Story Title: The Last Master Outlaw: How he Outfoxed The FBI Six Times But Not A Cold Case Team
Authors Names: Thomas J. Colbert & Tom Szollosi
Category: Published Book
Category: Biography, True Crime
Amazon Url: Story Link
Content Rating: Teen (for a few swears)
Status: Completed, with History Channel 4-part documentary special
Length: 330 pages
Story Summary: In 1971, a skyjacker with a briefcase bomb demanded a $200,000 ransom and a parachute. Then he vanished out the jet’s back door and became an instant legend.
Now a determined citizen sleuth has assembled a forty-member cold case team, spearheaded by former FBI agents, to solve the mystery of D. B. Cooper. And after a five-year quest, they believe they have succeeded–with a fugitive at trail’s end.
The team’s relentless investigation and final confrontation with the mystery man serve as the bookends in The Last Master Outlaw. The suspect’s astonishing life story as a daredevil fills the remaining chapters, the bulk of which comes from the heartwarming, gut-wrenching accounts of six of his women–two former wives; his only sister; a befriended college coed; a “getaway gal” he met up with during two more FBI escapes, both again involving planes; and a Hollywood producer who was also his cocaine-trade partner.
Buckle your seatbelts as this Jekyll-and-Hyde ladies’ man travels through five countries, utilizing more than a dozen identities, wigs, and fake mustaches while engaging in a half-dozen careers and raising three families. Then be a witness as the cornered chameleon is forced to face the truth in front of the cameras of a dogged cold case team, which was armed and ready for any eventuality.
Left: FBI Sketch of D.B. Cooper; Right: Robert Rackstraw Army photo, taken 14-months before hijacking
One of the greatest Whodunnit mysteries of the 20th century, and the only unsolved case of air piracy in the United States, is the case of D.B. Cooper and the 1971 hijacking of a Northwest Airlines flight in the Pacific Northwest.
Briefly: on the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a Northwest flight was hijacked by a man using a suitcase bomb. He was polite, mild-mannered, released all the hostages without harming anyone, behaved compassionately toward the fearful crew, and then parachuted out of the plane over a vast wilderness, escaping with $200,000. He was never caught.
In 1980, a child camping along the Columbia River with his family found 3 bundles of the money from Cooper’s loot. Investigators at the time took that to mean that Cooper had perished in his jump. Robert W. Rackstraw, then one of their prime suspects, was cleared. They couldn’t charge a living man for a dead man’s crime, right?
The FBI officially closed the case in 2016, but said that they would reopen it if either the parachute or the ransom money were found. In August 2017, a sleuthing team headed by the principal author of this book, Thomas Colbert and his wife Dawna, acting on tips they’d received as part of their intense investigations, found what appears to be parts of the parachute Cooper used. They have turned that evidence over to the FBI, which released a statement that the Bureau would be seriously following up on this find. It is assumed that the FBI will be doing an excavation at the site of this find, as the sleuthing team believes that the parachute and what is left of the ransom money is buried there.
It was these news reports that brought “The Last Master Outlaw” to my attention. The book is fascinating and a very convincing read. I finished the book certain that Robert W. Rackstraw is D.B. Cooper, and equally certain that we’ll never get a confirmation of that until he is dead. Rackstraw is too smart to implicate himself, even though he is also proud enough of his remarkable crime that it must be chafing him not to confess to what is widely perceived as a Robin Hood story.
But don’t read this book solely because you expect to find a conviction-worthy confession from him within this book. Instead, read this book for an understanding of why Cooper hijacked that plane, what kind of background it took for him to be able to survive the experience, and what happened long-term since the hijacking. Personally, I misunderstood the goals of this book – in spite of the clarity in its title. I expected a detailed write-up on how the crime was committed and what happened next. In reality, this is about Rackstraw the conman, and how he managed to avoid prosecution.
$200,000 sounds like very little to my 2017 mind, even when converted into $1,213,226 in 2017 dollars. If you’re like me, you may therefore also be interested in knowing what Cooper did with his money and how he lived afterwards, since that can’t have been enough to go retire on a beach somewhere. And while the next few decades are covered very well, the events in the
aftermath (i.e., from the moment of the jump through the next day or two) represent one of the less elaborate sections in the book, simply because that information wasn’t available at the time of publication.
The investigators spend a lot of time on Rackstraw’s background, which explains how he so easily fits into the skill set that Cooper needed. There is also a lot of time spent on the months before and after the hijacking. What is skimmed over is the hijacking. Maybe their target audience of amateur sleuths didn’t need a lot of information there, but I was surprised by how little was covered. I kept expecting the book to come back to the events of the hijacking and explain the various theories, but that never happened.
However, I want to emphasize that just because I’m disappointed they didn’t cover those details very thoroughly, that isn’t really the fault of the authors. My expectations did not take into account the extended, boasting title of the book, The Last Master Outlaw: How He Outfoxed The FBI SIX Times But Not A Cold Case Team. This book never purported to be a detailed examination of the day of the hijacking. It’s about Rackstraw’s extremely gifted abilities as a con artist and how he managed to get away without being caught. Yes, I think there should have been a bit more time spent on the hijacking itself, because how are we to otherwise understand what exactly he needed to say and do (or, not) to avoid implicating himself? But as I’ve reflected upon this book, I think that the authors simply had a different focus – which they did an entrancing job of concisely addressing in great detail – than I had in mind.
