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FOR 8-YEAR-OLD JESSE BELLE DENVER, LAST SUNDAY, Oct. 12, had been a charmed day. The curly-haired daughter of '70s pop singer John Denver, 53, and his ex-wife Cassandra Delaney had spent the afternoon at Disneyland with friends before returning in a rented limo to the comfortable Bel Air, Calif., home she shares with her mother. But at 9:45 p.m. their backyard barbecue was interrupted by a call from the singer's Aspen friend Malcolm MacDonald. "Cassie got on the phone and began crying," says Delaney's friend songwriter Suzanne Paris, who was there. "I held her. I knew it was something bad."

It was. MacDonald told Delaney that her ex-husband's body had been recovered from California's Monterey Bay shortly after his recently purchased two-seat airplane inexplicably nose-dived into the water from 500 feet, shattering to bits and killing the singer instantly. Delaney managed to keep the news from daughter Jesse that night but broke it to her the next morning. "Cassie wanted to tell her before Jesse saw TV," says Paris's husband, songwriter David James Holster, who, along with Paris, had stayed the night. "It was heart-wrenching. Jesse was wailing, then screaming, 'Daddy, Daddy!' I couldn't stand it. It was really tough."

For a man whose music extolled nature's serenity, Denver's violent, watery death seemed an anomaly. But so, in a way, had his career. In the '70s, a decade bloated with the flamboyance and musical excesses of the likes of David Bowie, Kiss and Led Zeppelin, the homespun troubadour's melodic songs ("Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Take Me Home, Country Roads") and crystalline voice struck a refreshing chord.

"He was the Jimmy Stewart of folk music," says singer Mary Travers, whose group Peter, Paul & Mary had its only No. 1 hit with its 1967 recording of Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane." To those who said his lyrics were saccharine or sentimental, Denver had a ready answer. "Some of my songs are about very simple things in life," he told PEOPLE in 1995. "But those simple things are meaningful to me and have obviously meant something to people all over the world, even if it's only in a karaoke bar."

Denver's appeal, of course, reached far beyond karaoke's confines; he earned no fewer than four platinum and 12 gold albums in the U.S. alone. In 1974 and 1975 he was among the top male recording artists in the country. His infectious enthusiasm crossed over to television, where he hosted some 20 specials between 1974 and 1995, and later to film, where he starred with George Burns in the 1977 comedy Oh, God! "We made a fortune, tens and tens of millions of dollars," says film producer Jerry Weintraub, who managed Denver's career from 1970 to 1984. "If you give Elvis the '50s and the Beatles the '60s, I think you've got to give John Denver the '70s."

Some of Denver's fortune went into airplanes. With royalties from his 1974 hit album Back Home Again, Denver bought a Learjet—which he eventually piloted himself to concerts. Over the years he collected vintage biplanes, two Cessna 210s, a Christen Eagle aerobatic plane and, fatefully, the tiny Long EZ plane in which he died. Denver's father, Henry John ("Dutch") Deutschendorf Sr., a hard-drinking Air Force test pilot who died in 1982, taught his son how to fly in 1976, which helped heal what had been a fractious relationship. "It was his approval I most wanted," said Denver, who chose a music career over the military much to his father's dismay. "He was the one I was trying to live up to.... When I began flying, we really began having a great relationship. I think by then he had real joy in my success and appreciated the work I was doing."

Denver earned his pilot's license the same year and began soaring through the Colorado skies that had inspired many of his songs. "John's passions in life were music and flying," says Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association and a close friend of Denver's. "If the cause of the crash is found to be pilot error, all I have to say is John Denver was a very qualified pilot, and it wouldn't change that opinion one bit."

The Long EZ plane Denver died in is categorized as an experimental aircraft, meaning one that is not mass-produced and is usually built in a garage or a small hangar by individuals. Built in 1987, it had 800 to 900 hours on it, "about average for a plane its age," according to Solvang, Calif., veterinarian Van Snow, from whom Denver bought it about four weeks before his death for between $50,000 and $60,000. Snow says Denver had it checked out by two mechanics, who both gave it a thumbs-up. "It's one of the very fastest Long EZs in the world, and it's won several competitions," Snow told PEOPLE. "I've had no mechanical problems with it."

Last Saturday, Denver took a final lesson at Santa Maria in the plane, which he had just had painted. "He flew with an experienced pilot for quite a few hours and executed quite a few landings," says Snow. "I'm told he did quite well." According to Snow, Denver, who flew to Monterey in his Long EZ later that afternoon, told people in Solvang, "I'm gonna have a great Sunday. I'm gonna play golf, and then I'm gonna fly my new bird."

As promised, Denver, an accomplished golfer, on Sunday morning played 18 holes with friends at the Spyglass Hill Golf Course in Pebble Beach before driving to the Monterey Peninsula Airport. After practicing some takeoffs and landings, at about 5:12 p.m., Denver got clearance to take his new toy for a one-hour spin. A Monterey air-traffic controller who was having difficulty tracking him asked Denver to change his radar frequency. At 5:28 p.m., after fiddling with his radio, Denver asked the tower, "Do you have it now?"

"They were his last words," said National Transportation Safety Board spokesman George Petterson. Moments later a few dozen people soaking up what was left of a sparkling day witnessed the cataclysmic crash. "The engine was backfiring, like he was having carburetor trouble," says Jim Willoughby, a retired schoolteacher who lives near the crash site. "Then he banked to one side, with the right wing down, the left wing up. I thought he was a stunt pilot. Then he hit the water. It sounded like 100 tons of concrete dropped from the heavens."

