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 “Five Fast Facts” article at Heavy.com. For the latest compelling evidence (2018) from the archived FBI Cooper files, released by a judge’s order, read on.
1. His military career was both courageous and “audacious”
Rackstraw started 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 (helicopter aviator) and First Lieutenant.
But when the chopper pilot was off duty, former superiors said he was a rule-breaker, con artist and a thief who road around in a stolen commander’s Jeep. 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.”
Army 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 of him in 1978
In the 1970s, Rackstraw earned 17 criminal titles — check-forger, dead-beat dad, grifter, explosives hoarder and violent sociopath, to name a few.
Holding the California veteran for local charges and fake identities, 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 February 3, 1979 Record.
Three days after the story published, Rackstraw gave his own interview. The paper stated he “identifies with the spirit of D.B. Cooper, a person he says ‘challenged the legal system and beat it.'” The subject then switched to the first-person: “I think I stand for the American people, I really do.”
The Record also found out that Rackstraw had admitted to the FBI he was in the Northwest at the time of the skyjacking. That detail helped capture the interest of a Los Angeles TV news station, KNBC. And in a phone call with the staff, the prisoner shared another tidbit: As a teen, he was introduced to parachuting by his skydiving uncle in Arizona — a one Ed Cooper.
Two weeks later, the station was given approval for a sit-down. According to its archived news video, the reporter asked him: “Do you think it’s legit that you could be one of the [Cooper] suspects, one of the thousand?”
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 unrelated crimes, another KNBC reporter pushed him for the truth. 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 “someday” finally came on February 9, 2018, during a media phone call propelled by the investigative team’s latest revelations. Pressed by a Courthouse News reporter to confirm or deny he was the elusive fugitive, the ex-con, now 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 because he had lied about multiple medals, his true Army rank and faking attendance at two California universities (crossed out in red). In fact, he was a high-school dropout.
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 paratrooper, explosives and aviation schools
Rackstraw attended the US Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, otherwise known as Jump School; he underwent extensive demolition training at the Presidio of Monterey, California; then at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, he took 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 is 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 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 1970 Army files which the FBI later requested a copy (above). There is an undeniable likeness to the Bureau’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 informed of the ongoing bomb plot until 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 them all. But when one of Colbert’s 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, South Carolina Senior 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, a flight attendant who sat next to Cooper was tracked down by History Channel and handed several decades-old photos of Rackstraw — and she failed to recognize him. But official FBI memos written days after the hijacking revealed this attendant had in fact admitted, “because of her emotional state,” she may have forgotten a half-dozen key interchanges with Cooper.
In addition, two former Bureau agents that tried to interview her in the 1980s came away believing the traumatic ordeal had left her with permanent memory loss. One told an investigative reporter that she “would never be a credible witness in any Cooper trial.”
Seeking a more current opinion on the controversy, Colbert approached one of the nation’s “Top 15” CSI professors. After studying all the materials and viewing the attendant’s video interviews, Forensic Scientist Thomas P. Mauriello agreed with the two agents’ conclusion.
6. Letters & Secret Army Codes
A series of intertwining letters from two crooks were mailed immediately after the hijacking (See the 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 Oregon towns claim lived among them in the months prior to the skyjacking (also documented in articles). After the con-victims were shown a 1979 TV interview of Rackstraw (See #2), the residents fingered him as their Swiss mystery man — who happened to vanish the day before the jump.
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 he was the hijacker.
In early 2018, one of Colbert’s team members — a former senior Army code-breaker in Vietnam — uncovered messages hidden within the writing/printing of all five of these Cooper notes. Independent experts say the two posted statements above have clearly implicated veteran Rackstraw W. Rackstraw (AKA “RWR”) as the author.
FYI: A coming second documentary will feature the investigative discoveries since 2016 — Cooper’s elaborate escape (with help of 3 planes and 3 partners); the team’s dig for the parachutes and money; the two Cooper-cash stunts along the Columbia River (narrated by former 1980 FBI agents); the letter trail, to and from his house; and the breakdown of all his secret Army coding. For more, watch “New Doc Video Pitch” at top of the homepage.