Remember the case of D.B. Cooper? The man who hijacked a commercial plane in 1971 going from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, and later parachuted out of it with the ransom money? Yeah, well that unsolved mystery went cold after never being able to find him. There was a full-blown manhunt, but the hijacker was never found, leaving us with one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in U.S history.
The “skyjacker” used the alias Dan Cooper, but with all the news coverage that ensued, a reporter misheard the name as D.B. Cooper. And that’s the name we all became familiar with. America became obsessed, and D.B. Cooper became something of a folk hero, inspiring a number of songs, books, and movies.
But this cold case just got hot again, with some new evidence about his true identity…
On November 24, 1971, a day before Thanksgiving, an ordinary man in his mid-40s and about 6 feet tall bought a $20 ticket (yes, plane tickets used to cost $20…) for Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. He said his name was Dan Cooper.
Soon after takeoff from Portland, he handed a note to one of the flight attendants. On that note, he wrote that he had a bomb in his briefcase. He then started to open the briefcase, which contained wires, red sticks, and a battery. Cooper’s note also had a demand: four parachutes and $200,000 in $20 bills (which would amount to about $1.2 million in today’s economy).
The flight eventually landed in Seattle and Cooper got what he wanted. He released all the 36 passengers when the authorities gave him the money and parachutes. But then he did something that he didn’t request in his ransom note. He forced two pilots, a flight engineer, and a flight attendant to stay on the plane.
The plane was refueled, and he ordered the pilots to fly to Mexico City. He made sure they flew under 10,000 feet and at a speed slower than 200 knots. Around 8:00 PM, between Seattle and Reno, Cooper lowered the rear steps and jumped out. He literally disappeared into thin air.
The FBI started what would become known as “one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations” in its history. They called it the NORJAK (Northwest Hijacking). Initially, the FBI believed that Cooper knew both planes and the area well, and they were pretty sure that he served in the military, maybe even as a paratrooper.
But they later changed their minds. They decided that he was not an experienced skydiver because not only was the jump was just too dangerous, he also failed to notice that his reserve parachute was actually sewn shut for the purpose of training.
Many speculated that Cooper, who wore a business suit, trench coat, and loafers on the flight, didn’t survive the jump. On that day, the winds were more than 200 miles per hour, and the parachute he used couldn’t be steered. And he would have landed in a heavily wooded area.
The FBI kept getting dead end after dead end. Investigators did, however, get a break in 1980 when a boy found a decaying package with $5,800 inside. It was buried by the Columbia River, north of Portland. The money was all $20 bills (like he asked) and the serial numbers of the matched those of the ransom.
But nothing further was discovered. While the FBI continued to receive tips, the case was ultimately closed in 2016, only to be revisited…
A team of former FBI investigators is claiming that they have proof of the real identity of D.B. Cooper. Filmmaker and author Thomas Colbert led an independent investigation into the cold case for the last seven years. According to Colbert, the real Cooper is a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran named Robert Rackstraw.
What’s his proof? He says the evidence is hidden in a series of letters which were allegedly written by Cooper in the months after the hijacking and disappearance. Rackstraw is a former Special Forces paratrooper, explosives expert, and pilot. Rackstraw also has 22 other aliases. The funny thing is, he was once a “person of interest” in the case, but eventually eliminated as a suspect by the FBI in 1979. That elimination was disputed amongst the FBI agents. Rackstraw was, for many, the most viable suspect in the case.
“This has been a cover-up, they’re stonewalling,” Colbert said in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He thinks that the FBI was protecting Rackstraw since he was involved in classified units during the Vietnam War and may have even worked for the CIA. “This is an old fashioned scandal,” Colbert said.
He and his 40-person team, including many former federal agents, say that while the first four letters from Cooper/Rackstraw had been made public, the FBI kept other letters under wraps. That is until Colbert successfully sued to get the Cooper case file under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). What he found was that those hidden letters contain coded messages that point clearly to Rackstraw.
The newspaper Post-Intelligencer contacted Rackstraw, who is currently living in San Diego, last November. They reported that he didn’t confirm or deny anything, just telling the reporter to “verify Colbert’s facts.” While he didn’t give them much information, Rick Sherwood did.
Rick Sherwood is a former member of the Army Security Agency who decoded signals during the Vietnam War. And he cracked the codes in those letters. Rackstraw actually served under Sherwood in two classified units during the war, and Sherwood was familiar with his writing style. He was able to decipher some of his earlier messages.
When Sherwood saw the typewritten letters, he immediately saw how the “odd letter and number combinations” were the same types of coded messages that Rackstraw would send. Sherwood spent weeks working on cracking the code, which referred to three specialized army units where only one soldier served in all three.
Yup, you guessed it: Rackstraw. “He was the only man in the whole American Army with those three units,” Colbert told Seattle Post Intelligencer. “And we know it’s (Robert) Rackstraw.” Although the case was officially closed and deemed unsolved, as far as Colbert was concerned, the case was now solved. He and his team’s work made some headlines too.
But the last letter they looked at was “the icing on the cake,” as Colbert put it…
“I read it two or three times and said, ‘This is Rackstraw, this is what he does,’” Sherwood stated to The New York Daily News. “I noticed he kept on repeating words in his sentences and thought he had a code in there somewhere. He was taunting like he normally does and I thought his name was going to be in it and sure enough the numbers added up perfectly.”
That letter, however, didn’t have any fingerprints or watermarks, so the FBI was never able to confirm a genuine connection to the previous letters. So while it’s limited in its value as evidence, Colbert and Sherwood say it’s the proof they needed – which is a coded confession and the hijacker’s real identity.
Sherwood used codes that only Rackstraw would have known, and he was able to analyze two sentences. The first sentence, “I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” was decoded to, “I want out of the system and saw a way by skyjacking a jet plane.” The second sentence, “And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name,” was decoded to “I am 1st Lt. Robert Rackstraw, D.B. Cooper, is not my real name.”
During the course of the 45-year investigation, the FBI considered more than a thousand “serious suspects,” but everything ended up as circumstantial evidence, and no one was ever implicated. We don’t know if the FBI will reopen the case based on Sherwood’s analysis. When the FBI announced the end of their investigation, they said they would only commit to reviewing new evidence relating to the four parachutes and the money that disappeared. But according to Colbert, the case is closed. “We now have him saying, ‘I am Cooper,’” he told Seattle PI. “Rackstraw is a narcissistic sociopath who never thought he would be caught. He was trying to prove that he was smarter than anyone else. But he couldn’t fight 1500 years of brainpower on our team. We beat him. I didn’t expect it, but it’s the icing.”