September 1st, 2011
08:00 AM ET
By Thom Patterson, CNN
(CNN) - Four decades after the hijacker known as D.B. Cooper jumped from a 727 over the Pacific Northwest with $200,000 in ransom, the identity of the infamous skydiver in a dark suit and glasses remains a mystery.
After he plunged out the rear door of Northwest Flight 305 that cold November night in 1971, the cigarette smoking hijacker was never seen or heard from again. Some amateur investigators believe he died in the jump. Others say he may have survived.
Last month, the FBI shot down a woman's claim that her late uncle, L.D. Cooper, pulled off what is the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history.
But Cooper's fate isn't the only unresolved question that lingers from the crime. Lately, buffs who follow and blog about the case have been wondering: What happened to the investigation's most valuable witness, former flight attendant Tina Mucklow?
It turns out that the hijacking that would vault Mucklow into the media spotlight would be followed by unusual developments that add yet another layer of intrigue to the D.B. Cooper case.
Mucklow, whom the FBI said spent more time with the hijacker than any other crew member, had complied with Cooper’s demands after he revealed what he said was a bomb.
He had bought his ticket under the name Dan Cooper, but press reports later misidentified the hijacker as D.B. Cooper, and the name stuck.
During the flight, Mucklow served him a bourbon and water, passed notes to the pilots and showed the hijacker how to operate the aircraft's rear door, through which he eventually jumped.
"He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm," the 22-year-old Mucklow was quoted as saying about the hijacker, according to Trutv.com.
Investigative reporter Bruce Smith, who has researched the Cooper case for three years, said, "Mucklow was the brains of the crew."
Smith said the pilot of Flight 305 told him that Mucklow's actions during the flight saved his and the passengers’ lives. "She kept Cooper cool, calm and collected," Smith said.
Although Mucklow and other crew members spoke at a news conference immediately after the hijacking, she soon stopped talking to the media about it.
Then around 1979 or 1980, close to a decade after the hijacking, Mucklow cut herself off from the world and turned to a life of solitude.
She entered the Maria Regina Convent, a Carmelite Catholic nunnery outside Eugene, Oregon. There, Mucklow immersed herself in prayer, austerity and manual labor.
Carmelite nuns rarely leave the grounds of their convents. Stricter Carmelite communities allow one or two nuns to exit the compound to bring back food and other necessities.
A woman who answered a phone last week at Maria Regina said Mucklow "left in about 1991 or 1992. I'm not going to say any more about it."
She hung up the phone without giving her name.
Mucklow's sudden departure continues to gnaw at Cooper buffs, many of whom say they’ve become obsessed with the case. Galen Cook, a 57-year-old former private investigator who has been following the Cooper case most of his life, said the unique details of the case have pulled him in. He called it “The Vortex.” Cook said he’s in touch with the FBI on the case and is writing a book about it.
“Why did Tina leave the convent?” asked Cook, who visited the compound not long ago and met briefly with one of the nunnery's leaders.
"I'm reiterating the exact words from the head sister there: 'She no longer fit in,'" Cook, an Alaska-based lawyer, said in a phone interview. "I found this very interesting that she didn't fit in, even though she had already been there 12 years."
Leaving under those circumstances would be "very, very unusual," said Chris Hart, a secular Carmelite who has been visiting Maria Regina since 1994.
Maria Regina’s nuns must undergo a regimented six-to-eight-year process that ends with each nun choosing cloistered living as a permanent way of life. After a dozen years, departing for not fitting in would be virtually unheard of, "unless there was illness or something along those lines," said Hart.
Mucklow now lives in central Oregon under another name, apparently to hide from curiosity seekers and the news media. She didn't return repeated phone calls from CNN.
CNN has chosen not to identify the city where Mucklow lives or the name she’s living under.
But Smith, who reports for his own online news magazine, The Mountain News, said he was able to track her down in person this summer.
He spoke briefly with Mucklow in July on the doorstep of her well-kept home in a working-class neighborhood.
When Mucklow came to the door, "She seemed stunned to see me," Smith said.
Mucklow looked into Smith's eyes for a moment – then, realizing he was a reporter, her eyes narrowed to a squint. "You need to leave now," she commanded, slamming the door shut.
"It is my working opinion that Tina has been traumatized by something or someone," said Smith, who worked as a therapist for 14 years. "I don't think it was just the skyjacking, I think it was the skyjacking plus."
By all accounts, Mucklow remains close to her Catholic faith.
She serves her parish as a Eucharistic minister, helping distribute wine and consecrated bread to worshippers during the holy sacrament of communion, said her former priest, the Rev. Roy Antunez. "She's kind of a private person, in a sense," said Antunez, the priest at Mucklow's church about six months ago. "Maybe that's what attracted her to the Carmelites, I don't know."
During a private moment, Mucklow told Antunez that she’d been a Carmelite. But she said nothing more about it, according to the priest.
But other clues in Mucklow's past point to a life of religious devotion. News photos from the night of the hijacking showed Mucklow clutching a Bible.
Antunez visited Mucklow's home, but said she never confided in him about her experience aboard Northwest Flight 305.
"I'm sure her faith sustained her," said Antunez. "She's a very religious - I would say a holy person, but she would probably deny that."
Antunez wouldn't speculate about Mucklow’s reasons for joining or leaving a convent, but said he doubted it had to do with the hijacking. "You don't take somebody who's wanting to get over some trauma or having psychological or behavioral difficulties," he said.
"People might look at the cloistered lifestyle and say, 'That must be really hard.' But if someone isn't happy, they shouldn't be there," he said. "You'll just be a pain in the ass."
The Maria Regina convent belongs to the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, a Roman Catholic group that traces its history to founder Saint Therese of Avila in 16th century Spain, according to the order's website.
Nuns at Maria Regina begin a typical day at 6 a.m. by gathering in a convent chapel, followed by an hour of silent, private prayer and then community prayer and a chapel service.
Much of their work involves making bread, which is sold to become consecrated host for communion. "They make their own income," said Hart. "They have to make their own money to support themselves."
The day includes manual labor such as cooking, cleaning, sewing and laundry and two hours of recreation.
Nuns have access to TV, radio and phone, but not the Internet, Hart said. There are eight or nine women living there, she said.
In the two decades since Mucklow left the nunnery, she has remained cooperative with the investigation, FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich told CNN.
Agents questioned her immediately after the hijacking, but Cooper case buffs want to know more about her current relationship with federal authorities.
That includes wanting to know if investigators asked Mucklow to examine photos of L.D. Cooper - the man whose niece claimed her uncle was the hijacker.
It was only a few days after a woman named Marla Cooper told CNN that her uncle L.D. Cooper was the hijacker that the FBI knocked down that claim.
"The extent to which (Mucklow) is cooperative is part of our pending investigation and I can't comment on that - and it's also a matter of her privacy," said Dietrich.
Cooper case buffs have other questions, too.
Was there a connection between Mucklow's status as an eyewitness to a federal crime and her entering the convent? Was she seeking refuge from the public eye?
Was Mucklow's time there - as Cook believes - part of some kind of "witness protection program"?
Cook also wonders why the nuns at Maria Regina have been so reluctant to talk about the case. In a sense, Cook said, they're still protecting her.
These are just theories. "They're part of this D.B. Cooper mystery,” Cook said, “that just doesn't go away."
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