I was frustrated, though, when the authors made a reference to forensic work that was done on the money that was found in 1980, but that part of the story was then glossed over, too. Maybe I missed something, but I never saw a write-up in this book on what the forensics report showed. I’ve had to read other articles to find out about the theories and debate on how that money could’ve drifted to where it was found. The authors are certain that the money was planted, and after reading their evidence, I believe they are probably right. (It has always struck me as odd that the rubber band was still intact.) They discuss the planting of that evidence in great detail, and it’s a captivating read. But I don’t feel fully informed on the topic as they didn’t address the forensic evidence which validates the sleuthing team’s claims by making it look so certain that the money can’t have been in the water and muck for 9 years.
After reading articles about this book and the recent evidence that was found, I had hoped that the book would explain who Rackstraw’s presumed 1971 cohorts were. Again, this was my mistake, as the info I was seeking wasn’t acquired until long after publication. One article recently stated that an informant told the sleuths that Rackstraw split the money into four parts, dividing it between himself and two accomplices, with a fourth portion planted in a first, failed attempt to make it look like DB Cooper had drowned. That same informant, according to recent news stories, seems to be the source for the location of the evidence they found in August 2017. Understandably, none of that info is in the book. Hopefully they will publish an updated version of the book in light of this info.
So if you’re interested in understanding the most likely suspect of the D.B. Cooper case, or you’re interested in stories about conmen in general, this really is a spell-binding story which I absolutely recommend. But if you are expecting it to be your primary source for understanding either the 1971 case or the 2017 investigation status, you may be disappointed. There are other books which focus on at least the former, and those are listed among the sources and reference materials of this book.
Finally, there are two aspects to this investigation that really bothered me.
First, when the flight attendants are unable to validate the author’s theory by identifying Rackstraw from a photo lineup a few years ago, there’s a rather unkind reaction. While including the first flight attendant’s caveat that after 45-years, she had a fuzzy memory about the hijacking details, when she couldn’t identify Rackstraw as D.B. Cooper, the author refers to her as a “poor woman” with a “mental-health” issue. When two other flight attendants have the same dillema, it is again blamed on the witnesses’ “mental-health.”
In a world in which the unfair stigma of mental illness can cause serious pain and repercussions, those saccharine labels seem particularly unnecessary and cruel. I interpreted them as an example of cutting someone else down to make the accuser (or in this case, the accuser’s theory) look better. The authors’ book would not have suffered from an honest explanation that it is unfair to expect such detailed recall after nearly 5 decades. I note that they didn’t accuse a different witness of mental health problems when that passenger tentatively labeled Rackstraw as D.B. Cooper, albeit while thinking that Rackstraw’s photo was actually of a different suspect (Richard McCoy).
Second, toward the end of the book, we read how the investigative team, a journalist and a camera crew confronted Rackstraw and attempted to convince him to let them take out an option* on his story, with the understanding that he would confess to the crime and tell his full side of the story exclusively to them.
Keep in mind, whether or not you think D.B. Cooper is a folk hero (I don’t), Robert Rackstraw is alleged by the authors to be a murder, a wife-beater, a gaslighting womanizer, a deadbeat dad, a drug dealer, and a vicious con artist. Even so, the authors of the book completely lose my sympathy at this point in their tale. They did not engage in good faith negotiations. Instead, they tell Rackstraw that if he won’t confess all, and give them exclusive rights to his story for $20,000, then they will publish this book (The Last Master Outlaw) with the personal information and names of his entire extended family, including his children and grandchildren. They threaten him with the media storm and harassment that will be sure to torment both Rackstraw and each of his friends and family. It struck me as uncomfortably similar to a brazen, mafia-style shakedown for protection money. (Full disclosure: I’m probably oversensitive to that possibility due to my past experiences.) In this case, the “protection money” required was for Rackstraw to implicate himself in a very serious crime, or prove his innocence to the satisfaction of this crew, who had a vested interest in proving him guilty.
This felt to me like a shameful façade of ethical journalism and business practices. Whatever Rackstraw is guilty of, his family – aka, his most frequent victims – did not deserve this. I don’t understand why the producers even thought this would be a successful form of coercion. At what point did they get the impression that Rackstraw was the type to sacrifice himself for others? The authors unabashedly detail their manipulative, aggressive, questionable behavior, yet repeatedly imply that Rackstraw forced them to be this way by refusing to be blackmailed. Rackstraw is an apparent sociopath, according to the book. What’s the authors’ excuse for their own behavior?
*Taking out an option on a person’s story (whether biographical, fictional, etc.) allows one to lease the exclusive rights to the story for a set period of time, typically 1-year. If the writer did not manage to publish the intended book and/or make the intended documentary and movie within the agreed upon timeframe, the story rights would have defaulted back to Rackstraw. The investigative team would not have been able to do anything further with the exclusive information he provided them, unless Rackstraw was willing to sign an additional Option contract. If the script had sold or been independently produced, then Rackstraw’s percentage of the resulting profits would have been additional, on top of the writer’s offered $20,000 option fee. That final percentage of the profits is negotiated in advance, when the option is signed. E.g., “I’ll rent you the rights to my story for one year at $10,000, and you will then give me 10% of the gross profits of any book, movie, TV show or other resulting enterprise.”
Edited to add: I’ve edited my wording somewhat after mulling it over and watching the first part of the 4-part History Channel special on this story. I want to make it clear that I don’t think the investigators were motivated by any kind of bigotry. I’m still troubled on those two points, with the issue of coercion particularly grating to me, thanks to my own personal background. But it would be incorrect to imply that they acted remotely on par with the criminal visciousness that Rackstraw displays. It isn’t their handling of him that I object to so much as involving his family & their privacy into the negotiations.
On another note, I’m loving their television special, “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?” Some of the background details which I whined about missing, up above, are covered in this series. The trailer is below: