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The quest to reveal the identity of “D.B. Cooper” — the alias of the daredevil who hijacked a Northwest Orient flight from Portland to Seattle in 1971 and parachuted out of the plane with $200,000 — has come up empty for almost 50 years.
But the mystery of the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history has fueled a cottage industry of authors, documentary makers and self-appointed sleuths who believe they’ve done what the FBI could not. Or at least want to make some money claiming they have.
On Thursday, a whole new theory emerged from Carl Laurin, an 84-year-old pet sitter who lives in DeLand, Fla. Laurin, his Michigan publishing firm announced at a news conference, has written a memoir detailing the confessions of a longtime friend who supposedly committed the crime: Walter R. Reca, a former military paratrooper and intelligence operative.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Laurin said he’d long suspected Reca was involved. “It feels like something he would do,” he said. When Reca finally acknowledged it, “I wasn’t surprised.”
One problem: Reca, who lived in Oscoda, Mich., died in 2014 at the age of 80. A second problem: The FBI closed its D.B. Cooper investigation in 2016. A third: Laurin and his publisher, Principia Media, never vetted their theories with the FBI. And a fourth issue: The FBI said it would reopen the case only if someone found any items related to the hijacker’s parachutes or money, neither of which Laurin could dig up.
Vern Jones, the publisher of Principia Media, said he was skeptical about pursuing a Cooper lead and didn’t want to fall into a conspiracy theory trap. He said his group hired a Michigan state police officer who led the investigation into Jimmy Hoffa to help vet Reca’s story.
“We didn’t go looking for this. We didn’t solicit this. We were willing to overlook the story,” Jones said. “But what kept us driving was that every time we checked something that Carl gave us or that Walter had said, everything seemed to be confirmed. We didn’t run into anything that’s not true. It was the overwhelming evidence.”
Two years ago, the big name to surface as the latest Cooper suspect was Robert “Bob” W. Rackstraw, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Southern California.
Rackstraw, now in his 70s, has always been coy with the media about whether he was Cooper, but his attorney told The Post two years ago that his client was not. The FBI had long ago dismissed Rackstraw as a suspect, but a Los Angeles-based television and film producer, Tom Colbert, latched onto him and came to believe he was the bona fide skyjacker. He approached Rackstraw multiple times and urged him to sign away his life rights so Colbert could write a book or movie and that they’d share the profits. The History Channel even aired a two-part documentary chronicling Colbert’s quest but ended the series without concluding Rackstraw was really Cooper.
— Kenneth Christiansen, a former military paratrooper who worked for Northwest Orient.
— Lynn Doyle “L.D.” Cooper, a war veteran who grew up in Oregon and worked as a logger and outdoorsman.
— Duane Weber, who claimed to be Cooper on his deathbed and whose wife contacted the FBI, which at the time believed her story because he looked like Cooper.
— Richard McCoy, a Vietnam War veteran who hijacked a plane in 1972, parachuting out with $500,000, only to be caught a few days later. (McCoy was convicted but then broke out of jail and was later killed by the FBI when agents surrounded him.)
In the case of Walter Reca, the self-appointed sleuths relied heavily on his taped confessions that he offered to his good friend, Laurin, in the years preceding his death. Reca gave his story to Laurin under the proviso that he could not air the evidence until after his death. Not once did Laurin think he should tell the FBI about his friend’s confession either before or after he died.
“He was my friend,” said Laurin, explaining that he didn’t want him to go to prison. “Let the FBI do their own investigating. They’re smart guys with lots of money.”
Asked about the possibility of Reca as Cooper, the FBI’s Seattle division office released a statement to The Post that said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on specific tips. The bureau said that suggestions still pour in but that “none to date have resulted in a definitive identification of the hijacker.” The FBI also said that the new information has “conveyed plausible theories,” but nothing has so far netted “the necessary proof of culpability beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Laurin and Reca, who both served in the military, had met in the 1950s as skydivers and remained in touch over the past several decades.
From the moment Laurin learned of the hijacking in 1971, he instantly wondered whether it was his intrepid friend, who actually had a penchant for breaking the law. Laurin said that Reca had robbed a Big Boy restaurant and a few banks in Michigan.
Later, Jones said, Reca worked as “an intelligence operative” and traveled frequently across the globe but was never specific about which agency. After years of cajoling and jesting about the Cooper case, Laurin said he finally got Reca to confess about 10 years ago that he was the infamous skyjacker.
By late 2015 — a year after Reca’s death — Laurin told his niece about his friend’s confession. The niece, Lisa McNeilley, works as a contract editor for Principia Media, and she pitched the book to her employer. Soon, the company inked a deal with Laurin.
“I would be disappointed if there weren’t any skeptics,” Jones said, laughing. “I was! I thought it was crazy. But we’re open as we can be.”
For Laurin, some of Reca’s more intriguing anecdotes were about what it was like on the plane — and trying to escape it.
“He didn’t know what kind of airplane it was,” Laurin said, adding that Reca said he’d tried to parachute out the side exit door. One airline attendant apparently told him, “Why don’t you use this one in the back. And he said, ‘Okay. I will.’ ”
Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He has covered education, criminal justice, technology and art crime. Follow
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