Arizona Republic; By Dennis Wagner, Thursday, August 9, 2018
In 1971, a hijacker parachuted from a jetliner over the forests of Oregon and slipped away with $200,000.
The skyjacker, who used the alias “Dan Cooper” in taunting letters to the FBI, was never apprehended.
For crime buffs, the case of the man who became known as D.B. Cooper has remained one of America’s most compelling mysteries.
Now, Los Angeles producer Thomas J. Colbert and a cold case team of investigators, led by former FBI agents, are doubling down on claims they have identified the real D.B. Cooper as Californian Robert W. “Bob” Rackstraw Sr., a former Vietnam War paratrooper who became a university law instructor.
And they are saying parts of Rackstraw’s story have connections to Arizona. That includes a skydiving mentor from Apache Junction — an uncle named Ed Cooper (Shown landing in 1965).
In numerous past interviews with police and journalists, Rackstraw has offered coy, conflicting and incriminatory responses while refusing to confirm or deny he is Cooper. In one old TV news interview, when asked if he was the hijacker, the convicted con man smiled and said, “Could have been. I can’t commit myself on something like that.”
Rackstraw claimed in federal docs last year and to the Washington Post in 2016 to be a “disabled homeless veteran.”
But Colbert says his surveillance men in 2013 found him living in a million-dollar condo in San Diego’s Bankers Hill district, with a 45-foot yacht in nearby Coronado Bay. Facebook photos show him attending three elaborate functions in black-tie attire.
Reached this week by phone, Rackstraw declined to be interviewed except in person, explaining, “I want to know who I’m talking to.”
Many FBI agents concluded Cooper was killed when he jumped from the jetliner. Others, including a legion of self-anointed sleuths, have identified countless possible suspects.
Rackstraw at one time was among them.
Yet the last serious book on the topic, “Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper,” by Geoffrey Gray, doesn’t even mention his name. Gray told The Arizona Republic that Colbert and his team are just one “pocket of obsession” in a “sea of chaos.”
The FBI closed its case on Cooper two years ago, just as Colbert aired a History Channel documentary pointing to Rackstraw as the perpetrator.
Colbert claims his team now has “definitive proof”: a hidden code discovered in letters D.B. Cooper had sent to the media decades ago. One of the encrypted messages purportedly says: “I’m LT Robert W. Rackstraw.”
Colbert acknowledges he is working on a second documentary, but he insists the primary goal he and his volunteer team are pursuing is to expose the FBI’s failure to do its job – allegedly because Rackstraw became a CIA operative after the jump.
Colbert and his Washington, D.C., attorney Mark Zaid, sued the bureau last year to obtain the archived case file.
“This is horribly embarrassing for them,” Colbert said in a phone interview, “and the fact that they cut a deal with the CIA.”
Dennis Roberts, Rackstraw’s longtime lawyer, offers a different perspective: “He’s not D.B. Cooper, but these people have been driving him crazy for years. They won’t leave him alone.”
A long version of the story fills nearly 72,000 pages in the FBI’s case file, dubbed NORJAK, not to mention books, blogs, films and a D.B. Cooper Music Festival.
A shorter version focuses on Arizona and explains where Rackstraw learned to skydive, why he allegedly chose the last name “Cooper,” and what led Colbert’s team to focus on him.
First, some background on the case:
On Nov. 24, 1971, Northwest Orient Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle was commandeered by a man claiming to have a bomb in his briefcase.
The skyjacker, who boarded as “Dan Cooper,” instructed the pilot to land in Seattle.
In exchange for a parachute and $200,000, Cooper allowed some passengers to disembark. Then he ordered the Boeing 727 to take off and fly south.
Over a forested area in Washington State, at low altitude in a rainstorm, the man vanished.
The hijacking reportedly was America’s first to end in a parachute getaway.
Cooper’s bravado triggered an FBI dragnet and wild public speculation. (Early news accounts contained the erroneous “D.B.” initials, which stuck even though they were never used by the hijacker.)
The mystery grew as someone who identified himself as Cooper began mailing cryptic letters to media outlets, leaving clues and taunting the FBI.
“I didn’t rob Northwest Orient because I thought it would be romantic, heroic or any of the other euphemisms,” the person wrote in the fifth of six letters. “I’m no modern-day Robin Hood… Neither am I a psycho-pathic killer.”
