A 19-year-old Las Vegas man who flew into a rage during a Southwest Airlines flight to Salt Lake City and died after being subdued by passengers was partially provoked by the flight crew, some passengers told police.
The Salt Lake City Airport police incident report, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, said when police boarded the airplane Aug. 11, they found Jonathan Burton unconscious in the center aisle, one passenger’s foot placed on his neck, another on his head and two more on his arms.
He was unconscious and bleeding from the mouth with a “huge knot” and “discoloration” on his forehead, the report said. Police handcuffed him and two officers carried him off the plane, hitting Burton’s head as they placed him on the ground.
The report said Burton became combative about 20 minutes before the flight was scheduled to land, hitting some of the 120 passengers aboard the 737 and pounding a hole in the locked cockpit door.
“Several passengers stated that the flight crew antagonized the young man and that intensified his anger,” the report said. Names of the passengers police interviewed were removed from the copy of the report.
One passenger contacted Thursday agreed that flight attendants may have provoked the man after his initial outburst.
Anne Crawford, 41, of Barstow, Calif., said that after Burton attacked the cockpit door, passengers succeeded in getting him back to his seat and calming him. Then the flight attendant loudly announced another passenger, an off-duty police officer, would take care of the situation, Crawford recalled.
“She was standing next to me when she was making the announcement and I was just cringing in my seat because they had pretty much calmed him down,” said Crawford, who was seated two rows behind Burton.
Burton punched the officer in the face, Crawford said.
“He was calm, he seemed like he was going to relax, but then he went into this fit again,” she said. “I was just wondering how much training Southwest gives to help deal with these situations.”
Linda Rutherford, a Southwest spokeswoman, said flight attendants are not trained for specific situations such as the Burton incident, but are trained to deal with general emergencies.
“We feel our flight crew did exactly what they needed to do get that plane on the ground, and that the passengers who were restraining Mr. Burton did what they thought they had to do to keep him from moving again,” she said.
Burton died at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City about an hour after being taken off the plane. An autopsy by the Utah state medical examiner’s office concluded the actions of the passengers killed him, but the U.S. attorney’s office has declined to file criminal charges, saying the death was an act of self-defense.
‘Was There Force? You Bet’
An FBI spokesman said the report was unlikely to affect the agency’s investigation unless the U.S. attorney decided to press charges.
“I don’t think we’re going to pursue it much further,” said Bill Matthews, special agent for the FBI’s Salt Lake City division.
The report says the pilot reported the man pushed his upper body through the hole he made in the cockpit door and muttered, “… fly this plane …” It also cites passengers as saying Burton was pacing back and forth and screaming obscenities before he attacked the door, making comments such as, “Someone needs to fly this plane,” “The drugs aren’t mine” and “It’s not the drugs.”
The autopsy showed small levels of cocaine and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in Burton’s blood, but not enough to have affected his actions.
Burton’s family has hired an attorney for possible legal action. That attorney and Burton’s family did not immediately return phone calls Thursday.
Crawford denied passengers used excessive force to restrain Burton.
“Was there force? You bet. He was strong, he had the strength of a mad man. Under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have been able to fight them, but he was fighting off a dozen men,” she said.
“They did what they had to do. I honestly wish that I could thank each of them individually for what they’ve done. They got hurt, too.”
The police report said two passengers suffered minor injuries, including the off-duty police officer, who had to have stitches to his face, while others were splattered with blood. The flight attendants asked to speak to a chaplain after being questioned by the FBI.