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For Boeing Max crash victim’s mom, years of despair, and then, last week, hope

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: May 26, 2024, 6:02am

It was after midnight last Wednesday in Paris when Catherine Berthet learned U.S. federal prosecutors had made a decision she hoped could deliver justice for her daughter, Camille Geoffroy.

Berthet pinned the blame for her daughter’s death on Boeing, the maker of the 737 Max jet that carried the 28-year-old and 345 other people to their deaths because of a flawed control system.

While the Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 left Boeing with a scarred reputation and billions of dollars in legal bills, fines and losses, the company cut an unusual plea deal with federal prosecutors to avoid a criminal conviction. If it met conditions negotiated with the Justice Department until Jan. 7 of this year, Boeing could avoid further sanctions and yet another black mark related to the disaster.

The families who lost loved ones when two Renton-built 737 Max planes crashed have talked almost daily for roughly five years strategizing about how to hold Boeing accountable.

The families contend the agreement Boeing signed with federal prosecutors violated their rights as crime victims, because the Justice Department did not consult them before making the deal. And, the families say, it let Boeing off easy.

That group has been waiting three years for the deal to expire, opening a window for the Justice Department to determine whether Boeing complied with the agreement. If it had not, the manufacturer could face criminal charges for the Max crashes.

Late last Tuesday, Berthet, 56, had just finished the five-hour drive back to Paris from her mother’s house, where she often stays for a week at a time to help with caregiving, when she saw a letter from the Justice Department’s Victim Witness Unit.

Boeing, the letter said, had violated the terms of the agreement.

Berthet had to read it twice.

Her phone pinged with messages from other families asking if this could really be true.

Berthet cried tears of joy for what she saw as a small victory in a five-year battle and prayed to her daughter Camille. She called her son and her mother, and got on Zoom to celebrate with the other families who had lost loved ones in the Max crashes. Speaking with The Seattle Times on Zoom at nearly 3 a.m. Wednesday, she said she was ready to go dance in the streets.

“This is the first time we have hope,” Berthet said.

Boeing disputed the Justice Department’s findings and said it had “honored the terms of that agreement.” The company has 30 days to respond to the findings to “explain the nature and circumstances” of the violations and any steps it has taken to remedy the concerns, according to the deal.

In a letter to a district judge in Texas, where the deal was signed, the Justice Department said it is “determining how it will proceed in this matter.”

But, for the families who lost loved ones in the Max crashes, the letter feels like a significant turning point, as it is unclear why the Justice Department would find Boeing had breached the agreement if not to pursue new sanctions against the company.

Aftermath

Immediately after Camille’s death, Berthet avoided the news for months.

She was used to her daughter being gone for long stretches of time — Camille worked in humanitarian aid and would return home to Paris for 10-day visits between assignments — but they messaged each other every day. Losing Camille was like losing a part of herself.

One month later, Berthet’s father and sister were diagnosed with cancer. Her sister recovered but her father never did. He died last summer.

Though years separate their passings, Berthet believes that the loss of his granddaughter contributed to her father’s death. As she sees it, he lost some of his will to fight the disease. “This is the aftermath,” she said.

Months after the March 2019 crash in Ethiopia, Berthet’s ex-husband reached out to make sure she knew what federal regulators in the U.S. had found: Boeing had misled the Federal Aviation Administration about a software system on its new 737 Max plane. An error with that system likely led to the fatal crashes that killed her daughter.

She began to realize “that what was happening was not normal,” Berthet said. “I had to meet the families, had to improve my English, had to understand what happened with the plane.”

“During that first year … I was not myself. I was not aware of anything. I was like a stone,” she said. “Then I began to fight.”

Two years later, Berthet got another shock.

The U.S. Justice Department had signed a deal with Boeing that allowed the airplane manufacturer to avoid criminal charges for the Max crashes if it met a series of conditions over the next few years. The 58-page agreement outlined broad requirements for the company to improve its compliance with U.S. fraud law and commit to a culture of safety.

