Robert Rackstraw loved adventure. He also embraced danger and confrontation. For a time, the FBI suspected him of being the legendary skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper.
Rackstraw died Tuesday in San Diego of natural causes. He was 75. He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and “several children and grandchildren,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Born in Ohio in 1943, the high-school dropout became a decorated U.S. Army paratrooper during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s before being run out of the military for lying and other misconduct. He pursued various jobs and diversions in the years that followed, leading to trouble with the law.
He was acquitted in 1978 of murdering his stepfather. Soon after the acquittal, facing other charges, he faked his death and disappeared. He ultimately would be found and convicted of grand theft and passing bad checks. He spent almost two years in prison.
The prosecutor in the theft-and-forgery case, San Joaquin, Calif., deputy district attorney Clark Sueyres, called him “a helluva con man. You’d buy a used car from him every time.”
Along with his exploits in California, Rackstraw also spent time in Oregon — beyond the possibility that he purchased a plane ticket at Portland International Airport on Nov. 24, 1971, under the name Dan Cooper.
Robert “Pudgy” Hunt, a celebrated Oregon high-school basketball player and longtime Portland tavern owner, worked in the flooring business with Rackstraw in the 1970s.
Hunt agreed with the California prosecutor that Rackstraw had charisma to burn. And that he couldn’t be trusted.
“He had a criminal mind,” Hunt told The Oregonian earlier this year.
Hunt’s brother, he said, witnessed Rackstraw savagely beat a union worker who gave him some back talk on a job site. Hunt later heard from another first-hand source that in California Rackstraw stole a truck and smashed it through the front doors of a gun shop before driving off with a cache of weapons.
“He did [stuff] like that all the time,” Hunt said.
It might have been inevitable, then, that Rackstraw would be linked to the famous — and famously unsolved — D.B. Cooper case. In the late 1970s, the FBI considered Rackstraw a suspect for a while before moving on, in part because witnesses said the skyjacker was in his 40s. (Rackstraw was 28 in 1971). A reporter at the time asked Rackstraw if he were Cooper, and the Vietnam War vet gave a cryptic answer, saying that if he were investigating the case, “I wouldn’t discount myself.” Years later Rackstraw insisted he was winding the reporter up and that he wasn’t D.B. Cooper.
Nevertheless, investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker Thomas Colbert became convinced that Rackstraw was indeed the skyjacker. Colbert put together a 40-member team, which included some former FBI agents, in an effort to prove Rackstraw pulled off the crime. They came up with a raft of circumstantial evidence, some of which was compelling and some fanciful.
The investigative team even reached the conclusion that Rackstraw was a grifter who alighted in Astoria, Ore., in the early 1970s, passing himself off as Swiss nobleman “le Baron Norman de Winter” — a name inspired by a character in Alexandre Dumas’ 19th-century novel “The Three Musketeers.” Pudgy Hunt, for his part, dismissed the idea that Rackstraw was the man calling himself de Winter. “I don’t buy it,” he said.
Colbert wrote a 2016 book about Rackstraw, “The Last Master Outlaw.” He also produced a History Channel documentary about his investigation, “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?”
The FBI took little interest in the clues Colbert and his team had chased down, leading the journalist to conclude that the federal law-enforcement agency was abashed that a group of independent investigators may have solved the case.