(CN) – Triggering a collective of citizen sleuths known as Cooperites to
circle the wagons, a team of private investigators says their
code-breaker has definitively identified the man who hijacked a
commercial plane in 1971 and parachuted off with a $200,00 ransom, never
to be seen again.
criminal investigation is finished,” said Thomas Colbert, a journalist
and film producer who assembled the 40-member team. “We have the man, we
know who he is.”
on Feb. 1 outside of FBI headquarters in Washington, the team said their
decryption of several letters sent to newspapers in the days following
the skyjacking confirm what they have believed for several years: that
D.B. Cooper is Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., a Vietnam war veteran and former
U.S. Army paratrooper now living near San Diego.
name actually came up in the Cooper investigation in the 1970s, and the
connection was spurred on in part by his oblique reply to a NBC News
reporter’s on-camera query. “I’m afraid of heights,” the former
paratrooper replied with a smile. “Could have been. Could have been. I
can’t commit myself on something like that.”
included the clip in a 2016 History Channel documentary of his earlier
findings, but the Washington Post quoted D.B. Cooper authority Geoffrey
Gray that year as saying Rackstraw was never a serious suspect.
has often denied that he is D.B. Cooper, but after Colbert’s Feb. 1
announcement he questioned why he should have to.
no denial whatsoever, my dear,” the 74-year-old Rackstraw said in
a phone interview.
Colbert’s investigative team, he added: “Have them sign under the
penalty of perjury that everything they stated was true.”
longtime attorney Dennis Roberts did not return a voice message seeking
FBI, which closed its investigation in 2016, has not announced plans to
reopen the still-unsolved case.
the name D.B. Cooper has taken on folk-hero status, it stems from a
misidentification by the Associated Press in its initial reporting of
the Nov. 24, 1971, hijacking of Northwest Orient Flight 305.
Boeing 727 was taking off from Portland, Oregon, when a passenger who
used the alias Dan Cooper passed a note to a flight attendant that
demanded parachutes and $200,000, saying he had a bomb.
the aircraft landed as scheduled in Seattle, Cooper traded the
passengers for the ransom, then directed the pilots to fly to Mexico.
plane was flying at Cooper’s requested 10,000 feet when he opened its
rear staircase and parachuted out somewhere over the Pacific Northwest
with the cash.
the days following the hijacking, as the the largest manhunt in U.S.
history turned up few leads, several newspapers received four mysterious
letters. Only one was handwritten, but all are signed by D.B. Cooper.
Sherwood, a code-breaker on Colbert’s team, said the first letter, sent
on Nov. 27, 1971, contains a hidden message taunting the FBI.
of cutout words and letters, the scrap of paper says “Attention!” and
“Thanks for Hospitality,” followed by “Was In A Rut.”
Sherwood, those words contain two secret messages, “CAN FBI CATCH ME”
and “SWS.” He said SWS stands for the Special Warfare School, where
Rackstraw would have learned the secret coding contained in the letters.
a veteran of the Army Security Agency – a precursor to the National
Security Agency that specialized in signals intelligence – Sherwood is
familiar with the school because it’s where he learned the same coding.
the Vietnam war, Sherwood served in the Army Security Agency’s
signal-tracing chopper program called Project Left Bank. He said
Rackstraw served briefly in his unit, but that he did not know Rackstraw
cold-case team found Rackstraw’s initials, RWR, and a reference to
Rackstraw’s CIA ties in the coded message of the second D.B. Cooper
missive. This note was sent in handwritten block letters on Nov. 30,
representative for the CIA declined to comment on whether Rackstraw had
ties to the agency.
team believes that D.B. Cooper sent the next letter on Dec. 1. 1971, to
convey a message to his three accomplices.
also said the initials for one of Rackstraw’s training units, the
National Guard Jump School, is found upon decoding the fourth letter.
FBI kept a fifth letter about Cooper under wraps for decades before
Colbert and his national-security attorney Mark Zaid unearthed it last
year with a successful challenge under the Freedom of Information Act.
Sherwood said a random string of numbers and letters at the bottom
of the letter contained a reference to the Army Security Agency, his
hill-top unit and Rackstraw’s first Vietnam unit.
News went over Sherwood’s decoding methodology in a phone interview on
the condition that it remain confidential since it will form a key part
of the next D.B. Cooper documentary Colbert is producing.
did note, however, that military codes are not made to be broken. In
order to crack one, you need to know something about the individual who
created it. Because of that, as he worked on deciphering any hidden
messages in the letters, he had Rackstraw in mind.
emphasized that the chances are slim that he just saw something he
wanted to see that pointed to Rackstraw.
he in fact did not do it, then I wouldn’t have been able to match almost
every word to his units,” Sherwood said. “It would have never added up.
Because I knew every unit and I was in those units.”
& THE BUREAU
Cooperites have proved almost as reluctant as the FBI meanwhile to get
on board with Colbert’s team.
do not believe that any of the letters signed ‘DB Cooper’ are from the
skyjacker, and Colbert does not offer substantial proof that any of them
are,” said Bruce Smith, a former investigative reporter who
self-published a book on D.B. Cooper in 2016.
has maintained, however, that the fifth D.B. Cooper letter contains
information that only the hijacker and the FBI would know.
example, it says that Cooper left no fingerprints behind, and that he
wore a toupee and putty makeup during the hijacking.
Smith waved off Colbert’s findings as “quirky circumstantial evidence,”
he said the material might inch Cooperites closer to the truth.
me, the evidence points to someone from Vietnam with covert commando
training, with a high likelihood that he was a former smokejumper, too,”
Smith said in an interview.
and his attorney Zaid also have a theory about why the FBI failed to act
on more than 100 pieces of additional evidence they provided, including
samples from a dig site where they believe they found pieces of Cooper’s
parachute along with part of the ransom money.
do think now, having identified this individual, that the FBI is frankly
embarrassed that they let him slip through their grasp back in the late
’70s,” attorney Zaid said during the Feb. 1 press conference.
FBI put the D.B. Cooper investigation on the back burner in 2016, but
public information officer Ayn Dietrich-Williams with the FBI’s Seattle
Field Office said any physical items sent the bureau are reviewed and
given an appropriate follow-up.
FBI continues to receive tips from members of the public, but none to
date have resulted in a definitive identification of the hijacker,”
Dietrich-Williams said in an email. “The tips have conveyed plausible
theories, descriptive information about individuals potentially matching
the hijacker, and anecdotes — to include accounts of sudden, unexplained
wealth. In order to solve a case, the FBI must prove culpability beyond
a reasonable doubt, and, unfortunately, none of the well-meaning tips or
applications of new investigative technology have yielded the necessary
noted in another email that the FBI does not necessarily provide updates
to tipsters, who may be unaware of any actions the agency takes based on