By Peter Sheridan in Los Angeles; Thursday, September 18, 2019
Mystery man whose audacious crime shocked the world and gave us modern day airport security checks is exposed in secret FBI files.
Nothing about the businessman who strode on board the plane that day singled him out. Blending in perfectly with his fellow passengers, everything from his sunglasses, white shirt and dark business suit to the black attaché case he carried screamed corporate America.
Yet halfway through the Boeing 727 flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, WA, “Dan Cooper” suddenly opened his case and showed what appeared to be sticks of dynamite. He demanded $200,000 and four parachutes in return for the safety of his 36 fellow travelers. After getting what he wanted at Seattle Airport, the high-flying robber ordered the crew to take him to Mexico.
But somewhere over the American Northwest, Cooper donned a ‘chute and, clutching the cash, jumped out. It was November 24, 1971, and a national manhunt for the hijacker was mounted, but he was never found. Eventually, just $5,800 of the marked dollar bills were uncovered in 1980, decomposing beside an Oregon riverbank, but Cooper – and his real identity – disappeared forever, along with the rest of the money.
Cooper appears to have been exposed as Robert W. Rackstraw, who died in July, aged 75 – and one of the world’s greatest crime mysteries may finally have been solved.
Secret FBI files uncovered this week reveal the identity of the daredevil skyjacker who has been mythologized in film, TV and song. For 45 years he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, until, in 2016, the agency officially closed the unsolved case.
But the newly-uncovered FBI documents reveal its investigators believed their prime suspect was the former US Army pilot, paratrooper and explosives expert Rackstraw – and that he was also a CIA black-ops man.
“This solves one of America’s greatest criminal mysteries,” says cold case investigator, producer and author Thomas J. Colbert, who obtained the hidden FBI files after Rackstraw’s recent passing and a lengthy legal battle. “It’s like discovering where Amelia Earhart’s plane went down.
“I’m 150 percent certain that Rackstraw was DB Cooper. Three separate intel community sources have told us he was a CIA freelancer before and after the hijacking, and that’s why they protected him.
“The new files quote leading [FBI] investigators who were convinced that Rackstraw could be Cooper. He got away with the ransom, invested it in property, and the FBI turned a blind eye, flat-out lying and covering up his crimes to avoid embarrassing the government.”
After the skyjacking, DB Cooper entered American popular folklore and helped changed the face of world travel. At the time, there was no security screening of passengers or X-rays of their luggage. He inspired several copycat hijackings for ransom that year, which sparked the beginnings of the modern airline security network.
In addition to the damning FBI files, Colbert, 62, who lives in Ventura County, California, says his private team of investigators, led by 13 former FBI agents, found more than 100 pieces of evidence – physical, forensic (including DNA), direct, testimonial, hearsay and documentary – which incriminated Rackstraw.
But in the week scheduled for turning it all over, the agency suddenly voided their five-year team collaboration and refused to accept any of the materials. Colbert said senior agents later “lied” about it at a national new conference — claiming they’d reviewed all the evidence, dismissed it as weak, then stated to the cameras “there isn’t anything new out there.”
Independent experts noted Rackstraw’s 1970 Army ID photo, dug out of a forgotten Pentagon file by the sleuths, had “nine points of match” to the FBI sketch of Cooper and fitted the FBI profile of the hijacker. He had the training to make a bomb and jump from a plane.
Rackstraw also had a motive: The hijacking came five months after he was kicked out of the military for lying about his rank, medals, and college educational record – he never finished high school.
Even after the hijacking, Rackstraw craved adventure, frequently clashing with the law. He piloted helicopters across pre-revolutionary Iran, teaching the Shah’s pilots to fly, and was arrested on suspicion of stealing dynamite.
He even stood trial for murdering his stepfather, but was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. Rackstraw went on to fake his own death in 1978 by calling in a phony Mayday crash in California’s Monterey Bay.
Months later he was found (above) and jailed for two years for stealing an aircraft and passing bad cheques. In all, he had earned more than 30 criminal titles while using a series of fake identities in five countries.
Rackstraw wed three times, becoming a father, grandfather and great-grandfather. After divorcing his third wife, he continued to live with her in the wealthy Bankers Hill district of San Diego, California, for another 20 years. He owned a boat shop, Coronado Precision Marine, and had a 45 foot cruiser, wryly named the Poverty Sucks.
When confronted about Cooper’s skyjacking shortly before his death, Rackstraw confessed: “I’m probably one of the only people who can close the case.” Asked directly in 1978 if he was Cooper, Rackstraw teased: “Could have been… could have been.”
He spoke with authority about the Cooper cash found along the Columbia River in 1980, saying: “I could be wrong, but I believe that’s all that will be found.”
So far, he’s been right.
Rackstraw even confided to family members that he was DB Cooper, claims Colbert.
FBI agents told reporters in 1971 that they suspected Cooper died making his daredevil parachute jump into a wind chill of minus 57 degrees, only to land in wild snow-covered woods while wearing loafers and a trench coat.
But several farm eyewitnesses, quietly interviewed by the FBI, claimed three getaway accomplices (two recently located by team) were waiting on the ground with a small plane to extract Rackstraw. The ransom money found nine years later at the river was planted by him to mislead investigators, multiple sources have told Colbert.
Cooper may have represented a darker side of America than the daredevil criminal whose escape captivated the nation.
Rackstraw flew helicopters for an intelligence unit of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War, where he fell in with a CIA operative. The duo disappeared together for days on secret missions, according to LTC Ken Overturf, Rackstraw’s retired Vietnam commander in 1969.
Rackstraw admitted to a Facebook friend: “Everything I did for our government raised questions.”
Former US intelligence officer and three-tour Vietnam code-buster Rick Sherwood (left) was recruited in 2015 to join Colbert’s team. He has analyzed six taunting letters sent by a Cooper writer to the media, in the wake of his disappearance. Colbert used a court order to get the notes from the FBI’s sealed hijacking file.
In the second letter, Sherwood claims to have decrypted Army-coded message which said: “IF CATCH I AM CIA.”
In the last one, independent experts confirmed Sherwood had uncovered Rackstraw’s alleged confession to the crime.
Colbert believes that the FBI “bushwhacked” his seven-year investigation because it came too close to proving that the agency had a strong case to prosecute Rackstraw, but chose not to, shielding the US government from embarrassment.
Colbert says: “It was a cover-up, and we now have the FBI’s own files to prove that Rackstraw was their prime suspect. Everything points to him.
“He was questioned by investigators in 1978 and he gave three different alibis, all proven to be false. Yet the FBI let him remain at liberty. “
After Rackstraw’s death, his former lawyer, Dennis Roberts, insisted: “He’s not DB Cooper.” Yet bizarrely, the attorney claimed that Rackstraw was responsible for another skyjack for which he was never caught, which was supposedly why he never sued anyone accusing him of being Cooper. “It would have meant that he would have had to admit the second hijack,” said Roberts.
Transportation experts, however, claim their are no other unsolved American airborne robberies.
A TV documentary series on the investigation into Rackstraw and the secret FBI files is now in early discussions with producers, says Colbert.
And though Rackstraw claimed in his final days that allegations he was DB Cooper were destroying his life, he remained coy to the end.
“They say that I’m him,” said Rackstraw. “If you want to believe it, believe it.”