Carol Abraczinskas leads a double life. She's got her steady — and fascinating — day job as a scientific illustrator, sketching dinosaur fossils for the University of Chicago's biology and anatomy department. And then there's that other pursuit as a modern-day detective trying to solve the infamous D.B. Cooper case.
Dan, a.k.a. D.B., Cooper is the alias of the man who hijacked a Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727 in 1971 that was traveling from Portland, Ore., to Seattle. Threatening the plane with a bomb, Cooper received $200,000 as a ransom and eventually parachuted from the plane, never to be heard from again. The case has dogged the FBI (not to mention filmmakers — Treat Williams and Robert Duvall starred in the 1981 movie, "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper" — who continue to search for the real identity of Cooper.
Abraczinskas discussed her colorful life with dinosaurs and Cooper.
Q: How did you get involved with the case?
A: A friend of mine had been contacted by the case agent. The case agent was looking for a creative way to allow the Cooper case to continue being worked on without using government funds, so I have been working on the case on a volunteer basis. Our group of volunteers was called Citizen Sleuths, and we were invited to examine the Cooper evidence and case files in the FBI archive.
Q: How did you personally help the FBI?
A: I became aware of the possible connection between the Cooper hijacking and a comic called "Dan Cooper." A writer for the FBI informed me of the FBI's interest in the comic as a possible source of inspiration from which the hijacker may have taken his name, Dan Cooper. I figured that if the hijacker took his name from the comic, maybe he took something else. After examining the evidence in the archive and comparing it to every comic published pre-hijacking, I began looking at the comic as a possible blueprint for the crime. I presented my work last November at the Cooper Symposium in Portland, Ore., for the 40th anniversary of the hijacking.
Q: How is the case going now?
A: The case is open and ongoing and has many unanswered questions. The hijacking occurred in 1971 when security was different and technology wasn't as sophisticated as it is today. Today's advanced technology is being used on the case. The Cooper case is the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history, and I'm confident one day it will be solved.
Q: What are your detective tricks?
A: Looking back, I've realized that every job I've ever had has involved some kind of heightened observational skills and attention to detail. For some reason, I'm able to notice things that other people might not see right away. I consider it a freakish skill set but something that comes naturally to me. It allows me to be good at my illustration work and is the main reason why I was considered to be a part of the group allowed to work on the Cooper case.
Q: Which came first, your love of dinosaurs or your love of art?
A: My love of art definitely came first. I can remember being interested in art when I was 5 years old and in kindergarten. I was always working on huge, elaborate crayon drawings with my two older sisters.
Q: So how did dinosaurs enter the picture?
A: I think that dinosaur fossils, and fossils in general, are extremely interesting, but I am more interested in drawing. How light falls across a particular specimen, keys to better illustrations, pictorial illusions and how best to visually represent a 100-plus million-year-old, one-of-a-kind fossil for science is what truly interests me.
Q: Why is illustration of fossils still necessary when we can take pictures?
A: The reason for making a drawing, as opposed to just taking a photograph of a specimen, is to clarify the object for the scientist. When taking a photograph, both light and shadow must be present in order for the object to appear three-dimensional. The problem is that important scientific information can be lost within that shadow. With a drawing, I am able to manipulate the light in order to highlight information that may be present within the shadow. I am also able to visually remove unwanted information that is not true to the actual specimen or is unimportant to the scientist — things like cracks and discoloration — and subtly emphasize parts of the object that are crucial scientifically. The completed realistic drawing must be able to actually stand in place of the actual specimen.
Q: Do you get to keep any souvenirs?
A: All of the fossils acquired during an expedition are extremely important and become part of a collection here at the University of Chicago, so I don't have any dinosaur fossils lying around my home. But I do have a souvenir collection of sand samples from my travels around the world. There are particular rules that I have for collecting sand. I'm not interested in anyone giving me samples from their trips. I am only interested in collecting sand from unique places that I've actually been to: Taghit, Algeria, in the Sahara Desert, the Giza Plateau, Anakena Beach on Easter Island and the peak of Al-Qurn situated in the Theban Hills of Luxor, Egypt.
Q: What's the coolest place that your dinosaur work has taken you?
A: Two stand out in particular. In regards to the coolest travel opportunity, I crossed the Sahara Desert in a Land Rover with a small group of scientists when I was 26 years old. We drove over 2,100 miles south from Algiers, Algeria, to Agadez, Niger, on a quest to find dinosaur bones. One finds out what they are made of in 134-degree heat for 10 days without a shower. The trip opened my eyes to extreme travel and gave me the confidence to embark on many solo trips.
Q: Do you have tips for gaining confidence to travel alone?
A: I believe confidence comes with knowledge, so doing one's homework is key. Educating oneself about the specific customs of a particular country is respectful and can take a traveler extremely far. For example, knowing that while traveling in China, one should never present a gift wrapped in black or white paper because it will be associated with death, is important. Being mindful of one's choice of clothing, and following the lead of locals, can open many doors.
Q: What's your favorite place in Chicago to hang out?
A: This summer I joined the FBI's Citizens' Academy here in Chicago to better understand the bureau. Each year, the FBI invites 30 people to take classes at headquarters and learn more about what they do. Our class graduation took place at their agent training facility where we worked with a firearms instructor. Because I have an opportunity to return to the FBI's firing range, I just completed an intensive firearms class at Maxon in Des Plaines, and am looking forward to heading back to the indoor range to work on my marksmanship.
Q: What's your life goal?
A: When you get older, you realize what is really important in life. Life is so incredibly short. Staying healthy is important. Being open and saying "yes" to opportunities when they present themselves can lead to even greater opportunities.