Report says passengers killed combative man aboard flight

Sunday, September 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY – A passenger who tried to break into the cockpit during a Southwest Airlines flight was killed by the passengers who restrained him, not by a heart attack, an autopsy concluded.

The U.S. attorney's office described Jonathan Burton's Aug. 11 death as an act of self-defense by frightened passengers and said it would not file criminal charges.

Mr. Burton, 19, of Las Vegas, became combative 20 minutes before Flight 1763 was due to land, hitting other passengers and pounding on the locked cockpit door. As many as eight of the plane's 120 passengers subdued him and held him down until the flight arrived in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Burton died after being removed from the plane, and authorities thought he had died of a heart attack.

However, the autopsy report classified his death a homicide because it resulted from "intentional actions by another individual or individuals."

The report, released by Mr. Burton's family, said he suffocated. He also had bruises and scratches on his torso, face and neck and suffered blunt-force injuries.

"He was strangled, beaten and kicked," said family attorney Kent Spence. "We'd like to know how this could have happened to this young man. This kid had no history of violence; he would sooner take a spider outside than kill it."

The autopsy found low levels of marijuana in Mr. Burton's body but said that was an "unlikely explanation" for his violent outburst.

The family has not decided whether to sue Dallas-based Southwest Airlines or the passengers, Mr. Spence said.

In Dallas on Saturday, Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart said, "We extend our sympathies to the family of Jonathan Burton. This was a stressful situation with about 137 people in the balance."

While Mr. Stewart called Mr. Burton's death "very unfortunate," he said, "We stand behind the conduct of our flight crew."

Federal officials recently reported an increase in air-rage incidents nationwide. Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration showed 292 incidents involving "unruly passengers" last year, up from 138 in 1995.

But authorities have said that the industry hasn't developed a plan for dealing with belligerence. Handling an irate, drunken or mentally unstable passenger still depends on the instantaneous judgment of the flight crew – and sometimes passengers.

In 1996, the FAA recommended that airlines train attendants to notify pilots and get colleagues or passengers to help with unruly passengers.

Dallas Morning News staff writer Katherine Yung contributed to this report.