Alaska Pilot Who Tried to Crash Jetliner After Eating Shrooms Draws Lesser Charges

The DA wanted 83 counts of attempted murder. A grand jury indicted for reckless endangerment.

A state grand jury yesterday indicted Capt. Joseph Emerson, the Alaska Airlines pilot who tried to bring down an aircraft two days after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms in October, on 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of endangering an aircraft.

The charges are less severe than those sought at the time of the incident, when Emerson was arrested and booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center on 83 counts of attempted murder, one for each person on the plane. He remains in custody and is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 7.

Reckless endangerment is a class A misdemeanor under Oregon Law that carries a fine of up to $6,250 and potential jail time of one year. Attempted murder, meantime, can be punished by seven or more years in prison.

“Yesterday, a Multnomah County grand jury decided that Captain Joseph Emerson did not attempt to injure anyone, and therefore declined to charge him with the 83 counts of attempted murder originally sought by the state,” Emerson’s attorneys at Levi Merrithew Horst PC said in a statement. “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. 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.”

Attorneys in the office of Multhomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt had sought to charge Emerson with 83 counts of attempted murder, but the grand jury declined to indict him on those, stiffer charges.

“At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence, the grand jury declined to true bill the attempted murder charges and instead opted to indict on 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of endangering aircraft in the first degree,” Schmidt’s office said in an email. “No prosecutors are in the room when the grand jurors deliberate. 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.”

Alaska flight 2059, operated by Horizon Air, was en route from Everett, Wash., to San Francisco when Emerson, riding in a jump seat in the cockpit, tried to shut down thrust in the plane by engaging an emergency system that squelches fire in the engines. The two pilots wrestled him into submission before he succeeded in “blowing the bottles,” as the procedure is known.

The aircraft made an emergency landing at Portland International Airport around 6 pm, where Emerson told police officers that he had taken psychedelic mushrooms about 48 hours before.

Emerson, 44, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., told officers that he believed he was having a nervous breakdown and had not slept in 40 hours. “I didn’t feel OK,” Emerson told Simmons. “It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’t...it didn’t seem right.”

Emerson said he pulled the engine fire handles—one for each engine that cuts off the flow of fuel—”because I thought I was dreaming and just wanna wake up.”

In addition to the state charges, Emerson faces a federal count of interfering with a flight crew and attendants.

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