Investigators say D.B. Cooper letter confirms suspect, FBI cover-up
SEATTLE (KOMO News/SBG) - It's the case that won't go away.
The only unsolved case of skyjacking in U.S. history remains unsolved, but a team of investigators is confident they have identified the culprit, his co-conspirators, and new evidence covered up by the FBI for 46 years.
A 40-member cold-case team led by filmmaker and author Tom Colbert has been hot on the case for several years, and after a recent suit to obtain public records, the team got its hands on a fifth letter, allegedly sent by Cooper to The Seattle Times and other newspapers in the weeks following the incident.
The letter confirms the team's suspect is correct and that the FBI has worked to hide the evidence for decades, Colbert said.
"This letter proves to me that there's been a cover-up and continues to be a cover-up on this case," Colbert told SeattlePI.
Colbert's team, comprised of former law enforcement officers and several former FBI agents, previously identified Robert W. Rackstraw, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran now living in San Diego, as the man they believe to be Cooper.
Rackstraw was a suspect for the hijacking in the late 1970s, but formal charges were never pursued.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Rackstraw had little to say about the allegations, other than to suggest the reporter verify Colbert's claims.
The FBI wouldn't comment on whether it's taking any action in the Cooper case, but did reiterate its earlier commitment to review any physical evidence brought forward in the case.
"In July 2016, the FBI redirected resources allocated to the D.B. Cooper (NORJAK) case in order to focus on other investigative priorities," said Ayn Dietrich-Williams, public affairs officer with the bureau's Seattle field office, in an emailed statement. "However, we asked that individuals contact the FBI if physical evidence emerges related specifically to the parachutes or the money taken by the hijacker. It would be inappropriate to comment on any specific tips provided to us in this case, however our continued posture is to review any physical items provided and pursue follow-up actions, as appropriate."
One member of Colbert's team, a former FBI special agent named Ron Hilley, wasn't ready to call the letter and other actions of the bureau a cover-up, but told said he believes the FBI simply wasn't ready to expend more resources on a case that old.
The newly released letter -- mailed to The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the New York Times 17 days after the hijacking -- and FBI memos about it show the letter was considered a serious clue by the bureau and that the FBI believed Cooper was still alive. Colbert's team believes facts in the letter could only have been known by the real Cooper at the time.
"I knew from the start that I wouldn't be caught," the letter begins.
Mystery from the start
The mystery began on Nov. 24, 1971 when a man calling himself Dan Cooper bought a one-way ticket on Northwest Orient Airlines from Portland to Seattle. Once aboard the Boeing 727, he slipped a note to the flight attendant saying he had a bomb and that he wanted $200,000 and four parachutes, as well as a refueling truck ready when they landed in Seattle.
In Seattle, the man exchanged the passengers for the ransom money and the plane took off, headed for Mexico. Somewhere over southwest Washington, Cooper jumped out the rear stair door of the plane and was never seen again.
Five letters, sent allegedly by Cooper to newspapers from several locations up and down the West Coast, were collected by the FBI. Four were reported at the time, but the fifth, the only typewritten letter, was not revealed at the time. Those letters were the last anyone heard from Cooper.
The only verifiable evidence ever found was a small cache of $20 bills found near the Columbia River in 1980.
The FBI officially stopped pursuing the case in 2016 but said it would review any physical evidence of the parachutes or the money that turned up. It remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in the U.S.
Colbert and his team are far from the only ones who have pursued the Cooper case independent of the FBI, but Colbert, who was featured in a 2016 History Channel special that focused on his team's research, has drawn the most attention in recent years.
Earlier this year, Colbert and his team headed to a site in the foothills of the Cascades of southern Washington or northern Oregon (he isn't releasing the specific location) following leads from a second-hand story about Cooper's getaway.
The story Colbert heard eventually led him to believe firmly that Rackstraw was the most likely suspect, something Colbert documented in the book "The Last Master Outlaw," and on the website he and his wife Dawna run together, DBCooper.com.
With a bit of digging in a specific location, the team found bits of a strap and foam they think is part of Cooper's parachute, buried at the site before Cooper left in another plane with a helper.
The synopsis of the story, told to one Russ Cooper by a pilot named Wally is as follows, from a background provided by Colbert:
"On Nov. 24, 1971, the pilot's small Cessna was circling after 8 p.m. when the slow-moving Northwest airliner broke through the storm clouds and rain. Minutes later, the pilot spotted a truck's blinking headlights below, a signal that the daredevil had touched down and rendezvoused with two other partners. All their practiced air-to-ground coordination paid off; the jumper missed the selected drop zone by only 1,300 feet. The flyer's two-seater aircraft then swooped toward nearby Goheen Airstrip to await the arrival of the vehicle and Cooper.
