Heavy.com; by Reporter Shannon Walsh, July 11, 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?
To find out, see the original 2016 “Five Fast Facts” article at Heavy.com. Then for a look at the latest compelling evidence (2018) from new eyewitnesses and the court-released FBI Cooper files themselves, read on.
1. His military career was both courageous and audacious
Rackstraw 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. FBI first learned about him in 1978
Looking at the California veteran for a series of local crimes and fake identities, Stockton Police Detective-Sgt. Charles Buck and Arson Investigator Michael Murray decided to submit his name to federal agents “because there were so many things that seemed to fit,” according to a February 3, 1979 Stockton Record news article.
Weeks later, KNBC TV reporter Doug Kriegel was given approval to interview Rackstraw, who earlier had admitted to the FBI of being in the Northwest at the time of the crime. The prisoner also had told Kriegel’s newsroom editor that, as a teen, he’d been introduced to parachuting by his skydiving uncle in Arizona — a one Ed Cooper.
According to archived video records, Kriegel asked, “Do you think it’s legit that you could be one of the [Cooper] suspects, one of the thousand?”
“Oh yes, if I was an investigator, definitely so. I wouldn’t discount myself…or a person like myself.”
The newsman soon grew tired of Rackstraw’s dodges. He asked directly: “Are you D.B. Cooper?”
Rackstraw feigned dismay. “I, I can’t talk about things like that. I can’t talk about any of that sort of thing.”
Months later at his court sentencing for unrelated crimes, another visiting TV reporter asked him again. 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.”
Rackstraw’s “someday” came on February 9, 2018, during one of several media phone calls propelled by the investigative team’s latest evidentiary revelations. Pressed by a Courthouse News reporter to confirm or deny he was the mysterious D.B. Cooper, the ex-con, now in his seventies, was unequivocal.
“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 because he had lied about multiple medals, his true Army rank and faking attendance at two universities (crossed out in red). His file revealed he actually had only one year of high school.
For cold-case team organizer and co-author Thomas J. Colbert, that compulsory discharge explained the disgraced warrior’s motive for such a crime.
4. He went to aviation, paratrooper and explosives 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 skill sets which the daredevil is known for.
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, was never wounded).
5. His picture has “nine points of match” to Cooper 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 prior. There is an undeniable likeness to the FBI’s Cooper facial composite Sketch #2.
Colbert said this sketch was treated as the most reliable one, as its details came from an objective passenger, who like the rest, 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 approached 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 South Carolina State 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.”
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.
6. Letters & Secret Codes
A series of intertwining letters from two crooks were mailed immediately after the hijacking (See letter map at “Research” menu, six documents from the bottom).
The first group of envelopes (above-left) came from a Swiss pilot named Norman de Winter, a grifter that more than a dozen witnesses from two separate Oregon towns claimed lived among them for months prior to the skyjacking — then vanished the day before the crime (also documented in articles). After several were offered a viewing of the 1979 KNBC news interview of Rackstraw (See #2), the con victims firmly fingered him as their Swiss mystery man.
The second group of envelopes (above-right), five in total, held taunting letters from a writer claiming to be D.B. Cooper. According to FBI memos, “excited” senior agents hunted for the author and firmly believed this was the daredevil.
In early 2018, one of Colbert’s team members, a former senior code-breaker in Vietnam, deciphered secret Army coding hidden within the writing/printing of all five notes. The messages (two above) have strongly implicated veteran Rackstraw W. Rackstraw as the author. FYI: For more details on this game-changing development, see the “Latest News” section on the home page at a link called “Press Releases: The Smoking Gun.”
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).