Journal of the American Bar Association; By Debra Cassens-Weiss; August 9, 2018
The parachuting hijacker who famously vanished with $200,000 ransom in 1971 is alive and well. That according to a private cold case team led by former FBI agents, which had obtained his taunting letters to newspapers through the Freedom of Information Act.
According to the 40 volunteer investigators and forensic experts, hidden Army code in six notes reveals that the daredevil is actually Vietnam War veteran Robert W. Rackstraw Sr. He briefly served in the same classified intelligence unit as two of the team members — former Sgt. Rick Sherwood (IN) and LTC Ken Overturf (CO).
Rackstraw, now 74, is a retired University of California law instructor and four-time felon in San Diego. CBS News, Seattle PI and the Courthouse News Service are among the media documenting these intriguing developments.
When the sleuths discovered Rackstraw’s 1970 Army ID photo in a St. Louis DoD archive, they approached Jon Campbell — a senior investigator for South Carolina’s Law Enforcement Division (SLED) — for his opinion on the vet’s likeness to the most credible Cooper sketch (above). Campbell was quoted in the team’s 2016 award-winning investigative book, The Last Master Outlaw:
“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.”
Shortly after Campbell’s comments, the alerted FBI discreetly requested a copy.
Rackstraw has threatened to take Colbert and any media that call him Cooper to court. But for two years, he hasn’t filed one suit.
Sherwood says he mastered the code during 36 weeks of Army training. Through military records, Overturf confirmed Rackstraw took classes in it at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 1968.
The code assigns numeric values to the alphabet (with A equaling 1, B equaling 2, and so on). Sherwood created numeric values for words, phrases and numbers that were repeated or didn’t fit, he told the Indianapolis Star.
For example, “Wash Post,” typed at the bottom of the fifth letter, was the only newspaper among four that wasn’t fully spelled out. It has a numeric value of 121, which is also the value for “top secret.” Sherwood believes that admonition referred to two of Rackstraw’s classified military units, unmasked at the same spot.
According to the team, Cooper’s sixth letter had two references to “lackey cops” and two assertions that D.B. Cooper isn’t real. The typed phrase “and please tell the lackey cops” has a numerical value of 269, which Sherwood noted has the same value as the phrase “I’m LT Robert W. Rackstraw.”
CNS pointed out some math errors in letter six. For example: Sherwood originally claimed that the “lackey cops” phrase equated to “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw” because both had a numeric value of 269. But the Rackstraw phrase actually added up to 287, spurring Sherwood to recompute and revise the phrase to read: “I’m LT Robert W. Rackstraw.”
CNS stated the other five letter decryptions were mathematically accurate.
The organizer of the multi-year Cooper hunt is Thomas J. Colbert, a police trainer, author and producer who’s copyrighted the encryption process. Despite the mistake in letter sixth, he told the IndyStar his confidence in Sherwood’s findings remains “110 percent. I think a 70-year-old veteran is entitled to a bad math day.”
Overturf seconded that. The former commander has since confirmed the analyst’s results and methodologies through a copy of his 1950 “Basic Cryptography” manual, posted online.
Colbert added the team also found more than a hundred pieces of earlier evidence that points at Rackstraw, including DNA, gathered over the last seven years. But the organizer said the FBI broke its written promise in 2016 to accept all their materials — the week before his retired G-men’s promised meeting.
That led to Colbert’s FOIA suit, filed by Washington, D.C. attorney Mark Zaid. A half-year later, a federal judge gave the team access to the closed archive.
During a CNS phone interview with Rackstraw last February, the elderly suspect was pressed to either confirm or deny he was the fugitive. Rackstraw’s answer was unequivocal:
“There’s no denial whatsoever, my dear.”