Charges reduced for Alaska Airlines pilot accused of attempting to cut plane’s engines


The off-duty pilot accused of trying to shut down the engines of a packed commercial flight last month is now facing less serious charges in state court.

A grand jury tasked with reviewing the case issued an indictment Monday charging Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph D. Emerson with 83 misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person, plus one count of first-degree endangering an aircraft, which is a minor felony.

Prosecutors initially charged Emerson, 44, with 83 counts of attempted murder — one felony charge for each person onboard.

Under Oregon law, the minimum penalty for attempted murder is 7½ years in prison; for misdemeanors such as reckless endangerment, the proscribed punishment is a year in jail.

“The grand jury heard of all the evidence, and they decide which charges go forward,” said Multnomah County Senior Deputy District Nathan Vasquez.

Prosecutors say Emerson was hitching a ride in a spare seat in the cockpit of the San Francisco-bound Horizon Air Flight 2059 on Oct. 22 when he suddenly grabbed two red fire suppression handles, which would have cut the plane’s engines instantly if fully depressed.

The pilot and co-pilot on board managed to wrest control of the handles from Emerson and removed him from the cockpit into the general seating area, where he briefly tried to open an emergency exit door before being dissuaded by a flight attendant, court records show.

The plane, which took off from Everett, Wash., was diverted to Portland and Emerson was arrested after it landed.

In court records and media interviews, Emerson has said he was still reeling from the effects of psychedelic mushrooms he had taken two days earlier during a get-together to commemorate his best friend, who had died years before.

In a statement, defense attorney Noah Horst said Emerson believed he was trapped in a dream and was simply trying to wake up.

“Captain Emerson never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk — he just wanted to return home to his wife and children,” Horst said.

For the time being, Emerson remains in custody in Portland’s downtown jail, though Horst said he expects Emerson to be released by week’s end. That decision will be up to the judge at a new arraignment set for Thursday, though criminal defendants charged with nonviolent offenses are rarely held for pretrial detention in Multnomah County.

Emerson faces a separate charge of interfering with a flight crew in federal court.