A private team digging into the cold case says they used a “confession” from the 1970s to finger a former CIA operative, now living in San Diego
Rolling Stone; By Amelia McDonell-Parry, Monday, July 02, 2018
A national cold case team led by retired FBI investigators is claiming to have proof of the real identity of D.B. Cooper, the notorious airplane hijacker who has remained at large since he parachuted out of a Seattle-bound plane with $200,000 in November 1971.
According to filmmaker and author Thomas J. Colbert – who, along with his wife Dawna (both at left in 2016), organized, launched and funded the volunteer sleuths for the last seven years – the real Cooper is a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran named Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., and the proof is hidden in a series of letters allegedly written by the robber in the months after the crime and his disappearance.
A former Special Forces-trained paratrooper, explosives expert, pilot, and a 4-time felon with a documented 22 identities, Rackstraw was once a person of interest in the case but was eliminated as a suspect by the FBI in 1979. His dismissal was controversial amongst the investigating special agents, and he remained, for many, the most viable suspect in what still is the only unsolved case of air piracy in the United States.
In 2016, the FBI announced they were ending their enquiry into the case. “This has been a cover up, they’re stonewalling,” Thomas Colbert told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
He believes that the FBI protected Rackstraw because he was involved in numerous classified units during the war and, intelligence sources claim, later freelanced for the CIA. (A rep for FBI’s Seattle field office did not immediately return a request for comment)
Colbert and his 40-member task force say D.B. Cooper’s identity has been in the FBI’s file all along, encrypted into a series of letters sent to various newspapers in the months after the hijacking. While the first four were made public, the FBI kept a fifth and sixth letter under complete wraps until Colbert successfully sued for the Cooper case file under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He claims all six letters contain messages in Army coding that point directly at Rackstraw.
The Seattle PI contacted Rackstraw – who is currently living in San Diego – last November. They wrote that he did not confirm or deny anything, telling the reporter to “verify Colbert’s facts.”
Rick Sherwood – a former member of the Army Security Agency, which decoded signals during the Vietnam War – unmasked the codes. Rackstraw served under Sherwood in two classified units, and Sherwood was familiar with his writing style, having deciphered some of his earlier messages. When he saw the fifth and sixth typewritten letters, Sherwood immediately thought the “odd letter and number combinations” were indicative of the type of encryptions that Rackstraw would send.
According to the Seattle PI, Sherwood spent two weeks working on the solution in the fifth note, which allegedly referred to three specialized Army units (masked at bottom-left of letter) that just one soldier had served in.
“His former lieutenant-colonel told us he was the only man in the whole American Army with those three units,” Colbert told Seattle PI. “That’s why we know it’s (Robert) Rackstraw.”
As far as Colbert was concerned, the case had already been closed; in February, he and his team briefly made headlines when they released Sherwood’s analysis of the fifth letter and officially fingered Rackstraw as D.B. Cooper.
But the sixth letter, sent to Portland’s Oregonian newspaper in March 1972, turned out to be even more damning – “the icing on the cake,” as Colbert put it.
“I read it two or three times and said, ‘This is Rackstraw, this is what he does,’” Sherwood told The New York Daily News. “I noticed he kept on repeating words in his sentences and thought he had a code in there somewhere. He was taunting like he normally does, and I thought his name was going to be in it and sure enough, the numbers added up perfectly.”
Using Army codes that only Rackstraw would have known, Sherwood homed in on 2 sentences in the sixth note for analysis. The first sentence, “I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” was decoded to, “I want out of the system and saw a way by hijacking one jet plane.”
The second sentence, “And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name,” was decoded to “I’m Lt. Robert W. Rackstraw, D.B. Cooper is not my real name.”
Over the course of their 45-year investigation, the FBI considered more than a thousand “serious suspects,” but nothing more than circumstantial evidence ever implicated any of them.
It’s unclear whether the FBI will reopen the case, based on Sherwood’s analysis of the letters they’ve had for over four decades. But as far as Colbert is concerned, this cold case is officially closed because of the code-buster.
“We now have him saying, ‘I am Cooper,’” Colbert told the Seattle PI. “Rackstraw is a narcissistic sociopath who never thought he’d be caught. He was trying to prove that he was smarter than anyone else. But he couldn’t fight the team’s 1500 years of brainpower. We beat him.” ##