An FBI investigation into the mysterious crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner near Paso Robles focused Tuesday on a recently dismissed airline employee who was believed to have boarded the flight with a handgun, intent on killing the man who fired him.
Authorities confirmed that both a Los Angeles International Airport-based supervisor for USAir and an employee who was fired by the airline last month were passengers aboard Flight 1771, and a source close to the investigation described the bizarre revenge murder scenario as "a very, very good theory."
The former employee was identified as David A. Burke, 35, who had worked for USAir for 15 years before his dismissal last month, allegedly after he was caught by a hidden camera stealing receipts from in-flight cocktail sales. Burke served in a variety of terminal-based jobs, and at the time of his firing was a ticket agent.
The manager was identified as Ray F. Thomson, 48, who headed USAir's office in Terminal One at LAX. Thomson lived in Tiburon, a bay-side city just north of San Francisco, and commuted to his Southern California job.
FBI agents and police investigators twice visited Burke's Long Beach condominium Tuesday. The first time, they were accompanied by a woman described as Burke's girlfriend. The woman was believed to have given authorities their initial information that Burke, incensed over his Nov. 18 firing, had boarded Flight 1771 with a .44-caliber Magnum pistol and could be culpable in the crash.
At 8:30 p.m. investigators returned to the residence with a search warrant. FBI agents at the home declined to talk to reporters.
Forty-three people were aboard the PSA BAe 146-200, a British-built, four-engine jetliner, late Monday afternoon when it plummeted nose-first from 22,000 feet into a rugged hillside near Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County. No one survived. The plane had been bound from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Report of Gunfire
Foul play was considered an investigative possibility from the outset. The pilot broadcast a report of gunfire in the passenger compartment moments before the crash. Additionally, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Tuesday night that a secret cockpit distress signal had been activated, apparently by pilot Gregg N. Lindamood, and flashed to air traffic controllers "a minute or two" before impact.
Richard T. Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Los Angeles, said that there was "a substantially increased basis for concluding that, in fact, criminal activity did bring this aircraft down. And that," Bretzing told a press conference held one-half mile from the crash site, "is based not only on the tape that the air traffic controllers have, but on other investigations we are conducting outside of this area."
He would not elaborate.
Investigators refused comment on a report by ABC-TV, quoting an unnamed government source, that Burke had left behind a suicide message. Bretzing said only that search warrants might be served, if necessary.
One of Burke's co-workers, who asked not to be identified, said Burke had been seen at the USAir offices earlier Monday, but apparently left after talking with Thomson's subordinates. Thomson was not present at the time, but the early visit could resolve the question of how Burke knew which flight his former supervisor was taking.
Proving the revenge murder scenario with forensic evidence could be exceedingly difficult, given what authorities described as the "utter destruction" of the plane and its passengers on impact. Moreover, the theory, if accurate, would leave investigators and aviation officials with other troublesome questions: How could shots fired from within bring down an airliner? And how could a former employee, said by USAir officials to have been stripped of his work badge, slip past airport security with a handgun?
Thousands of Pieces
A team of 100 searchers started at dawn Tuesday the monumental task of locating and identifying wreckage and remains. They combed the steep incline where the airliner, after what was described by witnesses as a screaming, 45-degree dive, slammed to earth and exploded into thousands of tiny pieces.
"We're looking for a weapon," Bretzing had said early in the morning, "and hopefully if there's one we'll find it."
No weapon, however, had been found by 12:30 p.m., when the search was suspended because a rainstorm turned the crash site into a quagmire, raising fears that valuable evidence might be trampled.
Pieces of aircraft and human remains that littered the crash site were tagged with fluorescent orange tape and recorded on a grid chart. The body parts were to be removed when the weather cleared and taken to a temporary morgue. Witnesses who ran to the crash said there were no human remains larger than a hand.