By Morgan Krakow; Washington Post, Wednesday, July 10, 2019;
Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., the targeted subject in a 2016 History Channel documentary about the unsolved hijacking, was pronounced dead at his San Diego home in the early hours of July 9, according to the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office. The 75-year-old veteran died of a “long-standing heart condition.”
D.B. Cooper, known for the takeover of a November 24, 1971 flight bound for Seattle from Portland, Ore., leaped from the plane with $200,000 in stolen cash. Authorities were never able to find Cooper or his body.
It is the longest whodunit of its kind in FBI history and has baffled official and unofficial investigators for decades. Though the agency closed the case in 2016, theories and queries about the identity of Cooper have continued to swirl.
In the late 1970s, the FBI investigated Rackstraw in possible connection with the case. But a year later, the agency “ruled out” the veteran without explanation, according to a Seattle Times article.
American embassy records released through Wikileaks revealed the fugitive had been quietly captured in Iran in 1978 during the last year of the Shah.
After landing at JFK Airport, Rackstraw was taken into custody by the FBI. But he didn’t go easy; a California hometown paper covering his return, the Stockton Record, noted the suspect “refused” to leave his seat and “had to be carried from the plane.”
When asked if he was D.B. Cooper, he “demanded an attorney.”
Months earlier, Rackstraw had fled local authorities to avoid unrelated charges of aircraft theft, possession of explosives and check fraud, according to The Post’s Ian Shapira in 2016. Asked how those old charges were resolved, Rackstraw answered, “I was acquitted of everything as I recall.”
Court files and a 1979 Record article, however, reported the convicted con-artist was found guilty of four felonies and sentenced to two years in state prison. After early release in 1980, he earned a few degrees, taught a law course at a University of California college, and later retired to run a boat shop in Coronado Bay, California.
In 2011, Thomas J. Colbert, a Los Angeles-based police trainer and documentary producer, received a solid tip about new Rackstraw evidence. But when the FBI’s Seattle Division later told him they were not interested in revisiting the “cleared” man, Colbert and his wife, Dawna, deployed a volunteer cold case team, led by former FBI agents, to track him down.
Rackstraw also told reporter Shapira, along with a federal court judge, he was a “homeless disabled veteran.”
But in 2013, the Colberts’ armed surveillance team and camera crew went to San Diego to conduct the first and only face-off with the mystery man. Stakeout photographs and family social media postings revealed Rackstraw lived a posh lifestyle involving a million-dollar condo, motor-home vacations, dog shows, bi-plane rides, black-tie parties and a 45-foot yacht called the “Poverty Sucks.”
The team’s years-long quest and video footage were featured in a July 2016 History Channel documentary and a narrative book, The Last Master Outlaw — winner of three national awards for true crime.
Rackstraw has always dodged reporters about being Cooper, but last year, he wasn’t joking during a conversation with Courthouse News Service. When the journalist asked to either confirm or deny he was the missing daredevil, the elderly outlaw, for the first time, was unequivocal in his recorded answer:
“There’s no denial whatsoever, my dear.”
One of Thomas Colbert’s attorneys reached out to both the Justice Department and the FBI to notify them of Rackstraw’s death. Then he asked that they process and release “all Rackstraw-related documents in the D.B. Cooper investigative file.”
“While I believe he was Cooper,” Colbert said, “he was also a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Our condolences to the family.”
FYI: Our cold case hunt wasn’t the stereotypical old guys chasing an old guy. It was a 40-member national task force of volunteers — from working millennials to retired 80-year-olds — with criminal justice, military, forensic, academic, legal and investigative backgrounds. The mission: to use their 1500 years of experience to reverse-engineer a legend, one dead end at a time. And sadly, the long road to the truth ended at the FBI’s doorstep. See “The Smoking Gun” link for the stunning details and evidence. TJC