Homicide In The Sky

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Just 17,000 ft. above Black Rock Desert, the pilots of Southwest Airlines Flight 1763 set the controls for a midnight landing in Salt Lake City, Utah. As the tower radioed clearance, flight attendants in the back of the Boeing 737 began collecting Coke cups and pretzel bags. Suddenly, Jonathan Burton, 19, jumped into the aisle from his seat near the wing and started pacing back and forth. Then he bolted to the front of the plane and turned around. His eyes revealed his hysteria. "Everybody just sit down!" he yelled. "Everybody just sit down!"

That was the start of one of the most bizarre episodes of in-flight violence in U.S. commercial-aviation history. Only hours later Burton was dead. It was first thought he had suffered a heart attack, but an autopsy later revealed he had died from injuries suffered at the hands of other passengers. Last week a U.S. Attorney decided to press no charges in the Aug. 11 event. But the mystery of what happened aboard Flight 1763 has not relented.

Burton calmed down quickly after his first eruption, returned to his seat and buckled up. But panic washed over him again as the plane descended, and he stood in the aisle. A flight attendant, assuming he was just a nervous flyer, asked if he needed anything. "I'm fine," he told her. "It's just the drugs."

Then he suddenly ran to the front again and kicked in the flimsy cockpit door. He grabbed for the captain and first officer, who pushed him back. Three passengers blocked the door in case he rushed it again, while a flight attendant and another passenger walked him to an exit row in the plane's center, where three more passengers gathered around him, holding him down. "You're not going anywhere, buddy," one said. They asked him questions, trying to keep his mind off flying: Where are you from? Who are you visiting in Salt Lake City?

Burton, wearing a baseball cap and khakis, was going to visit his aunt. He had grown up in Las Vegas and had been a popular wrestler in high school. He had earned an award for helping elderly people. The night before, he and his mother Janet had watched a TV special about air crashes. He mentioned the show to his mother on the drive to the airport but seemed fine, she says, when she kissed him goodbye at the gate.

Burton's strange behavior during the hour-long flight, however, was noticed by some passengers even before his outbursts. "Where are we going?" he asked the woman sitting next to him. When a flight attendant passed him with a soda, he grabbed it from her tray. She told him it wasn't for him but she could bring him back something.

He soon got the attention of the entire plane. "He just went ballistic," says Christy Gipson, who was sitting in front of him. Passengers heard him yelling, "I can fly this plane!" as he rushed up the aisle. "We've got to open the door!" After he had been subdued, an off-duty police officer in the rear of the plane offered to help. A row of seats was cleared so the officer and another man could guard Burton during the plane's landing. But as Burton was being led to the back, he flailed his arms, pushed his captors aside and struck the off-duty officer in the mouth, gashing his lip and splattering blood inside the cabin.

Others jumped up to subdue him. Women screamed; children began to cry. Eight men eventually wrestled the 6-ft., 190-lb. Burton to the floor. "It is over," a man told him, yelling obscenities. "You are not getting up." But the mob may have got carried away. Dean Harvey, who was sitting in the third row with his wife and 11-month-old daughter, says a burly man jumped repeatedly onto Burton's chest. "You've got the guy subdued, what more do you want?" Harvey says he told the man, who jumped twice more before stopping. Harvey's account has not been confirmed by airline officials or other passengers.

When the plane landed, airport police and medics were waiting at the jetway. Burton was unconscious but still officially alive. He died later at the hospital. The autopsy found bruises and scratches from blunt-force trauma to his face, neck and torso. "He was essentially beaten from the top of his head down to his ankles," says Kent Spence, his mother's attorney. "He died of positional and compressional asphyxia." The autopsy found traces of marijuana and cocaine in his system, but not enough to explain his outburst, Spence says. Though the coroner ruled the death a homicide because Burton died at the hands of others, federal prosecutors say they cannot prove criminal intent. Yet many questions remain: What was wrong with Jonathan Burton? Was his killing a horrible accident or a case of vigilante malice? And what are the lessons for airlines dealing with the growing incidence of air rage? "The question to ask is whether the flight attendants attempted to restrict the Good Samaritans from using undue force," says California aviation lawyer Phillip Kolczynski. "Are we reaching the point where we need police officers on board, or do we need to start arming crew members with Mace or Taser guns?"