Amateur Sleuths Claim to Have Uncovered D.B. Cooper's Real Identity

FBI
FBI

For decades, both the FBI and amateur investigators have been preoccupied with the identity of “Dan Cooper,” a mysterious passenger mistakenly reported by journalists as "D.B. Cooper" who boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971. Without appearing frantic or violent, Cooper informed the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. After making the pilots stop for fuel and then lift off again, the skyjacker collected his money and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen or heard from again.

According to one Cooper devotee, that might not be exactly true. Tom Colbert has led a team of amateur investigators looking into the case and made headlines last year after acquiring some of the closed portions of the FBI’s file via a freedom of information lawsuit. According to Colbert, a letter purportedly written by Cooper and sent to the Oregonian shortly after the crime reveals a “confession” hidden in code. The man’s identity, Colbert claims, is that of Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” the letter read. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert showed the letter to Rick Sherwood, a former codebreaker for the now-defunct Army Security Agency. Sherwood maintains the repetitive phrasing of Unk and other words corresponds with a simple letter-to-number code that, when broken, reveals the sentence “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.”

Another letter uncovered in the FBI’s files earlier this year contains a numerical sequence that Colbert's team says they have matched to codes used by Rackstraw’s Army unit in Vietnam. That letter’s writer—who Colbert believes to be Rackstraw—claimed he used a toupee and a putty nose to disguise his appearance on the plane.

Rackstraw was at one time considered a suspect by the FBI but was later cleared in 1979. After initially teasing that he might be the culprit, Rackstraw backed off those claims and insisted the accusation was without merit. The bureau officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads. In February 2018, Colbert claimed the FBI wasn’t acknowledging his work out of embarrassment.

New Podcast Opens Up the Cold Case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Heist

Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images
Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images

One of the newest true crime podcasts gathering buzz doesn't involve a murder or kidnapping—instead, it investigates one of the most infamous art heists in history. Last Seen, a collaboration between WBUR and The Boston Globe, looks at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, a case that has gone unsolved for 28 years.

The story begins on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as policemen infiltrated the Boston art museum and stole 13 paintings off the walls. The works are from such master artists as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet, and are estimated to have a cumulative value exceeding $600 million.

The scope of the heist alone would have made it historically significant, but the story became even more interesting after the crime was committed. The case never moved forward, despite a drawn-out investigation and a $10 million reward for the return of the stolen pieces. That didn't mean there weren't suspects: Two unnamed men were identified, but they were killed shortly after the theft, and according to the popular theory, information regarding the location of the stolen artworks died with them.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case is still filled with mysteries, but the new podcast aims to make the story a little clearer. Hosted by WBUR producers and reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, and with contributions from Stephen Kurkjian, who spent years covering the heist for The Boston Globe, Last Seen follows the saga from the night the crime was committed to today. It features interviews with investigators who worked on the case and people who were employed by the museum in the early 1990s, some of whom have never before agreed to speak publicly on the subject.

The first episode of Last Seen debuted on WBUR September 17, and the series will include 10 episodes in total.

11 Facts About the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

For 68 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been alerting the public to some of the most dangerous criminals in their midst. The organization's 10 Most Wanted list has become an iconic portrait of federal pursuit—referenced, parodied, and posted all around the world. For more on this famous rundown of felonious fugitives, check out these facts about how the Bureau approaches the most dangerous list in circulation today.

1. IT STARTED OVER A CARD GAME.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Thomas James Holden
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The notion of “wanted” posters has been around since the 1700s, when slave owners circulated descriptions of runaway slaves in an effort to force their return. The idea of itemizing society’s most hardened criminals originated in 1949, when a newspaper wire story profiled several “tough guys” who were in the Bureau’s sights. The writer had quizzed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover during a game of cards. After seeing how popular the story became, Hoover approved the idea of circulating a top 10 list as a way of soliciting tips and other assistance from the general population. The first name on the list, released March 14, 1950, was Thomas Holden, who had murdered his wife and two of her relatives. Holden was arrested after a newspaper reader in Oregon recognized his photo and alerted authorities.

2. YOU NEED TO BE REALLY BAD TO MAKE THE LIST.

Not just any run-of-the-mill felon is suitable for this kind of scrutiny. Typically, criminals who appear on the list are fugitives who have a long history of disobeying the law, have current charges of a serious nature, are believed to pose a considerable threat to the public, and have potential to be captured based on knowledge submitted by citizens. To make the list, all 56 FBI field offices are tasked with submitting names for consideration. From there, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division and the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs weed out candidates for final approval by the FBI’s deputy director.

