By Luke Kenton; Daily Mail, Tuesday, July 9, 2019
— Last year, Thomas J Colbert identified Robert Rackstraw, 75, a military vet with a murky past riddled by fraud and con-artistry, as the man responsible
— Rackstraw’s death was confirmed by his family members on Tuesday, saying he passed from natural causes and was a great-grandfather
— He was first considered as a suspect 7 years after the hijacking in 1978, with investigators saying ‘so many things’ about him seemed to match with Cooper
— Army-coded letter sent to a newspaper months after hijacking ties Cooper’s identity to Vietnam veteran Rackstraw, Colbert’s experts claim
— Colbert says FBI is ‘stonewalling, covering up and flat-out lying’ about his CIA connection
L to R: Rackstraw gets pilot wings (1968); FBI’s ‘Sketch B’ (1971); Army ID Pic (1970)
In November 1971, a ‘non-descript man’ identifying himself as Dan ‘DB’ Cooper bought a $20 ticket for a Northwest Orient flight from Portland to Seattle, later demanding $200,000 ransom and a parachute in what later become one of the most infamous cold cases of all time – and the only unsolved skyjacking in US history.
Cooper would later vanish without a trace, skydiving from the rear of the plane with the cash in hand, prompting decades of debate and conspiracy over the brazen thief’s true identity.
An unexpected breakthrough came last year when cold case expert and author Thomas J. Colbert identified Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., a military vet with a murky past riddled by murder accusations and con-artistry, as the man responsible, citing years of research as evidence.
But on Tuesday, Rackstraw’s family announced the case’s lead suspect passed away from natural causes at 75.
‘I am in touch with Rackstraw family members in six states, and we have learned he died yesterday,’ Colbert said. ‘While my cold case team believes he was Cooper, he was also a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. Our condolences to the family.’
Forty-eight years ago, DB Cooper – described as being a man in his mid-forties – boarded Flight #305, telling a stewardess shortly after take-off that he had a bomb in his briefcase and a note for the pilot.
Included in the letter was a demand from the quiet hijacker, ordering the pilot to communicate with authorities on the ground to bring him $200,000 in cash (equivalent of $1.2 million now) and four parachutes in exchange for the lives of the 36 passengers aboard the aircraft.
When the flight landed in Seattle, Cooper successfully traded the hostages for the cash with the FBI, ordering the Northwest pilot to take off once more in the direction of Mexico City. Cooper told the pilots to fly the plane under 10,000 feet and at a speed lower than 200 knots.
Somewhere between Seattle and Reno just after 8:00pm, Cooper lowered the rear steps and jumped out the back of the plane, using one of the parachutes swindled from authorities and the cash clasped in his grasp.
The pilots later landed safely, but the man the press would later dub DB Cooper disappeared without a trace in the night – leaving his identity and fate to become the subject of folklore and prompting ‘one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations in FBI history’. A staggering 800 suspects were identified and cleared of undertaking the legendary heist in the first five years.
Rackstraw was a 1969-70 Vietnam veteran with extensive Special Forces training, serving in the National Guard, the Reserve, the Regular Army and in one of the most decorated combat divisions in the US Army, the 1st Calvary Division. He was first considered as a suspect seven years after the hijacking, with investigators saying ‘so many things’ about him seemed to match the description of Cooper.
Rackstraw was interviewed about his link to the case in 1979, where he was asked explicitly to state whether he was or wasn’t DB Cooper. With a wry smile visible across his face, he told the KNBC TV reporter, ‘Uh, I’m afraid of heights’. The reporter added that his parachute training in the military means he ‘could’ve been DB Cooper’.
‘Could have been, could have been,’ Rackstraw responded. ‘You say with a story like that, should it be fiction or should it be fact? It’s primarily up to the American people someday, how that comes out.’
Little came of the FBI’s suspicions of Rackstraw, but Colbert officially pointed the finger of blame at him in June last year, wielding this letter sent to the Portland Oregonian newspaper at the time, said to reveal him to be Cooper.
‘This letter is too [sic] let you know I am not dead but really alive and just back from the Bahamas, so your silly troopers up there can stop looking for me. That is just how dumb this government is. I like your articles about me, but you can stop them now. D.B. Cooper is not real,’ the letter reads.
‘I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,’ he writes. ‘Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).’
Colbert said he obtained the letter after successfully suing the FBI for access to the closed Cooper archive. He gave it to Rick Sherwood, a former member of the Army Security Agency, to decode. He previously deciphered five other taunting Cooper notes, supposedly sent by Rackstraw, that the FBI had missed.
‘No one at the agency believed this [6th] letter was connected to the others because the writer used a different typewriter and mailed it from the East Coast,’ Colbert told the Daily News. ‘When I got it, I noticed some writing style similarities like [the last ones], so I sent it to our code breaker. He said, ”Tom, you’re not going to believe it, but his confession is in here,”’ Colbert said.
Sherwood (Below) identified four phrases that were used multiple times – ‘D.B. Cooper is not real,’ ‘Uncle’ or ‘Unk’ which referred to Uncle Sam, ‘the system,’ and ‘lackey cops.’
He used a system of letters and numbers to decode those phrases and after about two weeks, he translated ‘through good ole Unk’ into ‘by skyjacking a jet plane’ and ‘And please tell the lackey cops’ into ‘I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.’
