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Family of Boeing whistleblower John Barnett speaks out following his death

Family of Boeing whistleblower speaks out
Family of Boeing whistleblower John Barnett speaks out 04:23

The mother of John Barnett, a former Boeing quality manager-turned-whistleblower who died earlier this month, told CBS News she holds the aircraft manufacturing giant responsible for the grinding treatment that ultimately left her son despondent. 

"If this hadn't gone on so long, I'd still have my son, and my sons would have their brother and we wouldn't be sitting here. So in that respect, I do," Vicky Stokes said when asked if she places some of the blame for her son's death on Boeing.

Barnett had been in Charleston, South Carolina giving testimony in his whistleblower case against the embattled aerospace company, when on March 9 he was found dead in his car in the parking lot of his hotel. He was 62.

Police are still investigating his death, which the coroner has called an apparent suicide, just before he was set to resume providing deposition testimony against Boeing, which he had accused of repeatedly ignoring safety issues.

Stokes and her son Rodney Barnett said they do not want to comment on whether they believe he died by suicide until the investigation by the Charleston police department concludes. They told CBS News in their first television interview that they want to see John Barnett's legacy of fighting for the safety of the flying public preserved.

"He thought of himself as trying to do the right thing. And that's what bothered him, that nobody would listen as to what was going on there," his brother, Rodney Barnett, told CBS News.

John Barnett worked at Boeing for 32 years, the last seven of which he served as a quality manager. He became a whistleblower at the South Carolina factory that builds the 787 Dreamliner. He resigned from the company in 2017, citing job-related stress.

Over that time, he developed concerns about the way the company was operating. Before resigning, he filed an administrative complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency said it had no reasonable cause to believe Boeing violated whistleblower laws. He then filed a lawsuit in 2021, alleging a litany of safety concerns. Among them: stray titanium shavings falling into electrical wiring, defective oxygen tanks and managers urging him to cut corners.

Rodney Barnett said his brother told him that rather than address his concerns, the company subjected him to retaliation for speaking out, alleging that he was "embarrassed at meetings; he would be called out." Rodney said his brother was not the type of person to back down.

In the 2022 Netflix documentary "Downfall: The Case Against Boeing," John Barnett claimed his managers retaliated against him for speaking up.

"Boeing quit listening to their employees. So every time I'd raise my hand and say, 'hey we got a problem here', they would attack the messenger and... and ignore the message," he said in the film.

Boeing has said it reviewed and addressed quality issues that John Barnett raised before he retired in 2017. The company said in a statement to CBS News: "We are saddened by Mr. Barnett's passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends."

His death occurred in the middle of litigation and came just as Boeing was grappling with weeks of negative headlines about its safety culture — specifically, repeated problems with its 737 Max planes, including a midflight blowout of a door plug on an Alaska Airlines plane.

John Barnett worked on a different plane, but raised similar concerns, according to his attorneys Brian Knowles and Rob Turkewitz.

"He wasn't trying to hurt Boeing," said Turkewitz, who told CBS News he believes whistleblower laws that apply to aerospace workers need to be strengthened. "He was trying to save Boeing. He saw this coming and he said, 'You know, this is all going to come down on Boeing.'"

Turkewitz said he called on Congress to reform a whistleblower law to allow Boeing employees to more expeditiously resolve their whistleblower complaints. He said the years John Barnett spent fighting his case took a toll. In the days before he died, Barnett was deposed by Boeing's lawyers and Turkewitz said the testimony forced Barnett to re-live painful memories.  

"That was wearing on him," Turkewitz said. "I think it all came back to him.

Barnett's family told CBS News they are trying to carry on John Barnett's whistleblower case, which is expected to head to trial in September. Knowles said continuing the case is about "justice and accountability".

Amid the ongoing image and safety crisis, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun announced he will be stepping down at the end of 2024.

This story has been updated with additional information and quotes.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or a suicidal crisis, you can reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. You can also chat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline here.

For more information about mental health care resources and support, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. ET, at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email

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