FBI investigation: Man who stole passenger plane acted alone; motive a mystery

The FBI has completed its investigation into an incident where a man stole a Horizon Air plane from Sea-Tac Airport and took it on a wild, 75-minute flight before crashing on a small island in Pierce County, Washington.

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The investigation concluded that 28-year-old Richard Russell of Sumner, a Horizon ground crew employee at Sea-Tac, intentionally crashed the plane on Ketron Island Aug. 10. Russell was killed in the crash, and the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the manner of death was suicide.

"I think I'm going to try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good I'll go nose down and call it a night," Russell said from the cockpit, according to a recording of his conversation with an air traffic controller.

"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," the FBI report said.

The report also said that agents never found a clear motivation for the theft.

The investigation found that Russell made no phone calls from the stolen plane that addressed a motive and the cockpit voice recorder captured no sounds that were not already broadcast on the radio.

KIRO-TV spoke with Russell's friend and former co-worker, Robert Reeves, who said Russell was a hard worker who loved aviation, but he admits Russell was unhappy with his pay.

"He was getting really stressed about the financial situation he was in. He's worked at Horizon longer than I did, and he still wasn't making $15 an hour,” Reeves said.

During the flight he told the air traffic controller he "wasn't really planning on landing" the aircraft, and he described himself as "just a broken guy." “

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

"Interviews with work colleagues, friends, and family—and review of text messages exchanged with Russell during the incident—did not identify any information that would suggest the theft of the aircraft was related to wider criminal activity or terrorist ideology," the report said.

The FBI found Russell was familiar with the checklist for starting the plane and searched the internet for flight instruction videos. Agents say they found no evidence he had any pilot training, formal or informal, and that he acted alone.

“Extensive investigative activity failed to reveal any additional subject(s) involved in the planning or execution of the unauthorized flight.”

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