Another member of the investigation team — Rackstraw’s former Lieutenant-Colonel — confirmed all of Sherwood’s findings with his 50-year-old Army Cryptography manual.
A nine-digit number typed at the bottom of the letter was said to have only been able to come from Rackstraw because it referred to three covert military units he had ties to during the war.
Colbert revealed in February 2018, at a news conference in front of FBI Headquarters, that his code-breaker had uncovered the earlier hidden messages in the taunting letters sent by Cooper in the late 1970s.
Coding in the second note, which was handwritten on November 30, 1971, said: ‘IF CATCH I AM CIA… RWR’. The investigators believe the ‘RWR’ in the coding is Rackstraw’s initials and that it also indicated that he expected a get-out-of-jail card from the federal spy agency, if he was captured.
In the first letter, the message contained coding that read: ‘CAN FBI CATCH ME… SWS’, which Colbert said was Rackstraw taunting agents to track him. He added that the SWS stood for Special Warfare School, which is where the veteran supposedly learned coding.
Colbert said two of the letters were mailed within 30 minutes of Rackstraw’s remote 1971 hideaway in a small California mountain town — more than 500 miles from the hijacking crime scene at Portland Airport.
Investigators first questioned Rackstraw about the Cooper case in 1978 and eliminated him as a suspect the following year. When Colbert first publicly named and linked Rackstraw to the hijacking in 2016, the veteran’s lawyer called the accusations ‘the stupidest thing I ever heard’.
Rackstraw had an illustrious military career as a pilot in the 1st Cavalry Division, one of America’s first air-assault helicopter forces. The division was later portrayed in Mel Gibson’s 2002 movie, WE WERE SOLDIERS.
It was in Vietnam that Rackstraw learned to parachute and was given two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Silver Star for his performances while in the pilot seat. But he was kicked out of the army after they discovered he had lied about dropping out of high school and attending two colleges.
Colbert believes the military gave him all the skills he needed to pull off the extraordinary heist.
The FBI revealed in July 2016 that they were closing the investigation, saying that Cooper – whose real identity has never been publicly confirmed by authorities – probably died of exposure in the woods between Oregon and Washington after jumping from the plane.
Soon after, Colbert (At microphone) traveled to Washington, D.C., to sue the FBI to obtain reams of previously undisclosed information about the case, including the letters written by Cooper. Colbert obtained the fifth one in November 2017, in the latest Freedom of Information request he had submitted.
Copies of the fifth one were sent to The Seattle Times, The New York Times, The LA Times and The Washington Post by the hijacker at the time. Colbert argues the 5th typed letter, held for 46 years, also proves the existence of an FBI cover-up of the hijacking.
‘I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be caught,’ the letter started, before later saying ‘I left no fingerprints.’
The letter wasn’t public knowledge beyond a few brief reports in the newspapers that played it off as a prank, according to Colbert.
Colbert said he and his wife hired two forensics experts – one a past president of American Society of Questioned Document Examiners and the other an ex-FBI agent – to examine the handwritten second note (Left).
The two esteemed men both reported that the handwriting was so similar to the writing on Cooper’s boarding card that it was ‘likely’ that both ‘were written by one person.’
Colbert said Rackstraw also planted the coded messages in the letters to signal his co-conspirators that he survived the leap from a Boeing 727 after he hijacked it.
Colbert believes three other men helped to pull the heist off, after they were allegedly seen in a small plane in another airfield around the time of the hijacking. They’re then said to have picked up Cooper after he landed and flew under the radar to drop him off safely so that he could make his getaway.
Colbert is adamant the FBI was too hasty to wrap up the investigation and now says the revelation of the hidden messages, especially the links to his CIA missions, proves why the agency has been stonewalling.
He said his team found what they believed to be a parachute strap and foam padding from skydiver’s backpack in the forest near Cooper’s alleged jump location in 2017. They turned over the two items, along with the dig site itself, to the FBI. Colbert says the FBI still hasn’t taken action on any of the team’s efforts.
He has spent several years conducting his own investigation into the mysterious crime, writing an award-winning book and producing a documentary series on it in the process.
Colbert said he has extensively investigated Rackstraw as well. In 1977, six years after the hijacking, Rackstraw was suspected of kiting checks for $75,000, but fled before arrest and went to Iran to teach the Shah’s men how to fly helicopters – according to old Bell Helicopter security memos and embassy documents.
Meanwhile, back at home, police raided his storage units and found 14 rifles and 150lbs of dynamite. He lost his Iran chopper job and he was brought back the USA, where he was arrested for fraud and the murder of his stepfather. Philip Rackstraw was found in the grounds of his parents’ home with two bullets in his head.
Rackstraw was acquitted of murder and made bail on the fraud charge. Then he faked his death, pretending to crash his plane in the ocean at Monterey Bay, California. He was found and taken in by the FBI, who believed he might be Cooper, but a lack of evidence and the sudden discovery of some of the hijack money in Washington State – planted, Colbert says, by a seven-year accomplice – led to his release.
Rackstraw made a plea deal and after serving a year in prison for his Stockton convictions, he moved to Southern California.
He taught a law course in mediation at UC Riverside before retiring to his San Diego yacht, ‘Poverty Sucks’.