A murder, explosives and forgery
According to Colbert, Rackstraw served seven years in the Army, earning medals in Vietnam before he was forced out in 1971 due to misconduct.
He was a helicopter pilot trained in parachute drops and psychological operations. That background did not place Rackstraw onto the FBI’s list.
But in 1975, somebody broke into a rock quarry’s munitions bunker in the hills above Rackstraw’s former California hometown of Santa Cruz, and stole 22 cases of dynamite. FBI agents reportedly told journalists and his first ex-wife that they viewed the former soldier, an expert in explosives, as a person of interest. No arrest was made.
In 1977, Rackstraw’s stepfather disappeared in Stockton. Arrest warrants were issued alleging Rackstraw forged the missing man’s name on checks. Separate charges were filed for shipping explosives to a fellow Vietnam veteran in Texas.
While awaiting warrants for his arrest, Rackstraw vanished.
Two Stockton detectives realized he not only resembled FBI sketches of D.B. Cooper, but had the skill sets for skyjacking. They tipped off an FBI agent. A file was opened.
In 1978, the fugitive was traced to Iran, where he was training pilots for the Shah. Just as Rackstraw was returned to the United States, his stepfather’s body was uncovered from a shallow grave, two bullets to the head – the man that hid Rackstraw, Colbert’s documents show, for more than a year after the jump.
Rackstraw testified during his murder trial, “I didn’t kill my father, but I swear to God that I’ll find out who did …”
He was acquitted, but faced other charges when he disappeared again. This time, while flying a rental plane over Monterey Bay, Rackstraw issued a mayday call and announced he was ditching the aircraft. No wreckage or body was found.
Rackstraw was rearrested a few months later. Media reported the captured fugitive might be linked to the 1971 jump.
And this is where an Arizona connection emerges.
A Cooper connection?
Amid the publicity, a man named Dick Briggs allegedly told two friends that he — not Rackstraw — was the real D.B. Cooper.
One of those friends, Ron Carlson (below), told The Republic their conversations had occurred back in 1979.
Carlson said the men were at a party in Portland when Briggs pointed out a young couple and predicted they, along with their young son, would soon “discover” buried along the Columbia River cash from the airline heist.
Carlson said he thought the whole thing was a fabrication until a few days later, when the couple and a boy appeared on TV newscasts with $5,800 purportedly found on the river’s bank while digging a fire pit. The bills’ numbers traced to the hijacking.
Carlson, who now lives in Meadview, said he didn’t tell anyone about Briggs’ story until 2011, when he described the saga to a news cameraman who knew Colbert. The disclosure led to seven years of investigation by his 40-member national team.
Colbert said Briggs did not fit the hijacker’s description. But they learned he was a Rackstraw seven-year associate, and came to believe money from the skyjacking was planted to remove suspicion from Rackstraw.
The ruse worked, Colbert added. FBI agents decided a criminal wouldn’t leave cash behind, so the discovery was strong evidence Cooper hadn’t survived.
Ten months later, Briggs died in a mysterious one-car wreck that was ruled an accident. Colbert said Oregon friends and family called it a covered-up murder.
Parachutes over Phoenix?
In March 1979, Colbert reports, Rackstraw contacted a Los Angeles television station and offered Investigative Producer Pete Noyes an exclusive on the real D.B. Cooper — which led to another Arizona twist.
Noyes requested proof. Rackstraw offered a morsel: He said he had learned to parachute as a 16-year-old boy vacationing in Phoenix. His instructor was an uncle, Ed Cooper (Left, 1965). And that is how he came up with the pseudonym.
The confession interview never materialized. (The uncle died in 2000, but relatives confirmed the family ties.)
Rackstraw was convicted on five felony counts related to fraudulent checks and pleaded no contest to the explosives charge, according to old news reports. He served more than a year behind bars.
A chronology prepared by Colbert outlines Rackstraw’s life in the aftermath. Despite criminal convictions, he launched a construction business and became a building inspector for Riverside County, California. He also purportedly earned three degrees, including a law diploma, then taught a course in mediation for ten years at the University of California, Riverside.
He was divorced three times, eventually claiming six children and 14 grandkids in a court filing.
Was he Cooper?
Two years after Colbert began investigating Rackstraw, he offered to buy the rights to Rackstraw’s story – but only if he first turned himself in to the FBI.
