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Was Foul Play Involved in the Boeing Whistleblowers’ Deaths? People Are Definitely Worried About It.
May 11, 2024

Was Foul Play Involved in the Boeing Whistleblowers’ Deaths? People Are Definitely Worried About It.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

All the chatter and speculation is bad for airline safety in and of itself., Boeing Whistleblower deaths: The fear they are creating is bad for airline safety.

Social media has been abuzz with opinions along with raised-eyebrow and WTF emoji, following the unexpected death of a second person who had been publicly critical of the safety of Boeing airliners. Cyber satirists are asking what is more dangerous: being a Boeing whistleblower or flying on the 737 Max?

Joshua Dean, 45, had worked for Spirit AeroSystems, a key subcontractor in the production of 737 Max airliners. He died Tuesday after suddenly becoming ill. His death came less than two months after John Barnett, a 787 Boeing production-quality manager–turned–whistleblower, was found dead in his truck with a gunshot wound. No official cause of Barnett’s death has been determined, but suicide is suspected.

If the news led you to consider, even for a moment, that foul play was involved, you are not alone.

Dean and Barnett were two of many who challenged Boeing’s claim that the company really does put safety first. The fact that there’s speculation and worry brewing around their deaths, among people online and those closer to Boeing alike, is in and of itself a concern. If other safety whistleblowers and their lawyers get spooked by the buzz, if they stop talking, and if they are worried—you should be too.

Two decades ago, Taylor Smith, 63, was one of three Boeing workers who sued the company. The trio had documents showing a key supplier was using defective parts to build the 737 Max’s predecessor, the 737 Next Generation.

This was happening at the same factory in Wichita, Kansas, where Joshua Dean would make similar allegations about substandard parts going onto the Max years later.

On Wednesday, Smith got a text message from her ex-husband about Dean’s death, suggesting foul play: ‘This could have been you.’

She agreed: ‘I think God every day that we didn’t have something like that happen to us.’

William Skepnek, who represented Smith, along with co-workers Jeannine Prewitt and James Ailes, is not surprised that his former clients would link Dean and Barnett’s deaths to whistleblowing activities.

‘I cannot help but believe that everybody who is with Boeing or has ever been with Boeing and knows things has reached that conclusion,’ said Skepnek, who spent more than a decade on the shoddy parts case, which was dismissed in 2014.

What rang familiar about Dean’s death was the sudden onset of illness in an otherwise healthy and relatively young man. During their ordeal at Boeing, Smith and Prewitt complained of mysterious ailments including, they claimed, exposure to toxic mold. The company that supplied the faulty parts was audited by a team from Boeing—and the president of that company threatened violence against that team, Prewitt has previously claimed. It says something about Boeing’s culture: ‘That’s a huge red flag that a supplier feels so confident that he could tell a team of 14 people from Boeing that they were going to be shot,’ she told the documentarian Tim Tate in 2010.

Years later, other whistleblowers are reporting the same kind of language around violence. At a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in mid-April, Sam Salehpour, who worked in Boeing’s South Carolina Dreamliner factory, testified he raised a safety issue in a meeting at the Dreamliner factory. He recalled his boss saying, ‘I would have killed anyone who said what you said if it was from some other group.’

These kinds of statements in public hearings or around the watercooler ratchet up a sense that Boeing cannot be trusted that Smith’s lawyer says is warranted.

‘There’s nothing that Boeing says that I can believe. I’ve seen them lie. They lied with the NG and now apparently, they’re lying with the Max,’ Skepnek told me. ‘I think they are a murdering company. They’ve murdered hundreds of people at least.’

When I asked Boeing about the public speculation that the whistleblower deaths are linked and a result of their criticism of Boeing, spokeswoman Jessica Kowal declined to comment, as did Spirit AeroSystems, where Dean worked.

The two lawyers who represented Dean and Barnett are calling for thorough investigations.

‘It’s an absolute tragedy when a whistleblower ends up dying under strange circumstances,’ said Robert Turkewitz, who along with attorney Brian Knowles has been an advocate for both men. ‘It should be of concern to everybody.’

The lawyers had a meeting Friday with officials in Charleston, South Carolina, where they planned to ask for details of the investigation into Barnett’s death.

‘We’re asking them to produce everything for us. Video and test results, autopsy, forensic testing. We’re asking for them to show the video at the hotel and the video of the police body cams,’ Turkewitz said. ‘We want to make sure they did an honest investigation.’

The same kind of investigation is needed for Dean’s death, he added, because any lingering uncertainty could muzzle people who have important information.

‘What we don’t want to happen is the deterrence of whistleblowers,’ Knowles told me after Dean’s death. ‘Whistleblowers play an important role in the safety of society.’

Since I started writing about air safety in 1996 and met my first Boeing whistleblowers, stories about threats, firings, intimidation, and gaslighting have been common.

So when I visited Wichita last month to see for myself the massive Spirit AeroSystems factory complex where the 737 Max fuselage is assembled—and where, Dean alleged in 2022, holes were incorrectly drilled into plane parts—I was careful.

Dean was still alive, but I knew about Barnett’s recent death. All the accumulated nervousness passed on from Boeing whistleblowers was firmly in mind. I parked some distance away from the property and was sure to lock my vehicle. Then I sent an email to Skepnek, the lawyer who handled the defective parts case against Boeing.

‘You are the person who knows my whereabouts,’ I wrote. I added, ‘I have no plans to kill myself.’ Did I feel a little foolish? Sure. I’d succumbed to Stockholm syndrome, a captive identifying with the many whistleblowers I’ve come to know in a career writing about air disasters.

Whether the deaths of Dean and Barnett are sinister or benign, the swirl of speculation adds another complication to an already difficult decision for would-be whistleblowers. In light of these deaths, an uneasy path just got more so.

‘Being a whistleblower is like walking on broken glass because if you make one wrong move you’re injured,’ Prewitt told me of her two decades speaking out about the hazards on the 737 NG. ‘You’re going to get cut and you’re trying to figure your path through it so that you survive.’


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