RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki has died in a small-plane crash just weeks before he was to rule in a major corruption case that could implicate high-ranking politicians in several Latin American countries.
While the cause of the Thursday's crash off a popular Brazilian coastal town had not been determined, Zavascki held such an important role in the sprawling "Car Wash" investigation into a multibillion-dollar bribe scheme at the state oil company that many Brazilians immediately voiced fears of possible foul play and demanded a full investigation.
"Justice Teori Zavascki had been strongly driving the #Carwash investigation in the Supreme Court. It's hard to believe this was a mere accident," tweeted Alan Mansur, director of the National Association of Prosecutors.
Federal police and the public prosecutor are investigating the crash.
Rescuers said Friday that they have recovered all five bodies from the crash. They include Zavascki, businessman Carlos Alberto Filgueiras and pilot Osmar Rodrigues. The other two dead were not identified.
The plane crashed outside Paraty, a coastal town about 155 miles (250 kilometers) west of Rio de Janeiro. Witnesses speaking to Globo television said it was raining hard at the time, which is typical during the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Within an hour of the news of Zavascki's death, President Michel Temer, who has been implicated by some suspects in the investigation but has not been charged, addressed the nation.
Zavascki "was a good man, and a (symbol of) pride for all Brazilians," said Temer, who called for three days of national mourning.
While the largest corruption probe in Brazil's history has been led by a team of prosecutors and Judge Sergio Moro in the southern city of Curitiba, Zavascki handled cases involving politicians. Under Brazilian law, only the Supreme Court can decide to charge or jail federal politicians.
Zavascki had been reviewing dozens of plea bargains of former and current executives of the big Odebrecht construction company, which was one of the main players in the kickback scheme at the oil company, Petrobras. Investigators allege more than $2 billion in bribes were paid over a decade and dozens of politicians and businessmen have been jailed.
Zavascki was expected to decide which of the Odebrecht plea bargains to validate by February. Validation would make them public, potentially implicating dozens of politicians in Brazil and several other countries where Odebrecht did business.
It's not clear what will happen to the "Car Wash" cases that Zavascki was overseeing. They could be split among other justices on the court or possibly assigned to just one justice.
The death will delay the probe "but is unlikely to represent much of a blow," wrote risk consultancy Eurasia late Thursday.
About 100 politicians and business executives have already been arrested or are under investigation in Brazil for allegedly overcharging contracts with Petrobras and other state-run companies to pay for bribes and election campaigns. In addition to Temer, senior Cabinet members and close aides and allies of the president have been implicated in testimony from some of those arrested.
Former Odebrecht director Claudio Melo Filho cited Temer 44 times, making accusations of illegal campaign financing. If his allegations are confirmed by Brazil's top electoral court, Temer would be removed from the presidency and Congress would pick a successor. Temer denies any wrongdoing.
Moro, the Curitiba judge, issued a statement after the crash saying he was "perplexed" and calling Zavascki a "Brazilian hero."
"Without him, we would not have had the Car Wash operation," Moro wrote. "I hope that his legacy, of serenity and firmness in law enforcement, regardless of the powerful interests involved, is not forgotten."