Seattle Post Intelligencer; by Daniel DeMay, Friday, June 29, 2018
Rain fell hard through the dark November sky as the Boeing 727 flew low and slow over southwest Washington State, “creating enough noise to shake a house,” said an FBI eyewitness.
The skeleton crew that remained on the Northwest Orient airliner huddled together in the pilot’s cabin, ordered there by a hijacker calling himself Dan Cooper who was alone in the otherwise vacant rear of the plane.
Dressed in a suit and acting as calm and easy as if he was on just another business trip, the man had used a bomb threat to take over the then Seattle-bound plan and shakedown the airline for $200,000 in ransom money. No one knew if the bomb in his briefcase was real, but they weren’t taking any chances, and the airline had paid the cash with little resistance. He’d also received the parachutes he requested.
A half-hour after takeoff from Seattle, bound back south, the crew had been alerted by a warning light that the jet’s hydraulic stairs were being lowered. Then a dip in cabin pressure indicated the door to the rear cabin was likely open. Minutes later, the plane’s tail dipped enough that the pilot had to trim the aircraft to level it out.
In all likelihood, that was when the hijacker who came to be known as D.B. Cooper jumped off of the extended bottom steps.
Forty-seven years later, the hijacker remains at large, and, despite a plethora of theories and suspects in the ensuing years, the only unsolved airborne robbery in the United States remains a mystery.
Or does it?
Yesterday, police trainer and true-crime producer Thomas J. Colbert revealed a sixth taunting Cooper letter, typed months after the hijacking – quietly confiscated by the FBI from a newspaper and recently released by a judge – which he suspects contains an Army-coded confession by the living daredevil.
Colbert and his wife, Dawna, have spent the last seven years working with a 40-member cold case team, led by former FBI, to unravel the fantastic mystery. But to them, the letter is only “icing on the cake.”
It was the typed fifth letter, revealed by the Colberts in February and reportedly containing another coded message pointing to specific military units, that had closed the case for him.
“According to his former lieutenant-commander, he was the only man in the American Army with those three units, two of them top secret into the 1980s.” Colbert told SeattlePI on Wednesday. “So we know it’s (Robert) Rackstraw.”
Rackstraw, who was approached by Colbert in 2013 with an offer to turn himself in to the FBI in exchange for a movie deal later, didn’t confirm or deny anything when contacted by SeattlePI last November. Instead, he told the reporter to just verify Colbert’s facts.
Colbert’s narrative of how Rackstraw grew up and came to pull off the caper and escape — and everything else he was up to — would make a skeptic wonder. Most of it is detailed in Colbert and co-author Tom Szollosi’s award-winning book, “The Last Master Outlaw,” and the rest has made for fascinating reading the last two years. The facts known and confirmed were enough on their own.
An amazing story
The mystery began on Nov. 24, 1971 when Cooper bought a one-way ticket on Northwest Orient Airlines from Portland to Seattle. Once aboard the Boeing 727, he slipped a note to the flight attendant saying he had a bomb and that he wanted $200,000 and four parachutes, as well as a refueling truck ready when they landed in Seattle.
Once on the ground, the man exchanged the passengers for the ransom money and the plane took off, headed for Mexico. Cooper and two of the parachutes were never seen again. The only evidence ever discovered was a small cache of $20 bills found along the Columbia River in 1980.
The FBI officially stopped pursuing the case in 2016 but said it would review any physical evidence of the parachutes or the money that turned up.
In August of 2017, a dozen of Colbert’s forensic experts, including a retired FBI supervisor, used a solid tip about where Cooper landed to track down bits of buried material they believed to be from the parachute. The group gave them and the remote burial site to surprised Seattle Division agents. The next day, Colbert was emailed his one and only thank-you. The FBI has not visited the dig location or contacted the team since.
The original tip, relayed by an old pilot, also told of three veteran accomplices using a truck and a small plane to pick Cooper up and help him escape. The four had plotted and practiced in advance, according to multiple witnesses – which is all backed up by released FBI interview records.
Another part of Colbert’s escape tale has Cooper tossing $50,000 of his ransom money into Vancouver Lake, as part of an elaborate scheme to suggest he drowned in the jump. But the cash didn’t wash up as planned, so a second effort planted Cooper money on the Columbia River shore where it was found in 1980. Which, no coincidence, just happens to be a short flood-plain away from that lake.
More of the amazing investigation’s twists and turns can be found at DBCooper.com.
Colbert said he found a dozen old Army warriors that served with Rackstraw in Vietnam. They claimed he was involved in secret military units, and even freelanced for the CIA – a reason Colbert gives for him being let off the hook in the late 1970s.
