By Keith Sharon, Orange County Register, SoCal News Group; 10/6/17
The man in the natty suit smoked a cigarette, ordered a bourbon and soda and carried a bomb in his briefcase.
He sat in the rear of the passenger cabin on Northwest Orient Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle. Shortly after takeoff, he slipped the flight attendant a note explaining his intention to hijack the plane. Calmly, he put on a pair of sunglasses, demanded $200,000 in ransom and directed the pilot to land in Seattle. Once on the ground, the hijacker let 36 passengers exit, accepted the $200,000 and instructed the pilot to fly to Mexico.
On Nov. 24, 1971, a man who had bought a ticket using the name Dan Cooper – and later was misidentified by the Associated Press as D.B. Cooper – parachuted mid-flight from the rear exit of Flight 305 and straight into American folklore. It is the only unsolved case of piracy in the history of U.S. aviation.
Today, 46 years after that Thanksgiving-eve skydive, three facts about the identity of D.B. Cooper are true:
1. A team of 40 volunteer sleuths (two dozen of them former federal lawmen) has named Robert W. Rackstraw Sr. of San Diego as the person they believe to be the fugitive.
2. The actual FBI closed the case July 11, 2016 without reaching any conclusion.
3. Rackstraw has offered strange denials that raise more questions than they answer.
One more thing about the mysterious world of D.B. Cooper, where over the years no fewer than 10 people have been suspected to be the hijacker: Both sides in this story need the other one.
The independent investigators need Rackstraw to be Cooper to be viewed as really good investigators. And Rackstraw needs to be coy about his identity to maintain the small amount of fame he has.
Rackstraw talked on the phone three times recently. He never denied that he was D.B. Cooper.
“They say that I’m him,” said 73-year-old Rackstraw, who described himself as a retired, homeless, military veteran. “If you want to believe it, believe it.”
And then Rackstraw said this: “I think he (D.B. Cooper) is dead. But I don’t think he died in the jump. We were trained to jump into the forest through trees and stuff.”
Did he just reveal something in that denial?
How about this comment? “What they (the investigators) have is granules of truth … and then a Hollywood elaboration.”
If he wasn’t D.B. Cooper, how would he know “granules of truth” exist in the sleuths’ research?
Thomas J. Colbert, a former TV news researcher, police trainer and current film producer who put the investigative team together, did not equivocate.
“I’m beyond objective, but I know he’s D.B. Cooper,” said Colbert, who lives in Ventura County. “So do my former feds and a judge. They say it’s now beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Rackstraw’s comment: “He can’t prove it.”
Colbert claims to have “102 pieces of evidence, including DNA,” linking Rackstraw to the hijacking. He has co-written an award-winning book with author and screenwriter Tom Szollosi (“The Last Master Outlaw”), produced a two-night documentary (“D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?”), sued the FBI to unseal the archived case’s evidence, and with his partner-wife Dawna, created a website that summarizes the ongoing developments (DBCooper.com).
In August, Colbert said his gumshoes unearthed unidentified fabrics that may have been part of Cooper’s parachute and backpack. He would not reveal the deep forest location, other than saying it’s private property in the Pacific Northwest and the family involved wishes to remain anonymous.
The “credible” unnamed source that provided the site also gave him the location where Cooper reportedly jumped. And, Colbert said he’s uncovered the names of three secret accomplices who worked to help Cooper escape. But he refused to identify them, stating that the names and pieces of evidence are all now in the hands of the Bureau.
“Our job’s to find evidence and hand it over,” Colbert said. “We were there to help the FBI.”
Rackstraw said he plans to sue Colbert. “There’s going to be a massive lawsuit,” he said. “It’s pretty much ruined my life, my son’s life, my grandson’s life.”
Colbert said he’s been threatening legal action for over a year. “The reason he can’t is the bullet-proof book. That’s why he’s posted more than a dozen pleas online for a lawyer. The facts are the facts.”
Rackstraw claimed he doesn’t have a home and is sleeping on the couches of friends. He also said Colbert’s doc crew confronted him in 2013, and that meeting caused him to have a heart attack. The veteran and former college instructor also stated he lost his San Diego-based boat repair business because of Colbert.
“He (Colbert) convinced the property manager that I was D.B. Cooper,” Rackstraw said. “My business went belly-up.”
Colbert countered each point.
“Sleeping on couches? Not quite. Our surveillance team found him living with his ex-wife in a million-dollar condo downtown, on Bankers Hill. As far as confronting him, that happened in a public parking lot in May of 2013, see it on our website. And he didn’t quit the boat business, he just moved it to the other side of the Bay, it’s listed.”
How about that heart attack?
“All I can go by is his ex’s Facebook posting. It says it happened in late December of 2013, more than a half year after our parking-lot meeting. I’m sorry for him, but I don’t see the connection. Frankly, I think it came from the truth he’s been hiding all these years,” said Colbert.
Since he became the focus of Colbert’s quest, Rackstraw said he is confronted “two or three times per week” by journalists, amateur sleuths and other interested people who ask him about the chance he is the daredevil.
