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He was a jokester who complained about his job, but friends are still baffled by his fatal airplane heist

  • Author: David Gutman and Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times
  • Updated: August 20
  • Published August 19

“I never thought I would work as a Ground Service Agent (GSA) for an Airlines company. I always felt bad for the guys and gals who handled luggage. 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…” (Richard Russell blog)

Alio Fan woke up last Saturday morning and clicked on a voice recording someone had sent him. It was his childhood friend, Richard Russell, talking to air traffic controllers, a conversation that was then broadcast all over the world.

"Rolling out of bed and hearing his voice," Fan recalled, "My initial reaction was 'oh what kind of prank is he playing. This is going to be hilarious.'"

The Russell he knew had always been a jokester, the class clown. "I just thought it was another one of his jokes," Fan said.

A week after Russell stole a 76-seat passenger plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, traversing the Puget Sound region for more than an hour before crashing to his death on Ketron Island, there are few hints as to why he did it or how he was able to fly a commercial airplane. Friends and former colleagues can't comprehend how the smart, funny, quiet man they knew could have carried out such a shocking heist.

Mike Criss, a family friend from Wasilla, whose son had been close friends with Russell since second grade, said that he'd last talked to Russell in February.

"He sounded just perfectly fine," Criss, referring to Russell by his nickname, told the Anchorage Daily News, which worked in cooperation with The Seattle Times on this story. "Just the same old Beebo."

Criss said his son talked to Russell the week before the crash and nothing seemed amiss.

Russell's family has declined to comment beyond a statement issued the day after the crash. "This is a complete shock to us," his family wrote.

A man who answered the door at the Graham home of Russell's mother-in-law Wednesday made it clear that the family did not intend to comment further.

David Odell, pastor at Russell's Auburn church, also declined to discuss Russell, citing the family's wishes. "In the statement where it says it's a complete shock, it's just 100 percent true," Odell said.

"Eager to experiment"

Russell, 29, was born in Key West, Florida, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, when he was 7, according to a blog he created for an online communications class at Washington State University. Criss said that Russell never talked about planes or flying as a kid.

He played football and competed in track and field at Wasilla High School, according to a local newspaper, graduating in 2008. He moved to Coos Bay, Oregon, attending Southwestern Oregon Community College, where he met Hannah Stracener at a church gathering in 2010. They married a year later and then opened a bakery that they ran together for three years.

They rose together at 5 a.m., preparing breads and pastries in a shop that was little more than an oven, a sink and a couple counters, according to an article at the time from the Coos Bay World.  They had different personalities. Hannah, who had gone to culinary school, was "detail oriented" and ran the show, the newspaper reported, while her husband was more laid-back and "eager to experiment with new and wild recipes."

They moved to Sumner in 2015, to be nearer to her family, Russell wrote on the blog, and he got a job working for Horizon Air. He also enrolled at WSU, and graduated in 2017 with a degree in social sciences, the registrar said.

Russell was a ground-service agent at Horizon, part of a two-person "tow team" that turned around airplanes. He was regularly alone in cockpits, for stretches that ranged from 10 to 45 minutes. He turned on planes' auxiliary power units (essentially the battery), communicated with air traffic controllers and would have used the planes' brakes in an emergency, but would never have turned on the engines or propellers, former co-workers said.

Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney and former inspector general of the Department of Transportation, noted that pilots are never alone in the cockpit, always required to be joined by a colleague, but ground-service agents enter the cockpit alone, with their partner driving the pushback tractor on the ground.

Russell's dramatic theft and crash prompted increased security checks at Sea-Tac and calls for a nationwide review of security measures.

"Chalk it up to that"

Former co-workers describe a quiet, friendly guy who read a lot and liked the free travel perks that came with working for an airline. But four former ground-service agents who worked with him keyed in on one line from the cockpit recording, a complaint about wages and a dig at management.

"Minimum wage, we'll chalk it up to that," Russell said on the flight radio to air traffic controllers. "Maybe that will grease some gears a little bit with the higher-ups."

Russell's former co-workers described Horizon as an often unpleasant place to work, where workers were pushed hard, underappreciated and carried a sense of grievance that they were paid less than SeaTac's much-publicized $15 an hour minimum wage.

