Search for D.B. Cooper Leads to Decoded Letter

Private investigators break the encryption to the D.B. Cooper Code.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” reads a note from the infamous but still-at-large hijacker D.B. Cooper. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change.” Those words may be encrypted. A team of private investigators led by documentary filmmaker Thomas Colbert claim they decoded a letter that cracks the D.B. Cooper case, according to CNN. On November 24, 1971, night before Thanksgiving, a man identified as Dan Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient flight bound for Seattle and parachuted out with $200,000 and was never heard from again.

The team of 40 FBI agents, criminologists, journalists, and attorneys, which has been working on the case for decades, believes a letter sent to The Portland Oregonian newspaper contains a confession from Army veteran Robert Rackstraw. The letter was sent months before “Dan Cooper,” mistakenly reported by journalists as “D.B. Cooper” told the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. He made the pilots stop for fuel, released the 36 passengers in exchange for $200,000 in ransom and parachutes. The ransom was paid in $20 bills. After lift-off, he ordered the plane to fly to Mexico, but he parachuted out of the plane near the Washington-Oregon border.

Tom Colbert and his team investigators obtained closed portions of the FBI’s D.B. Cooper file via a freedom of information lawsuit. “This letter is too (sic) let you know I am not dead but really alive and just back from the Bahamas, so your silly troopers up there can stop looking for me,” reads the previously unreleased letter addressed to The Portland Oregonian newspaper. “That is just how dumb this government is. I like your articles about me but you can stop them now. D.B. Cooper is not real. I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk. Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert told The New York Daily News he noticed that the letter was similar to a separate letter and he called a codebreaker to decipher it. Former Army Security Agency member Rick Sherwood told the paper he spotted similarities with the words “D.B. Cooper is not real,” “Unk” or “Uncle,” “the system,” and “lackey cop.” He decoded “through good ole Unk” to mean “by skyjacking a jet plane” by applying system of letters and numbers to five letters allegedly sent by Cooper.

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Colbert says the letter reveals a “confession” hidden in code, and the words “And please tell the lackey cops” meant “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.” Rackstraw is a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I read it two or three times and said, ‘This is Rackstraw, this is what he does,’” Sherwood told The New York Daily News. Rackstraw served in two of Sherwood’s units. “I was definitely shocked his name was in there. That’s what I was looking for and everything added up to that,” Sherwood said.

The code also suggests Cooper didn’t act alone. Colbert claimed in February that he believed Rackshaw was a CIA operative with connections to other top-secret operations whose identity had been covered up by federal agents, and the man who sent the letter may have put the codes into a letter to signal to possible co-conspirators that he was alive.

The FBI considered Rackstraw as a suspect, he was even named in a History Channel special on Cooper,  but was cleared in 1979. The FBI officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads.

Carl Laurin, author of the new book D.B. Cooper and Me, said in May that the hijacker was former military paratrooper and intelligence operative named Walter R. Reca, an ex-paratrooper and intelligence operative who died at age 80 in Oscoda, Michigan, in 2014.

Rackstraw reportedly could not be reached for comment.

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.