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Crime News Buried in the Backyard

California Man Found Buried On His Property Was Shot Twice in the Back of His Head

Investigators searching for a missing widow get caught up with the federal hunt for notorious skyjacker D.B. Cooper.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

In February 1978, law enforcement in Calaveras County, California made a grim discovery on the property of a man who’d vanished over six months earlier.

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In a shallow grave they found the body of 50-year-old Phillip Rackstraw. “It looked like he had been kneeling in one end of the hole and then fell over,” Shannon Van Zant, Calaveras County archivist, told Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.

By this time, the missing persons case had, in a shocking twist, overlapped with an infamous federal investigation. No one saw that coming.

The Search for Phillip Rackshaw

In 1977, Phillip, who ran a construction business in Valley Springs, California, faced a personal tragedy when his wife, Lucille, died from cancer.

The couple had a happy family. Lucille’s children, Robert and Linda, even took Phillip’s last name. After serving in the Army in Vietnam, Robert worked with Phillip at his construction company, while Linda married and settled in Stockton, California with her family.

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“Phillip had a big support base that helped him get through a difficult time,” said private investigator Jack Immendorf. 

His neighbors, Ben and Louise Brooks, introduced Phillip to her sister, Marjorie. In late July 1977, Phillip and Marjorie had planned a celebration to announce that they were dating.

But Phillip never showed. Neighbors went to check on Phillip at his farm. His dogs were there. His car was there. But not Phillip, whose inexplicable departure was totally out of character.

Robert said that his stepdad was probably away on a job. But as days passed with no word from Phillip, concern grew and Linda filed a missing persons report with the Valley Springs sheriff.

Investigators learned from Ben Brooks that Phillip was facing problems at his construction business. Phillip said that money had gone missing.

Robert gave a different account. He “indicated to police that Phillip had a gambling problem, which was hurting the business,” said Jack Immendorf.

Robert added that Phillip could be on a drinking bender in Hawaii. It was unclear if Phillip had gone missing or simply left his life in California. The Sheriff’s Department hands were tied.

A photo of Phillip Rackstraw, featured in Buried in the Backyard 507

Private investigators take on Phillip Rackstraw's case

In September, William Rackstraw, Phillip’s brother, hired private investigator Jack Immendorf. In Hawaii, Immendorf worked every connection and concluded that Phillip “simply wasn’t there.”

Investigators looked into other scenarios, confirming that Phillip had not been arrested and jailed or been in an accident. But Phillip’s financial records proved most illuminating. There had been no bank activity since July 26. “We knew something's rotten in Denmark,” said Immendorf.

Investigators believed Phillip met with foul play — but why? Had he made enemies because of his gambling or financial situation?

Private eyes interviewed witnesses, whose accounts revealed that Robert’s gambling assertions about Phillip “didn’t appear to have any validity at all,” said Jack Immendorf.

Detectives turned their attention to Robert’s relationship with Phillip. William told investigators that Phillip “thought Robert was stealing money or writing bad checks,” said Michelle Sass, Phillip’s granddaughter.

“Bill Rackstraw told me that his missing brother had indicated that he was going to get things together and probably go to the authorities,” said Immendorf. “And then all of a sudden he disappeared.”

Robert Rackstraw becomes a suspect in stepfather's disappearance

Robert became a person of interest. Investigators learned about his service in the military, where he flew helicopters. They also found out he had been dishonorably discharged.

“The army realized that he had lied on his enlistment,” said Van Zant. “He in fact did not have a college degree. In addition, he had some domestic violence charges.”

In November, private investigators discovered that Robert had leased Phillip’s house. The tenants had no idea that Phillip was missing. Robert had told the renters to avoid an area of the property where there were dangerous wells.

“By that time, it was as clear as anything that Phillip wasn't coming back,” Jack Immendorf told producers. “He was probably buried right there on the property.”

Where Is Phillip Rackstraw's Body?

Before Robert could be questioned, he skipped town, according to Buried in the Backyard. Private Investigators soon learned that Robert was writing bad checks on the business account.

On January 28, 1978, police went to Robert’s home with a warrant to search for clues to his whereabouts. They turned up guns and a stash of dynamite. The FBI joined the case.

“I found out for the first time that the feds were looking for him too,” said Immendorf. “The reason was a possible connection to the only unsolved skyjacking case in the history of the country.”

Robert Rackstraw's Link to Skyjacker D.B. Cooper

The FBI believed that Robert Rackstraw might be the long-missing D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a commercial jet and got away with a fortune in November 1971.

“D.B. Cooper boarded a flight with explosives strapped to him and demanded $200,000,” said Van Zant. “They landed, the passengers were let off the plane and the FBI gave him $200,000. They refueled the plane and the plane took off.”

“Somewhere along that flight, D.B. Cooper jumped out of the back of the plane with his $200,000,” she added. “His whereabouts? Unknown.”

Was Robert Rackstraw D.B. Cooper? He could parachute, fly a helicopter, and was trained in explosives, said private investigator Gene Immendorf. “He was a one-man walking wrecking crew.”

Stolen explosives in California put Robert on the FBI’s radar. The agency tracked down Robert to Iran, where he was working for a helicopter operation.

In February 1978, Robert was brought to the U.S. He was arrested for the explosives charge and check fraud.

At the same time, the body recovered from the shallow grave in Calaveras County was identified through dental records as Phillip Rackstraw. He had been shot twice in the back of his head. The burial site was in the area Robert had told the tenants to avoid.

On March 2, 1978, Robert was charged with the murder of his stepfather. A  lack of physical evidence made it a challenging case for prosecutors.

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The defense team portrayed Robert, who used a wheelchair during the trial in July, as a disabled veteran. He was found not guilty.

Robert still faced the explosives and fraud charges. While out on bail, he went missing after a plane was stolen and crashed. Robert was eventually found in Southern California where he was living under an alias.

After a trial in February 1979, Robert was convicted of forgery and sentenced to one year in prison.

Robert Rackstraw went on to teach law at the University of California, Riverside. He died at age 75 in 2019 of natural causes.

The FBI closed the D.B. Cooper case in 2016. The identity of the skyjacker has never been revealed. Robert Rackstraw is no longer considered a suspect.

To find out more about the case, watch Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.