Off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot indicted for trying to shut off engines mid-flight, avoids attempted murder counts

Joseph David Emerson was indicted by a grand jury on 84 charges.

December 5, 2023, 5:52 PM

An off-duty pilot accused of trying to shut down engines mid-flight on an Alaska Airlines plane in October was indicted on 84 charges -- though the grand jury declined to go for attempted murder.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, was charged with one count of endangering aircraft in the first degree and 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person in connection with the Oct. 22 incident, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office said Tuesday.

He is being held at the Multnomah County Detention Center in Portland, Oregon, and is scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday.

Emerson was initially charged with 83 counts of attempted murder after he allegedly tried to shut off the engines by pulling the fire extinguisher handles. He pleaded not guilty in October.

His attorneys previously said he "suffered a panic attack" while on the flight and was in a dream-like state during the incident. They also said he had taken "a small amount of psilocybin," which is found in mushrooms, two days prior to the flight.

In a statement on the grand jury indictment, his attorneys said the attempted murder charges "were never appropriate in this case because Captain Emerson never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk -- he just wanted to return home to his wife and children."

PHOTO: Joseph David Emerson, left, 44, was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Oct. 24, 2023, in Portland, Ore.
Joseph David Emerson, left, 44, was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Oct. 24, 2023, in Portland, Ore.
Dave Killen/The Oregonian, Pool via AP, FILE

"Simply put: Captain Emerson thought he was in a dream; his actions were taken in a single-minded effort to wake up from that dream and return home to his family," the statement continued.

His attorneys said they were "disappointed" that the grand jury indicted Emerson on the 84 counts.

"Captain Emerson had no criminal intent, and we look forward to being able to present a fulsome defense at trial and bring forth all the facts and circumstances to a jury," his attorneys said. "Captain Emerson’s defense team is crafting a release plan and expect that he will finally return home to his family by the end of this week."

At the time of the incident, off-duty captain Emerson was sitting in the flight deck jump seat, which is in the cockpit, Alaska Airlines said.

The flight was en route from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco when it diverted to Portland, Oregon, the airline said. Emerson was scheduled to be on a flight crew of a 737 leaving San Francisco, according to a federal official.

Emerson had engaged with the pilots in "casual conversation" before allegedly trying to grab and pull two red fire handles, according to a criminal complaint filed in October. That would have activated the plane's emergency fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines, according to the complaint.

Emerson allegedly said "I'm not OK" and reached up to grab the handles but was unable to pull them down all the way and fully activate the engine shutoff because of the pilots "wrestling with Emerson," the complaint said.

From the time Emerson said, "I'm not OK" to when he exited the cockpit was about 90 seconds, the complaint said. Flight attendants put Emerson in wrist restraints and sat him in the back of the plane, prosecutors said.

Emerson was taken into custody in Portland. He allegedly told officers he believed he was having a "nervous breakdown," according to the complaint.

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