For those who knew Russell, his final flight is still met with pain and disbelief

But it was amazing to me as I listened – that sense of not wanting to hurt anyone

“Something snapped,” says Schaefers, the former Campus Crusade adviser, who listened to the air-traffic recordings. “I heard someone who is very troubled. And I think he knew it. And it was still him. The kindness was still there. The good heartness was still there,” Schaefers says. “Obviously, leaving people behind was very harmful,” he adds. “But that’s a different aspect.”

Danny Punturo, Russell’s stepbrother, agreed in a 2018 TV interview: “My only hypothetical that kinda fits is possibly injuries from playing football,” he said

Russell’s family released a statement after his death. “Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” it said. “He was a faithful husband, a loving man, and a good friend.” They described their “complete shock” at his actions and thanked Jesus for holding the family together in their moment of grief, adding of Russell: “He was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.” At the time, the family asked for privacy to mourn. The passage of time has not found many of Russell’s family or friends willing to talk to the press. One family member responded to Rolling Stone : “Out of respect for Beebo’s widow, we have agreed as a family to not speak on this.”

For some of Russell’s friends and family, the search for answers about his mental state circles back to his days on the football field. A former high school teammate, Zachary Orr, told a TV interviewer he suspected Russell had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma that can drive extreme mood changes, depression, aggression, and impulsivity. “He played hard,” Orr recalled. “He did suffer some concussions. So in my mind, it was a little bit out of his hands.”

Despite the suicidal circumstances of his flight, Russell has also become, for some, a folk hero. There are long Reddit threads and a Facebook page dedicated to a man they call “Sky King.” People who watched video of Russell’s maneuvers and listened to his radio banter felt connected to his struggle. The anonymous founder of the Richard “Beebo” Russell SkyKing Tribute Page wrote: “It’s been haunting me because I feel I understand him and have experienced the same pain. . . . I feel like I’m trying to mourn someone I never met.” Another devotee writes: “His story hurts me in a way that only losing the closest of friends and family have hurt me.”

To those for whom Russell was a real person, the Sky King treatment is objectionable. “He is certainly no hero,” Schaefers says, “and I don’t think anyone close to him would suggest that.” But Schaefers recognizes why strangers are attracted to the “whole folk-hero thing.” They see a guy who “stole a plane, and barrel rolled, and crashed it, and ‘wasn’t that awesome?’ Like, no. It was not.”

But the truth is that Russell’s legacy is no longer simply a private affair. “One of the fascinating pieces of this,” Ostrower says, “is how quickly it transitioned he said into myth, legend, and meme. I mean, it was almost instantaneous,” he says, pointing to people who were soon hawking T-shirts and swag with slogans like “Puget Sound Flight Club: Fly It Like You Stole It.” Russell’s exploits are now the stuff of folk songs posted to YouTube, including “Lookin’ for that Orca” and “SkyKing – a song for Richard Russell.” Over the objection of his family, alt-right “groypers” have also claimed Russell as one of their own, seizing on his “Naw, I’m a white guy” line.

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