3. IT ALSO HELPS IF YOU HAVE DISTINCTIVE FEATURES.

Wanted By The FBI: Andrew Cunanan
FBI, Getty Images

In selecting fugitives they think the public could provide information on, the FBI looks at the ease with which someone could be recognized. A person with unremarkable features might blend in more easily, but a criminal with a peculiar facial quirk or who otherwise stands out in a crowd might be more likely to be featured.  

4. MOST OF THE FUGITIVES FEATURED HAVE BEEN CAPTURED.

As of 2018, the FBI had featured a total of 519 criminals in the 10 Most Wanted rundown. The Bureau says that 486 of those individuals were eventually captured, with the publicity of the list being a key reason. Of those 486, 162 were apprehended based on information shared by a tip.

5. IT’S NOT ALWAYS A LIST OF 10.

Nice round number that it is, the FBI can’t always restrict their criminal prey to a list of 10. If names on a list are part of a string of arrests, the sheet can drop to seven or eight names before being replenished. If criminals are co-conspirators, it might grow to 16. Anyone numbering 11 or beyond is labeled as a “Special Addition,” which is a polite way of saying a person is so dangerous that their capture is imperative. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example.

6. ONE GUY REMAINED ON THE LIST FOR MORE THAN 32 YEARS.

At one time, the FBI might have considered changing their list from the 10 Most Wanted to “Victor Manuel Gerena and Nine Other Fugitives.” In 1983, Gerena was working as an armored truck escort when he decided to swipe $7 million from a Wells Fargo truck. Gerena tied up his co-workers and injected them with a mixture of aspirin and water to make them sleepy, then took off and disappeared. It turned out Gerena was a pawn in a larger robbery scheme involving a Puerto Rican separatist group. In total, 19 men associated with the heist were either caught or killed. Gerena, however, remains at large—though he was finally removed from the list in 2016. Though the FBI didn’t specify why, removal is usually only on condition of the perpetrator’s death, dismissal of charges, or the belief they’re no longer a public menace.

7. THE LIST CHANGES WITH THE TIMES.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Eric Robert Rudolph
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the list from different decades reveals a lot about which types of crimes happened to be in fashion during a given era. According to the FBI, bank robbers and car thieves populated the sheet in the 1950s. In the 1970s, counterculture figures engaged in sabotage or kidnappings took over. Today, terrorists and white-collar criminals are most likely to be the most wanted.

8. CALIFORNIA IS A HOTBED OF MOST WANTED ACTIVITY.

The FBI maintains a breakdown of crimes perpetuated by offenders in various states, and California doesn’t come out looking too good. Of the 519 criminals to make an appearance since 1950, 58 committed a crime in the Golden State. Illinois (38) and New York (33) are also prone to harboring Most Wanted activity. Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Rhode Island have never had one.

9. THERE’S NO TIME LIMIT ON BEING ADDED.

Not all subjects have committed contemporary crimes. In 2014, the FBI added William Bradford Bishop Jr. to the list even though his crime—murdering his wife, mother, and children with a hammer—took place 38 years earlier in 1976. Bishop had been at large the entire time before the FBI made a “surprise” entry to the list, hoping someone might recognize the then-79-year-old with the aid of age-advancing imagery. After two years on the list, he was removed due to a lack of viable leads and because Bishop was no longer believed to be a danger to the public at large.

10. ONLY 10 WOMEN HAVE EVER MADE THE LIST.

Of the 519 criminals who have been featured on the list, only 10 of them—or less than two percent—were women. Ruth Eisemann-Schier was the first woman to earn the notorious distinction; she was added to the list in 1968 and wanted for kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes. She was eventually apprehended on March 5, 1969 and ended up pleading guilty at her trial. She was sentenced to seven years in prison but paroled after four on the condition that she return to her native country of Honduras.

11. THERE’S AN APP FOR IT.

If you feel like scoping out your neighborhood for fugitives, the FBI has an app available via iTunes that guides you through their list and also allows you to be alerted to missing children or other public assistance situations in your region. It’s free, and if you have a tip that leads to capture or resolution, you might even get a reward.

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