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Off-duty pilot accused of attempting to shut off plane engines mid-flight indicted on 84 counts in state court

Joseph Emerson, the Alaska Airlines pilot who allegedly attempted to shut off the engines of a passenger plane mid-flight in October, was indicted on 84 counts in an Oregon court Tuesday.

The grand jury indicted Emerson on one count of endangering aircraft in the first degree and 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person -– one for each person aboard the aircraft at the time of the October 22 incident. He has pleaded not guilty.

On Thursday, Emerson was released from state custody by a Multnomah County judge.

In an earlier decision, the grand jury did not indict Emerson on the more serious charges of attempted murder that he was initially booked on.

Emerson’s attorneys applauded the grand jury’s decision not to charge him with 83 counts of attempted murder.

“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 attorneys wrote in a statement.

But the defense team also was disappointed to learn he had been charged at all because he had “no criminal intent,” according to the statement.

“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 attorneys said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, Liz Merah, described the grand jury process in a statement, saying the deputy district attorneys handling the case included attempted murder charges, then presented the evidence and called witnesses.

“From the outcome, one could infer that the jurors found that Emerson acted not with intent to murder, but that he recklessly endangered the lives of the people on that plane.”

According to an affidavit filed by prosecutors, Emerson told investigators he “had consumed ‘magic mushrooms’ approximately 48 hours prior” to the incident.

He took the mushrooms during a weekend getaway in Washington to commemorate the death of his best friend, he told the New York Times in a story published in November. During the incident, he said he thought he was dreaming while commuting back to California in the cockpit jump seat of a Horizon Air flight.

The flight was diverted to Portland, Oregon.

Emerson was released from state custody with clear conditions, including that he not come within 30 feet of any operable aircraft. He must also pay a $50,000 bail, is not allowed to consume any controlled substances including alcohol, and must submit to random testing.

Emerson may return home to California and is ordered engage in mental health services.

Mental health issues in the aviation industry

Immediately following the incident, Emerson, a 44-year-old captain, told police he had not slept in 40 hours, recently experimented with “magic mushrooms,” and had been depressed for months, if not years.

He was riding off-duty in the cockpit jump seat between Seattle and San Francisco when, according to court documents, Emerson said, “I’m not OK,” and pulled both of the Embraer 175’s engine fire extinguisher handles, which — if not for the crew’s quick intervention — would have turned the 24-ton jet into an engineless glider.

On the day of the flight, which departed from Everett, Washington, his dreamlike state persisted aboard the plane, Emerson told the Times from a visitation room at the county jail in Portland, Oregon. He texted a friend who dropped him off at the airport he was “having a panic attack.”

Joseph Emerson is seen during a court appearance in Multnomah County Court on December 7, 2023. - Pool
Joseph Emerson is seen during a court appearance in Multnomah County Court on December 7, 2023. - Pool

The incident thrust the issue of pilot mental health into the spotlight and prompted comment from the National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy, who said she is fighting for people who struggle with mental health issues.

“No one, no one, should have to think twice about their job before seeking help and yet here we are today because that’s not currently the case in aviation,” Homendy said at the opening of a daylong summit exploring the issue, explaining that current Federal Aviation Administration rules cause people to either lie or not seek help.

After Emerson’s hearing, his wife, Sarah Stretch, said she was “saddened that this situation had to happen to my husband and these people that it affected, but I know that this has created a movement, a momentum to help thousands of other pilots and people in mental health situations in jobs that in essence, silenced or it’s disincentivized to go get help that they need.”

Emerson’s attorney Noah Horst said his client “is not criminally responsible.”

“Does he need help? Yes,” Horst said Thursday. “Does there need to be change in the airline industry? Yes. Absolutely. Does Mr. Emerson deserve to be home with his family and surrounded by his friends? Yes he does.”

CNN’s Pete Muntean contributed to this report.

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