BY MICHAEL FITZGERALD
Cooper — under his real name, Robert W. Rackstraw — had a sister here. His parents lived in Valley Springs. He bought a house in nearby Rancho Calaveras.
It gets better. As authorities hunted the audacious Cooper, Rackstraw was in the Calaveras County jail, on trial for allegedly murdering his stepfather. He beat that rap.
Then he was jailed in Stockton on explosives and bank fraud charges. He served a year for them — after twice escaping, once in a stolen airplane — but the wily criminal outfoxed FBI agents suspicious he was Cooper and soon ended up free, the film says.
“My goodness,” said Clark Sueyres, who prosecuted Rackstraw for the 1973 bank fraud.
It’s a my-goodness kinda story, all right. And Rackstraw, now 72, is still alive and living in San Diego. A retired professor (!) he spends much of his time on his yacht named “Poverty Sucks.”
In “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?” on the History Channel documentary, documentarian Thomas J. Colbert and a cold case team masterfully piece together a strong circumstantial case that Rackstraw is D.B. Cooper.
“We absolutely feel we have him,” said Colbert.
Scratch that. The History Channel butchered Colbert’s doc. It cut key evidence. You’d be better off reading the companion book, “The Last Master Outlaw.” Or going to dbcooper.com.
Colbert let me in on his investigation because The Record opened its 1970s archives to Colbert and shared its Rackstraw material: key pieces of the story.
Taking a look back
OK, Rewind to 1971.
A man calling himself Dan Cooper flying on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 from Portland, Oregon to Seattle passed a stewardess a note: he had a bomb.
Commandeering the plane, Cooper demanded four parachutes and $200,000: $1.2 million in today’s money. He got the loot and the chutes at Tacoma; passengers were let off. Back in the air, Cooper ordered airspeed reduced, cabin depressurized and back steps of the 727 lowered.
And he parachuted into stormy weather and folkore. His fate was never determined. The only unsolved American skyjacking, the case remains the subject of endless speculation.
Acting on a tip, Colbert researched Rackstraw.
A native of Scott’s Valley, possibly a genius — he built a full-size glider while still a boy — Rackstraw became a Vietnam chopper pilot. He won a Silver Star and two Distinguished Flying Crosses in top secret operations with the CIA and Green Berets.
He had training in high altitude parachuting, explosives, survival, and spook stuff such as propaganda, “mind control” and deception.
But, says Colbert, he was ousted from the Army for “conduct unbecoming an officer” — five months before the hijacking. Colbert believes that gave him a grudge against Uncle Sam.
It was about that time that a curious individual calling himself Baron Norman de Winter, a Swiss aristocrat, appeared in Astoria, Oregon. De Winter bilked residents out of thousands of dollars. When things got too hot, the Baron disappeared.
Colbert later got victims to ID de Winter as Rackstraw. He theorizes Rackstraw was scoping the Columbia River area for drop zones for his skyjack caper — also seeking a suitable airstrip where he might park a small plane for his post-parachute getaway.
The local ties
Cooper’s jaw-dropping skyjacking made international headlines. And more headlines when Cooper mailed newspapers four taunting letters. Two were mailed from Oakdale and Sacramento, both fairly near Valley Springs.
Rackstraw moved to Valley Springs in 1972. He visited his sister Linda Lee in Stockton. He haunted Stockton bars. He also kited checks to the tune of $75,000. Stockton police issued a warrant for him.
Around this time, Rackstraw’s mother died of natural causes. Rackstraw’s stepdad mysteriously disappeared.
To avoid arrest, Rackstraw blew town. He fled to Iran, where he trained Iranian helicopter pilots for the Shah. Iran had no extradition treaty with America.
Cops served a warrant on Rackstraw’s Stockton storage units. Inside they found 14 rifles and 150 pounds of dynamite (“enough to nearly level a city block”).
The plot thickened when Calaveras deputies dug up the body of Rackstraw’s stepdad. The old man had been shot in the head and buried in a shallow grave on his property. Rackstraw stood to inherit the property, Colbert says.
Back in Iran, Bell fired Rackstraw. Iran put him on a plane to America. The FBI was waiting. G-men brought him back in handcuffs.
Also in a wheelchair. Rackstraw claimed his back had gone out. Authorities suspected he was faking in hopes of being admitted to a hospital from which it would be easier to escape.
His days in court
In March of 1978, Rackstraw was tried for the murder of his stepdad in Calaveras County Judicial District Court. He hired a top-notch attorney. He touted his patriotic heroic war record — adding flamboyant exaggerations. He said he loved his dear old stepdad. But, he said, the old man had enemies.
A jury acquitted him.
Next came his Stockton case. Owing to lesser charges, Rackstraw made bail — and he bailed. Renting an airplane at Stockton’s airport, he flew over Monterey Bay and radioed a mayday. There was smoke in the cockpit! He was going down!
And Rackstraw vanished.
Searchers found no wreckage. Authorities were skeptical. They suspected the slippery Rackstraw had escaped again.
And so he had — but he was caught again by luck. A Fullerton print shop owner observed him trying to illegally copy federal pilot licenses and called police.
Rackstraw had changed his name to Eastman. He’d grown long hair and a red-dyed beard. Police figured out his true identity anyway. Rackstraw was hauled back to Stockton. The plane, repainted and with serial numbers changed, was found in an area hangar.
The escape by plane, the crimes and the disguises kindled the FBI’s interest in Rackstraw as D.B. Cooper. G-men and the media descended on the San Joaquin County jail.
Rackstraw seemed to revel in the attention. To reporters he neither admitted nor denied being Cooper. “It is obvious that Robert Wesley Rackstraw delights in tantalizing reporters and authorities alike …” one reporter wrote.
“He enjoyed tweaking people’s nose,” Sueyres said. “You just got that sense. We may have had him in custody, but he was going to make us run in circles.”
When the feds grilled Rackstraw about Cooper, Rackstraw invoked his right to a lawyer. That halted questions. Authorities feared compromising Rackstraw’s ongoing criminal cases.
Another strange twist
It was then that another famous twist in the D.B. Cooper case occurred. A tattered $5,800 of the stolen money was found along the Columbia River banks. Theorizing Cooper died in the jump, the FBI shifted focus from Rackstraw to searching Oregon for clues.
Colbert believes the money was planted by Rackstraw’s accomplice as part of ruse intended to divert suspicion.
Rackstraw, convicted of some Stockton charges, cut his losses and plead out to others to get a reduced sentence. He served one year in prison and was released.
At some point, Colbert believes, Rackstraw went straight, more or less. He worked for the city of Riverside. He earned degrees in economics and law. He taught at University of California, Riverside, even heading a department there. He retired.
“As I reflect back on him,” said Sueyres, now a retired judge, “Most of the people in the criminal justice system are impulsive. They can be very bright, but they have this impulse problem. He is the exact opposite of that. He is not only very bright but he thinks things out.”
Sueyres said judicial ethics prevented him from opining on whether Rackstraw is D.B. Cooper.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he said.
When confronted by Colbert’s camera crew, Rackstraw refused to cooperate. His attorney has threatened to sue.
Colbert is not shaken. He confidently told People magazine: “It’s just a matter of time before he has to admit it.”
Maybe. Woefully, The History Channel cut strong DNA and handwriting evidence. The FBI, unmoved, says it will reopen the D.B. Cooper case only given hard evidence. Colbert is holding a press conference today in Los Angeles calling on them to reconsider.
If he is right, the infamous D.B. Cooper was right under the noses of local law enforcement. And he walked.
—Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog and on Twitter@Stocktonopolis.