Truth Proves Elusive in Air Rage Death

ByABC News
October 2, 2000, 9:23 AM

Oct. 2 -- 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 Burtons 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 couldnt breathe.

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

Little about Burtons 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, Burtons 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, theyd work at their uncles 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 wasnt 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 someones about to get on a plane, they hear about something going wrong.

Yeah, her son said, isnt 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 didnt want to miss the flight. Plus, he didnt 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 theyd be in Salt Lake on time.