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Investigators think they’ve identified the real D.B. Cooper

An artist sketch of the skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper, the man who hijacked a Northwest Airlines jet between Portland and Seattle on Thanksgiving eve in 1971. (AP)
LISTEN: Investigators think they've identified the real D.B. Cooper

Thanks to a new-old clue in the decades-long D.B. Cooper cold case, investigators believe they have uncovered the mysterious hijacker’s real identity.

A letter written by someone thought to be Cooper has now been connected to a man named Robert W. Rackstraw. Rackstraw, who is a Vietnam War veteran living in San Diego, was questioned in the late 1970s by the FBI but was never prosecuted.

A 40-person team of investigators led by documentary filmmaker and author Tom Colbert requested the letter last year under the Freedom of Information Act.

The December 11, 1971 letter was sent out to four news organizations: The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times, and The Washington Post. It included code-like chains of letters and numbers.

One person on Colbert’s team, former Army Security Agency member Rick Sherwood, thinks he has cracked those codes. He believes they are related to three “masked” Army units that Rackstraw served in.

The FBI closed their own D.B. Cooper case in 2016, saying it was ‘one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations’ in the Bureau’s history. Oregon Live reported that Colbert believes the FBI doesn’t want to look into Rackstraw as a suspect again because it would mean admitting they failed to solve the case.

“It’s not that they’re concerned about a circumstantial case,” he told Oregon Live. “This is obviously about embarrassment and shame.”

Listen to Feliks Banel talk about the latest on the D.B. Cooper case with Tom Tangney and John Curley on the Tom and Curley Show here.

The D.B. Cooper saga

All Larry Finegold wanted to do was get home to Seattle on the night before Thanksgiving. It was Nov. 24, 1971. Finegold was a 28-year-old lawyer, working for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle, observing a trial in Vancouver, Washington. A quick flight home from Portland seemed like a great idea.

“I was just minding my own business, working on preparing this case, traveling back and forth to Portland,” Finegold said. “I had taken the train a couple of times, but decided to fly that time.”

“Who knew I would fly into Northwest lore?”

One of Finegold’s fellow passengers that stormy night on Northwest Airlines Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle was the skyjacker who came to be known as D.B. Cooper. It’s been 45 years since that Thanksgiving Eve incident launched what would become a legend known around the world.

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Ed Evans was a reporter working for KOMO when the news came in that blustery afternoon.

“A bunch of us were having drinks at a little party, and we got word that a hijacking was going on at Sea-Tac Airport, so we all ran down there,” Evans said. Seattle’s TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers all followed suit.

Onboard Flight 305

High above western Washington on board the six-year old Boeing 727, Larry Finegold and the 35 other passengers weren’t told what was really going on.

“My recollection is that [the pilot] said that there were some difficulties,” Finegold said. The pilot told the passengers over the PA system that, “they were in touch with the ground, and they would be circling the city for awhile while they worked on whatever the problem was.”

The “problem” was that Cooper, a middle-aged man dressed in a business suit, had given a note to a stewardess (what they used to call flight attendants back then). The note claimed he had a bomb, and demanded $200,000 in $20 bills ($1.2 million in 2016 dollars) plus four parachutes in exchange for releasing the passengers. Cooper showed the stewardess the contents of his briefcase, which looked to be wires and explosives.

Finegold says that unbeknownst to him and the other passengers, the jet circled Seattle while authorities on the ground gathered the cash and the parachutes to meet Cooper’s demands.

Finegold was sitting in Row 6, the first row of seats in what would now be called coach. Cooper was sitting 12 rows behind in him in Row 18. Finegold says that as the jet circled, the vibe on board was quiet, as the passengers contemplated the seriousness of what they thought was a mechanical problem.

“I think everybody was trying to figure out whether they were going to survive or not,” Finegold said, as the stormy weather buffeted the jetliner. “But there was no pandemonium, I didn’t hear any talking, even. We’d been asked, because it was so turbulent, to stay in our seats.”

Asked by a reporter to confirm that Finegold and the other passengers believed the problem was “just a mechanical issue,” Finegold laughed.

“When you’re up in the air at 20,000 feet there’s no such thing as ‘just a mechanical issue,’” he said, chuckling. “But yes, we did not know that there was a skyjacker, and I think I was quoted in Newsweek as saying the pilot had a voice that could make you feel calm on the way to a guillotine.”

Finegold says it seemed like the 727 circled Seattle for hours. Newspaper accounts at the time said it landed at 5:43 pm, or nearly three hours after taking off from Portland.

