Apart from the Amelia Earhart mystery and the disappearance of MH370, few aviation mysteries are as riveting as the unknown identity of DB Cooper.

Since a man by that name dramatically skyjacked a Boeing jet in 1971 and jumped out with $200,000 in cash — vanishing without a trace — the elusive DB Cooper's true identity has frustrated authorities and enthralled the public.

The case is so baffling, FBI authorities officially dropped the case a few years ago, leaving an extensive network of citizen sleuths with the task of cracking the only unsolved hijacking in America's history.

And one of those amateur detectives is adamant he's found Cooper.

Cooper's true identity has eluded investigators. Photo / Supplied
Cooper's true identity has eluded investigators. Photo / Supplied

American TV journalist Tom Colbert, 62, has told The Hollywood Reporter how he spent $367,000 on a years-long mission to prove Cooper's identity — including orchestrating a sting operation on the alleged culprit — but has been ultimately stifled by what he believes to be an FBI cover-up.


On November 24, 1971, a man known as DB Cooper boarded a Seattle-bound Northwest Orient Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon. He wore a suit, carried a suitcase, and sat in seat 18E.

Shortly after takeoff Cooper handed a note to a flight attendant, which said he was hijacking the plane and had bomb in his suitcase.

Cooper then listed his demands. Four parachutes, a fuel truck on standby at Seattle airport — where the plane was headed — and a second flight to Mexico City. He also demanded $200,000 in cash, estimated to be about $NZD1.7 million today.

Cooper opened his suitcase to reveal what the flight attendant would later describe as a battery and eight red cylinders with wires attached.

The flight crew contacted the police. As the plane approached Seattle, the FBI rushed to meet each of Cooper's demands.

Then things took another unexpected turn. After the Boeing jet touched down at Seattle airport, Cooper allowed the 36 other passengers and some crew members to disembark. He stayed on the plane and told the pilot to fly him to Mexico, low and slow.

As the jet crept towards Reno en route to Mexico, Cooper opened a rear door and, with the $200,000 cash and a parachute, jumped out. No trace of his body has ever been found, fuelling suspicions he survived the jump.

One of the parachutes left behind by Cooper and the canvas bag it came in. Photo / Supplied
One of the parachutes left behind by Cooper and the canvas bag it came in. Photo / Supplied

Hundreds of theories about Cooper's identity and whereabouts emerged over the years and a long and varied list of suspects was considered.

But as the cult status surrounding Cooper grew, formal investigations went nowhere. In 2016, after "one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations in our history", the FBI said it was abandoning the hunt for DB Cooper.

In recent years, citizen investigators have claimed a number of developments as they tried to crack the case. In 2017, scientists working for a group called Citizen Sleuths tested a tie that was left in Cooper's plane seat and found it carried traces of titanium, which, given the limited use of the metal back in 1971, led them to suspect Cooper was a Boeing employee.

A tie left behind in Cooper's aeroplane seat. Photo / Supplied
A tie left behind in Cooper's aeroplane seat. Photo / Supplied

But veteran journalist Tom Colbert says he came face-to-face with the real DB Cooper — a former soldier and boat shop owner named Robert W Rackstraw.


Colbert, a field producer and researcher for American investigation programmes, first became enthralled by the Cooper mystery eight years ago, when he was tipped off that cash found in Oregon in 1980 had been planted by Cooper to mislead authorities.

He said he traced the money to Rackstraw, who he felt fit Cooper's profile, The Hollywood Reporter said.

Rackstraw, then living in San Diego, was a former army soldier familiar with parachuting and demolition. He had a criminal history — he'd been charged, then acquitted, over the murder of his stepfather, and arrested for the theft of a small plane and the possession of explosives.

Colbert claimed Rackstraw told relatives he was Cooper. He'd also been connected with the Cooper case before. Asked in a 1979 TV interview whether he was Cooper, Rackstraw gave an ambiguous reply: "Could have been, could have been," he said.

Colbert told The Hollywood Reporter he used retired police, military veterans, former government lawyers and other sources to track down Rackstraw. "My pitch was, 'I've found Cooper, I just need to nail him down'," he said.

In 2013, Colbert tracked down Rackstraw at his boat shop in San Diego. Colbert had paid a private security team at a rate of NZD$47,500 a week to watch Rackstraw's movements. Then Colbert pounced on his target, approaching him wearing a wire and hidden camera in his glasses.

He tried to get Rackstraw to reveal he was Cooper, even offering him about NZD$31,000 if he'd sign over his story rights for a documentary and book Colbert was planning.

Deteriorated $20 notes, which were found by a boy in Washington in 1980, were thought to be part of the ransom money demanded by the hijacker. Photo / Supplied
Deteriorated $20 notes, which were found by a boy in Washington in 1980, were thought to be part of the ransom money demanded by the hijacker. Photo / Supplied

"I wanted him to come clean," Colbert told THR.

"Several attorneys told me the most he was going to get was two to three years. I told him he might get time served and probation. He'd wear an ankle bracelet and never have to buy a beer again the rest of his life."

Rackstraw denied he was Cooper and refused the offers. Rackstraw would spend years denying he was Cooper, despite Colbert's insistence.


Rackstraw died in July, aged 75. But by then Colbert had gathered 95 pieces of "physical, forensic, direct, testimonial, foundational, hearsay and documentary evidence" he said proved Rackstraw was Cooper.

He also hit some roadblocks, THR reported. The FBI agent who oversaw Cooper's case said he'd reviewed Colbert's evidence and "it didn't prove that his suspect was Dan (DB) Cooper". The flight attendant who'd dealt with Cooper on the flight said she didn't recognise Rackstraw in videos and photos shown to her.

Then the FBI dropped the case. Colbert said he felt the FBI "bushwhacked" his efforts because he was on the brink of proving the bureau should have brought a case against Rackstraw much earlier.

He also believed Rackstraw had CIA links. An investigator had decoded a letter Cooper had sent to the media after the 1971 skyjacking, which reportedly contained the phrase: "IF CATCH I AM CIA".

Colbert said he believed Rackstraw was a CIA asset, which was why the FBI stopped investigating him in the 1970s, and dropped the Cooper case when Colbert and his team got close to cracking it.

Colbert said he'd spent about $367,000 on his Cooper investigation, hoping he'd make that money back through a documentary and book. But he can't seem to get the necessary people on board.

The letter, sent in 1971, which was signed off by DB Cooper. Photo / Supplied
The letter, sent in 1971, which was signed off by DB Cooper. Photo / Supplied

"What I think is happening is that the production companies and channels that do these types of shows believe that in the future they'll need the co-operation of the FBI and they don't want to burn that bridge," Colbert's manager, TV veteran Michael London told THR.

While Rackstraw denied Colbert's claims about him, he never sued Colbert for defamation. Rackstraw's lawyer, Dennis Roberts, told the THR that was because his client had actually been behind one of many copycat skyjackings that followed Cooper's.

"It would have meant that (Rackstraw) would have to admit the second skyjack," Mr Roberts said. "He would have opened himself to a deposition."

Mr Roberts said Colbert's investigation drove Rackstraw "nuts".

"It's all bullsh*t," he said. "He's not DB Cooper."