Indiana judge killed in plane crash remembered by colleagues

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

An Indiana judge killed in a small plane crash in southeastern Illinois is being remembered by fellow judges as a problem-solver who helped defendants start new lives.

The plane crashed Saturday in southeastern Illinois killed the pilot, Ryan Johanningsmeier, authorities said. He had been the judge of Knox Superior Court 2 since 2015.

“His tragic death leaves his staff and loved ones in mourning and we join them,” Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush said in a Sunday statement. “As a problem-solving court judge he helped provide defendants with a new path in life allowing those most in need of restorative justice to work for a better tomorrow.”

Johanningsmeier campaigned for the bench on the promise of opening a problem-solving court to serve people in Knox County who were struggling with addiction. Many locals did not believe such a small rural community could muster the resources necessary but, according to Joseph Williams, coordinator for the Knox County Drug Court, Johanningsmeier was undeterred.

“He had the vision to build what was impossible and now it is essential,” Williams said of the drug court. “I expect the program to continue and continue in the mode of continual improvement.”

The drug court began in 2016 with 10 participants. It now has 50 active participants and has served more than 100 people. Williams pointed out that the impact of the program ripples beyond the graduates to their children, their families and into the wider community.

Johanningsmeier’s sudden death has shocked and saddened the drug court participants and alumni. However, Williams said the foundation the judge built will help sustain program.

Just last year, the drug court used about $45,000 from the Indiana Supreme Court to hire peer recovery specialists to help participants in their journey to sobriety. Also, Johanningsmeier had successfully pushed local mental health providers to shorten the waiting period for getting an appointment from eight weeks to beginning treatment on the same day someone asks for help.

Growing up in Knox County, Johanningsmeier  enrolled in Purdue University, planning to pursue an agricultural degree, Williams said. He discovered a love for the law but when he returned to his southeastern Indiana home, he moved back on the family farm in Freelandville.

Johanningsmeier spent his time outside of the courthouse hiking and traveling. He hiked many national parks including several trips down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In addition, he journeyed overseas to such places as Ireland and Iceland.

On Aug. 29, he was flying a single-engine Cirrus SR22. According to WTHI-TV, Johanningsmeier had fueled up at the Sullivan County airport and was headed to the airport in Lawrence County, Illinois, just over the state line.

The Sullivan County sheriff started a search after being contacted about 5 a.m. and told the judge’s plane was overdue. Wreckage of the plane was found about three miles north of the Lawrence County airport.

One of the peer recovery specialists was at the Knox County Courthouse at 8:15 a.m. Monday to lend a hand with helping the drug court and its participants navigate through the tragedy. A graduate of the program has been printing T-shirts in honor of Johanningsmeier.

“He was just such a fantastic person and always was looking to build something and achieve something,” Williams said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash.

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