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 rest of this “Five Fast Facts” article at Heavy.com. For the latest stunning evidence from the FBI’s confidential 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. 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 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 more than 30 criminal titles — check-forger, dead-beat dad, vigilante, grifter, identity thief, explosives merchant and violent sociopath, just 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 offered his own interview. The paper wrote that 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 Rackstraw had admitted to the FBI that he was in the Northwest at the time of the skyjacking. That detail helped capture the interest of a Los Angeles TV news station, and in a phone call with the staff, the prisoner shared another tidbit of truth: As a teen, he was introduced to parachuting by his uncle in Arizona — a one Ed Cooper.
Two weeks later, the TV station received approval for a sit-down. According to its archived news video, the reporter asked: “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 TV 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” came on February 9, 2018, during a media 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, 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 (1971) 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 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 attended classes at Special Forces School with the Green Berets and learned to fly 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). There is an undeniable likeness to the Bureau’s Cooper facial composite “Sketch B.”
Colbert said the drawing was treated as the most reliable; many of its details came from an objective passenger, who like the rest, was not informed of the ongoing bomb plot until leaving the jet. This 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, 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, however, a flight attendant who sat down next to Cooper was located by History Channel and handed several decades-old photos of Rackstraw — and she failed to recognize him. Released FBI memos, written days after the hijacking, have revealed this shaken attendant had in fact admitted, “because of her emotional state,” to have forgotten a half-dozen key interchanges with Cooper.
In addition, two former Bureau agents that tried to interview her in the 1980s stated they believed the traumatic ordeal left her with permanent memory loss — one adding 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 — Forensic Scientist Thomas P. Mauriello. After studying all the materials and viewing the attendant’s video interviews, Mauriello agreed with the two former agents’ conclusion.
*BONUS: Letters & Secret Army-Coded Messages
A series of intertwining letters from two crooks were mailed immediately after the 1971 hijacking (See them all in the letter map at the “Research” menu, posted six documents from the bottom).
The team now has strong evidence that both letter trails lead to our fugitive.
The first group of envelopes (above-left) came from 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 had lived among them in the months prior to the skyjacking. After these con-victims were shown a 1979 TV interview with Rackstraw (See #2), the residents fingered him as their Swiss mystery man — a man who happened to vanish 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 believed they had come from their fugitive.
In early 2018, one of Colbert’s team members — a former Army code-breaker in Vietnam — found encrypted messages hidden in the writing of all the Cooper notes. Independent experts claim the unmasked statements, such as the two posted above, have firmly implicated veteran Rackstraw W. Rackstraw Sr. (AKA “RWR”) as the author.
FYI: A coming second program will feature all of these case discoveries. For more details, click on the “New Doc Video Pitch” at the top of the homepage. For more on the confirmed codes, click on the “Press Releases” link (At top of the “Latest News” section) on the homepage.