It was easy for D.B. Cooper to vanish in 1971; there were no airport flight screenings, computer background checks, surveillance cameras, cell-phone tracking or CSI crews.
The skyjacker’s decades as a ghost ended in 2011 when a national cold case team, led by former FBI agents, picked up his trail. The 40 volunteers used their combined 1500 years of law enforcement skills to reverse-engineer his escape, one dead end at a time. And at FBI Headquarters in 2018, the investigators identified him to be Robert W. Rackstraw, a retired university instructor from San Diego, California (RIP 7/9/19).
The sleuths’ award-winning book — The Last Master Outlaw — exposes a vastly different man, however, in the 1970s and 80s. So who was Rackstraw, and why is the elite team so sure he was responsible for one of the world’s most notorious crimes?
To find out, see the “Five Fast Facts” article at Heavy.com; for a gripping summary of the 7-year hunt, click on the “About” menu above; and for the latest stunning secrets from the FBI’s court-released Cooper files, read on.
1. His military career was both courageous and “audacious”
Rackstraw began in the National Guard, moved to the Army Reserve, then switched to the Regular Army where, in 1969, he joined the famed 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division in Vietnam. During his seven years of service, Rackstraw climbed the ranks as a Private, Corporal, Sergeant, Warrant Officer (aviator) and First Lieutenant.
When the chopper pilot was off duty, however, former superiors claim he was a rule-breaker, con artist and thief who road around in a stolen commander’s Jeep. Army Captain Gary Moselle (ret.) wrote, “Nothing was too audacious for Bob. One time [while flying], he reported he’d found and machine-gunned an elephant. Disgusting. He was that kind of guy.”
Lieutenant Colonel Ken Overturf (ret.) was asked if Rackstraw had the skills to pull off the high-flying robbery. “He had a basic knowledge and experience in parachuting, he appeared crazy enough to do it and had nothing to lose by trying.”
Wait — does that mean Overturf thinks his former soldier was Cooper?
“I do. Of the potential suspects identified by the FBI, Rackstraw fit the mold best.”
2. FBI first learned of him in 1978
Rackstraw earned more than 30 criminal titles in the 1970s — such as check-forger, car thief, dead-beat dad, vigilante, grifter, identity thief, wife-beater, explosives merchant and violent sociopath.
Holding the California vet for fake identities and local charges in 1978, two Stockton detectives decided to submit his name to federal agents “because there were so many things that seemed to fit,” according to an article in the town’s newspaper, the Record.
Three days after the story published, Rackstraw offered up his own jailhouse interview. The paper wrote he “identifies with the spirit of D.B. Cooper, a person he says had ‘challenged the legal system and beat it.'” The prisoner then oddly switched to the first-person: “I think I stand for the American people, I really do.”
The Record also found out he had admitted to the FBI he was in the Northwest at the time of the skyjacking. That article detail captured the interest of a Los Angeles TV news station, and in a phone call with its staff, Rackstraw shared another tidbit: As a teen-ager, he had been introduced to parachuting by his favorite Arizona uncle — Ed Cooper.
The station received approval for two Stockton sit-downs with the jail inmate in 1979. According to its archived news video, the first reporter asked: “Do you think it’s legit that you could be one of the [Cooper] suspects?”
Rackstraw toyed with him: “Oh yes, if I was an investigator, definitely so. I wouldn’t discount myself… or a person like myself.”
Months later at his court sentencing for local crimes, another TV newsman pushed him for an answer. The convict struck a pondering pose: “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.”
FYI: Rackstraw’s official “someday” came on February 9, 2018, during a reporter phone call propelled by this cold case team’s latest revelations. Pressed by a Courthouse News Service journalist to confirm or deny he was the elusive skyjacker, the four-time felon, now in his mid-seventies, was unequivocal in his answer:
“There’s no denial whatsoever, my dear.”
3. Five months before hijacking, he was booted from Army
According to Pentagon records received through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Rackstraw was compelled to leave his military career in the seventh year because he had lied about his combat record, his true Army rank and faking attendance at two universities (crossed out in red, above). He was in fact a high-school dropout.
