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D.B. Cooper Mystery Solved? Sleuths Claim To Have Cracked The Code

Since jumping out of a plane with $200,000 in 1971, the famed skyjacker's true identity has been one of this country's enduring puzzles

By JB Nicholas

One of the great unsolved true crime mysteries of the 20th century -- the identity of folk hero/skyjacker D.B. Cooper -- has been solved, at least according to a team of investigators that includes a retired military code-breaker.

Rick Sherwood, a former member of the Army Security Agency -- which deciphers signals -- was asked to analyze a letter film and television producer Tom Colbert obtained from the FBI, according to the New York Daily News. The letter, claims Sherwood, contains a coded confession from a man long suspected of being the infamous skyjacker, Robert Rackstraw.

The letter said to be Rackstraw’s confession was addressed to “The Portland Oregonian Newspaper” and signed by “A Rich Man.” Sherwood decoded a line within the letter, “And please tell the lackey cops,” to mean “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw,” according to Colbert.

"This is Rackstraw, this is what he does,” Sherwood told the Daily News.

“I noticed he kept on repeating words in his sentences and thought he had a code in there somewhere. He was taunting like he normally does and I thought his name was going to be in it and sure enough the numbers added up perfectly,” Sherwood added.

Rackshaw could not be reached for comment, but in 1979 the FBI investigated whether he was D.B. Cooper and cleared him, according to the Associated Press. Rackshaw again denied that he was Cooper in a 2016 interview with “People” magazine:  “It’s a lot of [expletive]. And they know it is.” 

The case of D.B. Cooper has been called one of the most famous crimes in American history by New York Magazine and it's been popularized in multiple media accounts.

The story started when a man walked up to the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines at Portland International Airport on Thanksgiving Eve 1971. He purchased a one-way ticket in the name of Dan Cooper on Flight 305 to Seattle, Washington.

The man got on the plane carrying a briefcase and wearing a dark suit with a black tie beneath a dark raincoat. He sat in the last row, lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. When the plane took off he passed the stewardess a note. The woman, thinking the man was hitting on her, put the note in her pocket.

“Miss. You’d better look at that note. I have a bomb,” the man said.

The stewardess, Florence Schaffner, 23, read the note, printed with a felt-pen in all capital letters: “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit beside me.”

Schaffner asked the man to show her the bomb, and the man obliged, opening his briefcase allowing her a peek at six red sticks, a battery and a tangle of wires. Then the man said:  “I want $200,000 by 5:00 p.m. In cash. Put in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I’ll do the job.”

Though threatening to kill them all, the man, Schaffner later told the FBI, was nice, polite and well-spoken.

When Flight 305 landed in Seattle, the man let the passengers go, but kept the crew. The FBI delivered the ransom -- $200,000 in $20 bills -- and parachutes as the plane was refueled. Once in the air, he ordered the captain to fly toward Mexico, while flying under 10,000 feet with the plane’s wing flaps at 15 degrees -- keeping its speed below 200 knots.

Then he strapped the cash and two parachutes to his person, moved to the rear of the plane, opened a pressurized door, deployed a unique set of stairs only that model of plane had, walked down to the end of them and lept into the darkness -- over southwest Washington, which includes farmland as well as towering mountain peaks and pine trees. 

The man was never seen again, but he has lived on in American folklore ever since -- immortalized as “D.B. Cooper” after a newspaper reporter misunderstood a police source and the name D.B. Cooper made it onto the news wires instead of Dan Cooper.

In 1980, 9-year-old Brian Ingram found $5,800 of D.B. Cooper’s money while digging a fire pit with his family on a beach along the Columbia River. The cash was still wrapped in rubber bands and positively identified by their serial numbers as part of the original $200,000 given Cooper.

The find didn’t solve anything. The bag containing the money that Cooper attached to himself with cord could easily have become separated from Cooper when his parachute deployed. It also could have been stashed by Cooper to be recovered later, but washed away in a flood before becoming buried in a sand bank.

The best chance to definitively solve the D.B. Cooper case may come from recent advances in genealogical DNA profiling that allows unknown DNA to be linked to close family members, which solved the Golden State Killer and other cold cases around the country in recent months, like that of Michella Welch in Washington and Christy Mirack in Pennsylvania.

The FBI may well have all that it needs to capitalize on this new investigative technique: a sample of Cooper’s DNA, which he left behind on the black J.C. Penney tie he took off before he jumped out of the hijacked plane.

[Photos: Getty, FBI]

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