Inside Harrowing Moments on Alaska Airlines Flight as Off-Duty Pilot Allegedly Tried to Kill Passengers: Police

Joseph Emerson, 44, faces 83 attempted murder charges

Joseph Emerson
Joseph Emerson

An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot was charged with 83 counts of attempted murder after authorities allege he tried to shut down a plane’s engines during a flight Sunday.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, was sitting in the cockpit’s jump seat during a flight from Seattle to San Francisco operated by Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines. He had allegedly taken psychedelic mushrooms about 48 hours prior, he later told investigators, according to county and federal charging documents reviewed by PEOPLE.

According to a statement from the airline, Emerson allegedly attempted to shut off the plane’s engines by pulling the engine fire handle, which is a plane’s fire suppression system. Emerson was restrained and the two pilots on duty were able to take control of the plan, which was rerouted to Portland, where it landed safely.

A spokesperson for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement that an attorney for Emerson pleaded not guilty on his client’s behalf at a Tuesday arraignment.

The charging documents against Emerson provide law enforcement’s account of what happened on board Alaska Airlines Flight 2059.

Related: Off-Duty Pilot Who Allegedly Tried to Shut Off Plane's Engine Told Investigators He'd Taken Mushrooms: Complaint

Emerson says, 'I am not OK,' tries to turn engines off

As the flight passed between Astoria and Portland, Ore., Emerson, who was sitting in the cockpit jumpseat, suddenly threw his headset, saying “I am not OK” and reached for the red engine shut-off handles, federal authorities allege in a criminal complaint filed Tuesday.

The on-duty pilots told authorities that Emerson needed to be “wrestled with” before he stopped what he was doing, according to the complaint. Had he pulled the handles down all the way, the engines would have shut down, meaning the plane would have only been able to glide.

Emerson was removed from the cockpit, which was then locked, and a flight emergency was declared. The plane was rerouted to Portland. According to the complaint, the cockpit incident lasted approximately 90 seconds.

Emerson exits cockpit, says, 'You need to cuff me'

Flight attendants interviewed by police upon landing said that during the flight, the on-duty pilots called them to say that Emerson was “losing it,” according to the complaint.

Attendants then saw Emerson walk peacefully toward the back of the plane, saying he’d been kicked out of the cockpit, the complaint alleges.

“You need to cuff me,” Emerson allegedly told the flight attendants, “or it’s going to be bad.”

'Tried to kill everybody'

After moving to the back of the plane, flight attendants placed handcuffs on Emerson’s wrist, the federal complaint states.

During the flight’s descent, flight attendants told police that Emerson tried to reach for the plane’s emergency exit handle before they stopped him, the complaint alleges.

Upon making conversation with Emerson in order to distract him, flight attendants allegedly heard him say, “I messed everything up” and that he “tried to kill everybody.”

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Emerson tells police he thought episode was dream

When the plane landed, Emerson was taken into custody by Port of Portland police, who said in an affidavit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court that he elected to speak with officers. He allegedly told them he hadn’t slept in 40 hours and was going through a mental crisis.

Both the county affidavit and the federal complaint allege that Emerson told the responding officers that when he was in the cockpit, he thought he was dreaming, adding that he thought it seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was happening.

“I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up,” Emerson said, per the federal complaint.

Related: Off-Duty Pilot Charged After Allegedly Attempting to Take Control of Alaska Airlines Flight

Magic mushrooms

Through their interview with Emerson, officers learned that the off-duty pilot had taken psychedelic “magic mushrooms” approximately 48 hours before the flight, the affidavit states.

Emerson allegedly told police it was his first time taking them, according to the federal complaint, adding that six months prior to the incident, he had become depressed.

Emerson has been a pilot since 2001, authorities say.

Emerson told police, “I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys,”  the documents claim.

In addition to 83 felony counts of attempted murder, 83 misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment and one felony count of endangering an aircraft filed in Multnomah County court, Emerson now faces a federal charge of endangering a flight crew, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon said in a release.

According to the Multnomah County affidavit, 11 passengers on board the flight were under the age of 14.

Emerson remains in custody and a detention hearing has not yet been scheduled. The case is also set to be heard by a grand jury, the spokesperson said.

Emerson will face the federal charge at a later date.

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