In the 1970s "Wild Bill" Cooper from tiny Willow River, Minn., was one of the 10 most wanted criminals in the country, convicted of smuggling huge planeloads of pot from Mexico. But before he became a fugitive, he was an adventurer, leading a famous snowmobile expedition from Minnesota to the Arctic.
A new documentary, "Wild Bill's Run," explores the life and mystery of Bill Cooper. He disappeared more than 30 years ago and hasn't been seen since. U.S. Marshals believe he was killed by a Mexican drug cartel. But a lot of people in Willow River have other ideas.
Before he became a famous snowmobiler and infamous criminal, he was a bartender. He owned the Squirrel Cage bar in Willow River, about an hour south of Duluth.
The bar is still around today. There's even a corner dedicated to Wild Bill, a miniature museum of newspaper clippings and photos. There's an old bumper sticker, popular around town in the 1970s and 1980s, that reads, "Where the hell's Cooper?"
Current bartender Patty Kalosky has heard the theory that he was killed in Mexico. But she doesn't believe it.
"No, I don't, I guess; myself, a lot of people don't -- they think he's still around," Kalosky said.
Kalosky tells the story of a friend who visited Las Vegas about 15 years ago.
"They happened to look down to the end of the bar, and she knew it was Bill Cooper," she said. "And she turned to her husband and said, look, Bill's down there, it's Bill Cooper. And when he turned, he was already gone."
People in Willow River have many theories. He's on a beach somewhere. Or, the most popular, he's living in northern Canada.
"People have this way of talking themselves into believing that Bill Cooper must be alive," said Mike Scholtz, who directed the new film about Cooper.
"It's like, he's this larger than life figure that they just have to believe something amazing happened to him."
The legend of Wild Bill Cooper began in 1972, when he recruited six men to join him on an unprecedented adventure. With a black chinstrap beard and dark, penetrating eyes, Cooper looked like an action hero, Scholtz said. "And he lived his life like one, too."
The plan was preposterous: to snowmobile from Minnesota, through Canada and Greenland, down to Scandinavia and eventually, to Moscow.
Cooper even recruited a songwriter, Larry Lee Phillipson, to compose a tune about the "Trans-world Snowmobile Expedition."
"They left Willow River on a cold winter morn, a new breed of heroes was about to be born ... this seven-man team on their ski mobiles, led by a lot of grit and a man named Wild Bill."
Bill Juntenen, the cinematographer on Cooper's trip, shot 16 mm footage that was used throughout the new documentary. He remembers the extreme cold: "We were seeing actual daytime temperatures, 65 to 70 below, not counting windchill. It was brutal."
Juntenen also remembers being constantly lost. But he says they just followed Cooper's nose.
"His navigation skills were phenomenal, at least it turned out that way," Juntenen said. "Although at times we wondered. He'd look around and try to figure out which way to go, and off we'd go in some direction and just follow him."
They ran out of food, once going for eight days without eating. They traveled across miles of precariously thin sea ice. And as Rob Goodman, the trip's medical officer, recalls, they ran out of gas several times. Once Cooper and another man left camp in a snowmobile with the little gas they had left. They didn't return for three days.
"They made it back and they found a 55-gallon gas drum sitting on a sand bar in the middle of this frozen, raging river! Impossible," Goodman said. "But there were several miracles like that that helped us make it through the trip."
They didn't make it to Russia. They stopped on an island north of the Arctic Circle, just shy of Greenland. Goodman, who is Cooper's stepson, says there were mixed emotions at the end of the trip. They hadn't reached their goal but discovered something else.
"We had succeeded in something magnificent: We had spent four months on this expedition, we had gone 5,000 miles on snowmobiles, we had made it to the heart of the Arctic. It was a huge success."
But it wasn't enough for Cooper. The next year he recruited a second team to pick up where they had left off. But they only made it to Greenland, where Cooper was arrested for not having an explorer's visa.
That was just the beginning of much larger legal troubles for Cooper. He returned to Willow River, and soon rumors were flying that Wild Bill was flying marijuana from Mexico to Minnesota. His friend Frank Larson, who managed logistics on the snowmobile expedition, says Cooper was always borrowing money. Once he owed him $35,000 when he called Larson to go to breakfast.
"There was an old beat-up Oldsmobile; he said jump in," Larson said. "There was a jacket on the seat, and under the jacket was a brown grocery bag. He dug in there and he counted out $17,000 in cash, and paid me half of it. Looking back on it, he'd probably already started dealing in drugs and got that money."
Larson says the FBI told him Cooper amassed a fleet of 17 planes to transport drugs. Yet he never even obtained a pilot's license. And even though everyone knew what he was up to, Larson says it didn't matter -- everyone loved him. And that made it tough to catch him.
"Bill became a local legend, a hero. The FBI would come in, look for Bill, try to fit in like they weren't FBI; people would pick them out right away, then they'd give them a line of crap, what Bill was doing."
But in 1976, Cooper was finally caught and pleaded guilty to drug smuggling and other charges. Then, a year later, just before his sentencing, he disappeared. And no one around Willow River has heard from him since.
Retired U.S. Marshal Steve Swenson pursued Cooper for more than three years in the late 1980s. He believes Cooper didn't turn to crime for the money. He figures he saw it as just another adventure. But Swenson says Cooper was eventually killed by Mexican drug traffickers.
"He ended up being shot and basically left to rot in a river basin, just outside the town of Sonoyta, Mexico."
But his body was never found.
"So as far as I know his body is still where it was buried," Swenson said. "They say it was a shallow grave, so animals might have got to it by now, but still where it was when he was shot and killed in the early '80s."
And so, with no conclusive evidence that Cooper is dead, a lot of people just can't admit that he's gone. Goodman says they don't want to let go of the myth that surrounds his stepdad.
"We identify with characters who are maybe a little bit larger than us," Goodman said. "They give us something that we can't quite get on our own, and I think Bill did that. And I think that's still the compelling part of the story -- he gave people something they couldn't quite get on their own."
The film "Wild Bill's Run" plays Friday night at the Free Range Film Festival in Wrenshall. It's dedicated to Wild Bill Cooper, wherever he is.