Pilot accused of trying to cut plane’s engines indicted, but what charges don’t say is telling


An off-duty pilot who said he was having a “panic attack” 48 hours after using mushrooms when he allegedly attempted to shut off the engines of Alaska Airlines Flight 2059 on Oct. 22 now faces a massive indictment in Oregon, but tellingly none of those charges are for attempted murder.

Multnomah County prosecutors announced Tuesday that Joseph David Emerson, a 44-year-old husband, father, and pilot with 20 years of experience, was indicted on a whopping 84 criminal counts — 83 counts for reckless endangerment and one count for first-degree endangering aircraft.

When Emerson was initially booked in Portland on Oct. 23, where the flight was diverted, he faced numerous attempted murder charges. Now that a grand jury has reviewed the case, though, the charges are just as numerous but far less serious.

Emerson’s lawyers were reportedly “disappointed” by the 84 charges but said it was nonetheless clear that the grand jury didn’t recommend attempted murder charges because the evidence did not clearly show the veteran pilot “intended to hurt another person” that day.

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,” the lawyers said, according to ABC News.

“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,” the lawyers reportedly added, noting that it was their goal to have Emerson out of jail and home “by the end of this week.”

An arraignment is set for Thursday morning, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said.

Emerson’s defense team previously explained the incident on the interrupted flight from Washington state to San Francisco by saying their client was experiencing a “panic attack” some 48 hours after taking mushrooms — that is, “a small amount of psilocybin.”

Joseph Emerson appears in court

Pilot Joseph Emerson appears in court with an attorney after October 2023 arrest (ABC 7/screengrab)

On the flight, after not sleeping for 40 hours, Emerson allegedly tried to pull handles that would have shut off the plane’s engines, and said “I’m not OK” before he was restrained by pilots and flight attendants.

Emerson’s lawyers said their client thought he was escaping a dream.

“While on this flight, Captain Emerson suffered a panic attack and the illusion of being in a dream. His actions during that flight were a well-meaning attempt simply to wake himself up from the dream. No harm to anyone was contemplated or intended,” the defense lawyers reportedly said.

The state would have had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, through these actions and under these circumstances, Emerson had “intentionally engage[d] in conduct which constitutes a substantial step toward commission of the crime” of attempted murder.

The misdemeanor recklessly endangering another person statute does not mention intent, however. Prosecutors will have to show that Emerson “recklessly engage[d] in conduct which create[d] a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person.”

First-degree endangering aircraft is a felony that is committed when someone “knowingly […] [t]ampers with an aircraft or a part, system, machine or substance used to operate an aircraft in such a manner as to impair the safety, efficiency or operation of an aircraft without the consent of the owner, operator or possessor of the aircraft.”

On Oct. 24, Alaska Airlines said in a statement that it was “deeply disturbed” by the incident involving an off-duty pilot “approved to join the flight as a passenger and […] seated in the flight deck jump seat” in the cockpit.

“Upon exiting the flight deck, both Flight Attendants confirmed that Emerson was escorted by a Flight Attendant to the rear of the aircraft where Emerson was placed in wrist restraints and belted into the aft jump seat,” the airline said. “Our crew also confirmed that Emerson attempted to grab the handle of the emergency exit during the aircraft’s descent before being stopped by a Flight Attendant.”

The airline also said Emerson was “removed from service indefinitely and relieved from all duties at Alaska Airlines.”

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