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Artist sketches of D.B. Cooper. (Images: Courtesy of FBI)

Among American cold cases, the D.B. Cooper mystery is unique, both in circumstance and in its grip on the national imagination.

A skyway robber got away with the money by jumping out a plane into the darkened night sky—and then eluded the FBI, who closed the case without getting their man after a decades-long hunt. 

Suspects have come and gone, and new ones have continually arisen. One Vietnam veteran, now 74 and retired, was accused in a book and movie two years ago—and was again named this week with FBI files unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act.

But is he really Cooper? The veteran spoke to Forensic Magazine in a Friday interview to blast his accusers—and said he’s going to sort things out in court.

What persists: the mystery.

AN INFAMOUS SKYJACKING

A man dressed like a business executive hijacked a plane in the Pacific Northwest the day before Thanksgiving, 1971, with a suitcase he claimed was a bomb. He secured a $200,000 ransom and a parachute, and then jumped out into the night, without ever being caught. To some, he was a ruthless criminal, to others a kind of countercultural folk hero.

Possible candidates for the infamous skyjacker have been suggested continually over the last half century.

Just last month, an author published a book claiming his best friend had been Cooper all along. Advanced forensic testing has been collected and analyzed in the case, but the robber left behind scant trace evidence that could effectively narrow down the list of suspects. The FBI closed the case for good in 2016.

ONE THEORY, ONE BOOK, ONE MOVIE

Another theory, made in a book and documentary that same year, suggested that a man living in retirement in San Diego ducked authorities for decades. The author and filmmaker says he has new proof from FBI files.

Tom Colbert, an author and filmmaker, made the allegations in 2016. He now says he has more proof: FBI memos written in the aftermath of the skyjacking in 1971 and 1972 and obtained by by Colbert through FOIA.

Colbert’s 2016 book “The Last Master Outlaw,” and a contemporaneous History Channel documentary first identified Robert W. Rackstraw, now 74, as the potential suspect. Colbert and his team say the new federal documents have a code in which Rackstraw names himself as the robber.

Rackstraw, a former Army paratrooper, was cleared by the FBI as a Cooper suspect in 1979. He has continually declined comment about the accusations in the years since his name has reemerged in connection with the 1971 heist.

AN INTERVIEW

Rackstraw spoke by phone Friday morning.

When asked if the FBI had contacted him with accusations since being publicly cleared by the agency in 1979, Rackstraw had a short answer.

“Classified,” he said. “I’m not talking to you from a jail cell, if you put it that way.”

Rackstraw said he is pursuing legal avenues—a defamation per-se case, and co-conspiracy charges against Colbert.

“Colbert and his attorney friends are in deep doo-doo, and it just keeps getting deeper and deeper,” he said. “As a result, I guess we’re going to go with Gloria Allred. We’re putting it together.”

(Gloria Allred told Forensic Magazine by email she would not comment on who contacts the firm, or who the firm takes or doesn’t take as a client.)

The 2016 documentary resulted in History Channel sponsors calling Rackstraw’s home, and uncertainty about their support of the network, Rackstraw said.

“He kind of made a fool of the History Channel, didn’t he?” said Rackstraw. “Yeah, he really burned them … he really pulled a boondoggle on them, and they’re not too happy.”

The new code allegations were something he was aware of—and they related to the investigation back 40 and more years ago, Rackstraw said.

“I had heard something about it,” he said. “The FBI showed me a bunch of stuff back in the 1970s.”

THE LETTERS, A CODE?

Colbert says he has put together 40 volunteers, many of them former FBI agents, who reviewed six letters potentially connected to the Cooper case.

Colbert recruited Rick Sherwood, a Vietnam veteran who was a senior codebreaker for the Army Security Agency. Sherwood had been Rackstraw’s superior officer.

His conclusion: a series of strangely-worded phrases in the D.B. Cooper letters actually spell out Rackstraw’s name. The FBI agents would have not known what they were looking for in the 1970s, Sherwood concluded.

“It would have made no sense to them,” Sherwood said, in a statement from the team. “For the agents to do it, they’d have to know a lot about the individual and our units.”

The ciphers in the letters allegedly identify the military units that Rackstraw served in: the 371st Radio Research Unit, and the 11th General Support Company—as well as the Army Security Agency.

But the sixth letter, from March 28, 1972, and sent to the Oregonian newspaper, contained even more information.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” it reads. “(And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Translated, using a 1950 Army cryptography, it is decoded to a startling message, according to Colbert and his team:

“I want out of the system and saw a way by sky-jacking a jet plane,” it reads. “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw, D.B. Cooper is not my real name.”

Could the messages be a coincidence that was identified only once they had focused in on Rackstraw? Sherwood says potentially—but not likely.

“It’s not impossible,” Sherwood told The Oregonian newspaper earlier this year. “But what are the odds these digits would add up to these three Rackstraw units? Astronomical. A million to one. Rackstraw didn’t think anyone would be able to break it.”

Rackstraw, for his part, dismissed Colbert—“he’s costing the taxpayers a lot of money”—and also his former Army colleague Sherwood.

“The other guy—it’s kind of interesting that he said that,” he said.

But he does have respect for how good investigators were in the 1970s, he said.

"The old FBI was very, very thorough,” he said. “Way back when—full faith and credit in an agency like that. They were very, very, very good. I would say that they still are ... probably a lot of them are gritting their teeth at what’s going on currently with their top end—their upper management.”

As for the coming defamation court battles, the outcome will remain to be seen, Rackstraw added.

“All off that stuff is up in the air,” he said.

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