SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Prosecutors filed criminal charges on Tuesday against a Bay Area pilot accusing him of attempting to murder 83 people who were aboard a flight from Washington to San Francisco International Airport.
Joseph David Emerson, 44, of Pleasant Hill, was off-duty and sitting in the cockpit Sunday evening when he suddenly tried to cut off the jet’s engines, according to on-duty pilots who flew Horizon Air Flight AS 2059.
The pilots said they wrestled with Emerson for control of the aircraft, he pulled on emergency controls to cut the engines’ fuel, and the jet was “seconds away” from becoming a glider, prosecutors wrote in court documents. The quick-thinking captain, co-pilot, and flight crew were able to throw Emerson out of the cockpit, handcuff him, and make an emergency landing at a Portland airport.
On Tuesday, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office filed 84 charges against Emerson, including 83 counts of felony second-degree attempted murder, and one count of endangering an aircraft. The flight had 11 passengers who were children, court records state.
The former Alaska Airlines pilot made his first court appearance while his attorney, Noah Horst, entered not guilty pleas on his behalf.
Emerson was interrogated by Port of Portland Police Department officers who hauled him off the plane and took him into custody. During the interrogation, he admitted to pulling the jet’s emergency shut-off handles that control engine fuel, and described a motive behind why he did it, court documents filed by Deputy District Attorney Anthony Dundon state.
The off-duty pilot told police that he thought he was dreaming and not in reality.
“Emerson indicated he was in a mental crisis and had not slept in over 40 hours. Emerson admitted to (POPPD Officer) Thommen that he pulled both emergency shut-off handles because Emerson believed he was dreaming and wanted to wake up,” Dundon wrote.
When the officer asked Emerson if he was trying to kill himself during the incident, he did not answer the question. Instead, he replied that he was trying to “wake up” and did not fee like “this was real,” court documents show.
Emerson also said he had struggled with depression for six years and his best friend had recently passed away, according to court documents. He also admitted to trying “magic mushrooms” for the first time 48 hours prior to the flight, Dundon wrote.
Emerson told officers during the interrogation, “I don’t understand why you’re showing me so much kindness. I’m obviously f****d up.”
After he was evaluated and cleared by medical personnel, Emerson told another officer that he put “’84 lives at risk’ that night including his own,” Dundon wrote.
Port of Portland police officers said Emerson did not appear to be under the influence of any intoxicants when they interviewed him.
Pilots Alan Koziol and Emil Riemer told police that Emerson was acting normal during the first part of the flight while he rode in the cockpit’s extra seat, also known as a “jump seat.” Suddenly threw off his head set and declared, “I’m not OK,” court documents show. That’s when the off-duty pilot tried to take control of the plane, the pilots said.
Flight attendants Terree Fiala and Correnna Schlosser told police that one of the pilots communicated from the cockpit that “Emerson was losing it.” Once Emerson emerged from the cockpit he was “peaceful” and asked “when would this nightmare end,” court documents state.
Fiala said she was talking to the off-duty pilot in the plane when he turned to an emergency exit door and tried to grab the handle. “She stopped him by putting her hands on his to block him,” prosecutors wrote. Emerson then allegedly told the flight attendants, “you need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad.”
The flight attendants said Emerson admitted he “tried to kill everybody.”
KRON4 reporters went to Emerson’s Pleasant Hill neighborhood Monday where news of the shocking incident had already spread. Neighbors said Emerson was a married father with two young sons. Neighbors described Emerson as a “positive, very friendly, upbeat,” person, and trying to take down a plane would be totally out of character for him.
Neighbor Karen Yee told KRON4 that the pilot’s children sometimes go over to her house to play. “We still can’t believe it. It doesn’t sound like Joe at all. I don’t know what happened to him mentally that he would do something like that,” Yee said.
Emerson’s family was advised by attorneys to not speak with the media.
Emerson was booked into jail Monday on suspicion of 167 charges. Multnomah County prosecutors lowered the counts to 84 charges Tuesday. Federal prosecutors charged Emerson with interfering with a flight crew. If convicted of the single federal charge, the pilot could face up to 20 years in prison.
Alaska Airlines ‘Deeply Disturbed’
Alaska Airlines said Emerson was “removed from service indefinitely and relieved from all duties at Alaska Airlines” immediately following Sunday’s incident.
Airlines officials wrote, “We have reviewed the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal complaint pertaining to Captain Joseph Emerson and, like many, are deeply disturbed by what we have learned.”
Emerson was allowed to board Flight 2059 on Sunday when he approached Horizon Air gate agents overseeing the boarding process. “Following well-established, FAA-mandated practices to authorize a jump-seat passenger, our Gate Agent confirmed that Emerson was an off-duty pilot for Alaska Airlines. He was approved to join the flight as a passenger and was seated in the flight deck jump seat,” Alaska Airlines officials wrote.
All gate agents and flight attendants are trained to identify signs and symptoms of impairment.
“At no time during the check-in or boarding process did our Gate Agents or flight crew observe any signs of impairment that would have led them to prevent Emerson from flying on Flight 2059,” Alaska Airlines officials wrote.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as airlines, have mandatory drug testing protocols for on-duty crew members, as well as a zero-tolerance policies for substance abuse. Emerson was off-duty Sunday.
Alaska Airlines praised Flight 2059’s crew. “We are deeply proud of our Horizon flight crew and their quick actions both in the flight deck and in the rear of the aircraft. Working together, consistent with their training, they performed their critical roles exceptionally well, representing the best of their profession,” the airline wrote.