"When the three men pulled up to the idling Cessna, the hijacker crawled inside with his briefcase bomb and $50,000 of the jet ransom. The remaining $150,000 and parachute were driven away by the two others to be buried. Flying 'below the radar,' the pilot and Cooper followed three rivers to Vancouver Lake where the alleged $50,000 and briefcase bomb were unceremoniously dumped - with the hopes, Wally explained, that it would lead authorities to think Cooper had drowned. The money and briefcase instead sank into the lake's notorious deep mud - which happens to be right next door to the Columbia River's Tena Bar.
"(Colbert's team) now suspects the hijack money that was 'discovered' there in 1980 was Cooper's second attempt at a drowning stunt. The pilot and skyjacker then flew to Oregon's Scappoose Airstrip where they transferred everything into another small plane. Storyteller Wally noted this was when Cooper changed out of his business suit."
The fifth letter Colbert obtained appears to be a genuine Cooper letter, as several things noted in the letter -- a lack of fingerprints, suspicion of Cooper wearing a hairpiece and possibly makeup and more -- were accurate but not known publicly at the time, Colbert said. Add on that two of the five letters were mailed near Rackstraw's family home in California and things point squarely toward the team's theory, Colbert said.
Colbert said the evidence found at the remote dig site falls squarely within the parameters of what the FBI said it would review. He expected the FBI to follow up with the dig site and the two co-conspirators Colbert's team named to the bureau.
The thing is, the FBI doesn't seem to have made any moves at all.
"We sent five pieces to the bureau, we sent two suspects," Colbert said. "That was three months ago, we haven't heard a thing since."
But it's not just the FBI's inaction on this one piece that has led Colbert to think the story is being quashed. He's compiled a list of the reasons he believes its a cover-up, including the following:
- The apparent redaction of the name "D.B. Cooper" from one of the documents recently released by the FBI;
- According to Colbert, the FBI didn't investigate stories of a con artist who went by the name Baron Norman de Winter, claimed he was from Switzerland and lived in Astoria and another Oregon town for several months right before the hijacking;
- The money found along the Columbia River was supposedly a plant coordinated with the family that found it, according to Colbert's research, but the shards of money found deeper in the sand didn't match the money on top. That's because, according to Colbert, it came from the $50,000 that was tossed into Vancouver Lake after the heist. The FBI didn't publicly follow up on this, Colbert said.
Several other items Colbert said are evidence of Rackstraw's link have been refused by the FBI, as well. He believes the FBI is afraid of being "shamed in court" by Colbert's private team piecing together the nearly five-decade-old case.
"It would be an incredible embarrassment that our volunteer team was able to find evidence on the man they couldn't," he said.
But Dorwin Schreuder, an FBI veteran who became involved with the Cooper case when the money was found in 1980, said that's got nothing to do with it.
Schreuder doesn't think the FBI is worried about any embarrassment from Colbert's team or otherwise. Instead, Colbert's case takes too many "leaps of faith" for the FBI to commit resources to pursuing it.
"I think that if I was the prosecutor, or even agent-in-charge, there are some horrendous weak spots in Tom's theory," Schreuder said.
Schreuder has consulted with Colbert about the case several times, and said he thinks Colbert's suspect, Rackstraw, is still the mostly likely one out there. But much of Colbert's case is circumstantial without finding the parachute and more Cooper money and having a solid link back to Rackstraw -- or any suspect, he said.
"He can't really connect the dots," Schreuder said. "He's got all this good information about Rackstraw, which I think is credible...but he cannot without a leap of faith, connect Rackstraw to that money on the bank (of the Columbia River)."
Meanwhile, Hilley, part of Colbert's cold case team and a 25-year veteran of the FBI, is convinced that the FBI hasn't tried to cover anything up; the bureau just doesn't want to waste resources on an old case with little to gain. Over the years, the FBI looked at more than 1,000 suspects for the case, but none could be tied to the hijacking, including Rackstraw.
Keeping the fifth letter from the public wasn't a sign of a cover-up, he said. That's just the way the FBI does business.
"The FBI holds everything they have tighter than you've held anything in your life," Hilley said. "But my belief is that the FBI has closed the case...and they're just not going to go back and do anything else."
Hilley said he thinks the case assembled by the rest of Colbert's team will be rock solid once someone -- the FBI or Colbert's team -- digs up the rest of the remote site and finds the rest of a parachute that can be proven to be Cooper's.
While Schreuder said he thinks Colbert has gotten too focused on Rackstraw and so has found connections he wants to find to support his theory, Hilley saw it the other way around.
"When you get the right person...every piece of evidence will point at them because they did it," Hilley said. "If you look at the entire investigation that Tom's team has done, there's no way in hell that you could say it's not (Rackstraw)."