McCoy was too trusting, had virtually no criminal experience and was just a skydiver. Walker didn’t think McCoy could kill if necessary (and, in fact, McCoy was wounded in Vietnam because he was unable to shoot a man up close). But McCoy’s plan was well-conceived and feasible.
McCoy provided dental plaster to Walker, who carved an extremely realistic-looking gun from it. A very talented self-taught artist, Walker experimented with paints from the prison arts-and-crafts department and created a perfect steel-blue color for his exquisitely rendered .45 caliber pistol. Walker was now convinced that McCoy’s scheme just might work.
The plan involved the two inmates jumping a 6-foot-high fence, sprinting 50 yards to the prison’s double-gated entry and exit port, and hijacking the immense garbage truck that came weekly. They figured the truck could break through one security gate but weren’t sure whether it could break through both. If they could, they preferred to take the truck while the first gate was open, but the window of opportunity was very, very small: They had 11 seconds.
For weeks, McCoy, Walker and two other prisoners observed the guards and the garbage truck’s route while they waited for the prison-grown corn along the fence to grow tall enough to hide in. Meanwhile, they practiced sprinting as hard as they could around the prison yard in front of oblivious guards.
McCoy obtained and hid four sets of army fatigues. Walker took an arts-and-crafts class in the prison and made backpacks. The third prisoner assembled a first-aid kit by gleaning items from the prison hospital. The fourth prisoner was 60 years old and therefore risky. But he had connections on the outside, and he was tough. He was willing to take the right side of the garbage truck, where he’d be exposed to the guard towers and gunfire.
On Saturday morning, garbage day, the four prisoners jumped the fence, but the rest did not go completely as planned. The prisoners commandeered the garbage truck inside both gates, and when Walker held his plaster .45 caliber gun in the face of the first guard, the guard fell down at Walker’s feet from shock and crawled to the tower. Walker then pointed his .45 at the guard in the port tower and ordered him to open the gate. This guard took cover on the floor instead. There was a moment of silence before a shower of gunfire erupted.
When Walker took the wheel of the garbage truck under fire, his plaster gun had been shattered to pieces. McCoy and the remaining two prisoners hadn’t even made it completely inside the cab when Walker gunned the engine and broke through the first gate. The enormous truck then destroyed the second gate and barreled down the narrow country road at 70 mph, convicts hanging out of every door.
On the Run
Two of the convicts were quickly captured, but McCoy and Walker remained on the run in Virginia. For three months, in between rumored visits with McCoy’s family in nearby North Carolina, McCoy and Walker’s secretive life revolved around avoiding capture. They robbed two banks, and Walker rented a house for the both of them under a stolen identity.
As Walker recalled, on the night of November 9, 1974, while returning to their house after visiting the McCoy family, McCoy seemed distracted. McCoy asked Walker to be the first to go into the house to make sure it was clear. Walker declined, saying he was extremely tired. McCoy asked again, adding, “please,” but Walker again declined.
As Richard McCoy carefully entered the house, it was dark and silent, but there were 20 agents hiding inside the house and 20 more outside. As he was about to turn on the light, a walkie-talkie crackled in the dark. An agent yelled, “FBI! Move quietly, and shut the door,” but McCoy instead discharged his .38 pistol into the dark room. The agents fired multiple shots, and McCoy was struck in the chest. He died in the arms of one of the agents. Melvin Walker peacefully surrendered.
In the Mind of Richard McCoy
Some have wondered whether there was something other than greed behind McCoy’s hijacking, since it seemed so out of character.
During the sentencing phase of McCoy’s trial for the skyjacking, the soldiers who served with him came from across the country to testify to their deep respect for McCoy and his bravery. At the same trial, fellow BYU students talked about how McCoy wanted to fight against organized crime. And Van Iepren, the skydiver who called in his suspicions that McCoy was the hijacker, said, “Richard’s my best friend. He’s one of the finest people I know.” McCoy’s actions took his friends by surprise. In fact, when Van Iepren initially voiced his suspicions that McCoy was the hijacker to a mutual friend, the friend told Van Iepren he was ludicrous and to drop the conversation.
McCoy witnessed friends killed in Vietnam, and the battlefield injuries and death he saw deeply affected him. But there was no indication that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to his brother, as a boy, McCoy had a lisp and large ears. He was teased virtually every day. McCoy fought back and was labeled a troublemaker, but there’s no indication he harbored anger about these childhood traumas.
The well-known case of Charles Whitman holds some similarities to McCoy’s. Whitman was a bright Marine and university student when he developed violent tendencies and tremendous headaches. In 1966, he shot 14 university students from a tower on campus. He left a note pleading for an autopsy after his death to look for possible physiological reasons for his horrendous behavior. The autopsy revealed a glioblastoma multiforme tumor, the main symptoms of which are a change in personality and severe headaches. McCoy also suffered from severe migraines, and although doctors suspected a tumor when he was hospitalized for several days in 1971, they didn’t find any conclusive evidence of one.
Retired FBI Special Agent Russell Calame, who was involved with the McCoy case and who helped to author a book about him, met McCoy in person after his arrest. Agent Calame described McCoy as “pleasant but serious.” During an interview for this article, Calame remarked that Richard McCoy did not appear crazy but, rather, quite intelligent. “McCoy never denied his involvement in the hijacking. We had too much evidence against him and he knew it,” Calame added. But according to Calame, Richard McCoy was adamant about one thing: “He told us, ‘You’ll never hold me.’ ”
It’s unknown exactly why McCoy risked so much for a plan that was dangerous every step of the way. McCoy loved skydiving, money and adventure, but he most certainly also had a great love for his children.
Richard McCoy Jr. was buried in his highly decorated Army uniform. He had one hand on his Mormon bible.
About the Author
Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, has been jumping since 1992 and has a Bachelors of Arts in social sciences. She lives in Vancouver, Washington.
Rhodes, B. & Calame, R. (1991). “D.B. Cooper—The Real McCoy.” Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press.
Joseph, Rhawn, Ph.D. “Charles Whitman: The Amygdala & Mass Murder.” Retrieved July 22, 2010, from http://brainmind.com/Case5.html.
(1972, April 24). Crime: The Real McCoy. Time in partnership with CNN. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,943370-1,00.html.
Richard McCoy Jr. (n.d.) in Wikipedia. Retrieved July 2010 from http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_McCoy_Jr.
FBI Famous Cases; Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr. – Aircraft Hijacking. Retrieved July 2010 from the FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation website: http://www2.fbi.gov/libref/historic/famcases/mccoy/mccoy.htm.
D.B. Cooper (n.d.) in Wikipedia. Retrieved July 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.o/wiki/D.-B.-Cooper.