Off-duty pilot arrested for cockpit disturbance is released from jail

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
PORTLAND, Ore. Dec. 7, 2023 8:25 p.m. Updated: Dec. 8, 2023 3:11 p.m.

An Oregon judge says an ex-Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to cut the engines of a passenger flight can be released from jail pending trial

The off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who nearly shut down an aircraft’s engines mid-flight in October over Oregon airspace has been released from jail pending trial.

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On Thursday, Joseph David Emerson, 44, was arraigned on 83 state misdemeanor charges of recklessly endangering another person and one felony count of endangering an aircraft. The U.S. Department of Justice has charged Emerson with one federal count: interference with flight crew members and attendants.

Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson, in this undated submitted photo. Emerson, 44, was under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms when he attempted to cut the engines and open an emergency exit in midflight on a flight between Everett, Washington, and San Francisco on Oct. 22, 2023.

Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson, in this undated submitted photo. Emerson, 44, was under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms when he attempted to cut the engines and open an emergency exit in midflight on a flight between Everett, Washington, and San Francisco on Oct. 22, 2023.

Courtesy of Emerson Family

As part of his release, Emerson was required to post $5,000 of a $50,000 bail in Multnomah County. And as part of his federal pretrial supervision, Emerson agreed he would not board any operable aircraft, even to return home from Oregon to California.

“At the time of the incident, Mr. Emerson did not and could not form the mental state to commit a crime,” Noah Horst, one of Emerson’s attorneys, said following the arraignment in downtown Portland. “Is he criminally responsible? No. Does he need help? Yes. Does there need to be change in the airline industry? Yes, absolutely.”

On Oct. 22, Emerson was catching a ride home from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, in the cockpit jumpseat of an Embraer 175 jet operated by Horizon Airlines. During the flight, Emerson 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 mid-flight. Witnesses have said he was acting erratically and seemed confused about his reality.

Emerson was returning from a weekend gathering grieving the fifth anniversary of the death of his closest friend. Emerson later told police he had untreated depression and that some 48 hours before the flight, he consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms.

“He deserves to be home right now,” his wife, Sarah Stretch, told reporters Thursday. “I know it’s impacted more than just Joe. I understand that there’s a lot here. I hope that they would also understand the condition that my husband was in during that flight and eventually that will all come out.”

Related: Oregon grand jury indicts Alaska Airlines pilot on lower charges

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.

Stretch previously told OPB that she’d urged her husband to get care, but he told her being out of work would hurt the family’s finances and would be too arduous.

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“It sounds like things are moving in a positive direction for many pilots,” Stretch said Thursday. “I’m saddened that this situation had to happen to my husband and the people it affected.”

She added that this incident has generated momentum to support numerous pilots and other people who are facing mental health challenges in professions where seeking assistance is often discouraged or neglected.

Related: Pilot accused of trying to shut down plane engines was afraid to report depression, colleagues say

A unique grand jury process

In October, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office charged Emerson with 83 felony counts of attempted murder, far more serious charges. But on Monday, a grand jury declined to indict Emerson of attempted murder, paving the way for his release from custody.

Nathan Vasquez, senior deputy district attorney who oversaw the case, said he along with a deputy district attorney he supervises and the chief deputy for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office were the ones to initially decide to file the attempted murder charges.

“Grand jury is a lot different than trial,” Vasquez told OPB. “We present evidence, and we say ‘Here are potential charges for your consideration.’ And then they make the determination if they believe there’s sufficient evidence for the charges to go forward.”

Local prosecutors called police officers, flight attendants and pilots before six grand jurors in Multnomah County. They also called a forensic psychologist and a medical doctor who researches psychedelics, Emerson’s wife, and even Emerson himself. All answered questions under oath.

“We talked to the defense, we all recognized that there was a need to have more time to present more information, and we all agreed to that,” Vasquez said. “This one is unique. It just needed a little more time, and a little bit more evidence presentation than the everyday case.”

Related: Wife of ex-Alaska Airlines pilot says she’s in shock after averted Horizon Air disaster

For Emerson’s defense team, the grand jury process was highly unusual.

“Never in my career have I been asked what witnesses I would like prosecutors to call for a person they’re accusing of a felony,” Horst told OPB. “Nor have I ever had prosecutors ask what jury instructions I would like to suggest. It’s highly unusual. It’s a unicorn. In this case I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to do that.”

Vasquez is running for Multnomah County District Attorney next year against his current boss, incumbent district attorney Mike Schmidt. As part of his campaign, Vasquez has argued that under Schmidt, the county is less safe.

But Vasquez declined to say why prosecutors went to such lengths in the grand jury or why the county is pursuing charges against Emerson at all, especially given federal prosecutors are also prosecuting Emerson with a serious felony charge that carries up to 20 years in prison if convicted. At the time of Emerson’s crisis, the aircraft wasn’t in Multnomah County. Rather, it was over Clatsop County, situated between Astoria and Portland, according to court documents.

“It’s an interesting question,” Vasquez said. “Because of the nature of the ongoing case, I really don’t want to comment too far on that piece because it’s a pending criminal matter.”

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Oregon grand jury indicts Alaska Airlines pilot on lower charges

A Multnomah County grand jury has decided the off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who in October tried to shut down an airplane's engines midflight 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.