PORTLAND – An off-duty pilot charged with trying to disable the engines of an Alaska Airlines jet in flight told police afterward he was suffering a nervous breakdown, had taken psychedelic mushrooms two days earlier and had not slept in 40 hours, court documents showed on Tuesday.
Joseph David Emerson, 44, an Alaska Airlines pilot, was riding as a standby employee passenger in the cockpit “jump seat” of Sunday’s flight, en route from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, when the airborne altercation occurred, authorities said.
After a brief scuffle inside the flight deck with the captain and first officer, Emerson ended up being restrained by members of the cabin crew and was arrested in Portland, Oregon, where the flight was diverted and landed safely.
He was charged in Oregon state court on Tuesday with 83 counts of attempted murder – one for every crew member and passenger on the plane besides himself – and a single count of endangering an aircraft.
He pleaded not guilty to those charges through his attorney at a brief arraignment hearing on Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland.
Emerson was charged in a separate federal criminal complaint with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.
The charging documents in both cases were filed with sworn affidavits from investigators outlining a harrowing sequence of events that came close to shutting down hydraulic operation and fuel to both engines of the twin-jet aircraft, an Embraer 175.
Mental crisis suggested
According to the affidavits, Emerson told police after his arrest that he was suffering a mental crisis during the incident and had struggled with depression for the past six months.
The court documents said he also told police that he had taken “magic mushrooms” for the first time, ingesting them about 48 hours before boarding the plane.
Alaska Air Group, the airline’s parent company, said in a statement on Tuesday that at no time during the check-in or boarding process did employees observe any signs of impairment that would have led them to prevent Emerson from flying.
Alaska Airlines Flight 2059 was operated by the group’s regional subsidiary Horizon Air, the company said.
Court documents gave no indication of whether investigators had confirmed any drug or alcohol use by the suspect, though one of the arresting officers told investigators that Emerson did not appear “outwardly under the influence of intoxicants”.
Medical research has shown that psilocybin, a naturally occurring hallucinogen found in certain mushroom varieties known as “magic mushrooms,” to be beneficial as a treatment for anxiety, depression and other mental disorders.
A ballot measure approved by voters in 2020 made Oregon the first US state to decriminalise psilocybin and to legalise its supervised therapeutic use for adults at least 21 years old. But psilocybin remains strictly prohibited under federal law.
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