If David A. Burke was bent on vengeance, he never betrayed his intentions to his former colleagues at the USAir ticket counter who saw him the very afternoon that PSA Flight 1771 took off from Los Angeles International Airport.
In the past 18 days since Burke was fired for allegedly stealing $69 in cash from USAir's in-flight liquor and beverage sales proceeds, the veteran terminal worker returned to the airline's office in Terminal One at the airport several times to talk privately with Ray F. Thomson, the office manager who may have played a role in his dismissal.
Both Burke, 35, and Thomson, 48, were passengers on the PSA four-engine jetliner which plunged into a hillside near Paso Robles Monday afternoon, killing all 43 aboard.
Shocking Office News
As USAir employees arrived at their airport office Tuesday, shocked colleagues told them what became common knowledge before day's end--that unsettled business between Burke and Thomson may have led to the crash. USAir took over PSA in May, but the airline's planes were still flying under the PSA name.
FBI agents are reportedly trying to determine whether Burke smuggled a gun on board the jetliner. Moments before the plane crashed, the pilot radioed that he had heard gunfire from the passenger compartment.
Each time Burke showed up in the past month to talk to Thomson, co-workers said, he projected the same cool temperament they had come to expect from a man who could be called upon on short notice to handle almost any job in the office.
"He was always so even-tempered," said Donald Imes, a USAir customer service agent. "He never showed any sign of being angry about what happened."
According to Imes and other USAir workers, Burke, a well-groomed and black-bearded man of medium height, returned to the firm's airport office at least three times since his dismissal.
Last Visit on Monday
The final time was on Monday afternoon--not long before the PSA jetliner left at 3:32 p.m. en route for San Francisco. He talked with one of Thomson's subordinates, one employee said.
"It doesn't make any sense," said another USAir employee who had worked closely with Burke but declined to be identified. "We're all astounded. Dave was never the kind of guy who would get out of control emotionally."
Neighbors in the two-story condominium complex in the 100 block of West Spring St. in North Long Beach where Burke lived were equally stunned.
Jeane Krause, 39, who lives across a driveway from Burke, said he had shown no change in mood since his firing. "It's a shock because he was so nice," said Krause, who said she last saw Burke on Friday.
USAir employees who worked beside Burke said they heard nothing from him in recent weeks to indicate any ire at his firing or anger toward Thomson, a lean, gray-haired USAir manager who took command of the Los Angeles office a year ago, and insisted on a higher level of discipline and accountability among employees.
Handle Various Jobs
Burke had worked at USAir's Los Angeles office for about a year. In that time, according to colleagues, he showed a knack for handling almost any of the non-supervisory jobs in the USAir terminal area. Most recently, he worked behind the ticket counter, but he also had stints at the flight gates and in the "operations room," an office where baggage and other materials--including in-flight receipts--are first taken after being unloaded from arriving planes.
It was Burke's appearance in the operations room in mid-November that may have started the chain of events that led to the crash of PSA Flight 1771. According to a colleague, a hidden camera installed by USAir officials in the ceiling of the room reportedly filmed Burke pocketing in-flight beverage funds.
On Nov. 15, Burke was arrested by USAir security personnel and booked by Los Angeles police at the department's Pacific Division for stealing $69 from the airline. He was released on his own recognizance. Four days later, he was fired.
Los Angeles city attorney's spokesman Mike Qualls said prosecutors at first rejected the case on grounds of insufficient evidence when it was brought to them Dec. 1.
But on Monday, the day of the crash, a security consultant for USAir, Richard Ricci, contacted the city attorney's West Los Angeles office and asked for an appointment to discuss the case.
Moved From New York
Before he started work in USAir's Los Angeles office a year ago, Burke worked for 14 years in the airline's Rochester, N.Y., office.
Burke left there at the same time that security personnel there were investigating the theft of in-flight beverage money from arriving planes, one former co-worker in Los Angeles said.
And Rasheed Baaith, a Rochester man who was one of Burke's high school classmates and a friend since, said Burke had told him before coming to Los Angeles that Burke was investigated several times by USAir for stealing company funds. The investigations never led to charges, Baaith said.
The Rochester Globe Democrat reported today that Burke was also investigated by the Rochester police in 1985 for narcotics sales and auto theft. He was not charged.