The 1971 hijacking is the only unsolved act of air privacy in American history
For 45 years, the identity of the mysterious “skyjacker” known as D.B. Cooper – who threatened to blow up a commercial jet before leaping into the night with a parachute and the $200,000 he extorted as ransom by authorities – has remained a mystery.
After last night’s two-part History Channel special, D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?, which chronicled efforts to track down the suspect, it appears that the nation’s only unsolved air piracy may stay that way.
The program detailed the work of 40 investigators, including a dozen retired FBI agents, who spent five years probing the case of the now mythic suspect, who bought his airline ticket under the alias “Dan Cooper,” and whose actions have spawned movies, rock songs and comic books.
The investigators’ findings, which include 93 pieces of circumstantial evidence, point to 72-year-old Southern California resident Robert Rackstraw – a former Vietnam vet who served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot and trained extensively as a paratrooper – as being Cooper. (Rackstraw has never been charged with the hijacking.)
The only problem is that the flight attendant who spent hours with the skyjacker during the fateful 1971 flight did not find any similarities between the mysterious D.B. Cooper and photos of Rackstraw from the 1970s.
“It’s a lot of [expletive],” Rackstraw tells PEOPLE when contacted about the accusations. “And they know it is. It’s easy to manipulate audio and photos and stuff like that. And I know they also paid a lot of people off, $40,000 to $50,000, to get them to say what they wanted them to.”
The investigative team believes Rackstraw was one of the “most valued” helicopter pilots in Southeast Asia during his stint in Vietnam.
According to the team’s write-up of the case, Rackstraw allegedly pulled off the infamous hijacking nearly five months after being “forced to resign” from the army for falsifying his college records – he reportedly was a high school dropout – and “lying” about his rank and medals.
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Claimed His Briefcase Was Filled with Dynamite
The man who became known as D.B. Cooper first made headlines in November 1971 after he boarded a commercial flight in Portland and calmly told a stewardess that he had a briefcase filled with dynamite. The plane was bound for Seattle, and shortly after it landed the authorities delivered the $200,000 in cash he demanded, along with four parachutes.
He ordered the pilot to fly him to Mexico, but somewhere near the Washington-Oregon border he strapped on a parachute and jumped from the jet into the night and a rainstorm, never to be seen again – although $5,800 of the money was discovered by an eight-year-old boy on the edge of the Columbia River nine years later.
“I think there’s a good likelihood it’s him,” Rackstraw’s second wife, Linda McGarity, 67, tells PEOPLE. “I believe it because of all the evidence and all the little things that I can look at from way back that just make me just go, ‘Oh yeah.’ All the pieces just sort of come together.”
Hollywood producer Tom Colbert organized the investigation and describes Rackstraw, who was arrested in 1978 but later acquitted in the execution-style death of his stepfather as a lifelong “sociopath” and a “con man.”
This isn t the first time that Rackstraw has been connected with the D.B. Cooper case. During his 1979 trial for check kiting, forgery and the illegal possession of explosives, he allegedly phoned several reporters from California’s San Joaquin County jail brazenly hinting that he was the infamous hijacker.
Rackstraw – who was later convicted on the check fraud charges and spent one-year in Folsom State Prison – went on to earn several degrees, including one in law, after his release.
“He’s a chameleon,” says Colbert. “An absolute chameleon.” Over the following two decades Rackstraw began teaching economics, mediation and international contract law at the University of California, Riverside, retiring in 1999.
He now spends much of his time, says Colbert, on his 45-foot yacht in San Diego.
Despite the alleged findings of the History Channel special, the FBI recently announced the agency “will no longer actively investigate” the D.B. Cooper case “in order to focus on other investigative priorities,” according to Ayn Dietrich-Williams, the FBI’s media coordinator, the agency
However, Dietrich-Williams adds, “Should specific physical evidence emerge – related specifically to the parachutes or the money taken by the hijacker – individuals with those materials are asked to contact their local FBI field office.”