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A father who lost 2 sons in a Boeing Max crash waits to hear if the US will prosecute the company

By Associated Press | June 28, 2024

Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 19 seconds.

As they travel around Alaska on a long-planned vacation, Ike and Susan Riffel stop now and then to put up stickers directing people to “Live Riffully.”

It’s a way for the California couple to honor the memories of their sons, Melvin and Bennett, who died in 2019 when a Boeing 737 Max jetliner crashed in Ethiopia.

The Riffels and families of other passengers who died in the crash and a similar one in Indonesia a little more than four months earlier are waiting to learn any day now whether the U.S. Justice Department, all these years later, will prosecute Boeing in connection with the two disasters, which killed 346 people.

Ike Riffel fears that instead of putting Boeing on trial, the government will offer the company another shot at corporate probation through a legal document called a deferred prosecution agreement, or DPA. Or that prosecutors will let Boeing plead guilty and avoid a trial.

“A DPA hides the truth. A plea agreement would hide the truth,” Riffel says. “It would leave the families with absolutely no idea” of what happened inside Boeing as the Max was being designed and tested, and after the first crash in 2018 pointed to problems with new flight-control software.

“The families want to know the truth. Who was responsible? Who did what?” the father says. “Why did they have to die?”

Ike is a retired forestry consultant, and Susan a retired religious educator. They live in Redding, California, where they raised their sons.

Mel was 29 and preparing to become a father himself when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 went down six minutes after takeoff. He played sports in school and worked as a technician for the California Department of Transportation in Redding. Bennett, 26, loved performing arts while growing up. He worked in IT support in Chico, California, and clients still send cards to his parents.

“They were our only two sons. They were very adventurous, very independent, loved to travel,” Riffel says.

In early 2019, Mel and his wife, Brittney, took a “babymoon” to Australia. Brittney flew home while Mel met his brother in Taiwan to start what they called their world tour. He and Bennett were headed toward their last stop, South Africa, where Mel planned to do some surfing, when they boarded the Ethiopian Airlines flight in Addis Ababa.

Back in California, Susan Riffel answered the phone when it rang on that Sunday morning. On the other end, someone from the airline told them their sons had been on a plane that had crashed.

“When you first hear it, you don’t believe it,” Ike Riffel says. “You still don’t believe after you see that there was a crash. ‘Oh, maybe they didn’t get on.’ You think of all these scenarios.”

The next shock came in January 2021: The Justice Department charged Boeing with fraud for misleading regulators who approved the Max, but at the same time, prosecutors approved an agreement that meant the single felony charge could be dropped in three years.

“I heard it on the news. It just kind of blew me away. I thought, what the hell?” Riffel says. “I felt pretty powerless. I didn’t know what a deferred prosecution agreement was.”

He and his wife believe they were deceived by the Justice Department, which until then had denied there was a criminal investigation going on. Boeing has never contacted the family, according to Riffel. He assumes that’s based on advice from the company’s lawyers.

“I have no trust in (Boeing) to do the right thing, and I really lost my confidence in the Department of Justice,” he says. “Their motto is to protect the American people, not to protect Boeing, and it seems to me they have spent the whole time defending Boeing.”

The Justice Department reopened the possibility of prosecuting Boeing last month, when it said the company had breached the 2021 agreement. The DOJ did not publicly specify the alleged violations.

Boeing has said it lived up to the terms of the deal, which required it to pay $2.5 billion, most of it to the company’s airline customers, and to maintain a program to detect and prevent violations of U.S. anti-fraud laws, among other conditions.

The pending decision in Washington matters to family members around the world.

The 157 passengers and crew members who died in the Ethiopian crash came from 35 countries, with the largest numbers from Kenya and Canada. Nearly two dozen passengers were flying to attend a United Nations environmental conference in Nairobi.

The March 10, 2019, crash came just months after another Boeing 737 Max 8, operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air, crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. The vast majority of passengers on the Oct. 29, 2018, flight were Indonesians.

In both crashes, software known by the acronym MCAS pitched the nose of the plane down repeatedly based on faulty readings from a single sensor.

Relatives of people on both flights sued Boeing in U.S. federal court in Chicago. Boeing has settled the vast majority of those cases after requiring the families not to disclose how much they were paid.

The Riffels have found strength and purpose in meeting with families of some of the other passengers from Flight 302. Together, they have pressed the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress to make sure that aircraft are as safe as possible.

Many of them want the government to prosecute high-ranking Boeing officials, including former CEO Dennis Muilenburg and current chief executive David Calhoun, who was on the company’s board when the crashes occurred. They have asked the Justice Department to fine Boeing more than $24 billion for what one of their lawyers, Paul Cassell, called “the deadliest corporate crime in U.S. history.”

The group of relatives includes Javier de Luis, an aerospace engineer whose sister, Graziella, was on the Ethiopian flight. And Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, who lost their daughter, Samya. Canadians Paul Njoroge and Chris and Clariss Moore have made several trips to Washington to implore government officials to move against Boeing and demand safer planes. Njoroge’s wife, three children and mother-in-law were all on the plane, as was the Moores’ daughter, Danielle.

At first, the disparate group of family members connected by emails just to check in on each other. Before long, and especially after meeting face to face, they grew more determined to do more than grieve together; they wanted to make a difference.

“We want to find some meaning in what happened to our loved ones,” Ike Riffel says. “If we can make aviation safer so this doesn’t happen again, then we have had some victories out of this.”

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