It's a complaint that Russell himself echoed in social-media postings, noting the dichotomy between a grueling, low-paying job and the globe-trotting trips that the job let him take.

"I never thought I would work as a ground service agent," Russell wrote. "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 … I would like to dedicate this blog to the life of a 'ramper' and highlight the remarkable contrast between our work and rest."

In a video Russell made, he focused on the flight benefits that came with his job, which he used for a trip to France and frequent trips home to Alaska. He also wrote about his hopes for the future, which included being a manager at the company or becoming a military officer.

Fan, who last saw his childhood friend last year when they met up for a night of pizza and beer in Las Vegas, said the travel benefits were important to Russell.

"He wanted to help out his family the best he could by, A, making money and then, B, so his mom and family could travel around," Fan said.

But another posting, again for Russell's communications class, hinted at a dissatisfaction with his job, albeit one that's common in many workplaces.

Russell was interviewing several unidentified co-workers about how they liked working at Horizon.

"I enjoy that it is a physical job with a lot of different tasks you can partake in. I enjoy the flexibility of the schedule and the flight benefits," one co-worker told Russell. "I do not enjoy management."

"Agreed," Russell said.

Brandon Brown, who worked as a Horizon ground-service agent for six years, before leaving in 2017, said he used to talk with Russell about trips they would take. Russell, he said, was always friendly and was always reading in what little down time they had.

"Every time he'd come into work he'd always have a stack full of books," said Brown, who didn't recall the titles. "He was the nicest guy. Sometimes you can work at places and some of the people there you'd think something was a little off with them, I never in a million years thought that about him. I just don't understand."

SeaTac was the first city in the country to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, paving the way for much larger cities like Seattle, San Francisco and New York.

But SeaTac's law didn't cover everybody — specifically it doesn't apply to airline employees, like Horizon ground-service agents.

Brown said the starting wage for ground-service agents was about $12 an hour.

"It didn't sit well with people," Brown said. "You had people up working in the restaurants, everybody else at the airport made $15."

Horizon declined to discuss wages either for Russell or for his employment position and didn't answer questions about the workplace culture or complaints raised by employees.

"Our focus continues to be supporting our employees, providing support for his family and cooperating fully with the investigation," Horizon spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said. "It wouldn't be appropriate to speculate on his motives."

One Horizon flight attendant said she expected to see and hear from management the day after the heist and crash. But, she said, that didn't happen. Instead she found root-beer floats from the company in the break room.  Egan said the airline has been providing food, grief counselors and emotional-support animals to employees.

Horizon ground-service agents are also one of the few nonunionized groups of tarmac workers at Sea-Tac.

"We were overworked, extremely underpaid," said Austin Duerr, who worked for Horizon from 2007 to 2012. "We talk about workplace culture, what is the culture of an organization? If there was one word or two words, it would be dysfunctional and toxic."

Another former ground-service agent, who worked with Russell but asked to remain anonymous because he still works at the airport, said ramp agents talked about their wages on the tarmac "all the time."

"This is going to sound bad, but I'm kind of surprised it took as long as it did before something happened," the former worker said.

"Just a broken guy"

But lots of people get pushed at work, wish they were paid more and complain about management. They don't steal airplanes.

Fan, Russell's childhood friend, remains in disbelief that his friend actually did this. And Russell's description of himself on the cockpit audio — "just a broken guy, got a few screws loose I guess, never really knew it until now" — is at odds with Fan's memories of his friend.

He remembers growing up in Wasilla, camping and video games and building forts in the woods. They tried to recreate "The Lord of the Rings" and invented a game called "poop ball," that involved paint, spinning chairs, a crutch and an oar. He never talked about any mental-health issues, Fan said.

"He was always happy, every time we saw him, it was like he had these giant ear-to-ear grins," Fan said. "Myself, my friends, everybody, we've been talking to each other and we're all like, 'Why?' I don't understand."

Anchorage Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed to this story, along with Seattle Times staff reporters Lewis Kamb and Agueda Pacheco-Flores and news researcher Miyoko Wolf.

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