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


For numerous days in might 2013, the Hollywood sting operation surveilled the grandfather at the condo he sometimes shared 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 topic a hostile threat, watched his motions aboard the 45-foot cruiser poverty Sucks, docked nearby. Lock tracked him in ~ his watercraft shop, Coronado Precision Marine. And also they adhered to him to his local P.O. Box. Once they feeling confident that they’d clocked his routine, they sent out in Tom Colbert, the veteran newsman who’d hired them. He wore a wire and a surprise camera in his glasses.

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They’d opted because that an ambush after your target, a decorated Vietnam veteran whose comprehensive training consisted of psy ops, didn’t bite top top Colbert’s original cover plan: to entice him with the market of consultant job-related on a fictitious TV show around a group of mercenaries, in the vein that The A-Team or The Expendables. “I’d thought, ‘Why don’t we try to perform our own Argo?"” he recalls. Colbert had actually grown encouraged that this old U.S. Army soldier with a distinctive criminal record, Robert W. Rackstraw, to be in fact D.B. Cooper, that in 1971 skyjacked a Boeing 727 and then — v $200,000 in ransom money — parachuted indigenous the airplane into the Pacific Northwest night and enduring American myth.




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At the watercraft shop, Colbert acquired straight to it, rolling out a chart the size of a table, which drew links in between Rackstraw and also the ransom. “Why are you in the middle of this, Bob?” Colbert said, prior to switching gears come a sales pitch, supplying a pair the $10,000 cashier’s check made the end in Rackstraw’s name if he’d authorize over his story legal rights for a planned documentary and accompanying book. Colbert, a figure with a long history in Hollywood’s true story business, explained that he currently had sufficient material because that his task to do it viable, however he’d much prefer Rackstraw’s participation. There’d be additional paydays when the movie and book were released. The catch: “I want him to come clean,” says Colbert. “Several attorneys told me the most he to be going to obtain was two to three years. Ns told him he can get time served and probation. He’d wear an ankle bracelet and never need to buy a beer again the rest of his life.”

Rackstraw wouldn’t commit. So Colbert later emailed with a harder sell, advising the if the didn’t acquire on board, he and everyone who knows him would certainly be hounded forever. However if Rackstraw offered in, Colbert would certainly “work to keep your ar media-free and peaceful. Authorize away and also I’ll make it all happen.”


Instead, Rackstraw turn his lawyer on Colbert. This exchange would certainly be the only straight contact in 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 another six years. Only Rackstraw’s passing in July — the a heart condition, in ~ 75 — would change their deadlocked calculus.

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The ballad of Rackstraw and Colbert is a class in the lures and also dangers the chasing the truth while likewise chasing a Hollywood deal.

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

The skyjacking emerged Nov. 24, 1971. Once the aircraft was in the air, a guy wearing dark sunglasses who’d to buy a ticket in ~ Portland’s plane under the alias Dan Cooper — later misreported together D.B. Cooper — told a trip attendant he had actually a bomb. The demanded that the ransom money and four parachutes be delivered to him as soon as the airplane landed in Seattle.

The passengers were exchanged because that the ransom. ~ refueling, Cooper signaled a course for Mexico in ~ the minimum feasible speed, opened the aft door and also plunged right into the wilderness. (The plane then landed safely in Reno.)

Cooper skyjacked in one unrecognizable America, when planes to be still tantamount to s liners through wings and passengers quiet smoked onboard through abandon. The complying with year the FAA approve emergency rule requiring the screening of passengers and also their carry-on baggage. His escapade, along with a spike in copycat skyjackings the complying with year — part by army veterans v parachuting suffer — to be the catalyst for the modern-day security device that now envelopes waiting travel.

Nearly fifty percent a century on, Cooper remains a mystery. Just Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa rival his host on the general public imagination. And also as through those others, a cottage industry of sleuths has actually arisen about the case. Contact 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, at first expecting he’d make his money ago in a couple of years ~ above book and also movie deals. One affable, exuberant personality — Tom Arnold comes to mind — who now 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 Lester Holt in ~ KCBS. (Another colleague from the period, Connie Chung, claims she is unsurprised by Colbert’s Cooper hunt, provided his “indefatigable curiosity to uncover the truth.”)


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

His pipeline yielded dozens that discoveries, which were turned into attribute films such as 1996’s Fly far Home and also 2012’s The Vow. He’d obtained the idea because that the firm after a news examination he’d functioned on, about a infant brokering ring, to be turned into a 1994 movie on CBS certification Cybill Shepherd. (There to be a Colbert stand-in v a mustache that still disproves of: “They make me look prefer Geraldo.”) Chasing stranger-than-fiction tales of American life is deep ingrained in his very own life: he met his wife, Dawna, then a country-western singer, after ~ she resolved her mother’s murder by finding proof that identified her father as the culprit. That story was additionally dramatized by CBS, in 1997, together Deep family members Secrets.

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Colbert gone into the Coopersphere in 2011, when a source tipped him off that part cash found near an Oregon riverbank in 1980 was planted over there in a plan by the skyjacker to mislead authorities. Colbert gone after the result in Rackstraw, at that suggest living in mountain Diego. Rackstraw right the created FBI profile and also any Cooper contender. It wasn’t simply that his old images looked reasonably favor the sketch. If a soldier, he’d trained in demolition and parachuting, therefore he’d know just how to make a bomb and jump the end of a plane. He additionally had a potential motive, having at the time of the skyjacking only freshly been kicked out of the army for lying around finishing high school. Most tantalizing, the FBI had looked closely at him in the 1970s, when he’d had a collection of run-ins with the law. In ~ one point, he to be charged through the killing of his stepfather — and acquitted. By 1979, while organized on dues of check-kiting, possession that explosives and, of all things, theft the a tiny plane, he was asked in a TV interview around the rumor that he was Cooper. “Could have been,” he wryly responded, “could have been.” This verbal footsie had been his M.O. Ever before since.

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Rackstraw invested the next several decades living a quiet life, return Colbert insurance claims his inquiry found that, privately, he would brag to household members and also friends the he to be Cooper. Rackstraw’s lawyer has defined that if his customer ever said such points they to be wisecracks about his windy reputation, not factual admissions.

Colbert advanced his concept over numerous years, assembling a human body of ideas with the assist of dozens of retired police, armed forces vets, previous government lawyers and others he’d cultivated during his media career. They lent their field of expertise on a volunteer basis; he pertained to refer to them together his Cold case Team. “I’d call them in your rowboats, on their golf courses, in their La-Z-Boys,” that says. “My pitch was, ‘I’ve discovered Cooper, I just need to nail him down.’ ”