D.B. Cooper: Volunteer sleuths find potential evidence in unsolved 46-year-old hijacking

A group of volunteer investigators believe they have found a piece of potential physical evidence in the D.B. Cooper case, the only unsolved airliner hijacking in American history.

Fox News reported Thursday that Thomas Colbert, head of the team of amateur sleuths, said his group has found what “appears to be a decades-old parachute strap” during a dig in the case. Colbert declined to tell Fox the location of the dig, but said it took place where a “credible source” revealed that the parachute used by Cooper, and the remainder of the $200,000 ransom he got away with, could be buried. 

The only sign of Cooper ever found was $5,800 of the ransom money, which was uncovered by a young boy playing on the banks of the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington, in 1980. 

D.B. Cooper is the pseudonym given to an unidentified man who, using the name Dan Cooper, boarded a Northwest Orient flight on Nov. 24, 1971. During the flight, which departed Portland, Oregon, for a short, 30-minute trip to Seattle, Cooper passed a note to a flight attendant and told her he was carrying a bomb. 

Pictured is some of the ransom money given to D.B. Cooper, who hijacked an airliner flying from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle on Nov. 24, 1971. The cash, part of $200,000 in ransom that Cooper was given before he parachuted from the plane, was found on the bank of the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington, in 1980 by 8-year-old Brian Ingram. Ingram in 2008 decided to auction off some of the money that the FBI allowed him to keep.
Photo: (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Cooper, who showed the woman what looked like dynamite in his briefcase, demanded the $200,000 ransom, four parachutes and that the plane refuel upon its stop in Seattle, according to the FBI. Upon receiving his demands, he released the 36 passengers, but kept a few crew members on board and demanded that the pilot fly him to Mexico City.

Just after 8 p.m. that night, Cooper did the unthinkable -- he strapped a parachute onto his back and, with the ransom money in hand, jumped from the plane’s rear stairs into the night. 

Despite an extensive investigation, code-named NORJAK, Cooper was never identified or arrested. Over the next four decades, there were theories that Cooper died in his plunge to the ground, which took place in cold, stormy weather over the rugged terrain of the Washington-Oregon border. 

There were also theories that, if Cooper survived, it meant he had the specialized training and experience to withstand the difficult jump.  

Many amateur sleuths tried to solve the case, in some instances, sharing their information with the FBI. The FBI also allowed testing of some of its own evidence, including the cheap, black JC Penney clip-on necktie Cooper wore on the flight.  

No closer to a solution, the FBI officially closed its investigation in July 2016

Pictured is the clip-on tie that the hijacker calling himself "Dan Cooper" left behind after he parachuted from Northwest Orient Flight 305 on a cold night in November 1971. The tie is one of few pieces of evidence that Cooper left behind.
Photo: (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

Two months later, Colbert and his company, TJC Consulting, sued the FBI for access to the entire NORJAK case file.

Colbert told Fox News that details in those archived case documents helped him corroborate information his group received in a tip. That tip and corroboration led to the dig that uncovered the parachute strap, he said. 

He told the news station that he planned to forward the potential evidence to the FBI on Friday, and to offer the federal agency the dig site on Monday. 

Colbert, a former media specialist, is behind the documentary “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?” that aired on the History Channel last July, the same month that the FBI ended its 45-year search for Cooper. In the film, Colbert and his team of investigators, which includes journalists and retired FBI agents and police detectives, claim they have identified the man who hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305 that frigid November night. 

The two-part documentary focuses on former U.S. Army paratrooper Robert Rackstraw Sr., who is now 73 and living in California. According to a news release Colbert issued on his website, DBCooper.com, in January, Rackstraw is also a retired university teacher, a former Vietnam pilot, an explosives expert and a four-time felon. 

>> Read more trending news

Rackstraw was also a suspect early on in the hijacking investigation. The FBI cleared him in 1979, in part because he was only 28 in 1971, much younger than the description flight attendants gave of a man between 35 and 45 years old.

Colbert said in the news release, which accused the FBI of withholding some case documents from the public, that he believes Rackstraw was wrongly exonerated. He also detailed his circumstantial case against Rackstraw in a book, “The Last Master Outlaw.” 

Rackstraw’s lawyer, Dennis Roberts, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year after the documentary aired that Rackstraw was considering suing Colbert and his team. 

“It’s all conjecture,” Roberts told the newspaper. “They tortured him for five years. He is not D.B. Cooper. He was never D.B. Cooper.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.