Richard “Beebo” Russell loved Alaska, and working as a baggage handler was a way for him to visit the people he loved there.
Those details and others emerged Saturday about the Horizon Air employee who authorities said stole a 76-passenger plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and died when it crashed on Ketron Island.
The 29-year-old Sumner man appears to have been the only person on board, and the only person injured in the Friday night crash.
The News Tribune has learned the man was Russell.
His family put out a statement to media Saturday night that said, in part: “We are stunned and heartbroken. It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man.”
The man was not formally identified by the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office and his name had not been released by the FBI as of Saturday.
“I know there is considerable interest in the subject responsible,” FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich said in a statement, “but please be patient as we will provide details when we have thoroughly reviewed all available information.”
Horizon Air president and CEO Gary Beck said Saturday that, to his knowledge, the man who stole the plane was not a licensed pilot.
Alaska Airlines president and CEO Brad Tilden told reporters the employee started working at Horizon in February 2015.
He’d been a ground agent, baggage handler and part of the “tow team,” which moves airplanes around the tarmac. He also did work to tidy up aircraft, Tilden said.
The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reported Saturday that Russell graduated from Wasilla High School in 2008, played multiple sports there and committed as a senior to play college football at Valley City State in North Dakota.
“No, not Beebo,” Gary Howell, the longtime track and field coach at the school, told The Frontiersman when he learned of the crash. “This is not the Beebo I know. Not the Beebo I know period.”
Howell described him as “the kid you want to coach” — outgoing, a bit goofy, funny and a hard worker who stayed out of trouble.
A tradition Russell started in Wasilla’s weight room continues, the coach said.
“He started a trend — writing your name on your weight belt and what you achieved on your different lifts,” Howell said. “That still goes on. The weight belt is there with your stats.”
A website that appears to be Russell’s personal blog — a project for an online communications class at Washington State University a couple years ago — says he never thought he’d work as a ground agent.
He wrote that, once he earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, he planned to look for a management position, or maybe join the military as an officer.
“I always felt bad for the guys and gals who handled luggage,” the post says. “Every time I traveled I would look out my plane window and see these sullen looking individuals leisurely pacing around, or hectically throwing bags into a cart.
“It seemed like such miserable work and I never could imagine why anyone would want to subject themselves to all the constant noise, gas fumes, and heavy lifting.”
He goes on to say that, after apparently being hired as a baggage handler: “Luckily I was turned down on my first interview for a customer service agent position. I’ve since learned that angry people can be much more exhausting than heavy bags.”
Russell also writes about his personal life, saying he was born in Key West, Florida; moved to Wasilla, Alaska, when he was 7; and in 2011 married a women he met in Coos Bay, Oregon.
They opened a bakery, ran it for several years, then ultimately moved to Sumner to be closer to her family, he says. They took their interest in bakeries with them, visiting new ones when they traveled.
A neighbor said he didn’t know the man, but thought he recognized him when shown a social media photo Saturday.
The neighbor, 33-year-old Michael Doolittle, said he saw the man playing cards in his back yard last week.
“It looked like he was just out having fun with his buddies,” Doolittle told The News Tribune.
A YouTube video Russell appears to have made about his Horizon job shows places around the world — France, Ireland, Mexico, Idaho and across Alaska — it allowed him to see.
“Most importantly,” he says at the end of the video. “I get to visit those I love most.”
He and his wife settled on Sumner, the blog said, after he wasn’t able to convince her “of Alaska’s greatness” — the weather was rotten several times she visited.
Flight benefits with the Horizon job were a way for him to travel to Alaska to see his “beloved family and state on a regular basis,” he wrote.
Russell talked about his loved ones Friday with Air Traffic Control, while he was airborne, according to a recording posted to Broadcastify.
“I would like to apologize to each and everyone of them,” he said. “Just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose. Never knew it until now.”
His family’s statement described Russell as a “faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend,” who was “loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met.”
It went on to say: “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.”