The FBI investigation of the Pacific Southwest Airlines crash that killed 43 persons focuses on a former USAir employee who may have caused the crash by firing a .44-caliber magnum at the boss who fired him, sources close to the investigation said today.
The source said the lead, supplied to the FBI after the crash, appears to be a "very, very good theory." However, no forensic evidence has yet been found to support the lead, the source said.
An FBI spokesman declined to confirm or deny that the bureau is pursuing that theory, saying only: "Our investigation is proceeding under the assumption that a criminal act may have preceded the crash."
During the pilot's last communication with air traffic controllers, he reported the sound of gunfire aboard PSA Flight 1771, with smoke filling the cockpit, according to other pilots and air traffic controllers who monitored the radio traffic.
USAir recently merged with PSA and is in the process of phasing out the San Diego-based airline.
Although there was no immediate identification of a suspect, USAir spokeswoman Nancy Vaughan in Washington issued a statement, saying "David A. Burke joined USAir on June 13, 1973, and was terminated for misappropriation of funds from his position as a customer service agent for USAir at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 19, 1987.
Former Boss on Board
"He was born May 18, 1952. USAir is cooperating fully with law enforcement officials in the investigation."
The name D. Burke, address unknown, was listed by PSA as one of the victims of the plane crash. Also listed as a passenger was Ray Thompson, Burke's supervisor at LAX.
Danny Estel, a ticket counter clerk at USAir in Los Angeles, said that he had worked with Burke for about a year and that Burke left the company about a month ago.
"I never had any problems with him," said Estel about Burke, who he described as about 5 feet, 10 inches tall and of stocky build.
"Sure I'm surprised," Estel said. "I never saw him fly off the handle. He seemed to get along with everybody. He seemed to be like everybody else."
Estel said that he has not been told anything official by USAir executives but that he and other workers at Los Angeles International began to hear rumors about an embezzlement when they reported for work this morning. Estel said Burke had initially been a baggage handler but for the last six months of his employment with USAir had been a ticket salesman.
Suicide Note or Tape Reported
ABC News first reported today that suspicion had centered on a disgruntled USAir employee. The network did not name the ex-employee but said he had worked for the airline for 18 years before he was fired for allegedly drinking on the job and stealing from the airline, Tom Schell, Los Angeles correspondent for ABC News, was told by a confidential government source.
Schell said authorities found a suicide note or tape left by the employee.
Schell said the disgruntled employee learned that his station manager was going to be on Flight 1771, so he bought a one-way ticket for himself, smuggled the gun and six rounds of ammunition on board and planned to take the station manager's life.
Sources at LAX confirmed to The Times that an airline employee could easily circumvent security measures and board an airliner.