Off-duty Alaska Air pilot accused of midflight sabotage posts bail: ‘Mr. Emerson has nothing to hide’

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to flood the engines of a passenger jet last month with more than 80 people aboard has posted bail and was expected to walk out of the downtown Portland jail Thursday.

A state judge set bail at $50,000 for Joseph D. Emerson, who was back in Multnomah County Circuit Court to face a revised 84-count indictment that reduced most of the charges against him to misdemeanor reckless endangerment, rather than felony attempted murder.

Among the release conditions imposed: a standing order to stay away from all aircraft and controlled substances, including alcohol. The rules overlap with those set by a federal judge who granted Emerson’s release on separate federal charges against him in the case.

At a post-hearing press conference, defense attorney Noah Horst said Emerson has already posted $5,000, the 10% of the bail required under Oregon law, and would shortly return to his two sons and wife in Pleasant Hill, California.

Flanked by Emerson’s family members, Horst described the seasoned pilot as an upstanding community member whose use of psychedelic mushrooms addled his brain and made him unable to intentionally commit a crime.

“Is he criminally responsible? No. Does he need help? Yes,” Horst said to a bundle of microphones. “He is a wonderful person and I hope you all get a chance to meet him.”

Emerson, 44, whose license to fly is now suspended, has said he believed he was trapped in a waking nightmare when he tried to disable the engines of a San Francisco-bound Horizon Airlines flight on Oct. 22, convinced that doing so would snap him out of it.


Emerson said he had taken mushrooms two days before at a celebration of life for his best friend, Scott Pinney, who had died six years earlier.

The off-duty pilot was riding in the jumpseat of the jet when he tried to activate the plane’s fire suppression system, but was prevented by the two pilots, who then made an emergency landing at Portland International Airport.

Prosecutors filed a preliminary charging document Oct. 24 that accused Emerson of attempted murder of each person onboard, but the felony charges needed approval from a six-person grand jury to stick.

Over four days in November and December, the grand jury heard testimony from the pilots, airline attendants, several medical professionals and Emerson and his wife.

Horst praised the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office for allowing him to suggest witnesses that were called to the proceedings, including a doctor. Horst said Emerson testified as well before the grand jury, which Horst described as unusual.

“Mr. Emerson has nothing to hide,” Horst said.

[Averted disaster on Horizon Air flight renews scrutiny on mental health of those in the cockpit]

Senior Deputy District Attorney Nathan Vasquez said the charging decision was always in the grand jury’s hands.

“We work to provide the grand jury with as much information as possible to make the most informed decision that they could,” he said.

The bizarre case against Emerson has made headlines far beyond Portland, drawing a new wave of attention to the stringent federal rules that can deprive pilots of their professional status and salary for years if they report a diagnosis of depression, a common ailment affecting some 20 million American adults each year.

“This has created a movement and momentum to help thousands of other pilots,” Emerson’s wife, Sarah Stretch, said during the news conference.