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FBI: Human Remains Found On Island Where Stolen Plane Crashed; Family 'Heartbroken'

YouTube screenshot / Richard Russell
A screenshot of Richard Russell taken from a YouTube video he posted about his job as a ground service agent for Horizon Air

This story was updated at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 12.

Investigators said Sunday night they’ve recovered human remains from the site where a commercial airplane crashed during an unauthorized flight out of Sea-Tac Airport. 

Richard Russell, 29, of Sumner, is presumed dead in the crash. Family members identified him as the man who took off with the otherwise empty plane without permission Friday night before crashing on a small island in Puget Sound.

Officials with the FBI confirmed their investigation “thus far has centered on” Russell, but said they’re awaiting official confirmation of his identity from the Pierce County medical examiner’s office. 

FBI officials say they’ve also recovered the plane’s flight data recorder and components of the cockpit voice recorder. 

Russell’s family described him as "kind and gentle" and a "warm, compassionate man” in a statement released to the media.

He worked as a ground service agent, handling luggage and towing aircraft for Horizon Air.

Russell took off in a Horizon Air Q400 turboprop plane Friday night and performed stunts over the course of an hour while being chased by F-15 military jets.

He then crashed in the woods of Ketron Island, off the shores of Steilacoom.

No one else is believed to have been injured.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department described Russell as "suicidal" in a tweet Friday night, though it remains unknown whether he intended to crash the plane at that moment or lost control. A separate tweet from the sheriff's department said the crash may have been caused by "doing stunts" or "a lack of flying skills." 

In a recording, Russell can be heard telling air traffic controllers, “I wasn’t really planning on landing it.” 

The FBI has taken over the investigation, with assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

FBI personnel are interviewing Russell's co-workers and family members, Jay Tabb, the special agent who leads the FBI's Seattle office, said in a news conference Saturday.

Russell, who used the nickname "Beebo" on social media, was in touch with air traffic controllers who can be heard in recordings calmly trying to convince him to land the plane.

He did not explain his intentions. 
"I've got a lot of people that care about me," Russell is heard telling air traffic controllers in recordings of the exchange. "It's going to disappoint them to hear that I did this."

"I'd like to apologize to each and every one of them," he continued. "Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now." 

Family members said they were "stunned and heartbroken."

"As the voice recordings show, Beebo's intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him," their statement said. 

"He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend," the statement continued. "A childhood friend remarked that Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met." 

Russell wrote in a blog post that he was born in Key West, Florida, and moved at age seven to Wasilla, Alaska. 

His Facebook page says he was married in 2012. Russell wrote in the blog post that he met his wife while they were going to school in Coos Bay, Oregon. The post says they ran a bakery for three years before moving to Sumner, to be close to his wife's family, in 2015.

Russell wrote he took a job at Horizon Air so he could take trips through the airline's parent company, Alaska Airlines. 

"In this season of  life we enjoy exploring as much as possible, whether it's a day (or so) trip to one of Alaska Airline’s destinations, or visiting a new area of Washington," he wrote. "We consider ourselves bakery connoisseurs and have to try a new one every place we go."

Russell described his job in a lighthearted YouTube video posted in December.

"I'm a ground service agent," he said. "That means I lift a lot of bags. Like, a lot of bags. So many bags." 

Credit YouTube screenshot / Richard Russell
A screenshot from a YouTube video posted by Richard Russell

He said his job required him to work outside in the rain, but it allowed him "to do some pretty cool things, too."

The video shows clips and photos of trips: sightseeing in Alaska, skiing in Idaho, a road trip in France, a hurling match in Ireland. 

"Most importantly, I get to visit those I love most," Russell narrates over photos of weddings and an outdoor gathering.

Russell's blog described his work for a Washington State University communications class. He wrote that he was pursuing a bachelor's degree in "social sciences" so he could "seek a management position where I’m at now, or possibly join the military as an officer."

Russell, who began working at Horizon Air in February 2015, had undergone a background check and was allowed to be in the area where he accessed the plane, Alaska Airlines officials said. 

"The doors to the airplane are not keyed like a car," Alaska Airlines chief executive Brad Tilden said in a news conference Saturday. "There's not an ignition key like there would be in a car."

"The setup in aviation in America is we secure the airfield," Tilden said. "And the mindset is we have employees who are authorized and credentialed to be there to do their various job responsibilities."

Russell used a pushback tractor to rotate the plane around so he could taxi it into the runway. He did not have a pilot's license, but was nonetheless able start the plane's engine by throwing a series of switches and levers and then perform "incredible maneuvers" in the air, said Horizon Air chief executive Gary Beck.

"To be honest with you, I mean, commercial aircraft are complex machines," Beck told reporters at the news conference. "They're not as easy to fly as, say, a Cessna 150. So I don't know how he achieved the experience that he did." 

One or more air traffic controllers can be heard trying to keep Russell calm and guide him into a safe landing. Russell spoke about doing stunts and flying past Mount Rainier and the Olympics.

“Man, have you been to the Olympics?” Russell said. “These guys are gorgeous, holy smokes.” 

“Yeah, I have been out there,” someone replied. “It’s always a nice drive.”

Russell said at another point that he was worried about running out of fuel and said, “I feel like one of my engines is going out or something.” 

“Okay Rich,” an air traffic controller said in a final exchange before losing contact. “If you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water, maybe keep the aircraft nice and low.”


Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.