By Stephanie Linning, for MailOnline; July 13, 2022, Daily Mail
Fake identities, a briefcase full of cash, a mid-flight bomb threat, and a mysterious criminal who disappears into the night, never to be seen again – it sounds like the plot of the latest Hollywood conman caper, but this is actually the extraordinary – but true – case of a man called Dan ‘DB’ Cooper.
The American hijacker, whose real identity was never officially known, took over a plane while it was flying over the United States in 1971 and held the entire flight for ransom – and then somehow escaped by parachuting out of the door mid-air, making off with $200,000 in cash.
While various clues have emerged over the years, there has never been anything concrete enough to bring the case to a close.
One of the only solid hunches about what happened to the missing Cooper was discovered nine years after the incident, in 1980.
A young boy camping with his family on the Tena Bar stretch of the Columbia River, northwest of Vancouver, came across $6,000 of Cooper’s ransom money, bound-together by elastic bands, while he dug a fire pit on the riverbank. The discovery, confirmed by the serial number on the cash, led the FBI to believe that the money, and maybe the skyjacker himself, had washed down river, 18 miles from Cooper’s drop zone and had been buried in the sand ever since.
But that theory was recently thrown into question after scientists analyzed tiny particles of algae that had attached to the notes and suggested that the money had ended up in the river months after Cooper’s flight – leading many to believe that he had survived the drop after all. The rest of Cooper’s ransom money was never found, despite FBI releasing the serial numbers to the public and offering rewards to any who turned in a matching bill.
During the 45-year investigation, officials had a number of ideas about Cooper’s real identity, some of which are featured in the new Netflix show.
The most compelling was arguably Robert W. Rackstraw, a retired pilot and military vet with a murky past, riddled by murder accusations and con-artistry involving 22 identities and 4 felonies.
He had extensive military training, serving in the National Guard, the Reserve, and in one of the most decorated combat divisions in the US Army – the 1st Calvary Division – in Vietnam in 1969.
Six high-ranking military witnesses, however – some of them anonymous – came forward to claim that Rackstraw was granted immunity for his crimes after flying black ops missions for the CIA, for decades – before and after the hijacking. The most recent testimonial, done in shadow, appears on the new program.
Rackstraw was first considered as a suspect seven years after the hijacking in 1978, with federal agents saying ‘so many things’ about him seemed to match the description of Cooper. A senior investigator in South Carolina, Jon Campbell, was asked a few years ago to compare him to the most credible sketch B. He noted, “If you compare the FBI Cooper 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 sketch was traced from his photo.”
Between his resemblance to the drawing, his military training, and his criminal record, law enforcement was suspicious of Rackstraw, who died in 2019. But Colbert, with a 40-member volunteer cold case team known as The Case Breakers, pointed the finger of blame at Rackstraw again in June 2018. Wielding a decrypted coded letter sent to the Portland Oregonian newspaper at the time, the sleuths alleged it showed him admitting that he was Cooper.
Five other secret Cooper letters, secured through a half-year court battle with the FBI, had similar hidden messages — one naming Rackstraw’s specialized Army units, some top secret for years.
“Nobody even knew about the messages in the letters until our ‘Nam guys looked at them,” Colbert told the NY Daily News.
Investigators questioned Rackstraw about the Cooper case in 1978, and eliminated him as a suspect the following year. But when Colbert first publicly named and linked Rackstraw to the hijacking, the veteran’s lawyer called the accusations ‘the stupidest thing I ever heard.’
The team organizer officially closed the investigation in front of FBI Headquarters in 2018, where he and a handful of members stated the FBI was “covering up, stonewalling and flat-out lying” about Rackstraw’s flying for the CIA.
A week later, a CNS court reporter phoned Rackstraw to confirm or deny he was Cooper. The elderly outlaw was unequivocal: “There’s no denial whatsoever, my dear.”
Colbert’s Case Breakers have documented this 10-year quest in the only award-winning hijacker book, The Last Master Outlaw – now in second addition. The organizer notes that it “has the highest number of 5-star reviews on Amazon – now at 157. And it’s all due to these heroes and of course, co-writer Tom Szollosi.”