Investigators May Have Uncovered the Identity of DB Cooper
A group of 40 civilian investigators claims to have cracked a code that may help reveal the true identity of DB Cooper, nearly 50 years after his daring escape.
The case of DB Cooper remains one of the most fascinating and hotly debated unsolved mysteries in American history, but a group of 40 investigators consisting of former FBI agents, forensic scientists, and private investigators believes they can finally confirm the real identity the man. The new evidence points to 74-year old Vietnam veteran Robert Rackstraw, who currently lives in San Diego and has been considered a possible suspect since at least 1978. Rackstraw, of course, denies the allegations.
The story of DB Cooper began in 1971 when a well-dressed man traveling under the name Dan Cooper boarded a flight in Portland, Oregon bound for Seattle. After ordering a whiskey and soda, the man calmly approached the flight’s crew and told them that he had a bomb hidden onboard, seemingly confirming this by showing them a briefcase containing several cylinders and wires. He then demanded a ransom of $200,000 (a little over $1.2 million in today’s value) upon touchdown in Seattle, along with parachutes and enough fuel to make it to Mexico.
Once the plane landed, the money and parachutes were delivered. Cooper then released the passengers and most of the crew, and the plane then took off again. Somewhere along the way, under the cover of darkness the man known as Cooper parachuted off the plane, never to be seen again.
Cooper quickly captured the imagination of the American public. The money he stole was from a company (and it was insured), no one was hurt, and he was never captured. Many romanticized him as gentleman thief who pulled off a daring robbery more akin to Oceans 11 than Heat, and he has gone down as sort of antihero in American pop culture. There are even annual parties held in his honor.
The FBI investigated the robbery for decades. There were questions about the statute of limitations, as the crime was originally deemed an act of hijacking which carries a five-year statute of limitation. A grand jury later issued an indictment in absentia for “John Doe” for air piracy and violation of the Hobbs Act (extortion), however, meaning Cooper could be arrested and tired at any time. Despite that open-ended indictment, the FBI officially ended its investigation in July 2016 after 45 years.
But while the FBI may have stopped investigating the case of DB Cooper, several amateurs and off duty professionals have spent years – even decades – piecing together clues.
When Cooper and the crew of the 727 he had commandeered left Seattle, it headed roughly southwest toward Mexico by way of Nevada. Shortly after the flight left the ground, he ordered the remaining crew into the cockpit and closed the door, warning them against any deviations or coming back into the plane. Soon after that, the crew received a mechanical indication that the aft staircase had been lowered. They used the intercom to confirm that with Cooper, but he quickly cut them off. Not long after, the plane recorded a significant change in air pressure, consistent with the back door opening. The plane continued on its course, but decided to take the chance and land in Reno, NV. A subsequent search confirmed that Cooper was not on board.
The popular theory was that Cooper parachuted out of the plane minutes after the door opened, which would have put him somewhere in the wooded areas around the Oregon/Washington border. Over the decades investigators – professional and civilian alike – have found pieces of evidence that seem to back that up, including a significant find in 1980 on the Columbia River containing $5,000 in rotting bills that was later confirmed to have been part of the ransom given to Cooper. There has been debate on how that money got there, however, and some believe it was planted.
Initially, the FBI operated under the assumption that Cooper may have died in the landing, as the wooded terrain would have been dangerous to the point of suicidal to attempt a landing in. Another theory, however, is that Cooper deliberately opened the aft door early to convince the crew that he had parachuted off the plane, while actually waiting until they were closer to Reno and the much less dangerous landing zones outside the city. From there he could have easily escaped as the search focused on a much different region of the country. The new evidence doesn’t shed much light on that, but it does add weight to the long-held theory that Rackstraw – who received jump and demolitions training in the Army, and who was confirmed to be in the Pacific Northwest around the time of the incident – is the man behind the myth.
The outlet Seattle Pi recently reported that the group of 40 private investigators obtained five letters through the Freedom of Information Act that were believed to have been sent by Cooper shortly after the robbery. The letters included a series of numbers at the bottom of one of the letters that stumped the FBI. One of the civilian investigators, however, was able to match the sequence to a corresponding code in the LA Times archives. When deciphered the code relates to three US Army units, all three of which Rackstraw served in.
“I think the coding thing is remarkable, but I’m a hard skeptic,” said Dorwin Schreuder, a former FBI agent who spent years officially investigating Cooper. “The circumstances of those codes being what [lead civilian investigator Tom Colbert] says they are, that he says nobody but him would know these units and these figures, if it’s true that’s pretty hard to argue against.”
It might seem brazen for Cooper to send letters after seemingly getting away with it, but that would also fit with Rackstraw’s personality. Despite earning numerous commendations in the Army and rising from the rank of private to lieutenant, Rackstraw was described as a blatant rulebreaker and con artist. He was said to frequently steal his commander’s Jeep and drive it around the base, and he was later forced to resign from the military for lying about his rank, his medals, and his level of education.
When interviewed by the FBI in 1978 he seemed to enjoy the process. When asked point blank if he was DB Cooper, he replied with a smile “I’m afraid of heights.” When pressed, Rackstraw said, “You say with a story like that, should it be fiction or should it be fact? It’s primarily up to the American people someday, how that comes out.”
Rackstraw also left the U.S. after the Cooper incident and headed to Iran. He was extradited back to American soil in 1978 to face explosive possession and check kiting charges, and while on bail he attempted to fake his own death. He even looks like the police sketches of Cooper. No direct evidence was ever found tying Rackstraw to the crime, but he remained a possible suspect.
The FBI hasn’t commented on the recent findings, but it may give Rackstraw another look.