David Burke worked for USAir for 15 years before he was fired on November 19, 1987, for stealing. The 35-year-old, who worked as a ticketing agent at the airline, made a desperate attempt to get his job back; when it failed, his final act of revenge would shock the country.
David, who had been born in England to Jamaican parents, grew up in Rochester, New York. He did well in school, though he fathered his first child when he was still in high school. After graduating from Madison High School, he enrolled in the State University of New York in Birmingham but dropped out before he completed his degree. In 1972, he started his career with USAir at the Greater Rochester International Airport, working first as a baggage handler and then as a ticketing agent.
David liked his job and hoped that one day he would be promoted to a management position. He was nice and worked hard; the airline seemed to benefit from having him. Sam Cooper, who runs the airport, said that David was the nicest person he had ever worked with. David’s family and friends said he was very smart and eager to make it in the world.
David never had any trouble with money. He had a house in Chili, New York, and other properties. He always drove a Mercedes. David always had a lot of money, even though his airline job probably paid less than $30,000 a year. No one asked him why. A close family friend named John Watkins said that David carried cash in his pocket like most people do, which is cents. It was easy for him to spend money on family and friends. By the time he was 35, he was also supporting eight kids from different women.
In January 1985, David was one of 20 people arrested by the Rochester Narcotics Unit during an investigation into drug smuggling. This was the start of bad things for him. Most of the people who were arrested were charged with trafficking cocaine and marijuana. David was one of only two people who wasn’t charged because police didn’t have enough proof that he was part of the trafficking ring.
David was not charged with a crime, but Sgt. Anthony Cotsworth of the Rochester Police Narcotics Unit said that the police were still aware of him because they thought he was involved in the drug trade. They looked through David’s Mercedes and the package he got at Greater Rochester International Airport because they thought it had cocaine in it. They didn’t find any drugs.
At least one of David’s friends would later say that the police were right to think that he was selling drugs. “He wasn’t a small-time crook. He was dealing in large amounts. He used his connections at the airport to move the things. Ironically, David didn’t like drug use himself—his younger brother died of a drug overdose in 1980—but he didn’t mind giving drug users money. “Dope is for dopes, and I make money from them.”
At one point, David was also being looked into by the FBI, who thought he was involved in stealing several Mercedes cars. The FBI agent in charge of the Rochester office, Dale Anderson, said that there was never enough proof to arrest David for the thefts, but they were keeping an eye on him.
David and his wife, Beatrice, split up and then got a divorce in 1986. At first, David stayed in the house in Chili that they had shared, but he soon decided he needed a change. His friends heard him and knew he was ready to leave Rochester for Los Angeles International Airport.
People who knew David didn’t know that he was being investigated for drug trafficking. They believed him when he said he wanted to move to a warmer place. A party to say goodbye to him was held at a popular nightclub, and about 150 people showed up. David said goodbye and moved to Long Beach, California, in December 1986.
David’s family and friends in New York thought that he was having a great time in California. He was always in a good mood when he went to Rochester to see his kids more than once. People who worked with him liked him because they thought he was smart and willing to help.
David’s whole life fell apart on November 15, 1987, when he was arrested by USAir security after being caught on camera stealing cash from liquor sales on board. After four days, David was fired by Ray Thomson, who was in charge of customer service for USAir in Los Angeles. David was charged with theft, but USAir decided not to press charges because the theft had been caught on camera. He filed an appeal because he hoped this meant he could also get his job back. On December 7, 1987, a grievance hearing was set to take place in Ray’s office in Los Angeles.
People who were close to David didn’t know he had been fired because he told them he had just been temporarily suspended and would be back at work soon. Although he seemed very sure that his grievance hearing would lead to him getting his job back, there were signs in the days leading up to it that David was very angry underneath his calm exterior.
A woman named Jacqueline Camacho called the police in Hawthorne, California, on December 4, 1987, with a scary story. She told him she was dating David Burke and that he had just taken her hostage with a gun. According to Jacqueline, she had a fight with David earlier. When she and her daughter got home at 1:00 am, David was already outside waiting for them. Putting out his gun, he made them get into his car.
David held Jacqueline at gunpoint and drove around aimlessly for several hours. He finally calmed down and drove back to Jacqueline’s apartment. There, he threatened her again and again until he fell asleep. After calling the police at 7:00 am, he finally left. She told them she didn’t want to charge David, but she did want the police to know what had happened.
At 2:00 p.m. on December 7, 1987, David met with Ray Thomson, who was his boss. David seemed sure that he would get his job back before the meeting. He was shocked and angry when Ray told him that his appeal had been turned down. David begged his boss to change his mind because he had kids to take care of, but Ray was adamant that his choice was final. David walked slowly out of his office.
It’s likely that Ray forgot about David soon after the meeting. Ray was a top executive at American Airlines and was in charge of operations at both San Francisco International and San Jose Municipal airports before he started working for USAir. It was part of his job to fire an employee for a serious offense.
Ray quit American Airlines when they told him he had to move to move up in his career. He didn’t want to leave Marin County, California, where he lived. Before he was hired by USAir, he worked for the government for a while. Ray’s coworkers said he was blunt and a bit rude, but they said he was fair with his employees.
Ray took a plane to get to work at Los Angeles International Airport, like many airline workers do. A Southwest Airlines flight 1771 took him to San Francisco International Airport every afternoon. The flight was short. It left Los Angeles at 3:31 pm and got to San Francisco at 4:43 pm. Since USAir bought Pacific Southwest Airlines the previous year, Ray was able to board the flight as an employee. Everyone knew that Ray took this flight every day.
