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Boeing Whistleblower John Barnett Found Dead Amid Depositions Against Plane Company

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John Barnett was supposed to answer questions on Saturday as part of a deposition he’d been giving earlier last week related to a legal dispute with his former employer Boeing—which has been dogged by safety concerns, some of which he had raised. But he didn’t show up.

When his legal team called him repeatedly to no avail, they eventually asked the hotel he was staying at to check in on him. That’s when Barnett was found dead in his truck in the parking lot. 

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office told TIME that Barnett died from “what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” and that the Charleston Police Department is continuing to investigate the death.

Barnett’s lawyer Brian Knowles described the discovery as “tragic” to legal newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter, which first reported on Barnett’s death. “John had been back and forth for quite some time getting prepared,” said Knowles, who told Corporate Crime Reporter that he was set to cross-examine Barnett on Saturday for what would have been “day three of his deposition here in Charleston on his AIR21 case,” referring to the shorthand for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Whistleblower Protection Program.

Barnett, who was based in Louisiana, was in South Carolina to offer evidence for legal proceedings linked to a defamation lawsuit against Boeing, which he claimed deliberately hurt his career and reputation because of allegations he’d made of grave safety breaches on the aircraft company’s production line.

“John was in the midst of a deposition in his whistleblower retaliation case, which finally was nearing the end,” Knowles and his co-counsel Robert Turkewitz said in a statement to TIME. “He was in very good spirits and really looking forward to putting this phase of his life behind him and moving on. We didn’t see any indication he would take his own life. No one can believe it.”

The lawyers described Barnett as “a brave, honest man of the highest integrity” who “cared dearly about his family, his friends, the Boeing company, his Boeing co-workers, and the pilots and people who flew on Boeing aircraft.” They said they were devastated about his death and urged a full and accurate investigation. “We need more information about what happened to John,” they said. “No detail can be left unturned.”

Rodney Barnett, John Barnett’s brother, told the Associated Press that John “was suffering from PTSD and anxiety attacks as a result of being subjected to the hostile work environment at Boeing, which we believe led to his death.”

In a one-sentence statement to TIME, Boeing said: “We are saddened by Mr. Barnett’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

The 62-year-old, who had worked at Boeing for over three decades as a quality control engineer and manager until his retirement in 2017, has for the past few years been outspoken about his skepticism of the company’s safety standards, which have come under heightened scrutiny in recent months amid a series of high-profile malfunctions on Boeing planes.

In 2019, just months after an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 and a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX both crashed minutes after takeoff, killing everyone on board, Barnett told the BBC that workers at one Boeing factory had been deliberately fitting faulty parts to planes to meet production deadlines, and that oxygen masks on the 787 Dreamliner had a 1-in-4 chance of failing during an emergency. Barnett said he had alerted Boeing managers as well as the FAA to the concerns but that no action had been taken. Boeing denied his allegations, though it acknowledged that an inspection in 2017 found that some oxygen bottles were in fact not deploying properly.

Barnett also told the New York Times in 2019 that he was once reprimanded for documenting “process violations” via email instead of face to face, which he took to mean the company didn’t want him putting problems in writing. In a 2014 performance review seen by the Times, Barnett’s manager told him that he had to improve at “working in the gray areas and help find a way while maintaining compliance.”

In January, the plane manufacturer made headlines again when an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff in Portland after one of its emergency exit doors blew out mid-air, causing passengers’ belongings to fly out of the hole and pressure on the plane to be destabilized. While no one was seriously hurt by the blowout, much of it thanks to luck—the seats nearest to the hole were unoccupied and most passengers were strapped in their seats when it happened—three passengers on the flight are suing the airline and Boeing for $1 billion, arguing that they’ve suffered severe psychological distress due to negligence.

Alaska Airlines temporarily grounded its fleet of Boeing 737-9 planes immediately after the accident and greenlit them to fly again just weeks later. But Barnett told TMZ at the time that Boeing’s troubles weren’t isolated to one door plug—or one plane. 

“This is not a 737 problem, this is a Boeing problem,” he said, adding that Boeing started removing inspection operations in 2012. “What we’re seeing with the door plug blowout is what I’ve seen with the rest of the airplane as far as jobs not being completed properly, inspection steps being removed, issues being ignored.”

Controversy surrounding the Alaska Airlines incident is still mounting, with the Wall Street Journal reporting last week that the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the case. And Boeing, which was accused of not being cooperative with federal investigators, admitted to Congress on Friday that it could not find records on the exploded door panel.

The FAA said earlier this month that a six-week audit of Boeing and subcontractor Spirit AeroSystems in the wake of the Alaska Airlines incident “found multiple instances where the companies allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements.”

On Monday, more than 50 passengers were injured after a LATAM Airlines Boeing 787 bound for New Zealand from Australia plummeted mid-air, throwing passengers out of their seats, in what the carrier said was a “technical event” and is now under investigation.

As its reputation has sunk, so has Boeing’s stock price—dropping by more than 26% since the start of the year, per NASDAQ.

“Once you understand what’s happening inside of Boeing, you’ll see why we’re seeing these kinds of issues,” Barnett told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in January.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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