The Justice Department did not consult with the victims’ families before signing the deal with Boeing, according to attorneys representing the families.

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“It felt like a second crash,” Berthet said. “I felt so hopeless. I felt everything was all wrong (and) we couldn’t do anything because it was the Justice Department.”

The impacts of that second hit would continue to reverberate for the next three years as Berthet and other families worked to challenge the legality of the agreement and encourage the Justice Department to prosecute Boeing.

Berthet began studying French and American law, aviation safety and the English language. She read French and English versions of the same law books so she could confidently speak up in meetings with federal prosecutors. When it came to aviation safety, English became the dominant language for her to learn more; there are aviation terms she doesn’t know how to translate back to French.

She read academic papers, spoke with former Boeing employees and attended trials related to other aviation safety incidents. Conversations with other victims’ families often continued until 2 a.m. in France.

She traveled back and forth to America — from Texas to New Orleans to Washington, D.C. — holding a picture of Camille as she attended congressional hearings, court proceedings and news conferences.

“It took two years to be recognized as victims,” Berthet said. “We had to prove that had there not been any fraud, the people in that plane would not have died. … We had to prove that the fraud was directly responsible for the death of our loved ones, and my daughter.

“We had to fight. We had to work. We had to present proof.”

Her friends and family in France supported her efforts but asked at times if she should take a step back. They worried that reliving her daughter’s death, and pouring so much of herself into the fight, wouldn’t pay off. The battle often felt lonely.

To keep fighting, Berthet said she doesn’t let herself feel the loss of her daughter too deeply.

“If I go deeper, deeper in my heart, and I really think about her, I can’t fight,” Berthet said. “If I want to be efficient, and to help … I can’t be with her.”

A “crash that hasn’t happened”

After the deferred prosecution agreement expired in January, the Justice Department had six months to determine if Boeing had met all the conditions it had agreed to. If it had not, federal prosecutors could pursue the criminal charge that had been put on hold.

Berthet, other victims’ families, and the attorneys representing them had little hope the Justice Department would choose to do so. In 2022, federal prosecutors said in court records that Boeing had already met nearly all of the conditions in the agreement.

But days before the deal expired, a panel blew off a Boeing 737 Max plane midflight, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the aircraft, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. Since then, whistleblowers, aviation safety experts and the FAA have released a stream of accusations. The consensus among critics is that Boeing prioritized speed over quality, created a culture of fear and failed to overhaul its safety practices.

Berthet refers to the panel blowout not as a “safety incident,” but instead as the “crash that hasn’t happened.”

“One hour after the blowout of the panel, all the world knew that there was a problem,” she said.

She saw the accusations that followed as further evidence that the Justice Department should prosecute Boeing. But, after an April meeting with federal prosecutors where they declined to share what information they were considering, Berthet had all but written off the possibility that the Justice Department would pursue criminal charges.

In May, the Justice Department scheduled a May 31 meeting with victims’ families and said it expected to have a decision about Boeing’s compliance. One attorney asked the Justice Department to give them a heads-up before that meeting, hoping to prepare their clients for what they expected to be disappointing news.

The decision from federal prosecutors came two weeks early.

Though a victory, Berthet said this wasn’t the end of her fight. She was hopeful federal prosecutors would pursue additional criminal claims against Boeing and two of its CEOs: Dennis Muilenburg, who headed the company at the time of the crashes, and Dave Calhoun, who took over after.

By 3 a.m. after she heard the news, wrapped in pajamas and a pink scarf, Berthet found herself holding several emotions at once.

She was celebrating the victory, strategizing her next steps and mourning the loss of her daughter.

“Every day I pray, and I ask God to help us, to be at our side, and for all the people who were in that plane and all the families,” Berthet said. “And this time I prayed and I cried and said, ‘Thank you so much.’

“But this is the first step. Now, of course, we’re going to have another strategy.”

Referring to all the victims’ families, Berthet said “we were very often despaired, very often discouraged, angry, furious. But we were still together. … We know this will last long. We know that, but we are patient.”

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