By Gretchen Wenner; Ventura County Star Edition; August 22,
When a 75-year-old grandfather passed away last month of natural causes in his San Diego condominium, a cadre of amateur sleuths took note.
So did a certain Ventura County resident.
The dead man, a Vietnam-era Army helicopter pilot and paratrooper named Robert W. Rackstraw, was among many characters suspected of being the legendary D.B. Cooper. In 1971, the skyjacker jumped out of a Boeing 727 over southern Washington state with $200,000 in ransom money, then vanished. The case remains “one of the great unsolved mysteries in FBI history,” the agency has said.
Rackstraw’s purported link to the famous crime became high-profile in recent years, thanks to the efforts of Thomas J. Colbert, a 62-year-old Newbury Park film and TV producer.
Colbert got hooked on the case in 2011 through a tip from an old news colleague. It soon led him to Rackstraw, and Colbert’s subsequent investigation involved a volunteer cold-case team that boasted 13 retired FBI personnel.
Those efforts peaked in 2016 with a History Channel program, “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed,” with Colbert credited as a consulting executive producer. His award-winning life narrative about Rackstraw and the investigation, “The Last Master Outlaw,” co-written with Tom Szollosi, was also released that year.
The FBI formally shut down its investigation in July 2016, shortly before the documentary aired.
In 2017, when Colbert’s team dug up materials that he believes may be part of the skyjacker’s missing parachute, the FBI accepted five small samples. The Bureau has stayed mum ever since.
Colbert continued making headlines last year with claims of finding an Army-coded Rackstraw “confession” in one of six taunting Cooper notes (Below), all released by the FBI through a federal judge’s order. Colbert now asserts the FBI has known for decades that Rackstraw was the skyjacker, but has guarded the secret because he was a CIA black ops pilot, before and after the hijacking.
“A lot of people have asked me: How do you look back at it now?” Colbert said during a recent interview at a Camarillo restaurant after Rackstraw’s death.
He said critics accused him of being too focused on Rackstraw. The former CBS newsman admitted to being “front and center” on him until 2013, when a team member briefly confronted the man on camera in San Diego.
But “sadly, by 2014, my focus and biggest adversary became the FBI,” Colbert said.
After the Bureau negotiated with History Channel to have its agents participate in the 2016 doc, the team’s top 18 pieces of circumstantial evidence were reportedly “gutted” from the final show, without explanation.
Colbert says he also has strong evidence the FBI has actively squelched national TV news about Rackstraw’s purported involvement, for decades. “Look, my team wasn’t in the business of legends or conspiracies. But there were in fact three recent stories on him that were spiked by networks,” he said. “Killed. After being shot and readied to be put on the air. We can’t explain that.”
Colbert received access to the sealed Cooper archive in 2016 by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit against the FBI, and he continues to receive hundreds of pages, heavily redacted, each month. Rackstraw’s death means certain court records aren’t protected anymore under privacy rules and they should now be made available, Colbert said. He expects the first batch at the end of August.
“This is a 40-year embarrassment. Former military-intel commanders now tell us this has been covered up all this time because the FBI made a deal with the CIA not to put D.B. Cooper in a jail cell.”
The Bureau’s Seattle office provided the agency’s standard response via email when asked for an update on the case, including whether Rackstraw had been a suspect and whether they had looked at Colbert’s samples of possible parachute material. “During the 45-year NORJAK investigation, the FBI exhaustively reviewed countless credible leads … and interviewed all identified witnesses,” the email stated. “Out of respect for the privacy of individuals considered during that exhaustive investigation, the FBI does not discuss their identities.”
For Colbert’s part, he closed the team’s investigation in February 2018 outside of FBI Headquarters (Left, with team members), starting the news conference with his team’s conclusion: “The FBI is covering up, stonewalling and flat-out lying about Rackstraw’s Cooper identity because he was a black-ops pilot for the Central Intelligence Agency.”
The producer has unreleased footage on his website, DBCooper.com, if someone comes looking. More monthly FOIA documents and articles are in the pipeline, but his attention is elsewhere.
FYI: Colbert plans to return to his former job of connecting creative folks in TV, film and streaming with real-life tales from a private network of hundreds of reporters. Since the 1990s, the journalists have trusted him with maintaining an off-the-grid news library bank with thousands of their best stories, searchable by more than 100 categories. He often works with his wife, Dawna, on such development projects; more than two dozen of their discoveries have reportedly reached the big/small screens and publishing.
For example, the 2012 movie “THE VOW” (Left: couple with star Channing Tatum at premiere), came from a 1996 New Mexico article in their bank. The film is based on the true story of a husband who re-woos his wife after a car accident erased her memories of him.
Thousands of such tales beckon. “I’m eager to get back in the game,” Thomas Colbert said.
ATTENTION: DOCUMENTARY & MOVIE-MAKERS (2019)
Court-released FBI records, along with supporting documents from retired military-intel commanders, collectively conclude the missing ’71 hijacker was Robert W. Rackstraw Sr. (R.I.P., 7/9/19).
After we closed our investigation at a 2018 news conference outside FBI Headquarters, the race was on for the story rights. As one senior WME agent put it to my manager, Michael B. London: “We know Tom solved it.”
Hollywood, however, went directly to Rackstraw. Sources tell us he was given a private jet-ride in for a confidential meet-and-greet with leading producers, studios and streamers. I fortunately was fully prepared for this end-run, thanks to our cold case team.
Rackstraw’s negotiations fizzled because: 1) he was the polar opposite of the folk hero many imagined; 2) our new case details and evidence have been copyrighted – including his Vietnam missions, the hijack getaway with partners, the Cooper money river ruse, the parachute recovery, the decrypting of Army-coded Cooper messages and his CIA history; finally, 3) when he traded an FBI prison cell for years of black ops work, fed officials warned the contractor he’d be re-incarcerated if he ever went public. It was the fear of that secret “John Doe indictment” that ultimately kept him from signing a Cooper deal.
Our surveillance team first heard his fear in 2013; that’s why we’re grateful to the hundreds (including relatives) who helped us document Rackstraw’s breathtaking life narrative – featuring 22 fake identities, six careers, three families and multiple mistresses in five countries.
Now with three national book awards for true crime, THE LAST MASTER OUTLAW holds the ripcord to one of the world’s greatest adventures never told. And we couldn’t be more honored. TJC