The Bay Area-based Alaska Airlines pilot who has been accused of endangering the lives of a plane-load of people in October has now been indicted by a grand jury, but not on attempted murder charges.
The frightening but also sad tale of Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph David Emerson and his purportedly first time ever taking mushrooms, which he says led to him freaking out while sitting on cockpit jumpseat on October 22, has an update today. The grand jury that heard all the evidence in the case released their indictment Tuesday, which is less severe than the initial charges.
As The Oregonian reports, the grand jury declined to charge Emerson with the 83 counts of attempted murder that had initially been recommended by prosecutors. He is instead now charged with 83 misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person, and one count of first-degree endangering an aircraft, considered a minor felony.
Emerson, 44, now may face only a minimal amount of time in jail, per the Oregonian, if he is ultimately convicted.
He will next appear in Multnomah County Superior Court in Portland on Thursday to be rearraigned on new charges, per the Oregonian.
Emerson's lawyers expect that he'll be released from custody this week to return home to his wife and two children in Pleasant Hill, per the New York Times.
Emerson says he had been experiencing depression, partly related to death of a close friend five years ago, when he took a trip to the Seattle area in late October. He had allegedly taken mushrooms (psilocybin) for the first time about 48 hours before, and said he had not slept in 40 hours when he boarded the plane.
As is the privilege of pilots, he was permitted to ride on the jump seat in the cockpit for his ride back to SFO from Everett, WA.
In an interview with the Times last month, Emerson said that as the plane reached cruising altitude, he thought he was dreaming when he spontaneously decided to try to bring the plane down, so that he would "wake up."
He tore off his headset, telling the pilot and first officer "I'm not okay."
He then grabbed at two fire-suppression handles, which are designed to cut the fuel supply and shut down the plane's engines. The pilot and first officer wrestled his hands away and subdued him, and Emerson was then taken to the rear of the plane where he himself instructed a flight attendant to zip-tie his wrists.
The plane then made an emergency landing in Portland, where Emerson was arrested, and where he's sat in jail ever since.
Emerson's case has highlighted the issue of mental health among pilots, and the significant stigma attached to seeking treatment or medication. While a therapist told Emerson that he was likely depressed and should seek a prescription for an antidepressant from a physician or psychiatrist, he did some research and found that any such prescription would potentially ground him for months and he wouldn't be allowed to work.
"The potential effect on careers, according to aviation doctors, industry lawyers and pilots, has prompted many aviators to either lie about the treatment they are receiving — risking a punishment of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine — or simply avoid treatment," the Times writes.
Emerson described having an extended bad trip that began after he had had some mushrooms around a firepit with a group of friends, who had gathered for what was now an annual commemoration of their departed friend's life.
"I felt fearful of them," he told the Times, and "I started to have this feeling that this wasn’t real."
He describes not being able to sleep, replaying "a lot of traumatic things" in his head for hours, and believing he was in some kind of purgatory by the time morning arrived.
"I was like, 'Am I dead? Is this hell?'" he said. "I’m reliving that trauma."
The entire next day Emerson says he was dogged by this sense that none of what was happening to him was real, all while he made his way to the airport to head home. He then describes boarding the plane and feeling like nothing was quite right, like the flight attendants weren't obeying protocols, and he thought he should have known one of the two pilots, having worked for the airline for so long, both of them were strangers, adding to the sense that this was a dream.
He texted the friend who dropped him at the airport that he was "having a panic attack," but he apparently put on a brave face to the flight crew, who said he seemed normal and pleasant as he took the jump seat.
Following the incident in the cockpit, Emerson said he was somewhat jarred back into reality, and he calmly walked himself to an empty seat in the back of the plane. But he also was acting strange, apparently chugging from a pitcher of coffee, and told flight attendants to zip-tie his hands. While the plane was diverting to Portland, he group-texted his wife and some friends, saying, "I’m having a mental breakdown and tried to turn off both engines on my flight home." And he told his wife, "I’ve made a big mistake." He showed screenshots of the texts to the Times.
Emerson continued asking people even as he was arrested whether all of this was real. And an arresting officer says that Emerson, when told it was, replied, "If this is real, and all of that was real, then I have done something to me that is unfathomable."
Emerson later told the Times, "I am horrified that those actions put myself at risk and others at risk. That crew got dealt a situation there’s no manual, checklist or procedure that’s been written for. And they did an exemplary job keeping me and the rest of the people on that plane safe."
It remains unclear whether Emerson may ever be allowed to fly again, and he said he's acknowledged that and has has "had to grieve that."
For now, Emerson will likely, at least, be reunited with his wife and family in a matter of days, pending that arraignment.