“Frankly, I thought that they were simply trying to burn off fuel for an emergency landing,” Finegold said. “And then the plane lands smoothly, but instead of going directly to the jetway, we stop sort of way away from the terminal.”

It was not long after the jet landed that Finegold became perhaps the first passenger to learn what was really going on. A man boarded the plane and came down the aisle. Finegold recognized him as an FBI agent he’d worked with before on federal cases.

“He said, ‘Larry, there’s a skyjacker on the plane, and we’re gonna get you off the plane in a couple minutes,’ then he walks [toward the rear of the cabin] because I think there was an exchange,” Finegold said. “This was happening behind me. [The FBI agent] was bringing on the money and the parachutes.”

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Within several minutes, Finegold and the other passengers disembarked from the plane and boarded a bus that took them to Sea-Tac’s old main terminal. Ed Evans was there, as was KOMO’s Bryan Johnson.

Johnson says that 1971 was a memorable year around here for so many other reasons besides D.B. Cooper, citing Boeing’s layoff of 60,000 people and a corruption scandal that rocked the Seattle Police Department.

“But at the same time, what happened aboard that 727 was a break from the real serious news because, after all, nobody got hurt,” Johnson said, and because the crime captured people’s imagination.

The legend of D.B. Coooper

The part that captured people’s imagination, and laid the foundation for the Cooper legend, came next.

Once the passengers were off the plane and the 727 was refueled, it took off again at 7:37 p.m. with its crew of three in the cockpit, and stewardess Tina Mucklow in the cabin with Cooper. After takeoff, Cooper directed Mucklow to join the crew in the cockpit, where she remained for the rest of the flight.

Cooper had directed the crew to fly to Mexico at low speed, with the landing gear down and at an altitude no higher than 10,000 feet. This, Cooper was told, would require a fuel stop in Reno, Nevada.

Sometime after sending Mucklow to the cockpit, Cooper took off his necktie and put on one of the parachutes. He took hold of the $200,000 (which weighed about 21 pounds, according to the FBI) and lowered the rear stairs. In the cockpit, an indicator light showed the door opening around 8 p.m. Then, about fifteen minutes later, over an area east of Interstate 5 near the community of Woodland, authorities later said, Cooper likely walked down those stairs and jumped off.

The 727 continued on, landing in Reno with its rear stair deployed. All that was left of Cooper was his clip-on necktie. He even took his note with him. Searchers combed the woods around southwest Washington, but never found a trace of anything.

From the basic details alone, it was clear to many that D.B. Cooper likely had some connection to aviation, perhaps through military experience or some kind of civilian job.

“A lot of people speculated at the time that he may have worked for Boeing,” Johnson said. “You gotta remember that 60,000 people got laid off [as part of the Boeing Bust]. A lot of people at Boeing would have known about the air currents around the tail of a 727, [and] would have known that it was the only plane from which you could jump with a chance of living.”

Ed Evans interviewed several passengers as they came off the plane. While he can’t remember exactly what any of them said, he remembers the impact of what happened, and what came next for domestic aviation.

“That was one of those events that changed the way the airline industry had to operate,” Evans said, with more security at airports, and the “Cooper Vane,” an eponymous 727 modification that prevented opening of the rear door in flight.

“Wow, who would ever have thought flying at a relatively low altitude at a low speed bailing out of a commercial airliner like that?” Evans said. “It was sort of beyond the imagination I think of most any of us that were there covering the story.”

Larry Finegold was there, too, of course, but he was never sure if he ever even set eyes on D.B. Cooper, whether in the Portland airport or while getting onto the plane.

“For all I know, I could’ve been sitting [in the airport] next to him, but I certainly was not aware of him until I saw the composite sketches, and even those didn’t remind me of somebody I’d seen on the plane,” Finegold said. “I frankly wasn’t paying attention to who the passengers were.”

Just a ‘sleazy, rotten criminal

Finegold also doesn’t buy the heroic portrayal of D.B. Cooper.

“You know, I’ve never quite seen him in the same light as people who think well he’s sort of a modern-day Billy The Kid or Robin Hood or something,” Finegold said. “On the other hand, other than being a great story to tell people when you’re having dinner, it really doesn’t impact me much anymore.”

Another person for whom the “hero” label never stuck was FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, lead investigator on the case from 1971 until he retired in 1980 and author of a book about the case. Longtime Northwest broadcast journalist Bill Cooper (no relation to D.B., he jokes) interviewed Himmelsbach in 2001 for the 30th anniversary of the hijacking.

“I understand he’s part of the legend, but believe me, he’s no hero to me,” Himmelsbach told Bill Cooper. “I think of him as a sleazy, rotten criminal.” Himmelsbach said the FBI files on the Cooper case were seven feet high in 1980.

