A father who lost 2 sons in a Boeing Max crash waits to hear if the US will prosecute the company (2024)

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.”

A father who lost 2 sons in a Boeing Max crash waits to hear if the US will prosecute the company (2024)


How much did Boeing pay victims families? ›

Following the 2021 agreement with federal prosecutors, the company paid $500 million into a fund for the families of passengers who were killed. The Justice Department, Boeing and the attorneys representing the victims' families are meeting Tuesday to discuss a timeline for what happens next.

Who was liable for the Boeing 737 Max? ›

Boeing will plead guilty to a criminal fraud charge stemming from two crashes of 737 Max jetliners that killed 346 people after the government determined the company violated an agreement that had protected it from prosecution for more than three years, the Justice Department said late Sunday night.

What is the Boeing plea deal? ›

Boeing has agreed to plead guilty to one charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States for its role in two fatal 737 Max crashes and pay up to $487 million in fines.

Will crashes plead guilty to Max? ›

Boeing is expected to plead guilty to fraud in connection with approval of its 737 Max before two of the planes crashed, killing 346 people. Victims of the plane crashes families are disappointed that Boeing will now have the option to accept a plea deal shielding the aerospace giant from accountability.

How much is the Boeing settlement? ›

Boeing will pay another fine, bringing the total to $487.2 million, which the Justice Department says is the legal maximum for the fraud charge. The deal also requires the company to invest at least $455 million to improve safety.

Do airlines compensate families of crash victims? ›

The airline can be sued for the wrongful death of the passenger. In general, the family can recover financial compensation, known as “damages,” for loss of support, and children can recover for loss of a parent's nurture, care and guidance.

Was anyone punished for Boeing 737 Max? ›

Under the terms of the agreement with the Justice Department, Boeing will pay a total criminal monetary amount of over $2.5 billion, composed of a criminal monetary penalty of $243.6 million, compensation payments to Boeing's 737 MAX airline customers of $1.77 billion, and the establishment of a $500 million crash- ...

Did 737 Max victims suffer? ›

Clifford said the passengers on the plane “undeniably suffered horrific emotional distress, pain and suffering” because they knew they were about to die in a crash.

Did Boeing get sued by families? ›

In the months since then, dozens of passengers sued the manufacturer and the airline, alleging both companies failed to ensure the aircraft was safe. Attorneys representing those passengers, many of whom also represent victims' families from the MAX crashes, say they expect more lawsuits to come.

Why was Boeing not criminally prosecuted? ›

As part of the January 2021 settlement, the Justice Department said it would not prosecute Boeing on the charge if the company complied with certain conditions for three years. Prosecutors last month alleged Boeing had breached the terms of that agreement.

What is the Alford plea deal? ›

Alford allows a defendant to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. A defendant may be confident in their innocence but feel reluctant to take the risk of going to trial. They may be able to make an Alford plea, depending on the state where they live.

Why are plea bargains offered? ›

Many criminal prosecutions within the United States judicial system end with a plea bargain before reaching a full jury trial. A plea bargain prevents the overriding of cases within the courts, which in turn allows prosecutors and judges to spend their time and resources on more controversial cases.

Does pleading guilty lessen the sentence? ›

When the Government has a strong case, the Government may offer the defendant a plea deal to avoid trial and perhaps reduce his exposure to a more lengthy sentence. A defendant may only plead guilty if they actually committed the crime and admits to doing so in open court before the judge.

Will crashes plead guilty related max? ›

Boeing Co. agreed to plead guilty to a criminal fraud conspiracy charge related to fatal 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

What determines the severity of a car crash? ›

The impact of a collision determines the damages and injuries. The impact is directly proportional to the weight and speed of the car. Thus, commercial trucks and other large vehicles cause more damage and injuries than relatively smaller cars.

How much did Boeing pay out for crashes? ›

The agreement, which was branded a “sweetheart deal” by victims' families, protected Boeing from a criminal conspiracy charge tied to the two Max crashes – and avoided a trial – provided the planemaker overhaul its compliance program and pay $2.5bn, including compensation and a criminal fine of $243.6m.

Who from Boeing went to jail? ›

Sears (born July 16, 1947) is an American former Boeing executive who was fired and criminally convicted for his role in the United States Air Force tanker contract controversy.

What was the punishment for Boeing? ›

As part of its guilty plea, Boeing agreed to pay a $243.6m penalty and submit to independent monitoring for three years. It also agreed that its board of directors would meet with victims' families and pledged to invest some $455m in safety improvements.

How much money does the government give Boeing? ›

US government – $28.6 Bil (31%)

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