"I heard from my sister that yes, he was on the plane. And he has perished," Teri Martell, whose sister Annie was Denver's first wife, said today. "He loved flying. He died doing something he loved."
Martell, her voice breaking, told The Associated Press from her home in Minnesota that she did not wish to discuss the death at length. "I should not be talking to reporters," she said.
The Monterey County coroner had not yet confirmed his death early today. The body was recovered Sunday from Monterey Bay.
The plane, which he owned, was made of fiberglass with a single engine and two seats. It was considered an experimental aircraft, said Pacific Grove police Lt. Carl Miller. It took off from Monterey Airport shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday, with the first reports of a crash at 5:27 p.m. Only one person was aboard.
The plane was flying about 500 feet in the air "when it just sort of dropped unexpectedly into the ocean," Miller said. "When it hit the water it broke into numerous parts."
Witness Carolyn Pearl told KCBA-TV that she saw a puff and heard a "popping" sound before the crash. The plane "kind of went up a little bit and absolutely straight down, not spiraling, just absolutely straight down," she said. "I thought it was doing some kind of acrobatic move, or something, and then realized it wasn't."
Denver, a licensed pilot, was in a previous plane accident in April 1989. He walked away uninjured after the 1931 biplane he was piloting spun around while taxiing at an airport in northern Arizona.
"We are all very broken up over this," said a family friend, Jerry McClain. "The person John was in public was the person he was personally."
Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., the son of a U.S. Air Force pilot took his stage name from the premier city in Colorado, where he eventually made his home.
In the mid-60s, he was chosen from 250 other hopefuls as lead singer for the Chad Mitchell Trio as a replacement for the departing Mitchell. But the trio's best years were behind it by then, and he left in 1969 for a solo career. That same year, his song "Leaving on a Jet Plane" became a big hit for Peter, Paul and Mary.
Soon, Denver's own records _ melodic, light folk-pop with touches of country _ began climbing the charts as well.
He scored with songs like "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Annie's Song" (written for his first wife), "Back Home Again" and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." He was named Country Music Entertainer of the Year in 1975.
Fourteen of his albums went gold and eight were ranked as platinum, with more than a million units sold. The LP "John Denver's Greatest Hits" is still one of the largest selling albums in the history of RCA Records, with worldwide sales of more than 10 million copies.
His handsome smile and cheerful image _ sort of a clean-cut hippie who could appeal to all generations _ made him a winner on countless TV specials. He appeared Itzhak Perlman, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Julie Andrews and Kermit the Frog in a Christmas special, "John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together."
Denver tried his hand at movies with a supporting role in the 1977 George Burns comedy "Oh God." He also appeared in a TV movie, "Foxfire," with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
He has strong appeal to overseas audiences as well, with many gold and platinum records in other countries. In 1985, he toured the U.S.S.R. in the first performances by an American artist since the suspension, at that time, of cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. He was the first artist from the West to do a multicity tour of mainland China, in October 1992, and similarly in Vietnam in May 1994.
"Music does bring people together," Denver once said. "It allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same."
In 1976, Denver co-founded the Windstar Foundation, a nonprofit environmental education and research center that works toward a sustainable future for the world.
He also was active in fighting world hunger and had an avid interest in space exploration. He volunteered to go on the space shuttle, not as an entertainer but "as Everyman, as a world citizen." The explosion of the Challenger in 1986 and the death of the first U.S. civilian in space, teacher Christa McAuliffe, didn't deter his interest. After all, he said, "It's a risk to get up in the morning."
Denver also has had his troubles. He pleaded guilty in September 1993 to an Aug. 21, 1993, drunken-driving arrest. The charge was reduced to driving while ability impaired, and he was sentenced to probation and a $372 fine.
The singer was arrested exactly a year later _ Aug. 21, 1994 _ on a second drunken-driving charge. The first trial ended in a hung jury; the second trial was set for Jan. 14.
His former manager, Tim Mooney of Aspen, Colo., said Denver sometimes had trouble expressing himself in speech, but "he knew he could deliver with a guitar and his voice." He recalled that even though he was working during Denver's concerts, he always thought "he was singing only directly to me."