Heavy.com; by Shannon Walsh, July 11, 2016; Updated December 4, 2016
In July of 2016, History Channel aired its documentary, D.B. Cooper: Case Closed, in which an investigative team led by former FBI agents revealed who they believe is responsible for the notorious hijacking of a Boeing 727 in 1971. He is Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., a retired university instructor and arbitration expert, now living in San Diego, California.
The team’s award-winning book, however — The Last Master Outlaw — exposes a vastly different man in the 1960s and 70s. So who is Rackstraw? What do we know about him, and could he be responsible for one of the most famous cold cases in history?
Read on to find out.
1. His military career was both courageous and audacious
Rackstraw was a soldier with elite training. He was in the National Guard, the Army Reserve, the Regular Army, and then went to Vietnam in 1969 with the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division, one of the most decorated aviation combat units in the war. During his seven years of service, Rackstraw climbed the ranks as a Private, Corporal, Sergeant, Warrant Officer and eventually became a First Lieutenant.
But when the helicopter pilot was off duty, his former Vietnam superiors claimed he was a rule-breaker, con artist and a thief who road around in a stolen commander’s Jeep.
Army Captain Gary Moselle (ret.) wrote, “Nothing was too audacious for Bob. One time [while flying], he reported he had found and machine-gunned an elephant. Disgusting. He was that kind of guy.”
Lieutenant Colonel Ken Overturf (ret.) was asked if Rackstraw had the skills to pull off the high-flying robbery. “He had a basic knowledge and experience in parachuting, he appears crazy enough to do it and had nothing to lose by trying.”
Wait — does that mean Overturf thinks he’s Cooper?
“I do. Of the potential suspects identified by the FBI, Rackstraw fits the mold best.”
2. He was fingered as a suspect in 1978
Rackstraw wasn’t a skyjacking candidate until seven years after the jump. Looking at the California veteran for a series of local crimes and fake identities, Stockton Police Detective-Sgt. Charles Buck and Fire Department Arson Investigator Michael Murray submitted his name to the FBI “because there were so many things that seemed to fit,” according to a February 3, 1979 Stockton Record news article.
Months later, KNBC TV reporter Warren Olney was given approval to interview Rackstraw, who earlier had admitted to the FBI of being in the Northwest at the time of the crime. He also had told Olney’s editor that, as a teen, he’d been introduced to parachuting by his skydiving uncle in Arizona — a one Ed Cooper.
When Olney finally sat down with Rackstraw at the jail, the newsman first asked: “Are you willing to state one way or the other whether or not you’re D.B. Cooper?”
According to the station’s archived video, Rackstraw responded: “Uh, I’m afraid of heights [smiling].”
Olney pressed the wily prisoner further: “You have parachute training, and as you mentioned yourself, your background suggests that you could have been D.B. Cooper.”
Rackstraw answered, “Could have been, could have been.” Then he struck a pondering pose. “You say with a story like that, should it be fiction or should it be fact? It’s primarily up to the American people someday, how that comes out.”
3. He was booted from the Army in 1971
Five months before the hijacking, Rackstraw was forced to resign from the military because he had lied about multiple medals, his true Army rank and attending two separate colleges when, in fact, he was a high-school dropout.
For cold-case team organizer and co-author Thomas J. Colbert, that compulsory discharge explained Rackstraw’s alleged motive for such a crime.
4. He attended jump, explosives and aviation schools
Rackstraw attended the US Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, otherwise known as Jump School; then he underwent extensive demolition training at the Presidio of Monterey, California, and at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where he also had taken classes at Special Forces School with the Green Berets and learned to fly both planes and helicopters. All of this verified he had the means of carrying out the skyjacking and parachuting which the daredevil is notorious for, said Colbert.
Among his many achievements, Rackstraw received two Distinguished Flying Crosses (military aviation’s highest medal), a Silver Star and 37 air medals. But later in court testimony, he falsely claimed to have 13 more awards – including five Vietnam Campaign Ribbons (He had one) and five Purple Hearts (He had none, never wounded).
5. His photo strongly resembles FBI’s best composite sketch
Cold case investigators located many old pictures of Rackstraw – including a forgotten ID photo from 1970 Army archives, which the FBI later requested a copy (above). One snapshot from relatives had been taken a year before the November 24, 1971 jump, and another just a month before. All three bear an uncanny resemblance to the FBI’s Cooper facial composite Sketch #2.
Colbert said this sketch was considered the Bureau’s most accurate, as it came from the testimony of an objective passenger, who like others, was not told of the ongoing bomb plot until after leaving the jet. At the time, the traveler was a university sophomore and he sat directly across the aisle from Cooper.
The former student, now in his 60’s, was tracked down for History Channel. He revealed the FBI brought him “hundreds” of candidate pictures to review in the early 1970’s, and he rejected all of them. But when one of Colbert’s investigators presented him with mug shots of six suspects to choose from in 2015, the former passenger pointed right at Rackstraw.
In Chapter 20 of The Last Master Outlaw, senior state investigator Jay C. Todd says, “If you compare the sketch to Rackstraw’s picture, there are nine points of match in the brown eyes, ears, noses, short mouths, frown lines, chins, brows, odd head shapes, and male-pattern baldness. Frankly, it looks like the sketch was traced from his photo.”
But when a flight attendant who sat right next to Cooper was handed several pictures of Rackstraw, she failed to recognize any of them. However, two former FBI agents that separately interviewed this attendant in the 1980s told reporters and authors that they believed she had suffered permanent traumatic memory loss from the ordeal.
Seeking a more current opinion on the controversy, Colbert approached one of the nation’s “Top 15” CSI professors. After studying all the old materials and viewing the attendant’s interviews, Forensic Scientist Thomas P. Mauriello agreed with the agents’ conclusion.
Get the full story on the D.B. Cooper investigation – Award winning book “The Last Master Outlaw“ available on Amazon:
Also available: Cold Case Team’s 102 evidentiary facts, and the investigation’s key supporting materials (historic articles, photos, court documents, military records, witness transcripts, charts, theory summaries and maps).