In that time period, FOIA records and articles show the FBI helped local officials find him during two escapes, one as far as Iran. Police also tipped the bureau to Rackstraw’s skill sets and similar Cooper looks. When nabbed, an agent and prosecutor separately asked the fugitive if he was the hijacker, and each time he lawyered up. But after Seattle Division interviewed him in February of 1979, he was suddenly cleared.
Several feds, working on the case for more than a year, didn’t agree with that decision. Newspaper records show a half-dozen of the agents went directly to the media to say otherwise – three of them speaking on the record.
“That’s what made this incident so stunning,” said Colbert. “Six agents going public in a two-day period, each to a separate paper? To me this looks like the largest insurrection the FBI has ever faced and never publicly acknowledged.”
Colbert also firmly believes that other agents, current and past, have worked very hard to cover up key case details – perhaps because the embarrassed bureau failed to solve it, or because of Cooper’s true ties to the CIA.
In 1971 inter-agency letters released by a court, current FBI have redacted odd bits and pieces of old records, some standard and some more unusual. Several examples appear to involve the mentioning of “D.B. Cooper letters,” or notes written and sent to newspapers by the alleged outlaw. Five of the “D.B. Cooper” words were recently whited out before the word “letter” in one particular memo – from the office of one J. Edgar Hoover.
Colbert wondered, “Are they trying to protect the founder’s legacy, hide the truth, or both?”
The FBI also misled the public when, in the 2016 History Channel documentary based around this investigation, Seattle case agent Curtis Eng told the audience he had reviewed all of the team’s materials and declared there wasn’t “ample evidence.”
In reality, Colbert said Eng only saw a few samples of the circumstantial case in 2012 when the producer and a team member visited his office. Colbert claims the agent also decided to ignore the typed collaboration email sent by FBI Headquarters that year (above).
When it was time to meet the cold case team and see its almost 100 pieces of Cooper evidence in 2016, Eng simply refused. He and his Agent in Charge, Frank Montoya – who likewise told a post-show news conference that “there isn’t anything new out there” – have both since quietly retired.
In all, Colbert said he has logged more than 40 incidents and documents that reflect the FBI’s ongoing “stonewalling.”
One of his 13 retired agents, Jim Reese, said it best: “This door-slam was politics, pure and simple.”
The encryptions in the letters, spotted by a former Army code-breaker on the team, solidified the suspect for Colbert.
Vietnam veteran Rick Sherwood spent his career breaking enemy codes; even in retirement, he still has eleven of them in his head. When he saw the typed fifth Cooper letter, with odd letter and number combinations, he suspected it masked a secret message, Colbert said.
After working it through for a couple of weeks, Sherwood found that it pointed to three Army units. According to Rackstraw’s commander, he was the only one to serve in all three during the war.
And finally, the sixth letter mailed in March 1972 (left), four months after the jump, had phrases and words that jumped out at Sherwood. It also seemed a bit of a slap in the FBI’s face for failing to catch the author.
“This letter is to let you know that I am not dead but really alive and just back from the Bahamas, so your silly troopers up there can stop looking for me,” the letter, addressed to the Portland Oregonian newspaper, began.
But it was the odd phrases repeated in the letter that got Sherwood excited.
“When Tom sent me the number six letter, I read it through several times,” Sherwood wrote in a statement. “I realized the typist repeated some of the words two or more times. There were two sentences that used the repeated words, two samples in each: 1) “D.B. Cooper is not real”; 2) “Uncle” or “Unk” (AKA Uncle Sam); 3) “the system”; and 4) “lackey cops.”
Using codes that would have also been known to Rackstraw, Sherwood decoded the odd phrases, Colbert said.
The original sentence in the letter read: “And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name.” After unmasking the first half, it was a zinger: “I am 1st Lt. Robert Rackstraw, D.B. Cooper is not my real name.”
Similarly, the other secret found by the code man was utterly on the nose. The sentence, “I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” was exposed to be, “I want out of the system and saw a way by skyjacking a jet plane.”
To the skeptic, the messages may well be too much to swallow. But after team investigators reviewed the 1950 Army code book, Colbert said they became believers.
Hoover’s trying end
As Colbert tells it, the NORJAK case, as the hijacking was officially labeled, was a personal project of then-Founder J. Edgar Hoover. Memos show the 77-year-old “aging” director closely monitored field reports and supervised the laboratory work on all of the Cooper letters.
His technicians, however, couldn’t confirm this sixth one had a genuine connection to the previous notes, nor did it have any fingerprints or watermarks – just like the others.
Hoover’s final lab report (above) in late April of 1972 detailed the lack of any useful evidence. Just four weeks after stamping his famous signature on it, the New York Times reported he was found on his bedroom floor, dead from high blood pressure and a heart attack.
“Hoover immersed himself in this frustrating hunt for five months,” Colbert said. “So it wouldn’t be far-fetched to conclude that the taunting Cooper took the life out of him.”