A team of former FBI investigators is claiming to have proof of the real identity of D.B. Cooper, the notorious airplane hijacker who has remained at large since he parachuted out of a Seattle-bound plane with $200,000 in November 1971. According to filmmaker and author Thomas Colbert – who has led the independent investigation into the cold case for the last seven years – the real Cooper is a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran named Robert Rackstraw. And the proof is hidden in a series of letters allegedly written by Cooper in the months after the hijacking and his disappearance.
Rackstraw – a former Special Forces paratrooper, explosives expert and pilot with about 22 different aliases – was once a person of interest in the case, but was eliminated as a suspect by the FBI in 1979. His elimination was controversial amongst the investigating agents, and he remained, for many, the most viable suspect in what remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in the United States. In 2016, the FBI announced they were ending their investigation into the case.
“This has been a cover up, they’re stonewalling,” Colbert told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He believes that the FBI protected Rackstraw because he was involved in numerous classified units during the war and may have worked for the CIA. “This is an old fashioned scandal,” he said. (A rep for FBI’s Seattle field office told Rolling Stone that they have received “an immense number” of tips over the years, but “none to date have resulted in a definitive identification of the hijacker.” They did not respond to a request for comment on whether the FBI stonewalled an investigation into Rackstraw.)
Colbert and his 40-person team, many of whom are former federal agents, say D.B. Cooper’s identity has been in the FBI’s file all along, hidden in a series of letters sent to various newspapers in the months after the hijacking. While the first four letters had been made public, the FBI kept a fifth and sixth letter under wraps, until Colbert successfully sued for the Cooper case file under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Colbert claims both letters contain coded messages that point directly at Rackstraw. According to the Post-Intelligencer, the newspaper contacted Rackstraw – who is currently living in San Diego – last November. They wrote that he did not confirm or deny anything, telling the reporter to “verify Colbert’s facts.”
Rick Sherwood – a former member of the Army Security Agency, which decoded signals during the Vietnam War – cracked the codes. Rackstraw served under Sherwood in two classified units, and Sherwood was familiar with his writing style having deciphered some of his earlier messages. When he saw the fifth and sixth typewritten letters, he immediately thought the “odd letter and number combinations” were indicative of the type of coded message that Rackstraw would send. According to the Post-Intelligencer, Sherwood spent weeks working on the solution, which allegedly referred to three specialized army units that just one soldier had served in.
“He was the only man in the whole American Army with those three units,” Colbert told Seattle PI. “And we know it’s (Robert) Rackstraw.”
As far as Colbert was concerned, the case had already been closed; in February, he and his team briefly made headlines when they released Sherwood’s analysis of the fifth letter, and officially fingered Rackstraw as D.B. Cooper. But the sixth letter, sent to Portland’s Oregonian newspaper in March 1972, turned out to be even more damning – “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 told 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.”
This letter, however, does not have any fingerprints or watermarks, and the FBI was never able to confirm a genuine connection to the previous Cooper letters, which limits its evidentiary value. Which is a bummer, because according to Colbert and Sherwood, it contains a coded confession and the hijacker’s real identity.
Using codes that only Rackstraw would have known, Sherwood honed in on two sentences for analysis. 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.” And 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.”
Over the course of their 45-year investigation, the FBI considered over a thousand “serious suspects,” but nothing more than circumstantial evidence ever implicated any of them. The last “new” suspect to be linked to the case was the fictional character of Don Draper, from AMC’s Mad Men. For years, fans speculated that Draper would turn out to be D.B. Cooper, a theory that never came to fruition.
It’s unclear whether the FBI will reopen the case based on Sherwood’s analysis of letters they’ve had for over four decades. Back in 2016, upon announcing the end of their investigation, the agency would only commit to reviewing new evidence related to the four parachutes and the money that disappeared along with the mysterious hijacker. But as far as Colbert is concerned, this cold case is officially closed.
“We now have him saying, ‘I am Cooper,’” Colbert 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.”
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a response from the FBI.