November 24 marks the 34th anniversary of D.B. Cooper’s escape, the only unsolved federal skyjacking in U.S. history and the oldest open federal case in Oregon. Jack Gore Collins remembers it like it was yesterday. As an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland, Collins was the one who signed Cooper’s indictment.
Cooper, who hijacked a Northwest Airlines jet flying from Portland to Seattle, bailed out over southwest Washington with a $200,000 ransom. While 294 of the $20 bills were found near the Columbia River, Cooper seemingly disappeared forever.
Cooper’s crime was just the start of the case for Collins. In November 1976, federal authorities realized no one had ever charged Cooper with a crime, so they quickly sought an indictment in Portland just before the statute of limitations expired.
"It was a significant case for me because it was the first successful aerial hijacking and had not been solved, and time was running out so we had to do something quick," says Collins, 75.
The Cooper mystery is one of several memorable white-collar cases that mark Collins’ career. He led the forfeiture of $400,000 worth of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s assets, and was one of the first federal attorneys to prosecute oil pollution cases.
"I enjoyed unraveling large, white-collar cases and setting up the process," he says. "I’ve always been interested in the process and the system of how things happen."
While growing up in Waukegan, Ill., Collins stopped at the courthouse on his way home from school and watched lawyers try cases. Collins’ interest grew while he served as attorney general for Illinois’ American Legion Boys State in 1948. He graduated from Princeton University in 1952, then served on the USS Princeton during the Korean War before earning a law degree at Harvard Law School in 1958.
"Most of my friends went into the Foreign Service, but there was a smaller group of us who looked internally at domestic matters," Collins says.
With his new wife, Janine, at his side, Collins moved to Oregon to clerk for Supreme Court Justice William C. Perry. Perry, along with the other justices, required their clerks to sit in the back of the hearing room during arguments.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to see who the good lawyers were and to watch the judges," Collins says. "After the hearings, we would go downstairs for a junior supreme court, which was like a graduate seminar. It was a tremendous learning opportunity."
Perry also required Collins to write a draft opinion, which trained the budding lawyer to be decisive and write up his decisions clearly and concisely.
"It was very good discipline. Perry always wrote out his opinions in longhand and in pencil. Otherwise, he said, they got too long," Collins says.
As an associate at Black, Kendall & Tremaine, Collins honed the civil practice skills that proved invaluable as an assistant U.S. attorney under Sidney Lezak. Collins’ first trial for Lezak in 1963 involved a mail fraud case in which several people purchased property near Burns, Ore., which wasn’t quite what it appeared to be in the promotional brochures.
"This was one of the first such cases in the country and it attracted a lot of attention," Collins says, noting his passion for process helped him organize dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits. "It would have been chaos if it weren’t for the process."
Collins went on to head the office’s civil division from 1982 to 1992 and the asset forfeiture unit from 1992 to 1995. A lifelong interest in environmental affairs led him to pursue oil pollution cases, including one that involved the USS Princeton — his home for two years during the Korean War: Zidell Marine Corp. purchased the ship and planned to convert it into an ocean-going barge. However, it sank and spilled 50,000 gallons of oil into Portland’s harbor. Collins led the suit that required Zidell to clean up the harbor.
Collins is quick to credit mentors such as Perry and Lezak for his success. After retiring in 1995, he took on the role of mentor himself as an adjunct professor in administrative law at Lewis & Clark College and Portland State University. He also shared his knowledge with others as a member of several OSB committees.
Collins acknowledges the importance of a career in which he represented the federal government under eight presidents, prosecuted an array of challenging cases and had a chance to practice in the courtroom at a young age.
"I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to do both civil and criminal law," he says. "Philosophically, I was with the new frontier in Sidney Lezak’s office. We had a chance to do something and we did it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer.
© 2005 Mike Pierson