Ex-pilot accused of trying to cut plane engines released from jail pending trial

Dec 7, 2023, 1:22 PM | Updated: 7:12 pm

Image: An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on ...

An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

(Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

An ex-Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to cut the engines of a Horizon Air passenger flight while off-duty and riding in an extra seat in the cockpit was released from jail pending trial, after an Oregon judge approved it with multiple conditions.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan made the decision as Joseph Emerson pleaded not guilty to reduced charges of reckless endangerment; he previously faced attempted murder charges.

Emerson was released from jail around 5 p.m. He and his wife, Sarah Stretch, shared a tearful embrace as he walked out. He declined to comment. Noah Horst, his lawyer, said the couple planned to drive home to California. Their home is in the city of Pleasant Hill.

Emerson has also pleaded not guilty to a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew, and the judge in that case also agreed that he could be released pending trial.

According to federal court documents, the conditions of Emerson’s release include not breaking any federal, state or local law and submitting a DNA sample.

Also, he has been ordered not to possess “narcotic drug(s) or other controlled substances” and is prohibited from using or possessing any synthetic intoxicating substance, including mushrooms. Additional conditions include submitting to a mental health evaluation and counseling. Emerson is also not prohibited from “(boarding) any operable aircraft.”

Emerson was being held Multnomah County Detention Center stemming from the Oct. 22 incident in the air.

Looking at the charges Emerson faces

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced Tuesday a grand jury indicted Emerson, 44, on 84 charges related to the incident aboard Horizon Air Flight 2059. That flight was originally scheduled to fly from Everett’s Paine Field Airport to San Francisco had to be diverted to Portland International Airport after Emerson, who was authorized to ride in the cockpit, reached for the emergency engine shutdown midflight.

The grand jury determined Emerson should face one count of endangering an aircraft in the first degree and 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person  — one count for each person who was on the plane. He previously pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges filed by state prosecutors and to a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew.

In Oregon, initial felony charges can be filed by prosecutors pending a grand jury’s indictment. Such indictments can include different charges, depending on what the grand jury believes is supported by the evidence.

“It’s a hard situation for a lot of people — not just for Joe, but for the people who were on the airplane, the pilots, for the flight attendants,” Emerson’s wife Sarah Stretch said after Wednesday’s hearing in federal court, according to KGW 8 in Portland, Oregon.

Emerson’s defense lawyers welcomed the grand jury’s decision.

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,” his defense lawyers Norst, Ethan Levi and Norah Van Dusen said in a statement this week. “Simply put: Captain Emerson thought he was in a dream.”

“He’s happy to be able to come home,” Stretch said, according to KGW 8.

More on what happened Oct. 22

According to an affidavit from an FBI special agent investigating the incident, the plane’s two pilots said Emerson seemed normal at first, casually talking about different plane models and the weather. About halfway between Astoria, Oregon, and Portland, though, Emerson stood up, threw his headset across the cockpit, and said, “I’m not OK,” before reaching for the red fire suppression handles.

‘I’m not OK’: Off-duty pilot claimed ‘nervous breakdown’ before trying to shutdown plane engines

The affidavit states, the fire suppression includes an emergency fuel shutoff to the engines, effectively shutting down the engines and “turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds.”

One of the pilots recounted the incident to authorities, saying that when he saw Emerson reaching for the handles, he grabbed his wrists and wrestled against him, preventing Emerson from pulling the shutdown handle. As one pilot stopped Emerson, the other declared an inflight emergency and redirected the plane to Portland.

After about 30 seconds of struggling, the pilots said that Emerson settled down and left the cockpit when asked. Flight attendants on the plane said that they were told Emerson “was losing it,” and he told one of the attendants, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.”

Emerson was detained in the back of the plane until it landed in Portland, but during the flight’s descent, Emerson tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit door before a flight attendant stopped him. From there, Emerson reportedly said to himself that he “messed everything up” and that “he tried to kill everybody.”

Legal development: Passengers suing airline after ex-pilot allegedly tried to shut down engines on flight

When in police custody in Portland, Emerson waived his Miranda rights and told officers he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown.” He added that he felt dehydrated and tired and had not slept in 40 hours.

“I didn’t feel OK. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’t…it didn’t seem right.” Emerson told officers, according to the affidavit. “Yeah…I pulled both emergency shut-off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

Emerson also told officers that he had become depressed about six months earlier, and a friend of his recently died.

Editors’ note: This story originally was published on Tuesday, Dec. 5. It has been updated multiple times since then, including on Thursday, Dec. 7.

Contributing: L.B. Gilbert; The Associated Press

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