Rackstraw expressed interest and brought in his attorney. But they later threatened to sue.
Roberts, the lawyer, told The Republic that Colbert was ruining Rackstraw’s reputation, and it made him sick. But he also acknowledged Rackstraw had cultivated the D.B. Cooper identity, in part to meet women.
In 2016, Colbert’s first documentary was released, along with a book titled, “The Last Master Outlaw: How He Outfoxed the FBI Six Times but Not a Cold Case Team.” Colbert noted the tome, co-authored by Tom Szollosi, became “the first of 25 books on the subject to win not one, but three national awards for True Crime.”
For several years, during interviews with the Indianapolis Star and other publications, Rackstraw refused to say whether he was Cooper.
Colbert’s team worked on the doc in collaboration with the FBI until it was nearly complete. With more than one hundred pieces of evidence, including DNA, due to be delivered, the bureau suddenly canceled the rendezvous and refused the sleuths’ materials.
Immediately after the broadcast, Colbert announced at a Los Angeles press conference he was suing for the FBI investigative records under the Freedom of Information Act. Including docs the bureau freely provided to author Geoffrey Gray for his book. (Clean copies of the memos and field notes are posted on Gray’s site True.Ink. )
A judge ordered the FBI to release the files to Colbert’s team, but their monthly allotments of pages are heavily redacted. Attorney Zaid, fighting in court for equal access, is awaiting a decision.
While Rackstraw is not a party to the FOIA lawsuit, he filed a motion to intervene. The 17-page petition asked a judge to issue arrest warrants for Colbert and other team members charging “conspiracy to commit premeditated murder.” It claims they hired gunmen to ambush him. It says their 2016 documentary left him “defamed, harassed and killed (suffered a major heart attack and died), etc.”
The request mentions damages of $1 billion. It concludes, “Please don’t let them kill me again.”
Rackstraw’s motion was quickly denied.
Get out your decoder ring
One of Colbert’s team members, Indianan Rick Sherwood, served at the same time as Rackstraw in Vietnam and studied encryption.
Going through the D.B. Cooper letters, Sherwood said, he noticed words and numbers that might be a code. So he began trying to break it.
Sherwood claims the correspondent employed an alpha-numeric system where A=1, B=2 and so on to Z=26. Using that formula and making other adjustments, he said, he deciphered multiple messages.
For example, one letter contained “ccccccc.” Because C=3, and there were seven C’s, he decided the total was 21. Then he concluded that the message might be ASA (an acronym for Army Security Agency) because 1+19+1=21.
Of course, other acronyms or words could be created with 21 letter-points, like a reverse game of Scrabble.
Sherwood admits his method and conclusions are speculative. In fact, he got the math wrong when he derived the most important message: “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.” So, this week, he revised the wording to “I’m LT Robert W. Rackstraw.”
Nevertheless, Colbert insists the decoding is “documented validation.”
“Rick got the other five right, first shot. I think a 70-year-old veteran is entitled to a bad math day.”
So does Rackstraw and Sherwood’s former Vietnam commander. In a written statement from his home in Colorado, retired LTC Ken Overturf claimed he had studied and verified Sherwood’s coding methodologies used in the six decryptions. The former commander had found a copy of his old unit’s 1950 “Basic Cryptography” manual.
Overturf also confirmed through military records that Rackstraw had taken a class for the very same coding at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 1968.
Colbert noted that one letter message uncovered by Sherwood says, “I am CIA,” followed by the initials “RWR.” Colbert said Rackstraw had claimed multiple times to have been working for the spy agency.
“Deep sources in the military and intelligence communities claim agents won’t charge him because after the hijacking, he was an award-winning black ops pilot,” Colbert said.
An FBI spokeswoman said in an email to The Republic that the bureau will not investigate the NORJACK case further unless someone produces the parachute or money taken during the crime. She declined to comment on Rackstraw.
The legend grows.
FYI: A year ago, the FBI was given one of the things they were looking for: the alleged burial location of Cooper’s parachute. A former FBI supervisor on Colbert’s team turned in five pieces of dug-up material to Seattle Division. The agents were also provided with access to the private dig site and the names of two living veterans believed to have helped bury it. But even a lawyer letter to the director himself hasn’t broken the FBI’s year-long silence and inaction on the matter. (That letter, along with the dug-up materials, are featured in 2017 article postings on this website)