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Sea-Tac plane thief acted alone and crashed on purpose, FBI report says

Errant path of stolen plane frightens local residents

Quick videography by local residents – John Waldron, Kathleen Treichel and Skylar Jacobson – produced vivid documentation of the plane stolen by a ground crew member at Sea-Tac Airport veering frighteningly close to homes in the South Sound.
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Quick videography by local residents – John Waldron, Kathleen Treichel and Skylar Jacobson – produced vivid documentation of the plane stolen by a ground crew member at Sea-Tac Airport veering frighteningly close to homes in the South Sound.

The FBI said Friday that a Sumner man acted alone in stealing an Alaska Airlines plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in August and intentionally crashed the aircraft on Ketron Island in Pierce County.

“Evidence collected during the course of the investigation indicates Richard Russell, 28, of Sumner, Washington, piloted the aircraft and that the final descent to the ground was intentional,” the agency said in a statement. “Extensive investigative activity failed to reveal any additional subject(s) involved in the planning or execution of the unauthorized flight.”

Russell, a Horizon Air ground crew member who went by the nickname “Beebo,” was killed in the Aug. 10 crash. No one else was hurt.

He had access to planes and tow equipment at the airport, the FBI said.

The agency’s time line has Russell coming to work about 2:30 p.m. and about five hours later getting into the 76-passenger plane, starting it, then using a tow vehicle to point the plane to the airfield, and taking off.

He crashed the turboprop at 8:46 p.m. after doing acrobatic stunts as two fighter jets flew alongside him.

“The FBI investigation did not reveal that Russell received any formal flight training,” the statement said. “However, investigators learned that Russell was familiar with the checklist of actions for starting an airplane. Investigators were also aware of Internet searches Russell performed for flight instructional videos.

“Investigators did not uncover any conclusive evidence to suggest further, informal flight training.”

Courtney Jensen Junka recorded this dramatic footage of the turboprop passenger plane stolen from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport flying low over Eatonville. The plane eventually crashed and caught fire on Ketron Island near Steilacoom Friday.

The voice recorder in the cockpit did not reveal anything significant besides Russell’s conversation with air traffic control, which has already been widely publicized, the FBI said.

During the hour-long flight Russell also talked about his loved ones with air-traffic controllers.

“I would like to apologize to each and every one of them,” he said. “Just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose. Never knew it until now.”

According to flight recorder data, the statement said: “If the pilot had wanted to avoid impact with the ground he had time and energy to pull the column back, raise the nose, and initiate a climb.”

Interviews with coworkers and loved ones, as well as text messages with Russell during the flight, do not indicate why he stole the plane, the FBI said.

There’s nothing to suggest the theft “was related to wider criminal activity or terrorist ideology,” the statement said. “Although investigators received information regarding Russell’s background, possible stressors, and personal life, no element provided a clear motivation for Russell’s actions.”

Alaska Airlines has said Russell was authorized to be on the tarmac at Sea-Tac Airport and inside planes, and that no security protocols were violated. His work as a ground agent included handling baggage, tidying airplanes and operating tow vehicles to move aircraft.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell
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