Man Who Stole and Crashed Seattle Plane Was 'Quiet' and 'Well-Liked'
At about 7:32pm PT on Friday night, 29-year-old airline employee Richard "Beebo" Russell jumped in the cockpit of a Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 aircraft at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. He took off, unauthorized, and crashed it about an hour later on Ketron Island, killing himself.
Relatives of Russell, who worked for three and a half years as a ground services employee for Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air at Sea-Tac, said they were caught entirely off-guard by his dramatic suicide.
"This is a complete shock to us," Russell's family said in a statement on Saturday night, adding that they were "stunned and heartbroken" by his actions. “It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” the family's statement read. “As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone. He was right in saying that there are so many people who have loved him.”
The family statement also noted that Russell was "a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend."
A former supervisor at Horizon Air, Rick Christenson, said Russell was “a quiet guy” who “seemed like he was well liked by the other workers.” “I feel really bad for Richard and for his family. I hope they can make it through this,” Chrstenson told the Seattle Times.
Tim Orr, who had been Russell's friend since they were both 12 and also worked at Sea-Tac airport, told the New York Times Russell had been frustrated that they weren't earning the $15 per hour minimum wage some other airport workers are paid and sometimes spoke about quitting.
Orr said Russell was the “funniest person in the room. Nicest person in the room.”
In what seems to be his personal blog, Russell says he was born in Key West, Florida, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, when he was 7 years old. He went to school in Coos Bay, Oregon, where he met his wife, Hannah, in 2010. The two were married a year later and opened a bakery, which they ran for three years. In 2015, the couple decided to move to Washington state to be closer to family. "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," Russell wrote on the blog.
New Security Concerns
As a ground service agent, Russell was responsible for directing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, handling baggage and tidying and de-icing planes, authorities told CNN. He passed a series of background checks to secure the job, and he had no criminal convictions, Alaska Airlines said.
He was qualified to tow aircraft as well, said Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck, but officials aren't sure how he knew how to fly a plane.
Security officials at airports across the US are also now investigating how Russell could have boarded the 76-seat aircraft alone in order to steal it and crash it. Russell was credentialed to be in secure areas of the airport, Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden says, but experts say he shouldn't have been able to get aboard the aircraft unsupervised.
"There is a protocol to not allow anyone singularly to get onboard an aircraft," David Soucie, a safety analysis for CNN, said. "If you're going to access the aircraft ... you make sure that you check with someone else, and that someone else (will confirm) that ... you have the right authority to get onto that aircraft."
The fact that Russell was able to steal an aircraft exposes holes in security on the "secure side" of an airport -- where screened staff and crew work behind the scenes and have access to the aircraft.
The FBI's Seattle field office will lead an investigation into the matter, aided by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration. As of now, the FBI is not calling the matter an act of terrorism.