Off-duty pilot indicted in alleged attempt to shut down plane's engines

An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who authorities said tried to shut off a passenger jet's engines during an October flight was indicted Tuesday by a grand jury in Portland, Oregon, on seven dozen lesser state charges than the initial attempted murder counts prosecutors originally sought.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, who told authorities he was on "magic mushrooms" and struggled with depression and lack of sleep when the incident occurred, was indicted on 83 misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person, and one felony count of first-degree endangering aircraft, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office said in a statement.

Emerson was initially taken into custody on 83 counts of attempted murder and one count of reckless endangerment to an aircraft, all to which he previously pleaded not guilty. He is also facing a separate case in federal court in which he is charged with a single count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

During the Oct. 22 flight from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, Emerson was sitting in the jump seat of the cockpit of Alaska Airlines Flight 2059 when he allegedly tried to activate the plane's emergency fire suppression system by attempting to pull two handles. This action would have cut off fuel to the engines, Oregon prosecutors said, something Emerson knew as an off-duty pilot.

Alaska Airlines said there were 80 passengers and four crewmembers aboard when 30 minutes into the flight the alleged attempt occurred while the plane was flying at about 31,000 feet.

Emerson was successfully subdued by the other pilots, removed from the cockpit and handcuffed in the back of the plane, which then landed in Portland, where he was taken into custody, according to an FBI agent's affidavit at the time.

Joseph Emerson appears in a Portland, Oregon, courtroom on Oct. 24, 2023. / Credit: CBS San Francisco
Joseph Emerson appears in a Portland, Oregon, courtroom on Oct. 24, 2023. / Credit: CBS San Francisco

On the ground, according to the affidavit, Emerson told officers he thought he was having a "nervous breakdown" and that he hadn't slept in 40 hours.

A flight attendant also told responding officers that Emerson said he "tried to kill everybody," the affidavit said.

According to a different affidavit filed by a Multnomah County deputy district attorney, Emerson told an officer he had been struggling with depression for six years and that a friend had recently died. He told another officer he had taken "magic mushrooms" about 48 hours before the flight.

Emerson remains in custody and is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday. His attorneys told CBS News they are attempting to get him released from jail and allowed to return to his home in California by next week while the case plays out.

"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," his legal team said in a statement. "While we are pleased that the grand jury correctly determined that the attempted murder counts were inappropriate in this case, we were disappointed to learn that the grand jury did indict Captain Emerson for a single count of endangering an aircraft and 83 misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person."

Three of the flight's passengers filed a lawsuit last month against Alaska Airlines in Washington state court arguing that Emerson should never have been allowed in the plane's cockpit because of his struggles with depression and his lack of sleep, according to the Associated Press.

— Alex Sundby and Kris Van Cleave contributed to this report. 

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