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 74-year-old retired university instructor and arbitration expert, now living in San Diego, California.
The team’s findings are also featured in an award-winning investigative book, The Last Master Outlaw. But just 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. He had an illustrious military career
Rackstraw was a Vietnam veteran with elite military training. He was in the National Guard, the Army Reserve, the Regular Army, and then went to Vietnam in 1969 with the 1st Cavalry Division, one of the most decorated combat units in the war. During his seven years of service, Rackstraw climbed the ranks as a Private, Corporal, Sergeant, and eventually became a First Lieutenant.
Don Ray, a respected journalist and archivist featured in History Channel’s documentary, is an expert in public records. In the premiere night, he gave detailed accounts of Rackstraw’s accomplishments. “When I took a look at the copies of his file, I remember shaking my head and saying, ‘Woah, I’ve never seen one that had so much in it.’”
2. He was first identified as a suspect in 1978
Seven years after the hijacking, Rackstraw was identified as being a potential suspect in the case. Then-Stockton 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, TV Reporter Warren Olney of KNBC sat down and spoke to Rackstraw, who earlier had admitted to the FBI of being in the Northwest at the time of the jump. Olney 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 Rackstraw 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
Just five months before the ’71 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 organizer and author Thomas J. Colbert, the compulsory discharge explained Rackstraw’s motive for such a crime. In the documentary, reporter Jim Forbes added, “He’s been in the Army for 7-plus years. It’s the first thing he’s had stability in his life, and it’s suddenly snatched from him.”
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. For Colbert, all this verified he had the means of carrying out the hijacking and parachuting which DB Cooper is notorious for.
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 pictures of Rackstraw – including a forgotten ID photo from 1970 Army archives, which the FBI requested a copy (above). One snapshot from relatives had been taken a year before the November 24, 1971 hijacking, and another just a month before. All three bear an uncanny resemblance to the FBI’s Cooper facial composite Sketch #2.
Colbert said that this sketch was considered the most accurate, as it came from the testimony of a nearby passenger, who like others, was not told of the ongoing bomb plot until after leaving the jet. At the time, the passenger was a university sophomore and he sat directly across the aisle from Cooper.
Colbert tracked down the former student, now in his 60s, for History Channel. He revealed the FBI brought him “hundreds” of pictures to review in the early 1970s, and he rejected all of their candidates. But when one of Colbert’s investigators presented him with mug shots of six suspects to choose from in 2015, the former passenger pointed at Rackstraw.
In Chapter 20 of The Last Master Outlaw, 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 Mitchell’s 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).