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OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A woman claiming to be the niece of the mysterious skyjacker dubbed D.B. Cooper, who bailed out of a jetliner with $200,000 in ransom, says she recalls her uncle plotting the sensational caper at a family gathering in 1971.
Marla Wynn Cooper, 48, of Oklahoma City, told ABC News that she is the person who recently furnished the FBI new clues pointing to a previously unknown suspect and sparking a renewed probe of the 40-year-old case, said to be the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. aviation history.
The FBI in Seattle acknowledged earlier this week that a person who was close to the new suspect had obtained objects now being examined to see if they bear fingerprints matching those left behind on the hijacked plane.
An FBI spokesman in Seattle, Fred Gutt, declined again on Wednesday to reveal the person who came forward with the latest information, saying, "We do not identify witnesses in an investigation."
But Marla Cooper said she is certain that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, who went by the name L.D. Cooper, was the man who seized a Seattle-bound Northwest Orient Airlines flight in November 1971 by claiming to have a bomb. He vanished when he jumped out of the rear of the plane in mid-air with a parachute and $200,000 in cash.
The plane was flying at about 10,000 feet at night through a storm over wooded, rugged terrain in the Pacific Northwest, and the hijacker was presumed by many to have likely perished.
Still, the sensational Thanksgiving eve caper triggered a massive manhunt, and the FBI went on to consider over 800 suspects in the first five years after the crime.
The only trace from his getaway was a crumbling batch of $20 bills matching the ransom money's serial numbers, unearthed by a boy from a sandbar along the Columbia River in 1980.
Marla Cooper, a sales executive for a coffee company, told ABC News she decided to come forward after piecing together vague childhood memories, which were reinforced with comments each of her parents made to her in more recent years.
She recalled seeing L.D. Cooper and another uncle during a family gathering at her grandmother's house in Oregon around Thanksgiving 1971 "planning something very mischievous."
"I was watching them using some very expensive walkie-talkies that they had purchased," she said, recounting that her uncles then "left to supposedly go turkey hunting."
When they returned, "My uncle L.D. was wearing a white T-shirt and was bloody and bruised and a mess, and I was horrified. I began to cry," she told ABC. "I asked them what happened, and they told me they'd been in a car accident."
But she also recalled overhearing one of her uncles say, "'We did it, our money problems are over, we've hijacked an airplane,'" and she recounted hearing them ask her father to "help them go back into the woods and find the money."
Marla Cooper said she gave the FBI a leather guitar strap her uncle had made, along with a 1972 Christmas photo of him with the same strap, for the FBI to use in fingerprint matching analysis.
She told ABC that her uncle, whom she never saw again after he returned injured from the Thanksgiving holiday episode, had served in the Korean War but was not a paratrooper. However, she recalled he was obsessed with a Canadian cartoon skydiving hero named Dan Cooper and even kept a Dan Cooper comic book tacked to a wall.
According to the FBI, the man in the dark business suit who hijacked Northwest flight 305 called himself Dan Cooper when he purchased a one-way ticket in Portland, Oregon, but the moniker D.B. Cooper originated from media reports and stuck.
L.D. Cooper died in 1999, his niece told ABC.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston