Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki was killed in a plane crash on Thursday, raising questions about who will take over his investigation into dozens of politicians in the country's biggest ever corruption scandal.
Rescuers found three bodies in the wreckage of the small, twin-prop plane that crashed off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state amid heavy rains, firefighters said.
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 pm (1500 GMT). It crashed into the sea about 80 minutes later near its destination in the tourist town of Paraty, according to air force 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 ($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.
Under Supreme Court rules, Zavascki's case load would normally fall to the justice named by Temer to replace him, but an exception can be made for urgent matters, according to a court representative.
Carlos Pereira, a professor of public administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro and a leading expert on corruption, said Zavascki's death was a serious blow but he was confident it would not derail the graft investigation.
"The death of Teori is unquestionably a stress test for Brazilian institutions, but there is no question that President Temer will be under tremendous pressure to nominate a replacement who has absolutely no hint of wanting to slow or halt the Car Wash investigation," Pereira said.
Pereira said that close attention from judges, prosecutors, police and Brazilian civil society would safeguard the case.
"If there is any sign that anyone would use Teori's death in an opportunistic manner to put up obstacles ... I have no doubt they will be severely punished by many sectors of society," Pereira said.