On Monday, Ray got on Flight 1771 as usual. A British Aerospace 146–200A had only 38 people on board, so there was plenty of space for everyone. Ray wasn’t the only PSA employee on board. Douglas Arthur, the airline’s chief pilot, and John Conte, a field service agent based in Los Angeles, were also there. Before the plane took off, Julie Gottesman, Deborah Neil, and Deborah Vuylsteke, flight attendants, walked up and down the aisles giving safety instructions and making sure everyone was buckled in.
Captain Gregg Lindamood was in charge of the flight, and First Officer James Nunn was riding with him. The plane left Los Angeles on time, and the climb out of the city was fine. While the plane was at 22,000 feet and about 35 minutes into the flight, one of the pilots called air traffic control to see if there were any reports of bad weather in the area. Nothing about the transmission suggested that something exciting was about to happen.
Many people think that Ray stopped thinking about David as soon as David left his office, but David still thought about Ray. He bought a one-way ticket on Flight 1771 to San Francisco right away at the PSA ticket counter. David was able to get on the plane without going through the metal detector by using his USAir ID badge, which he had forgotten to turn in after being fired. This made it easy for him to bring the.44 Magnum revolver he had used to threaten Jacqueline onto the plane.
David was quiet for most of the first half of the flight, but his anger at Ray was getting the best of him. He wrote to his old boss, Ray, on an airsickness bag at some point: “Hi Ray.” The fact that we’re here is kind of funny to me. I asked for my family to be given some extra time. Do you remember? “Well, I don’t have any and neither will you.”
It’s not clear if David ever gave the note to Ray. David got up from his seat just after 4:10 pm and went to the bathroom. He may have done this to calm down for what he was about to do. He turned his attention to Ray as he walked toward him after leaving the bathroom and raised the gun. David shot Ray twice, which probably ki*lled him right away.
When gunfire was heard in the cockpit, both pilots reacted right away. Captain Lindamood, a decorated war veteran, knew right away that someone had brought a gun on board. He quickly called for help and told air traffic control that shots had been fired. The controller asked the pilots if they wanted to go to Monterey Regional Airport instead, which was the closest airport to where they were.
When the controller called out, neither pilot could answer, so the door to the cockpit opened. A woman, probably flight attendant Deborah Neil, was heard saying something about having a problem. Before she could finish her thought, another gunshot rang out, cutting her off. Two more gunshots could be heard very quickly. Some people think that David k*illed Deborah with a gun before kil*ling both of the pilots with it. Then he moved the plane’s control column forward, which sent it into a deep dive.
After about thirty seconds, the cabin heard its sixth and last gunshot. Even though no one knows for sure who this bullet was aimed at, it seems likely that Douglas Arthur, PSA’s chief pilot who was a passenger on the flight, was David’s last victim. It was clear to Douglas that he was the only person on board who could save the flight. Both pilots were already dead. He probably tried to get to the cockpit, but David stopped him.
The people in charge of air traffic could only watch helplessly as Flight 1771 crashed very quickly into the ground. The plane flew at an amazing 770 mph, breaking the sound barrier as it crashed. At 4:16 p.m., it crashed into a hillside in Santa Rita, California, and broke apart completely. People on the ground said it looked like a dart as it fell with its nose straight down to the ground.
When the police arrived at the scene, there was nothing left that looked like an airplane. The plane had been completely destroyed. Paper and other light materials were the only things that were still whole after the crash. Insulation, tickets, boarding passes, and other notes were all over the area, along with pieces of the plane and its 43 people.
Usually, the National Transportation Safety Board would be in charge of an airplane crash in the United States. But because the pilots told air traffic control that gunshots had been heard, they thought that a crime had been committed. Because of this, the FBI was in charge of looking into what happened with the plane.
It didn’t take long for them to figure out what happened to Flight 1771. The cockpit voice recorder had survived the crash and gave investigators a minute-by-minute account of the last few minutes of the flight. The audio proved that shots had been fired, and after searching the debris field for several days, police found the trigger and barrel of a Magnum 44. The person who shot the plane kept the gun in his hand as it fell. When it was found, a piece of his finger was stuck in the trigger. Fingerprint tests proved that David Burke was the shooter.
The note David wrote to Ray was also found in the wreckage. It helped investigators figure out why David thought Ray needed to die. Afterward, they learned that he had changed his will and left a suicide note, probably because he thought his meeting with Ray wouldn’t go well. A piece of the seat directly behind Ray was found with a bullet hole in it. This shows that at least one of the shots that were fired at Ray went through both him and his seat. Investigators were sure that David was going after Ray, but they still don’t know why he felt the need to shoot down an entire plane full of people.
That’s why police are sure that David kil*led Ray and then went after a flight attendant and two pilots. It’s still not clear who the last shot was aimed at, but most people agree that it was probably chief pilot Douglas Arthur. Some people think David kil*led himself with his last shot, but investigators don’t think the gun would have stayed in his hand if that were true. The fact that part of his finger was still on the gun shows he was still alive when the plane hit the ground.
In the days and weeks following the attack, David’s loved ones were reluctant to believe that David had been responsible for bringing down Flight 1771, but the evidence was overwhelming. David was so angry at his termination that he was willing to k*ill 42 people — and himself.