Rackstraw also said he is cooperating with a film company which he claims has offered him $40 million for the right to tell his story, a number that would be, by far, the most money ever paid for film rights. He wouldn’t name the company. He also wouldn’t say if the company’s offer was contingent on Rackstraw admitting to being D.B. Cooper.
Why would someone offer to pay him if he wasn’t the hijacker?
“I can’t get into the details,” Rackstraw said. “They’re paying me to tell the story they want to hear.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Rackstraw’s Hollywood claims were hard to swallow. In 2013, Colbert said Rackstraw boasted “he had worked as a stuntman for the ‘Hart to Hart’ TV series and consulted on the original ‘Rambo’ script. There’s no accounting records or credits for any of that.”
Colbert, who went to Loyola High School in Los Angeles, said he first heard of Cooper as a 13-year-old freshman when he saw his father’s newspaper headline.
Colbert worked at CBS TV news and Paramount in the 1980s, while nurturing sources from among his training students in Southern California police and fire departments.
In the 1990s, he started his own research firm to develop news stories for Hollywood and publishing. Colbert claimed more than 20 of his real-life tips became movies for the big and small screen. Besides his Cooper TV doc, he has producer credits on “The Vow,” “The Princess and the Marine” and “Baby Brokers.”
In 2011, Colbert got a phone call from a guy who wanted to tell him about D.B. Cooper.
In the world of true crime, the missing skyjacker is the white whale. Whoever solves that case would surely get book and movie deals. Colbert was hooked from the beginning.
The first Cooper story Colbert heard was about a party in Oregon in 1980. A drug trafficker there named Dick Briggs, who claimed to be D.B. Cooper, predicted that ransom money from the case was about to be “discovered” along the Columbia River. The theory was that Cooper wanted the FBI to find the cash on the shore and think he had drowned.
Five days later, a boy vacationing with his family outside Vancouver, Washington, discovered three bundles of twenties, half-buried in the river’s sand at Tena Bar. The serial numbers of the $5,800 found matched the money Cooper was given, nine years earlier. Agents told the media it looked like he died in the river.
In 2011, Colbert began investigating the money story and found that Briggs background wasn’t adding up. The trafficker also died in a mysterious one-car accident, shortly after the discovery of the 1980 cash. Eight months of research later, Colbert determined that “Briggs was just a party boy. He never went to Vietnam. He wasn’t a pilot or a paratrooper.”
It was Briggs’ friend that caught Colbert’s eye.
That friend was a decorated Army pilot and Special Forces-trained jumper who served in Vietnam. Afterwards, he had a long arrest record and four felonies, including bank fraud, possession of explosives, escapes by plane, and a charge of forging pilot licenses in Fullerton, California. And he had once been questioned by the FBI in the D.B. Cooper investigation.
Briggs’s friend and secret seven-year crime partner was named Robert Rackstraw. And as it turns out, Rackstraw had an uncle named Ed Cooper. An uncle who was an avid recreational skydiver.
Colbert remembered telling his wife Dawna, “This could be it.”
From his old Rolodexes in news and training, Colbert began amassing a team. He said over the years, he has worked with 40 former FBI agents, U.S. marshals, prosecutors, judges, police detectives, forensic experts, PIs and journalists on this case.
They’ve been cagey about what they have discovered.
Colbert said a secondary source told him a dead storyteller named “Wally” had spilled all the specifics of the escape. Colbert trusts the second-hand details because they mimic FBI field interviews with several local farmers who testified to witnessing the getaway. These key Bureau records were recently released to Colbert through a judge’s court order.
According to Wally’s tale: Three partners were waiting for Cooper to jump: a pair on the ground and one circling in a small plane. Cooper was picked up by the two men in a truck, and to keep the feds off their trail, they used three dirt airstrips and three aircraft. Eventually Cooper landed at Portland International Airport, where his hijack flight had begun, and walked through the terminal to escape.
This year, 46 years after the jump, Colbert used the dead storyteller’s descriptions to pin-point the area where Cooper had supposedly buried his loot.
On Aug. 3, Colbert said his team found a strap that may have been from a parachute.
On Aug. 17, they found four pieces of fabric, one of them foam that could have come from the inside of a parachute backpack.
Colbert’s investigators think the FBI won’t re-open the case because they are afraid of looking like they botched it for all these years. “I wish they would, but the FBI’s pride is involved,” Colbert said. “It will make them look real bad.”
The sleuth said he believes two of the men who helped Cooper escape are veterans, and they are still alive. “I hope the FBI knocks on those doors.”
The FBI hasn’t budged. The Seattle field office released a statement in 2016.
“Following one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations in our history, on July 8, 2016, the FBI redirected resources allocated to the D.B. Cooper case in order to focus on other investigative priorities,” according to the statement. “Although the FBI appreciated the immense number of tips provided by members of the public, none to date have resulted in a definitive identification of the hijacker.”
Colbert is undeterred.
“My dad and mom taught me to pursue the truth,” Colbert said. “We are brought into this world with talents, and hopefully we use them for good. This is mine.”