The Knox County community has been left reeling after Superior Court II Judge Ryan Johanningsmeier is presumed dead following a plane crash in rural Lawrence County, Illinois, Saturday morning.
Joe Williams, coordinator of the Knox County Drug Court program Johanningsmeier worked so hard to build, said his staff Monday was left to “awkward starts to uncomfortable conversations” as no one knew quite what to say.
“We’re just here, in the office,” he said Monday afternoon. “We’re trying to process both a personal loss and how to address this professionally.
“We’re getting lots of calls from attorneys, local providers, folks stopping in to check on us. It’s just a strange, sad day.”
Local officials are awaiting official confirmation of Johanningsmeier’s death; an autopsy is scheduled for today.
According to Lawrence County, Illinois, coroner Shannon Steffy, 911 dispatchers received a call about 2:15 a.m. Saturday from the Federal Aviation Administration about a possible plane crash.
The pilot, believed to be Johanningsmeier, had fueled up in Sullivan then filed a flight plan to the Mid American Air Center in Lawrenceville, Illinois, but he never confirmed landing.
A search of the area ensued, and about 7:30 a.m. another pilot called in what he thought was wreckage below.
Johanningsmeier’s plane was found in a wooded area just to the north of the airport in Allison Township.
The FAA continues to investigate the crash, and a full report isn’t likely for about 30 days.
Johanningsmeier was the only person on board the single-engine Cirrus SR22, and it’s likely fog played a factor in the crash as local officials say the Indiana State Police helicopter was requested as part of the search but, due to deteriorating weather conditions, couldn’t be used.
Williams said local drug court participants are among the hardest hit by the judge’s untimely death.
“We have 50-plus people in the program right now, and he’s the one who held them accountable,” he said. “He’s been their cheerleader. He’s been there as they’ve made those positive changes in their life.
“But he’s also put them on the right path, so they know the right way to get through this.”
Johanningsmeier campaigned heavily years ago on the establishment of a drug court; in the last three years, it’s graduated more than 50 participants.
Its success rate far exceeds the state average, and Williams called it “one of the best in the country.”
Typically taking 18-24 months to complete, the program is aimed at reducing recidivism and protecting public safety by intensely supervising the participants, engaging them in substance abuse treatment and returning them to the workforce.
And it’s been so immensely successful, Williams said, because Johanningsmeier approached it the same way he approached most everything else — with determination and a refusal to fail.
“He followed the research,” Williams said matter-of-factly. “He convinced me to come work for him. I’ve been involved in other drug courts, and while the research shows one thing, judges may be slow to change or adapt.
“He was all for it though,” Williams said. “He would say, ‘If this works best, then let’s do that.’ And by doing that, we’ve had tremendous outcomes.”
Williams, too, said Johanningsmeier was “hands on” in drug court participants’ lives.
“He cared for them, knew what was happening in their lives,” he said. “And that made all the difference.”
Knox County Clerk David Shelton said he informed the governor’s office Monday of Johanningsmeier’s passing. It will now likely be up to state officials to appoint a judge pro tempore to oversee Superior Court II until a new one is elected.
For now, all cases in Superior Court II are at a stand still, officials said Monday.
Johanningsmeier was up for re-election in November and was unopposed. Since he was a Republican, it will be up to local party officials to select someone to place on the ballot in his place, Shelton said.
Republican Party officials on Monday issued a press release saying any local attorney interested in running needs to first file paperwork with the state.
A letter of interest then needs to be sent to Republican Party Chairman Linda Painter by 5 p.m. on Friday.
Anyone — whether Republican or Democrat — can file to seek the seat, Shelton said, but it will be up to Republican Party officers to make the selection; it will all be done through an interview process, Shelton explained.
“We may have one. We may have ten,” Shelton said of potential candidates. “I just don’t know.”
But the utmost importance, he said, will be placed on finding a candidate that wants to continue to see the drug court program flourish.
“He was firm but fair and very compassionate,” Shelton said of Johanningsmeier. “And his ultimate legacy is and will be continuing Knox County Drug Court.
“He helped keep people out of jail, he rehabilitated them and re-acclimated them into society. He saved lives through his compassion.”
Johanningsmeier, he said, was never satisfied with “good enough.”
“He campaigned so heavily on the need for a drug court and would repeatedly receive remarks from the community, professionals who said, ‘It’s not possible. You can’t do that. We’re too rural, too limited.’
“But he made it happen,” Williams said. “And we’ve continued to grow and improve every year.”
Williams and Johanningsmeier both shared a passion for hiking, climbing and the general outdoors. At least once a year, Williams said, the two would go on “some kind of adventure.”
On one recent trip, they hiked 100 miles in Shenandoah National Park in just five days.
Johanningsmeier’s Facebook page, too, is filled with photos of his thrill-seeking missions.
He always pushed the limits, Williams said, and was better for it.
“He made everything fun, exciting, strenuous, challenging,” he said, his voice trailing. “He always had an unreasonable expectation for how much you could accomplish in a period f time. He wouldn’t always meet those expectations, but he would always achieve more than anyone else who chose a more reasonable standard.”
Other elected officials, too, joined in their tributes to the late Johanningsmeier.
“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 statement issued Sunday. “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.”
Knox County Commissioner Trent Hinkle, too, called him “energetic, passionate and indomitable.”
“He just never let up — never,” Hinkle said. “His energy was at a high level all the time. And he was so passionate about the things he wanted to do. He didn’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of what he wanted, especially when he knew it was the right thing.