Himmelsbach also went through a list of reasons for Bill Cooper for why Himmelsbach thought D.B. Cooper was dead.

“Did the parachute open? Maybe, maybe not,” Bill Cooper said. “But Himmelsbach points out that it was below zero air temperature and D.B. Cooper would have hit the air, and the air was 170 knots – it would’ve been like slamming into a brick wall.”

“He wasn’t dressed for it. He had loafers on, slip-on loafers and street clothes. He didn’t have the gear you would want for that kind of a technical jump,” Bill Cooper said. “So [Himmelsbach] doesn’t think it was survivable by a person in normal garb.”

The FBI officially closed the D.B. Cooper case earlier this year, and the Seattle office no longer responds to media inquiries about the infamous skyjacker. The FBI now believes Cooper didn’t survive the jump. And, anyway, even if he did survive, he’d likely be in his 80s and perhaps already dead by now from natural causes.

Larry Finegold says that he’s been interviewed countless times about D.B. Cooper over the decades. Pressed by a reporter about whether he might still have an artifact or two from his flight into history, Finegold says he didn’t hang onto his ticket stub, his briefcase or the business clothes he was wearing that day in 1971.

“At the time,” Finegold said, “who knew that I would be talking about it 45 years later?”

And that’s something that seems to get lost in retelling each year of the D.B. Cooper story: it didn’t really instantly become the legend it has since turned into.

After a flurry of coverage of the hijacking during the search for the suspect, the story slipped from the front page within a week or so. But in November 1972, a front page story in The Seattle Times was headlined, “Year later, D.B. Cooper legend grows.” And in subsequent years, looking back at the unsolved case became, like green bean casserole or pumpkin pie, something of a Thanksgiving tradition in the Northwest.

The skyjacking also inspired at least one novelty song; a couple of truth-stretching Hollywood movies; and, in Ariel, Washington (near where authorities believe Cooper jumped), an annual celebration (that has recently hit hard times).

Also helping the legend grow was a near constant stream of people coming forward and claiming to be D.B. Cooper or claiming to know who D.B. Cooper really was.

The discovery of some of Cooper’s cash in a sandbar along the Columbia River in 1980 is arguably the last significant development in the case, though it didn’t really lead authorities to any new conclusions. Besides those rotted notes, none of the $20 bills handed over to Cooper has ever turned up in circulation. DNA tests on Cooper’s clip-on JC Penney necktie, left behind in the 727, were inconclusive.

Bryan Johnson retired from KOMO a few years ago. He says the legend of Cooper endures because so many of the specific details of the case are still so compelling.

“Only about $5,800 of the $200,000 was ever recovered,” Johnson said. “It was the only plane hijacking, at that point, which wasn’t for political reasons or to return to a country of origin, or to force a pilot to fly to Cuba or something of that nature.”

“This was pure money, it was well calculated, [the 727] was the only plane from which he could jump, and just like the ‘Barefoot Bandit’ of later days, D.B. Cooper was sort of the bespectacled hero of the 1971 era,” Johnson said.

Johnson also thinks the case taps some universal fantasy that some have of pulling off the perfect, victimless crime and getting away with it.

“That’s why I think people are still talking about it, because everybody thinks, ‘Could I have done that? Could I have pretended to have a bomb aboard a plane? Could I have strapped on a parachute and jumped from a plane and survived?” Johnson said.

Author and Crosscut.com columnist Knute Berger says it’s what we don’t know about D.B. Cooper that keeps the legend alive.

“I think the D.B. Cooper legacy is the mystery. Who was he? Did he survive? Why did he do it? Is he still wandering the woods of SW Washington, living in a cave with Bigfoot? ” Berger wrote in an email. “And the Northwest is a place that seems to nurture mystery – Sasquatch, flying saucers at Mt. Rainier, Ogopogo.”

Larry Finegold, now 73, is an attorney in private practice. With his Cooper story, he’s almost like a Northwest version of a Titanic survivor – one of a small group of people who took part in what became an infamous episode in history, and an even smaller subset who’ve spoken publicly about being involved.

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When asked, Finegold says there’s never been a reunion of Flight 305 passengers. And he says that as far as he knows, he’s never met a fellow passenger since that night 45 years ago, but he jokes that there might a few people out there pretending to have flown from Portland to Seattle with D.B. Cooper.

“There’s probably hundreds of people who claim that they were on the flight,” Finegold joked. “Just the way, by my calculation, about 700,000 people [were in the Kingdome] the day that Griffey scored the winning run when the Mariners finally made the playoffs.”

MyNorthwest’s Kirsten Abel contributed to this article.

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