Long before the present true-crime boom, a 1971 unsolved skyjacking captivated America. TV newsman Tom Colbert’s journey to fix the mystery (and offer his story to Hollywood) led him down a hare hole. The concern is: exactly how deep would certainly he go?


For several days in might 2013, the Hollywood sting operation surveilled the grandfather at the condominium he sometimes common with his ex-wife in the tony mountain Diego district of Bankers Hill. A $30,000-a-week exclusive security group, armed because they understood their subject a hostile threat, watched his activities aboard the 45-foot cruiser poverty Sucks, docked nearby. They tracked him at his boat shop, Coronado Precision Marine. And they followed him come his neighborhood P.O. Box. Once they feel confident the they’d clocked his routine, they sent out in Tom Colbert, the veteran newsman who’d rental them. That wore a wire and also a concealed camera in his glasses.

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They’d opted for an ambush after your target, a decorated Vietnam veteran whose extensive training consisted of psy ops, didn’t bite on Colbert’s initial cover plan: to tempt him v the market of consultant work on a fictitious TV show about a group of mercenaries, in the vein that The A-Team or The Expendables. “I’d thought, ‘Why don’t we try to carry out our own Argo?"” he recalls. Colbert had grown encouraged that this old U.S. Military soldier v a distinctive criminal record, Robert W. Rackstraw, was in truth D.B. Cooper, who in 1971 skyjacked a Boeing 727 and also then — v $200,000 in ransom money — parachuted indigenous the plane into the Pacific Northwest night and also enduring American myth.




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At the watercraft shop, Colbert got straight to it, rolling out a chart the size of a table, which drew links in between Rackstraw and the ransom. “Why room you in the middle of this, Bob?” Colbert said, before switching gears come a sales pitch, giving a pair of $10,000 cashier’s check made out in Rackstraw’s surname if he’d authorize over his story rights for a to plan documentary and also accompanying book. Colbert, a figure with a long background in Hollywood’s true story business, explained that he currently had sufficient material for his job to do it viable, however he’d much prefer Rackstraw’s participation. There’d be more paydays when the movie and book to be released. The catch: “I want him to come clean,” says Colbert. “Several attorneys called me the most he to be going to obtain was 2 to three years. I told the he can get time served and also probation. He’d wear one ankle bracelet and also never have to buy a beer again the remainder of his life.”

Rackstraw wouldn’t commit. Therefore Colbert later emailed with a harder sell, advising that if he didn’t get on board, he and everyone who knows him would certainly be hounded forever. Yet if Rackstraw provided in, Colbert would certainly “work to keep your community media-free and peaceful. Authorize away and also I’ll do it all happen.”


Instead, Rackstraw turn his lawyer on Colbert. This exchange would certainly be the only direct contact between the symbiotic pair. But their spiraling feud over Rackstraw’s alleged identity, and the possible fame and also fortune come be acquired in the telling, would certainly persist for an additional six years. Just Rackstraw’s happen in July — the a love condition, at 75 — would change their deadlocked calculus.

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The ballad that Rackstraw and also Colbert is a lesson in the lures and also dangers of chasing the reality while also chasing a Hollywood deal.

Decades prior to today’s true-crime boom and also the neo-vigilantism that The Jinx and Serial, there was D.B. Cooper. The secret — who was he and what occurred to him? — has been a pop society obsession ever before since. It’s been referenced in song lyrics (everyone from boy Rock come MF Doom) and also been the topic of function films — act Williams play Cooper and Robert Duvall an insurance investigator chasing him in 1981’s crime thriller The quest of D.B. Cooper; a camping trip trying to find the Cooper cash was at the center of 2004’s Without a Paddle. Kyle MacLachlan’s protagonist in Pacific Northwest drama twin Peaks is maybe not coincidentally called Dale Bartholomew Cooper, and during Mad Men the theory that Don Draper had been the skyjacker ended up being so noisy the showrunner Matthew Weiner had to debunk it.

The skyjacking developed Nov. 24, 1971. Once the aircraft was in the air, a man wearing dark sunglasses who’d purchase a ticket in ~ Portland’s airplane under the alias Dan Cooper — later on misreported together D.B. Cooper — called a trip attendant he had actually a bomb. That demanded that the ransom money and also four parachutes be yielded to him when the plane landed in Seattle.

