Off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph David Emerson pleads not guilty in attempted mid-flight sabotage


(NEW YORK) — An off-duty pilot who admitted to taking psychedelic mushrooms two days before he was accused of trying to shut down the engines of an Alaska Airlines jet in mid-flight from a cockpit jumpseat pleaded not guilty Thursday to 84 charges stemming from the attempted sabotage.

Joseph David Emerson was arraigned in Multnomah County Court in Portland, Oregon, on 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of endangering aircraft in the first degree — charges connected to the Oct. 22 emergency that unfolded aboard Flight 2059 from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco.

A not-guilty plea to all of the charges was entered on Emerson’s behalf by his attorney, Levi Horst.

A judge approved Emerson’s release from custody after Horst and prosecutors informed the court that Emerson agreed to abide by seven conditions of his release, including having no contact within 30 feet of any operable aircraft.

Emerson also agreed to post a $50,000 security bond and is required to engage in mental health services and avoid taking any intoxicants, including alcohol.

Emerson of Pleasant Hill, California, was initially arrested on 83 counts of attempted murder based on the number of people aboard the plane, but a Multnomah County grand jury that heard evidence in the case indicted him on lesser charges, prosecutors announced on Tuesday.

The 44-year-old pilot was charged in Oregon because the flight was diverted to Portland, where he was arrested.

Emerson was seated in a flight deck jumpseat in the cockpit of the 737 jet, hitching a ride to San Francisco, when he allegedly tried to shut down the engines by attempting to pull the fire extinguisher handles on the engines, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. He was allegedly overheard saying, “I’m not okay,” before attempting to sabotage the flight, according to the complaint.

The two pilots flying the plane stopped Emerson before he could fully activate the engine fire extinguishers, grabbing his wrists and wresting with him in the cockpit for 25 to 30 seconds before subduing him, the complaint alleges.

Emerson’s 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.

The pilot told investigators he had not slept for 40 hours prior to the incident and believed he was having a “nervous breakdown,” according to the criminal complaint.

In a statement on the grand jury indictment, the defense attorneys said Emerson “never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk — he just wanted to return home to his wife and children.”

“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 said.

Emerson’s attorneys said they were “disappointed” that the grand jury indicted the pilot on 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 in the statement.


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