06/23/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
On Feb. 10, 1980, 8-year-old Brian Ingram and his family were picnicking by the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash., when Brian found a clue to a real-life mystery story that had been written shortly after he was born. While clearing a spot for a camp fire, "I got down to use my hand and arm to scoop the sand clear," recalls Brian, now 15. "I hit this sort of lump and dug it out. I wasn't excited at all at first, then I brushed the sand off, and it was money!"
The soggy, semisolidified packet of 299 identifiable $20 bills turned out to be the only tangible evidence ever recovered from the 1971 hijacking and ransoming of a Northwest Orient Airlines 727 by an unidentified man who came to be known as D.B. Cooper. With $200,000 in $20s, Cooper had parachuted out of the back of the plane at night over heavily wooded country somewhere in southwestern Washington and was never seen again.
Last week in Portland, Ore., Brian was finally presented with his share of the long-lost loot. The federal government is keeping 14 of the tattered bills as evidence, and the remaining $5,700 was split equally between Ingram and the insurance company that reimbursed Northwest for $180,000. But rather than merely gaining $2,850 in worse-for-wear tenderized legal tender (less the $500 reward he's returning to Northwest Orient), Brian may have something far more valuable in his adolescent grip: collector's items. There have reportedly been offers of up to $1,000 for a single $20 with a readable serial number.
While he was glad to receive the money, Ingram was disappointed to be missing out on the start of church camp back home in Oklahoma. You know, 15-year-olds really have things in perspective.