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Brian Knowles on the Deaths of Whistleblowers John Barnett and Josh Dean

The Charleston County Coroner and the City of Charleston Police Department released reports on May 17, 2024 that concluded that John Barnett, a whistleblower and former Boeing employee known for being a champion of safety in aviation, took his own life.

John Barnett’s note (Charleston Police Department)

The reports note that Barnett had been suffering from PTSD and anxiety and panic attacks. His mental condition was a result of the retaliation and hostile work environment he was subjected to in response to his complaints that Boeing senior management was pressuring workers to disregard processes and procedures required by law to be followed, allowing defective parts to be installed on the airplanes, and disregarding and ignoring problems that he believed pose a potential threat to the flying public, his lawyers said. 

In the moments before he apparently shot himself through the left temple, Barnett sat in the front seat of his orange Dodge Ram truck and scrawled his final thoughts into a notebook.

The note was released to reporters by the Charleston Police.

“I can’t do this any longer,” Barnett wrote.


“F*** Boeing.”

“Whistleblower protection is f***ed up too.”

“I pray the motherf***rs that destroyed my life pay.”

“I pray Boeing pays.”

“Bury me face down so that Boeing and their lying ass leaders can kiss my ass.”

“To my family and friends.”

“I found my purpose.”

“I’m at peace.”

“I love you more.”

“Mr. Barnett’s last words make clear that while Boeing may not have pulled the trigger, the company is responsible for his death,” said Barnett’s lawyers Rob Turkewitz and Brian Knowles 

“Mr. Barnett’s family wishes to thank the coroner, the responders and all those who have reached out with kind words and support. It is hoped that John’s legacy will be his brave and courageous efforts to get Boeing to change its culture of concealment to one that places quality and safety first.”

Knowles represents more than ten Boeing and Spirit Aerosystems whistleblowers.

In the last two months, he has lost two of them – Barnett and Spirit Aerosystems whistleblower Josh Dean.

“John was living in Louisiana,” Knowles told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “And he would go back and forth to Charleston for his legal case at different points in time. He had been in town a couple of weeks preparing for his deposition and reviewing documents. On Thursday March 7, Boeing’s counsel took John’s deposition in his AIR21 case that had been ongoing for seven years. They had seven hours to take the deposition. With breaks and lunch, it took nine hours that day.”

“We didn’t have time at that point to do our examination. So we concluded and came back Friday March 8. And I examined him for about four hours – it was actually about five or six including breaks and lunch.”

“But I was not able to finish. He was planning on leaving to go back to Louisiana that Saturday. But he agreed to stay and wrap up the deposition so it wouldn’t be postponed or delayed any further. We were going to start at 10 am that Saturday.”

“That morning, it was raining like crazy here in Charleston. And when it rains like that, sometimes it floods. The deposition was being held in downtown Charleston. I was reading reports in the news that there was flooding and they were closing a number of roads downtown. I had flooding in my house. Rob had flooding in his house.” 

“I called Rob and said – can you get in touch with defense counsel and tell them we will be running late? I can’t even get out of my front door. He asked – have you heard from John. I said no. He said – I’ve tried to call him and it just rings and goes to voicemail. I said – keep trying to get him. We are going to be headed downtown for the deposition.”

“My wife Martina is also my paralegal. She is a lawyer licensed in Brazil and Portugal. She has been helping on the case with John. She and I are driving, trying to navigate the streets downtown. And we’re talking with Rob on the phone. And he says – I’ve tried calling John again and it just goes to voicemail. And Martina said – try calling the hotel and see if they could check his room. Maybe he overslept.” 

“Rob did that. Talked to Rob again. He said the hotel checked his room and his clothes and his items were still in there but he wasn’t there.”

“And we told Rob – call back the hotel and ask them to check on his truck. He had a distinctively orange colored pickup truck. Martina and I got to the deposition. We entered the conference room. Boeing’s litigation counsel was there along with one of their in-house counsel who had been attending the deposition each of the two days prior.”

“I think Rob called the hotel again and asked if they checked the truck. The woman said – there was an incident and EMS had been called. And I think she said a police officer would have to call us. When we heard that a police officer would have to call we were all shocked.” 

“There was no good reason a police officer would be calling if John was in good shape.”

“And the police officer called within a few minutes back to Rob and started asking questions like – was he the one calling the hotel, what was Rob’s relationship to this guy. We were telling them we are his lawyers, he is supposed to be in a deposition with him right now, is he okay? The officer wouldn’t tell us anything. And we said – we are going to the hotel.”

“So Rob and I went down to the hotel. We navigated around the flooded streets over to the hotel. And Boeing’s lawyers followed us down there.”

“We could see his truck in the parking lot on the back corner close to the hotel. There were two volunteer fire department trucks and two police cars. And they were out and about. You could see there was activity around the truck. But they wouldn’t let us near the truck.”

“We ultimately went inside and spoke with the hotel manager. The first thing she said was – I’m sorry for your loss. That was quite shocking to hear that. And she ended up telling us that she was the one Rob had been talking to, she was the one who went over to the truck to check on him. She said when she did that all that she could see was his head was tilted to the side and she saw a firearm in his hand. And she got scared, ran inside and called 911.”

Was the deposition being taken at the defense firm’s offices?


