Brazil begins probe of plane crash that killed top court justice

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 20, 2017 11:38 AM

By Eduardo Simões and Brad Brooks

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian authorities on Friday started their investigation into a small plane crash that killed a Supreme Court justice who was overseeing the investigation of a political kickback scheme, the largest ever uncovered in the country.

A recovery team pulled the last two bodies from the wreckage of the accident that killed five people when the plane went down in heavy rain on Thursday afternoon just off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state.

The plane was carrying Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki, 68, along with his longtime friend who owned the aircraft, Alberto Filgueiras, 69, a boutique hotelier.

Maira Panas, a 23-year-old personal massage therapist for Filgueiras, and her mother Maria Panas, 55, were also aboard, along with the pilot Osmar Rodrigues, 56.

Investigators are under pressure to quickly determine the cause of the crash, which has Brazilians abuzz with conspiracy theories. Zavascki was expected to rule soon on the admissibility of dozens of plea bargains of executives from engineering group Odebrecht [ODBES.UL].

The testimony is expected to implicate upward of 200 powerful politicians and business leaders in the massive graft probe that revealed a vast kickback scheme for contracts with state-run oil company Petrobras.

Percio Freire, a security official in the coastal tourist city of Paraty, where the Hawker Beechcraft C90GT twin-prop plane went down in a bay roughly 3 km (2 miles) from the airport, confirmed all five bodies had been recovered.

The plane had taken off from an airport in Sao Paulo, 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the west.

"Now we need to recover the wreckage and hand it over to Air Force authorities," he said.

Eyewitnesses have told local media it was raining heavily when the plane suddenly banked sharply, with the tip of its right wing hitting the water before its nose dove into the sea. One person on a boat in the water near where the plane crashed told the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper he saw smoke coming from the left wing just before the crash.

The Brazilian Air Force's crash investigation center will oversee the inquiry but has yet to release any details. About 50 officials are on site for the investigation.

Brazil's civil aviation authority ANAC said the plane's paper work was in order and it had passed all required inspections.

Federal police and prosecutors said they will also carry out their own investigations to make certain there was no foul play. They have demanded copies of any communication the pilot had with air traffic controllers, along with all documents related to the plane.

Lindsay Adrian, a spokeswoman for Wichita, Kansas-based Textron Inc, which manufactures the Beechcraft, said the company had offered its investigative assistance to Brazilian authorities. She would not confirm whether officials accepted the offer of help.

(Reporting by Eduardo Simoes and Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo; Editing by Alan Crosby)