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While the real identity of elusive skyjacker D.B. Cooper remains a mystery, sleuths continue to theorize who he is — or was.
One prominent theory is that he was Robert Rackstraw, an idea explored in Netflix’s new docuseries “D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!”
On Nov. 24, 1971, a man listed on the manifest of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 as Dan Cooper hijacked the plane during its journey from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. He passed a note to a flight attendant telling her he had a bomb, and showed her the purported device in his briefcase before demanding $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills and four parachutes. Upon the plane's landing in Seattle, he got his ransom demands, then instructed the plane to take off again and flight south toward Mexico. But his remaining time on the plane wouldn't last all that long. Somewhere over a wooded area in Washington along the Columbia River, with the plane at an altitude of around 10,000 feet, he strapped on a parachute and jumped with the money, disappearing into legend.
Nobody on the flight even knew a skyjacking was going on, and the stealth attack remains the only unsolved one in American history. (Incidentally, he was misidentified as "D.B. Cooper" in the early reporting of the incident and the moniker stuck.)
Many have assumed that someone attempting such a specific and dangerous mode of escape had to have some tactical training. In part, that is why Rackstraw became a focus.
Robert Rackstraw had worked as a pilot, served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army who completed a 15-month tour in Vietnam in 1970 and was trained in explosives and psychological operations, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in 2019. And he had a colorful life. He was released from the military shortly after the hijacking in 1971 because of multiple incidents of misconduct. He was later arrested by American authorities while working as a pilot in Iran, after fleeing the U.S. from charges of forging checks in his stepfather Phillip Rackstraw's name after the man's disappearance. He was charged with the murder of his stepfather after the Philip's body was found, but was acquitted in 1978. He was arrested in 1979 in California on charges of grand theft of an airplane, check fraud and possession of explosives, and he served a year in prison for check fraud. Ironically, he'd parlay his experience on the wrong side of the law into a teaching position at the University of California Riverside and earned an economics degree from the University of San Francisco, according to the Union-Tribune.
His Army photo also bore a resemblance to Cooper’s sketch but, as the new docuseries points out, the drawing was pretty generic — and the flight attendant who had that infamous interaction with Cooper couldn't identify him.
Rackstraw became the subject of a 2016 History Channel docuseries entitled "D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?" In the years after the hijacking, Rackstraw actually claimed to have been Cooper and the filmmaker, Thomas Colbert, believed that to be true.
But Rackstraw said those previous claims were just a stunt; his lawyer told the Arizona Republic in 2018 that he'd made it up to meet women. He denied being the hijacker to Colbert and doubled down on that in a 2016 People interview. Additionally, the FBI looked into him as a potential suspect, but cleared him in the 1970s, according to the Associated Press.
Still, his likeness continued to draw theories.
One purported Cooper clue was a letter Colbert had obtained from the FBI, sent by an anonymous person to "The Portland Oregonian Newspaper" and signed "A Rich Man." In 2018, a team of investigators claimed they cracked a cipher embedded in the letter that revealed it to be a confession from Rackstraw.
In the new Netflix docuseries, multiple experts expressed their personal belief that Rackstraw was Cooper; some cited the FBI documents on the case which showed that federal authorites had at least considered him a possible suspect.
"I truly believe Robert Rackstraw was D.B. Cooper," Erik Kleinsmith, former chief of intelligence for the U.S. Army Land Warfare Unit told the producers of "D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!"
Joe Russoniello, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, also said that he feels Rackstraw was the culprit.
"There are factors, critical factors, which I think all dictate that Rackstraw was Cooper," he said in the series.
Rackstraw died in 2019 in his San Diego home at age 75 as a result of a longstanding heart condition.
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