Less than five minutes after the crash, Pacific Grove Fire Department Assistant Chief Andrew Miller arrived at the scene. "There was debris scattered everywhere on the water," he says. With strong westerly currents, the debris and Denver's mangled body drifted along the coastline toward the city of Monterey, a few miles from Carmel, where Denver had leased a house in the past year to be close to his daughter Jesse.

Denver's abrupt end was the final act of a life marked, in addition to dazzling success, by mishaps, misfortunes and mysteries, which continued even after his death. Two days after the accident, officials announced that he had been flying without the medical certificate necessary for all approved pilots. According to wire reports, though, it had been suspended because Denver had twice been arrested on drunk-driving charges. And while searching the silver Porsche Denver had left (with the top down) at the Monterey Peninsula Airport, police found an unloaded antique pistol under the seat in a bag with ammunition.

His personal life, too, had its share of hidden edges. "I've had a few difficult years," Denver said in '95. "A couple of years ago I was going through a divorce [with Delaney], I didn't have a record contract and couldn't buy my way onto a TV show. It really reached a low point careerwise and personally. The dark night of the soul."

On one dark night in 1993, Denver was stopped near his Aspen mansion by police who determined that he was driving his yellow Porsche under the influence of alcohol. His license was suspended after he pleaded guilty to "driving while impaired." Denver performed community service as part of his sentence. But exactly a year later, on Aug. 21, 1994, he totaled his Porsche on his way home in Aspen. He suffered only minor injuries and last July escaped serious charges when a trial resulted in a hung jury. (Aspen's prosecutor later reopened the case, which was slated to go before a judge next January.) "Both incidents," said Denver, "were a real wake-up call. It's been a catalyst for taking a good hard look at myself, who I am and who I want to be."

For starters, he wasn't always John Denver. Born Henry John Deutschendorf to Henry Sr. and Erma, a home-maker, in Roswell, N. Mex., Denver was the older of two boys. (His brother Ron, now 48, is a customer-service rep for Lockheed Martin, living in Aurora, Colo., near their mother, Erma, 75.) John was an Air Force brat who finally stayed put when the Deutschendorfs settled in Fort Worth in 1957. After high school, Denver enrolled in Texas Tech, majoring in architecture while singing with the Alpine Trio in his spare time. But after two years, Denver dropped out to pursue his dream. He moved to Los Angeles in 1963, earning meager wages singing in clubs. Around that time he changed his name too. "I chose Denver," he wrote in his 1994 autobiography Take Me Home, "which I associated with the Rocky Mountains. I identified with those mountains."

The following year, Denver was enlisted as lead singer for a New York City pop-folk group called the Mitchell Trio. At a 1966 concert in St. Peter, Minn., Denver met college sophomore Annie Martell; they fell in love and were married the next year. Three years later, after Denver had left the band, they settled in Aspen. Unable to have children, the couple adopted Zachary, now 23 and a senior at a Colorado college, and Anna Kate, 19, attending college in New Hampshire. In 1969, on the strength of his songwriting skills, Denver recorded his first album and two years later had his first million-seller with "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

What followed was a torrent of smash records, an exhausting touring schedule and a succession of infidelities that undermined his marriage. "We'd been attempting to excavate through all the built-up layers of mistrust," wrote Denver in Take Me Home. "But in the end it proved impossible."

In 1982, on their 15th anniversary, Annie, a psychotherapist who still lives in Aspen, asked for a divorce. By then the age of new wave and punk rock had trampled the ingenuous odes to nature that Denver had turned platinum. Though he continued to tour, as his recording career waned he increasingly threw himself into environmental and humanitarian causes. (Denver had helped found the World Hunger Project in 1977, and President Jimmy Carter, one of his heroes, appointed him to the Commission on World and Domestic Hunger.) A year earlier, Denver founded the Windstar Foundation, a nonprofit environmental education and research center, much of which he sustained with his own money.

By 1986, Denver was well along on another important project: his second marriage. That year, while appearing on an Australian music awards show, he met Delaney, a singer 18 years his junior. After dating for two years they married in 1988 and produced Jesse Belle the following year. But problems and rumors of infidelity soon erupted. "Before our short-lived marriage ended in divorce," Denver wrote in Take Me Home, "she managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other." But the relationship, bound by their mutual devotion to their daughter, had vastly improved in the past two years. "It took him a while to get over the divorce from Cassie," says Kris O'Connor, Denver's road manager for 27 years. "He was very much in love with Cassandra. But they were getting along again, and they shared joint custody of Jesse Belle."

Perhaps that is what seemed to buoy Denver in his final days. Or maybe it was the success of his new album The Best of John Denver Live, which is on Billboard's country chart. In any case, former manager Weintraub believes Denver's legacy is as solid as the Rockies. "I think his music will live forever. I told him that when he was alive, but I don't think he ever believed me."

PETER CASTRO
VICKIE BANE in Denver, LYNDON STAMBLER, LYNDA WRIGHT and JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles and KEN BAKER and JEFFREY WELLS in Monterey

  • Contributors:
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Lynda Wright,
  • John Hannah,
  • Ken Baker,
  • Jeffrey Wells.