A group of retired FBI investigators have linked a former local native to a 1971 plane hijacking case that has flummoxed authorities for decades.
A two-part, four-hour special on The History Channel called “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?” aired on Sunday and tonight, and an investigative book titled “The Last Master Outlaw” will be released tomorrow.
The story centers on Robert Wesley Rackstraw Sr., who is now 72 and grew up in Scotts Valley. A team of 40 retired investigators, including former special agents, believes he is the man of many aliases who became known as D.B. Cooper.
Cooper famously hijacked a commercial plane, headed from Portland to Seattle in 1971, by claiming that he had dynamite in his briefcase. He ordered the pilot to land so he could collect a $200,000 ransom from authorities, in exchange for the release of the passengers. He then instructed the crew to fly to Mexico, but instead, he parachuted out of the jet into an icy rainstorm above Washington State.
Many authorities believed the skyjacker could not have survived the fall. Others thought he escaped and went on to commit other “skyjackings.”
Rackstraw, a retired UC department head with three degrees, now lives near his 45-foot yacht in San Diego, said Thomas J. Colbert, the team organizer, co-author of the book and a consulting executive director of the History Channel program. “He’s an off-the-books genius, a master criminal,” Colbert said Monday.
Rackstraw grew up in a “very poor family” in a two-bedroom shack on a creek in Scotts Valley in the 1960s, Colbert said. He dropped out of Santa Cruz High School in sophomore year, joined the Army, and served on a helicopter crew and other units during the Vietnam War.
The pilot, with parachuting and explosives training, was booted from the service in June of 1971 for lying about his education and medals. Rackstraw told his family, and later the FBI, he was flying a small plane for a real estate development company in the Pacific Northwest at the time of the November hijacking.
Seven years later, Rackstraw tried to fake his death by bailing out of a rental plane over Monterey Bay — all to avoid pending local charges in another county. An Oct. 16, 1978 story in the Sentinel described the pilot’s mayday call and a Coast Guard search.
Rackstraw, out on bail at the time, told officials he was flying to Santa Cruz to have dinner with his ex-wife and children. But authorities later said it was all staged as a hoax.
“The children hadn’t seen their daddy in one year, and when their doorbell rang it was the FBI looking for him,” Colbert said. “This guy is connected to 60 towns in 28 states, six careers, three families and over 20 fake identities.”
In February 1978, eight months before the mayday call, authorities had found the fugitive Rackstraw in Iran and deported him back to the United States to face California charges.
These days, the ex-con Rackstraw lives a quiet life, spending time aboard the 45-foot cruiser “Poverty Sucks” in a harbor in San Diego Bay.
In the History Channel program, Rackstraw denies being the wanted daredevil. “He’s not D.B. Cooper,” said his 78-year-old Oakland attorney, Dennis Roberts, on Monday. “Everything I’ve heard is that D.B. Cooper died.”
Roberts said that his client might have casually boasted that he was Cooper over the years. Yet he insisted Rackstraw did not have the skills to parachute into an icy storm and survive.
Colbert retrieved Rackstraw’s military record of attending Army jump school, then tracked down his former Vietnam commander. Retired Lieutenant-Commander Ken Overturf stated he now believes his former paratrooper had the “go to hell” attitude and all the skill sets to do the crime.
Colbert and his team researched and fact-checked the case for five years. All twelve former FBI members want Rackstraw looked at; one even went on camera, saying he believes Rackstraw is absolutely Cooper.
Yet the subject may never be brought to trial. “A former FBI assistant director, acting as a liaison for History Channel, said the bureau has serious concerns on the feasibility of a criminal prosecution, 45 years after the crime,” Colbert said. “While it wasn’t ‘unsolvable,’ special agents now fear it is ‘unprosecutable’ based on just circumstantial evidence.”
But Colbert claims the bureau hasn’t looked at the hundred pieces of evidence the team is holding. “It includes DNA, letter trails, handwriting analysis, interviews with two ex-wives, a girlfriend that joined him on two other escapes, even his sister on her deathbed. One former judge on the team claims this case we’re making is now ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’”