Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki died in a plane crash Thursday night when the small plane he was in crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Foul play was immediately suspected by many because of Zavascki's role in the Operation Carwash corruption probe, which already has brought down several high-ranking officials in the Brazilian government. Photo by Fernando Bizerra Jr./European Pressphoto Agency
Jan. 20 (UPI) -- A Brazilian Supreme Court justice was killed Thursday in a plane crash, with some in Brazil suggesting the crash was not an accident because of his leadership in a corruption probe that has already taken down several powerful politicians.
Justice Teori Zavascki was killed when the Beechcraft King Air C90 went down in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Brazil between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro on Thursday night for unknown reasons.
Officials were still searching for much of the plane, but had pulled three bodies from wreckage and confirmed Zavascki was on the plane. With Zavascki on the plane was Carlos Alberto Filgueiras, owner of the Emiliano hotel chain, and the pilot, Osmar Rodrigues. News outlets also reported a woman died in the crash, but had not identified her.
Zavascki, appointed to the Court in 2012 by impeached former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff last year, was known for making bold moves against government corruption.
Acting President Michel Temer declared three days of national mourning to honor Zavascki as a "modest tribute to someone who has served the judiciary, the courts and the Brazilian people so well."
In Brazil, where the Supreme Court handles corruption cases involving government officials, Zavascki was leading Operation Carwash, an investigation into money laundering that involved the government-owned oil company Petrobras and the arrest of several high-ranking government officials.
Operation Carwash centered around billions of dollars in bribes paid to Petrobras for hiring specific construction firms at much higher rates than necessary. The probe already has led to the impeachment and arrest of Brazil's former speaker of the house Eduardo Cunha and led to Rousseff's impeachment. Temer and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Recently, Zavascki was reviewing evidence from a $2.1 billion plea deal involving the construction company Odebrecht, which reportedly implicated dozens of Brazilian politicians as having been paid off -- fueling suspicion the plane crash was not just an accident.
Lauro Koehler, who saw the crash, said the plane appeared to be making to sharp a turn just before it crashed, "but the plane kept curving, to the point that my wife screamed, 'It's going to crash!' Then the place dropped into the sea.
Roberto Veloso, president of the Association of Federal Judges, Marcio Anselmo, a federal investigator in the corruption probe, and Luciana Genro, leader of the Socialism and Liberty Party, all called for an immediate investigation into the crash. Genro noted it was suspicious that Temer, implicated in the probe already, will name Zavascki's replacement.
"This 'accident' needs to be thoroughly investigated," said Anselmo in a since-deleted Facebook post after Zavascki's death was confirmed.