Heavy.com; by Reporter Shannon Walsh; July 11, 2016
NOTE: “On 7/9/19, 75-year-old Rackstraw died in San Diego of natural causes. While my cold case team believes he was Cooper, he was also a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. Our condolences to the family.” TJC
In History Channel’s “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed,” its highest-rated special in two years, an investigative team led by former FBI agents revealed who they believe was responsible for the notorious hijacking of a Boeing 727 in 1971. He was Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., a retired university instructor and arbitration expert from San Diego, California.
The sleuths’ award-winning book on the subject — The Last Master Outlaw — exposes a vastly different man, however, in the 1970s and 80s. So who was Rackstraw? What do we know about him, and could he have been responsible for one of the world’s most famous cold cases?
To find out, see the “Five Fast Facts” article at Heavy.com. For the stunning evidence from the FBI’s court-released Cooper files, read on.
1. His military career was both courageous and “audacious”
Rackstraw began in the National Guard, moved to the Army Reserve, then switched to the Regular Army where, in 1969, he joined the famed 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division in Vietnam. During his seven years of service, Rackstraw climbed the ranks as a Private, Corporal, Sergeant, Warrant Officer (aviator) and First Lieutenant.
When the chopper pilot was off duty, however, former superiors claim he was a rule-breaker, con artist and 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’d 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 appeared crazy enough to do it and had nothing to lose by trying.”
Wait — does that mean Overturf thinks he was Cooper?
“I do. Of the potential suspects identified by the FBI, Rackstraw fit the mold best.”
2. FBI first learned of him in 1978
Rackstraw earned more than 30 criminal titles in the 1970s — such as check-forger, car thief, dead-beat dad, vigilante, grifter, identity thief, wife-beater, explosives merchant and violent sociopath.
Holding the California veteran for fake identities and local charges in 1978, two Stockton detectives decided to submit his name to federal agents “because there were so many things that seemed to fit,” according to an article in the town’s newspaper, the Record.
Three days after the story published, Rackstraw offered up his own jailhouse interview. The paper wrote he “identifies with the spirit of D.B. Cooper, a person he says ‘challenged the legal system and beat it.'” The prisoner then oddly switched to the first-person: “I think I stand for the American people, I really do.”
The Record also found out he had admitted to the FBI he was in the Northwest at the time of the skyjacking. That article detail captured the interest of a Los Angeles TV news station, and in a phone call with its staff, Rackstraw shared another tidbit: As a teenager, he had been introduced to parachuting by his favorite uncle in Arizona — a one Ed Cooper.
The station received approval for a Stockton sit-down with the inmate in 1979. According to its archived news video, the reporter asked: “Do you think it’s legit that you could be one of the [Cooper] suspects?”
Rackstraw toyed with the newsman: “Oh yes, if I was an investigator, definitely so. I wouldn’t discount myself… or a person like myself.”
Months later at his court sentencing for local crimes, another TV reporter pushed him for an answer. The new convict 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.”
Rackstraw’s official “someday” came on February 9, 2018, during a reporter phone call propelled by this cold case team’s latest revelations. Pressed by a Courthouse News reporter to confirm or deny he was the elusive fugitive, the ex-con, in his mid-seventies, was unequivocal in his answer:
“There’s no denial whatsoever, my dear.”
3. Five months before hijacking, he was booted from Army
According to Pentagon records received through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Rackstraw was compelled to leave his military career in the seventh year (1971) because he had lied about multiple medals, his true Army rank and faking attendance at two California universities (crossed out in red). He was in fact a high-school dropout.
For cold case organizer and author Thomas J. Colbert, that compulsory discharge — months before the hijacking — suggested the disgraced warrior had motive for such a crime.
4. He attended paratrooper, explosives & aviation schools
Rackstraw went to the US Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, otherwise known as Jump School; he signed up for extensive underwater demolition training at the Presidio of Monterey, California; then at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, he attended classes at Special Forces School with the Green Berets and learned to fly both planes and helicopters. All of this verified he had the particular skill sets which the daredevil was known for.
In Vietnam, pilot Rackstraw received two Distinguished Flying Crosses (military aviation’s highest medal), a Silver Star and 37 air medals.
But years later in court testimony, he falsely claimed to have earned many more awards — including five Vietnam Campaign Ribbons (He only had one) and five Purple Hearts (He had none, was never wounded in battle).
5. His picture has “nine points of match” to Cooper sketch
Cold case investigators dug up many old pictures of Rackstraw, including a forgotten ID photo from his 1970 Army file which the FBI discreetly requested a copy (above). Experts say there is an undeniable likeness to the Bureau’s Cooper facial composite “Sketch B.”
The drawing was treated as the most reliable because most of its details came from an objective passenger, who like the rest, was not informed of the ongoing bomb plot until safely leaving the jet. This calm key witness, a college sophomore, was sitting directly across the aisle from Cooper.
Now in his 60’s, the tracked-down traveler revealed the FBI brought him “hundreds” of candidate pictures to review, and he rejected them all. But when one of Colbert’s most experienced investigators presented him with mug shots of six men to choose from in 2015, the former passenger pointed right at Rackstraw.
In Chapter 20 of The Last Master Outlaw, a senior South Carolina investigator, Jon Campbell, stated: “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.”
In 2016, History Channel located a former flight attendant who periodically sat down next to Cooper. After being shown decades-old photos and video of Rackstraw, she stated, “I don’t think so.” But days after the hijacking, court-released FBI memos revealed this attendant had admitted, “because of her emotional state,” to have possibly forgotten up to seven crucial conversations with the hijacker.
In the 1980s, two former Bureau special agents arranged separate interviews with the attendant. The pair stated that they strongly believed the traumatic ordeal had left her with permanent memory loss — one adding she “would never be a credible witness in any Cooper trial.”
Seeking a current opinion on the controversy, Colbert approached one of the nation’s “Top 15” CSI professors: Forensic Scientist Thomas P. Mauriello. After studying all the documents and viewing the attendant’s video interviews, Mauriello agreed with the conclusion of the two former agents.
*BONUS: Letters & Secret Army-Coded Messages
Two letter trails with different signatures, mailed in the months before and after the 1971 hijacking, appear to have been orchestrated by the same author: Rackstraw.
The first group of envelopes (above-left), eight in all, were written by an alleged Swiss pilot named Norman de Winter, a “vacationing” grifter that more than a dozen witnesses from two Oregon towns (and a local newspaper) claim lived among them. After these con-victims were recently shown a 1979 TV interview with Rackstraw (See #2), the residents fingered him as their Swiss mystery man — a man who happened to have vanished the day before the jump.
The second group of envelopes (above-right), six in total, held taunting letters from a writer claiming to be the escaped D.B. Cooper. According to multiple FBI memos, “excited” senior agents and Director J. Edgar Hoover himself believed that claim to be true.
In early 2018, one of Colbert’s team members — a three-tour Army code-buster in Vietnam — found encryptions hidden in all of the Cooper notes. Independent experts stated the unmasked messages, such as the two posted above, firmly implicate veteran Rackstraw as the author.
FYI: A forensic comparison of the two letter trails can be seen by clicking on the “Research” menu at top (6 and 7 pages from the bottom). For more on the confirmed Army codes, click on “The Smoking Gun” link (At homepage’s “Latest News” section). So given all this evidence, why wasn’t Rackstraw cuffed? For the answer, please read the 2019 summary on homepage’s “The Escape Story” video page. TJC