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FBI: Richard Russell Crashed Plane Intentionally After Unauthorized Flight

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

Richard Russell, the Pierce County man who stole a commercial airplane from Sea-Tac Airport in August, crashed intentionally into a small island in Puget Sound, an incident the Pierce County medical examiner's office has ruled a suicide, FBI officials said Friday.

Russell, 28, acted alone and had no formal flight training, FBI officials said in a statement that capped a three-month investigation. While he searched online for "flight instructional videos," there were no signs he underwent any further informal training, investigators said.

An employee of Horizon Air, Russell was authorized to be around and inside the Q400 airplane and was familiar with the aircraft's auxiliary power unit and how to tow and maneuver it on the ground, FBI officials said. The incident has prompted officials at Sea-Tac Airport and its airlines to review security procedures.

On the evening of Aug. 10, Russell climbed into the aircraft, took off, and performed loops and stunts over Puget Sound for more than an hour while being chased by F-15 military jets. 

Investigators had wondered whether Russell intentionally or accidently crashed into Ketron Island, located off Steilacoom. FBI officials said their investigation points to an intentional crash. 

The aircraft appeared to be under control as it plummeted toward the island, investigators 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," FBI officials said in the statement. 

Russell's precise reasons for stealing and crashing the plane remain unclear, investigators said.

"Although investigators received information regarding Russell’s background, possible stressors, and personal life, no element provided a clear motivation for Russell’s actions," the statement said.

Investigators said they interviewed Russell's family, friends, and colleagues — and reviewed text messages Russell exchanged during the flight — and found no evidence his actions were related to "wider criminal activity or terrorist ideology," FBI officials said.

"Given the death of Russell and his lack of co-conspirators, the FBI will not be pursuing federal charges," the statement said.

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.