The passengers to be exchanged for the ransom. After ~ refueling, Cooper signaled a course because that Mexico in ~ the minimum feasible speed, opened the aft door and also plunged into the wilderness. (The aircraft then landing safely in Reno.)

Cooper skyjacked in one unrecognizable America, when planes were still tantamount to s liners with wings and passengers still smoked onboard with abandon. The adhering to year the FAA approve emergency rules requiring the screening of passengers and their carry-on baggage. His escapade, in addition to a spike in copycat skyjackings the complying with year — part by military veterans v parachuting suffer — were the catalyst because that the contemporary security apparatus that currently envelopes air travel.

Nearly fifty percent a century on, Cooper remains a mystery. Only Amelia Earhart and also Jimmy Hoffa competitor his organize on the public imagination. And also as with those others, a cottage sector of sleuths has arisen approximately the case. Call it the Coopersphere.

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At its center is 62-year-old Colbert, who cases to have spent $250,000 in his find to unmask the criminal, initially expecting he’d make his money ago in a couple of years ~ above book and also movie deals. An affable, exuberant personality — Tom Arnold concerns mind — who currently resides in Ventura County, Colbert is a colorful, old-school newsroom specimen. He functioned as a field producer and researcher alongside then up-and-comers Paula Zahn, Ann Curry and also Lester Holt at KCBS. (Another partner from the period, Connie Chung, says she is unsurprised by Colbert’s Cooper hunt, offered his “indefatigable curiosity to i found it the truth.”)


After a sour follow-up insignificant heading up research study for syndicated tabloid present Hard Copy, Colbert started a service that listed clients (news programs, talent agencies, studios) through leads top top developable true-life stories. “There are these human being called story brokers,” CBS News president Susan Zirinsky once observed of together middlemen once she to be executive producer that 48 Hours. “I have uncovered some dealings with few of the brokers to be grotesque.” Yet through Colbert, she emphasized in ~ the time, “everything is over board.”

His pipeline yielded dozens the discoveries, which were turned into function films such together 1996’s Fly far Home and also 2012’s The Vow. He’d acquired the idea for the firm after a news investigation he’d worked on, around a baby brokering ring, was turned into a 1994 movie ~ above CBS starring Cybill Shepherd. (There to be a Colbert stand-in with a mustache he still disproves of: “They make me look prefer Geraldo.”) Chasing stranger-than-fiction story of American life is deeply ingrained in his very own life: the met his wife, Dawna, then a country-western singer, ~ she resolved her mother’s murder by finding proof that identified her father together the culprit. That story was additionally dramatized by CBS, in 1997, together Deep household Secrets.

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Colbert gotten in the Coopersphere in 2011, once a source tipped him off that part cash discovered near one Oregon riverbank in 1980 was planted there in a scheme by the skyjacker to mislead authorities. Colbert sought the cause Rackstraw, at that point living in san Diego. Rackstraw right the established FBI profile as well as any Cooper contender. It wasn’t just that his old images looked reasonably choose the sketch. While a soldier, he’d trained in demolition and also parachuting, so he’d know just how to make a bomb and also jump out of a plane. He likewise had a potential motive, having actually at the time of the skyjacking only recently been kicked the end of the army for lying about finishing high school. Most tantalizing, the FBI had looked closely at the in the 1970s, when he’d had a series of run-ins v the law. In ~ one point, he to be charged through the murder of his stepfather — and also acquitted. Through 1979, while hosted on fees of check-kiting, possession the explosives and, of all things, theft that a little plane, he to be asked in a TV interview about the rumor that he was Cooper. “Could have actually been,” he wryly responded, “could have actually been.” This verbal footsie had actually been his M.O. Ever since.

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Rackstraw spent the following several decades living a quiet life, return Colbert insurance claims his inquiry found that, privately, he would certainly brag to household members and also friends that he was Cooper. Rackstraw’s attorney has explained that if his customer ever stated such things they to be wisecracks about his publicly reputation, not factual admissions.

Colbert advanced his theory over number of years, assembling a body of ideas with the help of dozens of retirement police, army vets, former government lawyers and also others he’d grew during his media career. Castle lent their specialization on a volunteer basis; he came to refer come them as his Cold case Team. “I’d call them in their rowboats, on your golf courses, in your La-Z-Boys,” that says. “My key was, ‘I’ve found Cooper, I simply need to nail him down.’ ”