For hunt organizer Thomas J. Colbert, that compulsory discharge, months before the jet takeover, suggested the disgraced warrior left with a grudge. Court-released memos confirm the FBI felt the same way; one 1978 agent noted “it was entirely possible, even plausible, [Rackstraw’s documented] anger was at least part of the motive for the hijacking of Northwest Flight 305.” FYI: More in homepage’s 9/17/19 Daily Mail article.
4. He attended paratrooper, explosives and aviation schools
Rackstraw received parachute training at the US Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia; in California, he took microwave engineering classes, scuba lessons and extensive underwater demolition instruction at the Presidio of Monterey; then at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, he attended Special Forces School with the Green Berets where he learned to fly planes, choppers and HALO-jump (High Altitude-Low Open commando drops). All this verified the vet had the unique skill sets that D.B. Cooper was known for.
In Vietnam, pilot Rackstraw received two Distinguished Flying Crosses (military aviation’s highest medal), Bronze and Silver Stars, and 37 air medals. But years later in unrelated court testimony, he falsely claimed to have earned many more — including 5 Southeast Asia Campaign Ribbons (only 1 tour of duty) and 5 Purple Hearts (never was wounded). A former superior told the judge that Rackstraw was “one of the worst lieutenants I’ve ever seen in my 29 years.”
5. His picture has “nine points of match” to Cooper sketch
Colbert’s cold case team dug up many old pictures of Rackstraw, including a forgotten ID photo from his 1970 Army file (above).
In court-released 1978 memos to the FBI director, agents wrote: “Rackstraw has been suggested as a suspect in this matter because he resembles the artist composite. [His] description and the sketch of NORJAK [Cooper] subject are very similar.”
In Chapter 20 of The Last Master Outlaw, a current investigator with South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Jon Campbell, was recently asked for his opinion. He stated: “If you compare the sketch to Rackstraw’s photo, there are nine points of match in the brown eyes, ears, noses, short mouths, frown lines, chins, brows, odd head shapes, and male-pattern baldness. Frankly, it looks like the sketch was traced from his photo.”
The drawing came from an objective passenger, who like the rest, was not informed of the ongoing bomb plot until he was safely off the jet. This key witness, college sophomore Bill Mitchell, was sitting directly across the aisle from Cooper.
Now in his 60’s, the tracked-down Mitchell revealed the FBI had brought him “hundreds” of candidate pictures to review, and he rejected them all. But when one of the team’s retired police detectives presented Mitchell with mug shots of six men to choose from in 2015, the former passenger pointed right at Rackstraw.
*BONUS: Letters & Secret Army-Coded Messages
Two letter trails with different signatures, mailed in the months before and after the 1971 hijacking, appear to have been orchestrated by the same author: Rackstraw.
The first group of envelopes (above-left), eight in all, were written by an alleged Swiss pilot named Norman de Winter, a “vacationing” grifter that over a dozen witnesses from two Oregon towns [and local paper] claim had lived among them for months.
After these con-victims were recently shown a 1979 TV interview with Rackstraw, the residents said his looks and mannerisms fingered him as their Swiss mystery man — a man who happened to have vanished the day before the ’71 jump.
The second group of envelopes (above-right), six in total, held taunting letters from a writer claiming to be the escaped D.B. Cooper. According to FBI memos, “excited” senior agents and Director J. Edgar Hoover himself believed that claim to be true.
In early 2018, one of the volunteer investigators — a three-tour NSA code-buster in Vietnam — found Army encryptions hidden in all of the Cooper letters. Independent experts stated the unmasked messages, such as the two posted above, firmly implicated vet Rackstraw as the author.
Joseph P. Russoniello is a former two-time U.S. attorney, FBI agent and retired dean at the San Francisco Law School. His take on the 7-year hunt: “I have reviewed the new materials and gone back over the original work done by your investigative team. The evidence is clear and convincing that Rackstraw was D.B. Cooper.”
FYI: To learn the coded notes’ secrets and why Rackstraw was never arrested, click on the homepage’s “Time-Line” link (at top of “Latest News” section).
The team’s award-winning book is now being produced by a premium streamer for a 5-part documentary series in 2022. And we couldn’t be more honored. TJC