Oregon grand jury indicts Alaska Airlines pilot on lower charges

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Dec. 5, 2023 9 p.m. Updated: Dec. 5, 2023 11:48 p.m.

A Multnomah County grand jury has decided the off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who in October tried to shut down an airplane’s engines mid-flight during what appears to have been a drug-induced mental health crisis, should not face 83 counts of attempted murder.

Instead, jurors opted this week to charge Joseph David Emerson with 83 misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person — far lighter crimes if he’s convicted. He also faces a single count of endangering an aircraft, a felony.

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Since late October, Multnomah County prosecutors have asked grand jurors whether Emerson, 44, should be indicted for breaking Oregon law Oct. 22 — more than 30,000 feet in the sky — somewhere between Astoria and Portland.

That’s when Emerson, who was catching a ride home from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, seated in the cockpit jumpseat of an Embraer 175 jet operated by Horizon Airlines, removed headphones from his ears and, according to court records, declared: “I’m not OK,” before proceeding to nearly cut off the plane’s fuel supply midflight. Witnesses have said he was acting erratically and was seemingly confused about his reality.

FILE: Joseph David Emerson, left, 44, was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Oct. 24, 2023, in Portland, Ore. The former Alaska Airlines pilot who police say tried to cut the engines while riding in the cockpit jump seat during a Horizon Air flight made his first appearance in federal court in Portland on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023.

FILE: Joseph David Emerson, left, 44, was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Oct. 24, 2023, in Portland, Ore. The former Alaska Airlines pilot who police say tried to cut the engines while riding in the cockpit jump seat during a Horizon Air flight made his first appearance in federal court in Portland on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023.

Dave Killen / AP

“I pulled both emergency shut-off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up,” Emerson told police, according to court documents. “I was trying to wake up. I didn’t feel like this was real.”

Under Oregon law, any person charged with a felony receives either a preliminary hearing or has the case against them heard by a grand jury. Since his arrest at Portland International Airport, Emerson, a father, husband and experienced commercial airline pilot, has remained lodged in the Multnomah County Detention Center. Emerson’s attorneys, Noah Horst, Ethan Levi and Norah Van Dusen, said they’re working on a release plan and expect he’ll be out of jail and back home in California by the end of the week.

“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,” Emerson’s defense team said in a statement. “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 incident has drawn national attention, in part because initial court records and news accounts made it appear Emerson was attempting to seize control of the aircraft while high on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Emerson’s case is playing out in Multnomah County because that’s where the jet was diverted and ultimately landed safely. Although it has almost nothing to do with the core public safety challenges facing Oregon’s most populous county — where prosecutors face a mountain of challenges that include a dearth of public defenders, spiking drug use and the ongoing homelessness crisis. Yet prosecutors have invested more than a month calling police officers, pilots and others before six grand jurors.

At nearly the same time as local prosecutors, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Emerson with a federal crime: interference with flight crew members and attendants.

He has pleaded not guilty to all criminal charges. Emerson’s lawyers argue their client had no criminal intent and said they were disappointed the grand jury indicted on even less serious charges.

“The grand jury is a largely secretive process controlled by the prosecution and defense counsel are not permitted to make any arguments at grand jury,” Emerson’s defense team stated. “Thus, while we believe the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office treated Mr. Emerson fairly, we do not know why the grand jury arrived at its charging decision, nor have we had an opportunity to examine all the evidence the district attorney ultimately presented to the grand jury.”

Oregon prosecutors rarely file charges of recklessly engaging an aircraft. During the last five years, local prosecutors have never filed it as a felony, according to the Oregon Judicial Department. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office filed it twice as a misdemeanor, in 2018 and again in 2020, but in both cases the defendants were not convicted of the charge, according to court records.

Emerson, who rose to the rank of captain at Alaska Airlines, has flown for more than 20 years as a commercial pilot.

The days leading up to that moment on Oct. 22, were emotionally intense for him, according to family members and his own comments to investigators. Emerson had spent the weekend of the flight remembering and grieving his closest friend, Scott Pinney, who died suddenly five and a half years ago. Emerson told police he had not slept in more than 40 hours and took psychedelic mushrooms sometime on Oct. 20, two days before boarding the Horizon Airlines flight home.

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Emerson also told police despite years of depression, he hadn’t undergone any psychological evaluations.

Emerson’s wife, Sarah Stretch, previously told OPB she pushed her husband to get help with his mental health after Pinney’s death.

“I was like, ‘Maybe you should talk to somebody,’” Stretch told OPB. “And then he expressed to me, ‘Sarah, I can’t be out of work. We have to pay a mortgage. If I go do that, I have to go through all these other hoops … and we can’t afford to do that.’”

Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson, in this undated submitted photo.

Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson, in this undated submitted photo.

Courtesy of Emerson Family

Getting mental health treatment can be challenging and even career-ending for pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration relies on pilots to self-report mental health concerns. Doing so can cost pilots their ability to fly. And getting back their medical clearance can require pilots to pass an exam or submit notes from a therapist.

During a speech last month in Washington D.C., the head of the National Transportation Safety Bureau Jennifer Homendy said the FAA’s rules haven’t kept up with science or cultural norms surrounding mental health.

“It’s somewhat of an open secret that current rules incentivize people to either lie about their medical history when it comes to mental health or avoid seeking help in the first place,” Homendy said during the Nov. 2 speech. “I am frankly concerned about the safety consequences of a system that unintentionally shames and silences people who are struggling.”

Emerson was arrested on Oct. 22, after the Horizon Airlines flight diverted and landed in Portland. At the time, he told police he pulled both emergency shut-off handles in the cockpit, according to court documents.

One of the on-duty pilots told police that activating the fire suppression system shuts off the fuel supply to the engines, according to records filed by federal prosecutors.

In a statement, Alaska Airlines said engine power was not lost.

“The fire suppression system consists of a T-handle for each engine,” the airline stated. “If the T-handle is fully deployed, a valve in the wing closes to shut off fuel to the engine. In this case, the quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost.”

Port of Portland police officer Grant Thommen asked Emerson if he was trying to kill himself during the incident, but according to records filed by Multnomah County prosecutors, Emerson did not answer the question.

“Emerson reiterated he was trying to wake up and did not feel like, ‘this was real’ though it felt real now,” prosecutors wrote.

Several passengers on board the flight filed a lawsuit in Washington’s King County Superior Court on Nov. 2, arguing Alaska Airlines “did not apply rigorous pre-flight security screening.”

According to Alaska Airlines, the gate agent confirmed Emerson was an off-duty pilot and followed “well-established, FAA-mandated practices to authorize” Emerson to ride as a passenger in the jump seat of the cockpit.

“At no time during the check-in or boarding process did our Gate Agents or flight crew observe any signs of impairment that would have led them to prevent Emerson from flying on Flight 2059,” the airline announced in an Oct. 23 statement.

Later, all passengers boarded a different aircraft staffed with a new crew to San Francisco.

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