NEWSWEEK; By Maria Perez, Friday, June 29, 2018
An investigative team led by former FBI agents claims it has unmasked a 1972 Army-coded message of “confession” from the infamous skyjacker D.B. Cooper: He is a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran named Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., now a retired University of California department head in San Diego.
Cooper hijacked a Seattle-bound flight out of Portland, Oregon, in November 1971 and then parachuted out of a plane with $200,000. He was never heard from or seen again.
The team’s long hunt, organized by police trainer and filmmaker Thomas J. Colbert, has zeroed in on a series of post-jump letters sent to newspapers, each with apparent encrypted secrets. This unexpected sixth one, mailed to the Portland Oregonian newspaper, was just decrypted by a military expert; it was then confirmed by a former commander with access to the 68-year-old Army code book.
Colbert has suspected Rackstraw was Cooper for seven years. But last January, things heated up when the first letter message revealed itself, according to an interview with Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The sleuth had called on Rick Sherwood, a former analyst at the covert Army Security Agency (below, 1969), to help interpret this latest statement. A judge had ordered its release from the FBI’s 45-year-old old Cooper case file.
Rackstraw in fact had served in two of Sherwood’s classified Vietnam units, according to Pentagon records. He was a Special Forces-trained paratrooper, explosives expert, award-winning chopper pilot (below), and a one-time person of interest in the Cooper case.
When Rackstraw was quietly cleared by the bureau in 1979, Colbert said six special agents disagreed and went straight to the press. The sleuth provided documentation of their half-dozen separate newspaper accounts, three of which were on the record. One of those dissenting G-men, retired Thomas R. Kinberg, joined Colbert’s cold case team in 2012.
This latest typed note was sent four months after the hijacking, and in it, the hijacker twice stated his real name was not D.B. Cooper.
“This letter is too [sic] let you know I am not dead but really alive and just back from the Bahamas, so your silly troopers up there can stop looking for me. That is just how dumb this government is. I like your articles about me but you can stop them now. D.B. Cooper is not real,” the letter reads. “I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk. Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”
ASA analyst Sherwood told the New York Daily News that, because he had studied earlier letters from Cooper, he knew this was the author’s writing style. For example, he noticed several words and expressions were oddly used multiple times, like “D.B. Cooper is not real,” “Unk” or “Uncle,” “the system,” and “lackey cops.”
“I read it two or three times and said, ‘This is Rackstraw, this is what he does.’ I noticed he kept on repeating words and I thought [it meant] he had a code in there. He’s taunting like he normally does, and I thought his name was going to be in it. Sure enough, the numbers added up perfectly,” he said.
With a system of numbers and letters, Sherwood said he was able to decode one phrase that revealed Cooper was “1st LT. Robert W. Rackstraw.” He then cracked another expression: “through good ole Unk,” spelled out “by skyjacking a jet plane.”
Colbert told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in February he believed Cooper was a black-ops pilot in the CIA and had his identity covered up by the feds. The organizer said the broken Army-coded message in the second note (below) backs up that theory: Cooper told his apparent get-away partners in 1971 that, if he gets caught, to tell officials “I am CIA… RWR.”
Colbert believes he knows who those initials belong to.