Truth Proves Elusive in Air Rage Death

Somewhere behind the pale stone facade of the FBI building in Salt Lake City, the transcript from a cockpit voice recorder and a thick sheaf of interview notes hold clues to why a 19-year-old was killed by fellow airline passengers.

Unless Jonathan Burton’s mother decides to sue, she may never know exactly what happened to her son aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1763 from Las Vegas. He went berserk and was pummeled, wrestled into the aisle and held down so tight he couldn’t breathe.

So far, the more Janet Burton has learned, the more she has questioned.

Little about Burton’s last hour alive is sure. What follows is the best reconstruction possible to date, pieced together by The Associated Press from interviews with passengers, police, the FBI, airline officials, Burton’s mother and sections of the autopsy report.

Airport police also supplied written statements from five officers who met the flight at Salt Lake City International just after 11 p.m. on Aug. 11.

Accounts differ, each influenced by vantage point, tainted by media reports or confused by panic.

Jonathan Burton was headed to Salt Lake to spend two weeks with his aunt and uncle. It was a trip he and his older brothers had made almost every summer since they were kids. During the week, they’d work at their uncle’s painting business. Water skiing and hiking ruled the weekends. In more recent years, the brothers often went separately, and this year, Burton was traveling alone.

He was getting ready to start community college after taking a year off. He had worked in housekeeping for a nursing home and last year was voted employee of the month, but wiping floors got old. He still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but school would be a good start.

The evening he was leaving, the TV news carried something about a plane crash. Mrs. Burton remembers saying it seemed like anytime someone’s about to get on a plane, they hear about something going wrong.

“Yeah,” her son said, “isn’t that something?”

They headed for the airport and grabbed some tacos on the way. Mrs. Burton waited with her son at the gate until he boarded.

“I love you,” he said.

“See you in two weeks,” she replied.

Carrying a new book about how to win at blackjack, Burton walked onboard.

Boarding the Fatal Flight

Adam Bradshaw jogged to the gate. His late flight from Burbank, Calif., had almost cost him his Las Vegas connection to Salt Lake. He was headed for a new job and didn’t want to miss the flight. Plus, he didn’t have a seat assignment on Southwest, which does things first-come, first-serve.

Management consultant Dave Jennings, on his way home from business in Los Angeles, found a seat two rows in front of Burton and tucked his laptop between his feet. Dean Harvey, on vacation from Canada, settled in near the front.

Bradshaw found a spot toward the back. John Whitaker, on his way home, was in an aisle seat nearby.

At 9:20 p.m., the Boeing 737 lifted off over the sparkling lights of Las Vegas. It was behind schedule, but the captain said he could make it up. He told the 121 passengers they’d be in Salt Lake on time.

The jet reached its cruising altitude, and the three flight attendants began serving drinks. That’s when Bradshaw first noticed Burton, a young man in jeans and a T-shirt, wearing a baseball cap backward. He had brown hair, a goatee — and a frantic look.

As a flight attendant was about to serve Bradshaw, Burton strolled up, took a drink off the tray and returned to his seat without a word. “Away he went,” Bradshaw said, “kind of self-serve.”

The flight attendant told Burton he should have waited for someone to take his order, but he didn’t seem to pay attention.

A few minutes later, he was on his feet again and headed to the rear. He rummaged through cabinets until he found the peanuts, grabbed a couple packs and returned again to his seat. Jennings recalls thinking the guy must work for Southwest.

Another passenger thought otherwise.

“Fifty-one-50,” the man behind Bradshaw muttered. A television news director, Bradshaw recognized the police catch phrase for somebody mentally unstable. Bradshaw turned to his fellow passenger and said, “I wonder what we’re in for.”

Pacing Before the Confrontation

Several minutes passed. Suddenly Burton got up and began pacing the aisle. He walked all the way to the front, all the way to the back, and then again toward the nose of the plane.

Whitaker thought he was looking for an open lavatory, but he also saw the glassy, agitated look on Burton’s face. He must really have to go, Whitaker thought.

“When he walked past me, he was mumbling and he seemed anxious,” Whitaker said. “He seemed stressed.”

Then Burton raised his voice and kicked the folding door to the cockpit, hard. An emergency escape panel popped out and Burton shoved his head and shoulders through the opening, muttering something like, “Someone needs to fly this plane.” People started to get scared.

Six-feet-tall and about 190 pounds, Burton was muscular and ruggedly good-looking, bearing a slight resemblance in some family photographs to actor Brad Pitt. He had played baseball as a boy and wrestled at Cheyenne High School. It showed.

It “looked like he was intent on going in there,” said Harvey, the Canadian. “But it looked like the pilots were intent on pushing him out.”

And they did.

What the heck is he going to do, Harvey wondered. Is he going to pull out a weapon? Is he going to hijack the plane? What the hell is going on?