In his AIR21 lawsuit, John Barnett was claiming that Boeing retaliated against him for raising safety issues. 

“Yes. Along with a hostile work environment.”

Was there a videotape of the deposition? And is the transcript public?

“It was a video deposition. A redacted version of the transcript was released. Names of managers and lawyers were redacted.”

When will the local authorities release their findings?

“They should be released within the next week or two.”

Have you heard about the findings?

“I have, but they want to release the findings. I’m going to respect that.”

Is the OSHA case against Boeing going to proceed?

“It will. His mother and two of his brothers have been appointed as representatives of his estate. They will be acting in his capacity.”

What relief are you now seeking?

“Under AIR21, you can seek past and future wages and emotional damage. And there is no cap on emotional damages. It will be emotional damage to John. He was diagnosed with PTSD due to the hostile work environment. And he was suffering from anxiety attacks as well.”

Is there contemplation of a tort lawsuit – wrongful death lawsuit?

“Rob and I are taking a look at that.”

Tell us about Josh Dean.

“He came to us in about October 2023. He was acting as a witness in the shareholder class action case that had been filed against Spirit. He was just providing his knowledge. That is quoted in the amended complaint that the shareholder law firm filed in December 2023 for making false and misleading statements.”

“He did have an AIR21 claim pending. But we did not take up that case because we felt he was outside the 90 day statute of limitation. He filed it pro se.”

You were representing him in what case?

“As a whistleblower. That would be someone who complains internally or to relevant federal authorities. We were helping him facilitate his communications with the appropriate government officials.”

“He was a quality auditor at Spirit Aerosystems. Spirit puts together the fuselages on the Boeing Max airplanes. They have a contract with Boeing. The majority of their revenue comes from their contract with Boeing. Spirit used to be owned by Boeing. But a private Canadian equity firm bought Spirit in 2005. And they then entered a contract with Boeing.”

“Josh Dean’s job as a quality auditor was to audit any quality issues that he would find on the fuselage sections. And he actually discovered the misdrilled misaligned holes on the rear pressure half bulkhead in October 2022. He wrote up the findings and presented it to management. And it appears they shelved it. They ultimately terminated him in April 2023. In August 2023, Spirit issued a press release saying that they had discovered that there were misdrilled and misaligned holes, which appears they concealed from even Boeing for almost a year. That was one of the issues he raised with management regarding quality issues.”

Josh Dean died last month of a fast spreading infection.

“I was told he had the flu, MRSA and a stroke. His health had deteriorated rapidly. I was in Europe at an international anti-corruption court treaty drafting conference. It was in Hamburg, Germany. It was a four day conference. I was chairing one of the committees on whistleblowing and victim protection.” 

“And I received a message from his stepfather that Josh had been airlifted out of Wichita to a hospital in Oklahoma City. The stepfather and I started communicating daily up until his passing. And his health just totally deteriorated extremely rapidly. By the time he went into the hospital, he was on life support within a very short period of time.”

Is there going to be an autopsy?

“Yes. I’m told it can take up to six months.”

“Apparently, his extremities were turning black. It started with his toes and fingers. Then it started up his hands and feet, which turned black, then his legs and arms.”

As you are aware, these two deaths have led to all types of speculation and conspiracy theories.

What is your take on all of that?

“I’m not going to speculate. The public needs to be focused on the bravery of these two individuals. They wanted to bring to light what they saw as serious quality and safety issues. And they were doing it to protect the public – to protect you, to protect me, to protect people they didn’t know, to protect anybody who steps on an airplane. They were brave guys to do that.”

You have more than ten other whistleblowers.

Are they coming from the Charleston plant?

“These are whistleblowers we were representing prior to the passing of Josh and John. They are out of the Renton plant, Spirit, and the 787 plant in North Charleston. And others are reaching out.”

There has been some reporting that because of these whistleblowers and other public actions, Boeing is taking steps to try and get back to a safety culture. Are they?

“I certainly hope they are. The reason these whistleblowers are speaking out is not to hurt the company but to see the company succeed. And they were not seeing it going in the right direction. Instead they were ignoring quality issues and putting people’s lives at risk.”

“Boeing has continuously said over the years that quality and safety are their top priority. If that’s the case, you would think they would embrace these people, their employees who step up and say – wait a minute, this is a quality issue. Let’s go down, take a look at it, stop the line and fix it.”

“If quality and safety were truly their top priorities, they would have taken action like that and not retaliated against my clients.” 

“Boeing has been engaged in lip service. They need to stop just talking and implement programs that create a culture of quality and safety. This is going to be a long process for them. It’s not something you can change overnight. The House Transportation Committee found when they investigated the 737 MAX crashes that Boeing had a culture of concealment. That’s far from a culture of quality and safety. And from what I’ve read, the NTSB had a difficult time getting Boeing to cooperate on the Alaska Air investigation. And from what I’ve read, they are saying they don’t have the documents from when the door was pulled.” 

“They need to implement procedures to encourage their employees to speak up. Their new internal reporting program is called – Speak Up. But I’m hearing from one person who has filed a Speak Up that this person filed one in October 2023, and it has still not been addressed.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Brian Knowles, see 38 Corporate Crime Reporter 21(12), May 20, 2024, print edition only.]

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