Stockton Record, by Michael Fitzgerald; August 24, 2017
Where 64-year-old Wally, a Korean War vet, told the Cooper escape tale in 1997
The ace investigator who tied the legendary D.B. Cooper skyjacking case to Stockton last year says the jumper got away with the help of until-now unknown partners.
The breakthrough in the 1971 mystery also includes a remote wooded spot where Cooper may have buried his chute and loot.
“We have the escape story confirmed,” said Thomas J. Colbert, a Ventura County law enforcement trainer and crime-story author who leads a 40-person cold case team, spearheaded by former FBI. “We also believe we’ve identified two men who helped D.B. Cooper get out of there.”
A third partner died of natural causes in 2014, Colbert said.
Colbert collaborated on a History Channel documentary last year and co-wrote an award-winning book, The Last Master Outlaw. He also maintains an investigative website, DBCooper.com, featuring his team’s six-year quest and a mountain of evidence that Cooper is a Californian named Robert W. Rackstraw Sr.
Rackstraw, 73, whom Colbert describes as a “Vietnam pilot, paratrooper, explosives expert, ex-felon and sociopath,” resides now in San Diego. But he was also jailed in Stockton.
He “kited” checks here. He stored a scary cache of explosives in a Stockton storage unit. His sister lived here. His parents had a home in Valley Springs. He bought a house near them. Then he beat a murder charge for killing his stepfather.
In other words, the master outlaw the FBI was hunting all over creation for was right under the noses of local authorities — if Colbert is right.
Rackstraw denies everything. “Everything” being the daredevil crime that, 46 years later, still grips the public imagination.
A man calling himself Dan Cooper, saying he had a bomb in his briefcase, hijacked a Northwest flight en route from Portland to Seattle. Cooper let his hostages off in Seattle in exchange for $200,000 ($1.2 million in today’s money) and ordered the crew to take off.
High over rural Washington, he parachuted with his cash into a stormy night and myth.
After 45 years of investigation, the FBI closed the unsolved case in July of 2016. Some opined Cooper perished in the jump.
Seven months following the end of the investigation, Colbert was contacted by a Pacific Northwest couple, Russ and Kristy Cooper (below; last name is just a funny coincidence). Kristy is retired after a career in law enforcement, Russ a contractor and recreational pilot.
After they were married awhile, the husband disclosed a secret story he was told, years before, by a member in his old flying club at Evergreen Field in Vancouver, Washington.
Storyteller “Wally” claimed Cooper had recruited three accomplices to help on jump night: One, a Cessna pilot, circled in the clouds above the small farming town of La Center. The other two waited in a nearby pickup.
When Cooper jumped and landed near Goheen Airfield (He missed the targeted grass strip by just 1,300 feet), the men in the truck blinked their lights — a signal for the aviator to come retrieve Cooper.
The pair bundled up the fugitive’s money in the parachute, tossed it in the truck bed and drove to meet the taxiing plane. Cooper jumped inside with $50,000 of the ransom and the briefcase bomb, and they took off.
The two men in the pickup, meanwhile, drove to a remote mountain logging road and buried the chute and remaining $150,000.
Wally told Russ the skyjacker and his pilot flew “below the radar,” following three rivers south to Vancouver Lake. There, Cooper tossed out the $50,000 and his alleged bomb — the idea was to fool the law into thinking Cooper had drowned. But the red herrings sank into the mud and disappeared, spoiling the ruse.
Cooper and his accomplice next flew on to Oregon’s Scappoose Airstrip, where they switched to another aircraft and the jumper changed clothes. Then they headed to Portland International Airport, where the caper had started, and parted ways.
Being a cop, wife Kristy convinced Russ they needed to take this story to the FBI. She phoned, but agents in both Portland and Seattle would not return any of her calls. When an attorney they engaged couldn’t help, the frustrated pair gave up.
Last February, the pair heard about Colbert’s ongoing suit to open the FBI’s archived records. That’s when they took a chance and dialed him.
Colbert recently convinced a judge to order the Bureau to release all of its historic Cooper files — they are posting in monthly batches now on his website. The agents’ memos and field notes reveal the FBI interviewed La Center area farmers who saw the pickup and the “suspect aircraft,” the day before and the day of the 1971 hijack. The G-men never revealed to the public that Cooper had getaway partners. But they knew.
Colbert is confident Wally, now dead, was one of Cooper’s three partners — he was a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne. Through research, the sleuth feels he has also identified the other two, both vets and still alive. His team recently turned over their names, locations and contacts to the FBI.
After the escape, Colbert said records show Rackstraw flew in an unregistered aircraft to Valley Springs and lived with his parents for a while.
Wanted in 1978 for a series of local crimes in both San Joaquin and Calavera Counties, he escaped custody twice by plane — one time faking a crash at sea — before being recaptured and convicted.
That began the FBI’s interest in Rackstraw as Cooper, which is when the famous $5,800 just happened to turn up on the banks of the Columbia River — next door to Vancouver Lake. Colbert believes the 1980 cash “discovery,” with the help of a crime-partner, was a redo of the 1971 attempt to fool the FBI into thinking Cooper had drowned.
And it worked.
The FBI adamantly refused Cooper tips for years. But Colbert’s new evidence, they accepted.
Wally had given Russ (and by default his wife Kristy) such a detailed description of the mountain spot where the loot and parachute were buried, the couple was able to ID the likely location from old county maps. It also didn’t hurt that Russ had grown up in the area as a teenager. As he told Colbert, “I knew that area like the back of my hand.”
A few weeks ago, the couple took Colbert and six of his team there to dig, and they found several pieces of unidentified fabric. Some members think one could be an old parachute strap or flap; another, a part of a jumper’s backpack.
The FBI, with all the samples now, has not formally announced a reopening of the case. But Colbert believes they will soon pay a visit to the two surviving getaway partners.
As for Rackstraw, Colbert said, “I think he’s going to be sweating bullets.”