A flight attendant urged Burton to calm down. It’s unclear whether he then returned to a seat alone or if passengers forced him that way. In the end, a group of men surrounded him in an exit row.

Somebody yelled he was going for the handle. Men and women scrambled over seats to get away. Children started screaming. A flight attendant asked volunteers to stand in front of the broken cockpit door.

A few men hung on to Burton as he squirmed, then he seemed to get a hold of himself and sat down. The curious peeked up over seat backs to get a better look.

“Settle down, settle down, chill out,” people told him.

“Stupid jerk,” someone added.

Burton still had a sort of spacey look on his face, and each time one of his self-appointed guards glanced away, Burton wriggled a little more.

It wasn’t over.

Final Descent

As the plane began its descent into Salt Lake, Burton exploded again, jumping up, spitting on people and landing punches. Kids were shrieking, old women hid their eyes. Several men fought with Burton. One wound up with a split lip. They grabbed his arms and legs, stretched him out and mashed him on the floor. Four guys stood or sat on his limbs.

At some point the pilot came on the intercom, telling passengers they were close to landing. He said he hoped all of them — but one — would have a good weekend. It’s unclear whether this came before or after Burton’s second outburst.

Jennings couldn’t see very well but remembers seeing Burton on the floor, sort of under a seat. He says some passengers were yelling things like, “Hurt him! Beat him up!”

“They were scared. It felt like he was taking over the plane,” Jennings explained.

Only he has publicly reported hearing shouts egging on a fight. And only Harvey has given what may be the most disturbing part of the story. He says that in the end, it wasn’t Burton doing the fighting.

Harvey remembers the young man being subdued as some passengers continued to beat him.

“I couldn’t understanding why this was continuing,” Harvey said. “He was basically 100 percent defenseless at this time. ... I remember thinking no one can take a pounding like this.”

Harvey says he went down the aisle as a big man in black boots — weighing as much as 260 pounds — repeatedly kicked Burton.

“I felt this group, particularly this one man, was out of control,” Harvey said. “He was stomping on Jonathan’s chest, one foot at a time, I don’t know what the rest of the group was doing other than holding him.”

Harvey begged for it to stop, but finally returned to his seat and told his companion, “I think they’re killing him back there.”

Police officers who boarded the plane reported finding Burton unconscious in the aisle, with five or six people restraining him. Passengers had their feet on his head, throat and right arm. Another passenger held his left arm. He was bleeding from the mouth with a “huge knot” and “discoloration” on his forehead, as well as contusions on his chest. He was, however, breathing, they reported.

The time is imprecise, somewhere between 11 and 11:30 p.m.

Tending the Wounded

Police handcuffed the motionless body as people warned that Burton would fight if he came around. One officer reported being concerned that passengers would take retribution as they carried Burton out. Paramedics tended to bloody passengers and to Burton, but he was declared dead just after midnight at a local hospital.

At first, FBI agent Bill Matthews thought he had gone into cardiac arrest. Burton’s behavior seemed consistent with drug use, and his heart could have stopped if he was doped up enough to act crazy.

It would be weeks before his mother learned her son had suffocated as the other travelers restrained him.

Airport police took passenger names, and some filled out written forms for Southwest. Others left without talking to authorities. Members of the flight crew went to a local hotel and had to be brought back to the airport later that night for questioning by the FBI. The airline has declined to make their names public.

Linda Rutherford, of Southwest, said the company cooperated fully with authorities and believes crew members handled the situation as well as possible.

“The flight crew did absolutely what they thought was necessary in response to Mr. Burton’s behavior,” she said.

Mrs. Burton’s attorney, Kent Spence, disagrees. He points to passenger statements in the airport police reports that accuse flight attendants of antagonizing Burton after he had initially calmed down.

“It was after this confrontation ... that things exploded again,” Spence said. “I’m certainly not going to say they shouldn’t have restrained him. But once he was restrained, the tables turned and the restrainers were out of control. Who was there to control them?”

Autopsy results, some of which were released by Spence, found trace amounts of cocaine and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, but authorities don’t think it was enough to cause Burton’s apparent break with reality.

The autopsy also showed that Burton had contusions and abrasions on his torso, face and neck, and died after being suffocated. The death has been ruled a homicide, but U.S. Attorney Paul M. Warner has decided not to file charges. Warner issued a statement saying the passengers acted in self-defense. He declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.

Mrs. Burton says she can’t understand any of it.

“That wasn’t Jonathan. It’s just nothing like Jonathan. He would never go looking for a fight.”

Now, she’s just hoping someone else will come forward to help her figure things out.

“I can appreciate the fact of passengers being scared. If I’d been a passenger, I would have been scared,” she said.

“But Jonathan needed to be safely restrained. He should have been in a Salt Lake City jail if he caused a problem on that plane. They had no right to be judge, jury and executioner.”

AP National Writer Sharon Crenson is based in New York. AP Southwest Regional Reporter Pauline Arrillaga is based in Phoenix.