Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson

Plane crash was suicide-homicide

Pilot reportedly told ex-wife she wouldn't see daughter again

March. 6, 2007

BEDFORD, Ind. - The man whose small plane slammed into his former mother-in-law’s house, killing him and his 8-year-old daughter, had told his ex-wife before the crash he had the girl “and you’re not going to get her,” the mother-in-law said Tuesday.

Eric Johnson, a student pilot who had soloed before, strapped daughter Emily into the passenger seat of a leased, single-engine Cessna on Monday morning. Less than two hours later, officials said, the plane smashed into the home of Vivian Pace, the girl’s grandmother.

Pace told reporters outside her damaged home Tuesday that Johnson called her daughter, Beth Johnson, by cell phone shortly before the crash.

He told his ex-wife: “I’ve got her, and you’re not going to get her,” she said.

Pace, who was home but wasn’t injured, said she believed the crash was deliberate.

“That was the only way he could hurt Beth. That was the only way he could get to her,” she said.

Andrew Todd Fox of the National Transportation Safety Board declined to say if Johnson, 47, said anything over the plane’s radio before the crash. The airport has no controller on duty, so no recording was available of any communication, he said.

The plane had already crashed but the occupants hadn’t been identified when Beth Johnson arrived at the Bedford Police Department to file a missing person report because her daughter hadn’t arrived at school that morning after spending the weekend with her father, police Maj. Dennis Parsley said Tuesday.

State and Bedford police were treating the case as a suicide and homicide, State Police 1st Sgt. Dave Bursten said. He said they had yet to find any notes indicating Johnson’s intentions with the flight, but the fact that the house was his ex-wife’s mother’s home raised serious questions.

“All of those things together lead us in the direction that this was done intentionally,” Bursten said Tuesday.

The couple had divorced in November after 12 years of marriage, Pace said.

Fox said Tuesday that investigators were looking at whether the plane was functioning properly and hoped to have a preliminary report within a week.

Bedford is about 20 miles south of Bloomington in southern Indiana.

At Parkview Primary School in Bedford, where Emily was a first-grader, counselors were called in to help the students, Principal Sari Wood said Tuesday.

“We’re all grieving over this,” Wood said. She described Emily as a “dear little girl” who “got a kick out of things and enjoyed life.”

“She just was one of those really friendly, really open little kids,” Wood said.


Indiana State Police Sgt. Dave Bursten says indications are Johnson deliberately flew into his former mother-in-law's house, just a short distance from the airport. The witness accounts of how the craft crashed, the relationship of the crash site to the airport, and the fact that the house it hit belongs to Johnson's former mother-in-law all point to a deliberate act.

Vivian Pace was in her living room at the time.

"She heard the crash and observed that the plane had come through the house," said State Police Detective Mark Clephane.

According to Bedford police, Emily's mother came to the police department at 11:30 Monday morning to file a missing person report. Emily spent the weekend with her father and failed to show up fo school. Authorities quickly began piecing things together.

"It is just gut-wrenching to think about what was happening for that child just prior to the crash," said Sgt. Bursten.

Authorities say Beth and Eric Johnson divorced about a year ago and during that time Beth had a restraining order issued against her estranged husband. There were no threats and no apparent reasons why he might have targeted the mother-in-law's house.

Sam and Kimberly Perry, who had been attending an event at Beth's school, say news quickly spread through town.

"It's sad that they didn't reach out for somebody, and that they took their daughter's life in the process."

Local authorities say they're not aware that Johnson had any criminal history. They say no notes were found. Johnson worked for the Department of Natural Resources. He was the property manager for the Jackson-Washington Forest in southern Indiana.

Photos taken by next-door neighbor Greg Rollins show part of the plane's fuselage inside the home. Views from Chopper 13 show that the plane sliced into the bottom of a wall on the south side of the home.

Tuesday morning, the plane remained where it crashed. State troopers have secured the site until the FAA and NTSB arrive to start their investigation. (Read the ISP press release.)


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