By Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union Tribune; 7/9/19
He was a high school dropout and U.S. Army paratrooper trained in explosives and psychological operations. In addition, he worked as a pilot for hire in pre-revolution Iran and earned four felony convictions in California for stealing a plane and passing bad checks.
Robert W. Rackstraw, who died early Tuesday in his Banker’s Hill condominium, also was a subject for sleuths investigating D.B. Cooper (Above in 2013), the legendary skyjacker who jumped from a Northwest Orient Airlines jet somewhere over southwestern Washington in 1971 with $200,000 in cash and into history. He was never found.
But Rackstraw, whose Army photo bore strong resemblance to the notorious mastermind and had many of the skills required to pull off such a feat, became the focus of a four-hour documentary that aired on the History Channel in 2016 and linked him to the unsolved caper.
Filmmaker Thomas J. Colbert (Left) spent seven years investigating the D.B. Cooper case. He concluded in his 2016 documentary, “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?”, and his award-winning book, “The Last Master Outlaw,” that Rackstraw was indeed the hijacker.
The Medical Examiner’s Office said Tuesday that Rackstraw passed early in the morning at his home just west of Balboa Park. Investigators responded to a 911 call there about 3 a.m. Tuesday and found Rackstraw deceased, officials said. The 75-year-old vet was pronounced dead from a longstanding heart condition.
“While my cold case team absolutely believes he was Cooper, he also was a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather,” Colbert said Tuesday. “Our condolences to the family.”
In the film, Colbert confronted Rackstraw and offered him a check for $20,000 for rights to his story of the 1971 hijacking – if he agreed to turn himself in to authorities. Rackstraw appeared interested in the cash, but resisted confirming the filmmaker’s theory because he could have faced criminal charges.
“I told everybody I was (the hijacker),” Rackstraw said, before explaining the admission was a stunt. But he asked twice to see the check Colbert had written out before adding this non-denial assertion: “The problem is, I don’t remember a lot of it.”
When The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote about the History Channel miniseries three years ago this week, Rackstraw did not respond to interview requests.
The FBI considered Rackstraw a suspect for a brief time in the years after the hijacking. Investigators eventually ruled him out based largely on witness testimony that placed the suspect between 35 and 45 years of age. Rackstraw was 28 on the night of the crime.
But Colbert’s investigation, which included dozens of retired FBI agents and other private detectives, turned up a number of clues that pointed to Rackstraw as the possible hijacker, including the Army portrait, his paratrooper skills, explosives training, and admitting to the FBI he was in the crime zone at the time.
It was 1971 when D.B. Cooper showed a stewardess what he claimed was a bomb and demanded $200,000 in cash and four parachutes.
Whether or not he was the infamous skyjacker, Rackstraw led a colorful life.
He completed a 15-month tour in Vietnam in 1970 with 40 decorations. He was drummed out of the military the following year after one too many incidents of misconduct.
He also worked as a scuba instructor and later piloted choppers in Iran before being caught there by the FBI, who were sure Rackstraw was behind thefts years earlier of a stash of dynamite and armory guns.
He was charged with murder in Calaveras County for the death of Philip Rackstraw, his mother’s third husband, and was acquitted by a sympathetic jury.
Rackstraw attempted to fake his own death by crashing a rented airplane into Monterey Bay, but investigators found him months later in Fullerton under a fake name and with red hair (Below).
He was charged with stealing an aircraft and passing bad checks, and later called news stations claiming to be Cooper. The story was picked up around the country before he was convicted.
After his release from Folsom State Prison in 1980, he opened multiple businesses. At one point, he was appointed a chief inspector for the Riverside County building department, and later he won election to his homeowner’s association board.
He also parlayed his layman’s understanding of contract law and mediation into an online teaching position at the University of California Riverside.
In 1991, he earned an economics degree from the University of San Francisco — two decades after getting kicked out of the Army for faking college transcripts.
Rackstraw was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1943. He is survived by three ex-wives and more than a dozen children and grandchildren. No information on services was available.