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Police: Pilot intentionally crashed into former in-law’s house, killing himself, daughter

BEDFORD, Ind. — ‘‘I’ve got her, and you’re not going to get her.’’
    Beth Johnson heard those words from her ex-husband Monday, shortly before he crashed his rented single-engine plane into his former mother-in-law’s southern Indiana home, killing himself and the couple’s 8-year-old daughter.
    The mother-in-law, Vivian Pace, described the cell phone call Tuesday as investigators tried to determine why novice pilot Eric Johnson strapped his daughter into the plane’s passenger seat and apparently crashed the plane deliberately into the one-story house.
    Pace said she has no doubt that the crash was intentional because Johnson had been harassing his ex-wife for months, including buying a house three doors down from hers.
    ‘‘That was the only way he could hurt Beth,’’ she said. ‘‘That was the only way he could get to her.’’
    In the cell phone call, Pace said, her daughter could hear the child in the background saying, ‘‘Mommy, come get me, come get me.’’ It was unclear whether the call was made from the cockpit or before the plane took off.
    Police were treating the crash as a suicide and homicide. State Police Sgt. Dave Bursten said investigators had yet to find any notes indicating Johnson’s intentions, 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.
    Andrew Todd Fox of the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators were also reviewing whether the plane was functioning properly and hoped to have a preliminary report within a week.
    Virgil I. Grissom Municipal Airport has no controller on duty, so there was no tape available of any radio communication, Fox said.
    He declined to say if Johnson, 47, said anything over the plane’s radio before the plane crashed into Pace’s home around 10:45 a.m. Monday in Bedford, nearly 70 miles southwest of Indianapolis. Pace was home but uninjured.
    The plane had already crashed but the occupants had not been identified when Beth Johnson filed a missing person report because her daughter had not arrived at school that morning after spending the weekend with her father.
    ‘‘It is just gut-wrenching to think about what was happening to that child just prior to the crash,’’ Bursten said Monday.
    Witnesses said the aircraft appeared to be trying to land when it veered sharply and went out of sight.
    Eric Johnson, a property manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, had recently taken the girl to Cancun for a few days of vacation.
    Emily ‘‘was to spend the weekend with dad, and dad was supposed to bring her to school Monday morning,’’ Bedford Police Maj. Dennis Parsley said.
    Johnson obtained his pilot’s license in November, the same month the couple divorced after 12 years of marriage.
    Court records showed Beth Johnson had obtained a restraining order against her husband on July 14, 2006, but police would not disclose the reasons.
    Pace said Johnson threatened his wife with a gun last summer in an effort to change her mind about the divorce. Bedford police said they never received a complaint about the alleged incident.
    Mary Webb, who lived across from the Johnsons for about 12 years, said police cars were parked outside the home for several weeks last summer. Eric Johnson told her they were there to protect his wife and daughter.
    ‘‘He said, ’I wouldn’t hurt her, I wouldn’t do that,’ and I took his word for it,’’ Webb said. ‘‘He didn’t seem like that type of person at all.’’
    Webb said Johnson moved out in the fall under police supervision and was ‘‘very bitter about the divorce.’’ He wanted custody of Emily but said he would settle for visitation rights, she said.
    Police searched Johnson’s home, seizing two computers, a briefcase and day planner. There were no notes indicating what his plans had been, Parsley said.
    Coroner John Sherrill said results of toxicology tests on Johnson were pending.
    A man who identified himself as Eric Johnson’s brother declined to comment when reached in Iowa.
    Johnson had worked for the state for 20 years and managed more than 18,000 acres of forest, said Mark Farmer, a conservation and public information officer.
    ‘‘By all accounts, he was a good employee, generally well-liked,’’ Farmer said.
    Counselors were available at Parkview Primary School in Bedford, where Emily was a first-grader.
    ‘‘We’re all grieving over this,’’ Principal Sari 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.
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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