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 case. But a year later, the agency “ruled out” the veteran without explanation, according to a Seattle Times article.
American embassy records released through Wikileaks revealed the fugitive had been quietly captured in Iran in 1978 during the last year of the Shah.
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.”
When asked if he was D.B. Cooper, he “demanded an attorney.”
Months earlier, Rackstraw had fled California authorities to avoid unrelated charges of aircraft theft, possession of 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.”
Old 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, California.
In 2011, Thomas J. Colbert, a Los Angeles-based police trainer and documentary producer, received a solid tip about new Rackstraw evidence. But when the FBI’s Seattle Division later told him they were not interested in revisiting the “cleared” man, Colbert and his wife, Dawna, deployed a volunteer cold case team, led by former FBI agents, to track him down.
Rackstraw previously told The Post 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 first and 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 with three national awards for true crime.
Colbert’s attorney, D.C.-based Mark Zaid, said Rackstraw “would always sort of go up to the line and sometimes cross it as far as admitting he was D.B. Cooper, and then he would just joke about it.”
Last year, however, Rackstraw wasn’t joking during a conversation with a reporter from Courthouse News Service. When she asked to either 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.”
Zaid said he just reached out to both the Justice Department and the FBI to notify them of Rackstraw’s death. He said he 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: Our cold case hunt wasn’t the stereotypical old guys chasing an old guy. It was a 40-member national task force of volunteers — 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 sadly, the long road to the truth ended at the FBI’s doorstep. See “The Smoking Gun” link for the stunning details and evidence. TJC