A plane carrying Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki, who is overseeing a massive corruption investigation, crashed into the sea off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state on Thursday, a judicial source said.
The small aircraft left Sao Paulo and crashed into the sea near the tourist town of Paraty, airforce and civil aviation sources said. A press representative for the Supreme Court had earlier told Reuters that Zavascki was on the passenger list for the flight, but could not confirm he was onboard.
Zavascki, 68, had in recent weeks been reviewing explosive testimony from executives at engineering group Odebrecht, expected to implicate hundreds of politicians in a scandal involving kickbacks on contracts at state-run enterprises.
The dual-propeller Hawker Beechcraft C90GT carrying Zavascki left a Sao Paulo airport around 1 p.m. local time. It crashed into the sea about 80 minutes later near its destination in the tourist town of Paraty, according to airforce and civil aviation authorities.
The plane belonged to luxury hotel group Emiliano, according to civil aviation authority ANAC. No information was provided on the identity of others killed in the crash.
Condolences poured in from federal prosecutors and senior politicians, including some named in the sweeping graft probe — known as Operation Car Wash — that has shaken Brazil's political establishment over the past three years.
Crusading anti-graft Judge Sergio Moro, who has spearheaded the graft investigation at the grassroots level for nearly three years, said in an emailed statement that he "was stunned" by Zavascki's death, whom he called a "Brazilian hero."
"Without him, there would be no Operation Car Wash," Moro wrote. "I hope that his legacy, of serenity, seriousness and firmness in enforcing the law, regardless of the interests of those involved, even the powerful, will not be forgotten."
The investigation, involving at least 6.4 billion reais, US$2.0 billion, in bribes for contracts with state-run enterprises, has led to the jailing of dozens of senior executives and threatens to batter the ruling coalition of President Michel Temer.