By Morgan Krakow; The Washington Post, Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Robert W. Rackstraw Sr., the targeted subject in a 2016 History Channel documentary about the unsolved hijacking, was pronounced dead at his San Diego home in the early hours of July 9, according to the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office. The 75-year-old veteran died of a “long-standing heart condition.”
Cooper, known for the takeover of a November 24, 1971 flight bound for Seattle from Portland, Ore., leaped from the plane with $200,000 in stolen cash. Authorities were never able to find Cooper or his body.
It is the longest whodunit of its kind in FBI history and has baffled official and unofficial investigators for decades. Though the agency closed the case in 2016, theories and queries about the identity of Cooper have continued to swirl.
In the late 1970s, the FBI investigated Rackstraw in possible connection with the crime. But a year later, the Seattle Times (above) broke that the California veteran had been “ruled out” without explanation. The next day, a half-dozen field agents working his case told local reporters they were all surprised by the decision.
Court records and American embassy memos released through Wikileaks revealed fugitive Rackstraw had been quietly captured in Iran in 1978 during the last year of the Shah. During questioning, the former Vietnam paratrooper and freelance pilot bragged to note-taking investigators about his black-op missions and colleagues in the CIA.
After landing at JFK Airport, Rackstraw was taken into custody by the FBI. But the Stockton Record reported it didn’t go easy; he “refused” to leave his seat and “had to be carried from the plane.”
Tipped to having similar looks and skill sets as the missing hijacker, an agent asked if he was D.B. Cooper. He immediately “demanded an attorney.”
Months earlier, Rackstraw had fled California authorities to avoid unrelated charges of aircraft theft, possession of illegal explosives and check fraud, according to The Post’s Ian Shapira in 2016. Asked how those charges were resolved, Rackstraw answered, “I was acquitted of everything as I recall.”
Stockton articles, however, report the convicted con-artist was found guilty of four felonies and spent almost two years in state prison. But after release in 1980, he earned a few degrees, taught a law course at a University of California college and later retired to run a boat shop in Coronado Bay.
In 2011, Thomas J. Colbert, a Los Angeles-based police trainer and documentarian, received a solid tip about new Rackstraw evidence. But when the FBI’s Seattle Division later told Colbert they were not interested in revisiting the “cleared” man, he and his partner-wife, Dawna, deployed a volunteer cold case team led by former FBI agents.
Rackstraw previously told The Post’s Shapira and the courts that he was a “homeless disabled veteran.”
But in 2013, Colbert’s armed surveillance team and camera crew went to San Diego to conduct the only face-off with the mystery man. Stakeout photos and family social media postings revealed a posh lifestyle involving a million-dollar condo, motor-home vacations, dog shows, bi-plane rides, black-tie events and a 45-foot yacht called “Poverty Sucks.”
The team’s years-long quest and video footage were featured in a July 2016 History Channel documentary and a book, The Last Master Outlaw, with three national awards for true crime.
Last year, Colbert ended the cold case investigation outside of FBI Headquarters. With team members at his side, the sleuth declared the bureau was “covering up, stonewalling and flat-out lying” about Rackstraw because of his valuable CIA work, before and after the hijacking.
The Central Intelligence Agency didn’t comment about the bold accusation. But Rackstraw did.
A Courthouse News Service journalist who attended the news conference tracked down the San Diegan. When she asked to confirm or deny he was the missing daredevil, the elderly outlaw, for the first time, was unequivocal in his recorded answer:
“There’s no denial whatsoever, my dear.”
Yesterday, one of Colbert’s attorneys reached out to both the Justice Department and the FBI to notify them of Rackstraw’s death. The lawyer then asked that they process and release “all Rackstraw-related documents in the D.B. Cooper investigative file.”
“While I believe he was Cooper,” Colbert said, “he was also a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Our condolences to the family.”
FYI: This cold case hunt wasn’t the stereotypical old guys chasing an old guy. The volunteers were part of a 40-member national task force — from working millennials to retired 80-year-olds — with criminal justice, military, forensic, academic, legal and investigative backgrounds. The mission: to use their 1500 years of experience to reverse-engineer a legend, one dead end at a time. And the long road to the truth ended at the doorsteps of the FBI and CIA. For more, see “Time-Line” link on homepage at DBCooper.com.