“As a result, we have a drug court that is just fantastic. It’s unbelievable that he’s gone, but it’s good that we have these things to remember him by.”
Members of the city’s Redevelopment Commission will meet in special session on Wednesday to discuss ways they can spur growth in the local housing market.
RDC president Tim Smith last month announced that he’d begun working on a Request for Proposals with city attorney Dave Roellgen, a document that could be sent out to area developers to garner information on what kinds of housing projects they want to do and how best the RDC could help.
The objective Wednesday night, he said, is to figure out exactly what it is the RDC is looking for.
“That may be the only thing we get through on Wednesday,” he said, “but we need to figure out how we’re going to score a request for assistance. We really probably need a whole new application process.
“But we want to sit down, have a round table discussion about how we want to see this process work. How do we want people to apply? And how will we score applications so we have a fair distribution of funds?”
Smith has said he envisions an application process — one designated over a period of weeks or even months — where, at the end, the RDC could consider each one and award funds appropriately.
Developers could be looking to build homes on empty lots throughout town or even renovate old ones in the city’s Historic District.
The only real stipulation, RDC members have previously said, would be that the project fall within the boundaries of the Tax Increment Finance Zone, the vehicle by which the RDC collects property tax revenue to reinvest in economic development projects.
The process, too, could work by incentivizing developers in other ways to take on projects.
That could mean giving them one of the 14 empty lots the RDC has collected over the years as the city has looked to reduce blight or funding sanitary sewer connections or even storm water drainage.
It could also include street repair or construction.
As for the scoring process, RDC member Marc McNeece previously suggested weighing things like the overall cost of the project, the impact on local utilities and even the tax revenue that would be generated as a result.
Essentially, the higher the score, the more suited the project is for the RDC’s help.
Smith said he’s so far unsure of a timeframe, but he’d like to “move quickly.”
“I’d like to be able to take applications before the end of the year,” he said. “I know there are folks that are wanting to do something, as in developers wanting to build.
“So while they’re wanting to do something, we need to be moving so we can help and make sure those things happen.”
The RDC will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.
For more information, contact City Hall at 812-882-7285.
Knox County reported seven more confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday, marking a slight decline from daily reports that have been regularly reaching into the double digits.
Noting a 7-day positivity rate of infection at 13.6%, Adam Thacker, chief operations officer at Good Samaritan Hospital, said Knox County’s numbers are nearly double that of other counties across the state.
“We’ve seen a significant jump in cases — over a 100% increase in the past month,” Thacker said during a Facebook Live video on Monday morning.
There are currently 79 active cases in the community, with 14 patients being treated at Good Samaritan Hospital. Four are in critical condition and on ventilators.
“I continue to be disappointed in what I see,” said county health officer Dr. Alan Stewart in regards to the continued high rate of community spread of the virus.
“A lot of people are saying ‘I’m young and healthy, so it’s not going to hurt me,’ but once the virus gets its foothold in the community then it hurts those who are vulnerable — maybe your mom and dad, or those inside of nursing homes.”
Stewart pointed out that some of Knox County’s biggest spikes in COVID-19 cases came after holiday weekends, and he urges residents to use caution as Labor Day approaches.
“After Memorial Day and Fourth of July we saw an uptick in cases. Hopefully this time people will avoid large gatherings,” Stewart said.
Though community spread continues, the health officer is pleased thus far by how well local schools are doing to minimize spread within its own walls.
On Monday, the Vincennes Community School Corp, announced one new case of COVID-19.
A VCSC statement said a Lincoln High School staff member tested positive for COVID-19 and was last at LHS on Friday. The person had been masked and was not involved in activities outside of school, according to the statement.
The VCSC reported five cases at Lincoln High School earlier this month but none in nearly two weeks.
The North Knox School Corp. is reporting five active cases at the Jr. Sr. High School and one at the Intermediate School, while South Knox is currently reporting no active cases on its online COVID-tracker.
Dr. Scott Stine, chief medical officer at Good Samaritan Hospital, says he’s often asked if it’s safe to send kids into local schools.
“My kids are in school right now. They walk out of the car with their masks on, they’ve got their own water source,” he said.
“If it was not safe, I would not be sending them.”
Stine added that a return to schools — and the desire to keep kids in school — is one reason adults must do a better job of masking when in public.
“Not to bash adults, but I’d say children are much better at this than we are,” he said. “They follow rules and do as they’re told and are used to guidelines.”
What many health officials are waiting for is access to better testing methods.
While Knox County continues to receive COVID-19 test results within 48-72 hours, Stewart says that’s not good enough.
“It’s a tragedy,” he said, comparing it to the type of lag one might expect in a developing nation.
Stewart said one of the most promising testing methods is one that takes a saliva sample and can be processed quickly while still providing accurate results.
Though getting test results within 72 hours is still better than many parts of the nation, Stewart points out that during that three-day lag, children might be unnecessarily missing school, and hospital staff — among others — missing work.
In this country, he says, “it’s inexcusable.”
Knox County currently has a total of 346 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and its 7-day infection rate has been consistently above 10% the past several weeks.
Gibson County has 317 cases, Pike County has 101, Daviess has 495, and Sullivan has 290.
The state saw another 897 confirmed cases on Monday and another 5 deaths.
Knox County has had four recorded deaths from COVID-19 so far.
There have now been 94,196 Hoosiers test positive for the novel coronavirus. Among them, there have been 3,077 deaths.
The state’s 7-day infection rate stands at a lesser 6.9%.