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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off-duty pilot who attempted to disable engines of flight won’t be allowed to board a plane or possess any drugs as conditions of release

By Maxine Bernstein The Oregonian

Joseph Emerson, the off-duty pilot accused of trying to shut down the engines of a packed commercial flight in October, on Wednesday was granted release pending trial on his federal charge of interfering with a flight crew and attendants.

As conditions of his release, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman ordered Emerson not to board an operable airplane or possess any controlled substances, including Psilocybin, more commonly known as psychedelic or magic mushrooms that he and his lawyers said he had taken two days before the flight and led to his unusual behavior.

He also was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation and counseling and submit to regular drug urinalysis tests.

Emerson, 44, remains in custody at the downtown Portland jail, awaiting his arraignment Thursday on a new indictment returned this week in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The new indictment reduced the severity of allegations he faced, from attempted murder charges to 83 misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person, plus one count of first-degree endangering an aircraft, a minor felony.

His lawyers anticipate his release from jail by the end of the week.

His wife Sarah Stretch plans to drive him to their home in Pleasant Hill, Calif., his lawyer Ethan Levi said. Emerson’s wife and his parents attended Wednesday’s brief court hearing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Parak Singh did not object to Emerson’s release, but successfully urged the judge to explicitly bar Emerson from using Psilocybin, even in states where it is legal to use, as part of the general release condition that he not use or possess any controlled substance.

Emerson also must meet with his federal pretrial supervision officer in California within 24 hours of his release from county custody, Beckerman ordered. If Emerson violates any of his expected release conditions imposed in the state case, he’ll also be found to have violated his federal release, the judge said.

“I’m happy we could agree on the conditions of his release, and he can soon get on with his life, ” Levi said after the brief court hearing. “He’s a positive person and has taken this with uncommon aplomb.”

Prosecutors say Emerson was allowed to ride in the cockpit’s jump seat on a San Francisco-bound Horizon Air Flight 2059 on Oct. 22.

As the plane flew over Oregon, he threw his headset across the cockpit and suddenly grabbed onto two red fire suppression handles, which would have cut the plane’s engines instantly if fully depressed, according to prosecutors.

He said he’d been on an annual weekend away with friends to commemorate the 2018 death of his best friend, and had taken psychedelic mushrooms for the first time two days before the flight.

He admitted to police that he pulled the two red emergency handles “because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up,” according to a federal affidavit.

The pilot and co-pilot on board managed to wrest control of the handles from Emerson, while the co-pilot declared an emergency and turned the plane’s autopilot off and flew to Portland. The flight had originated in Everett.

Emerson left the cockpit and calmly walked to the back of the plane, according to an amended federal affidavit. He told an attendant he “just got kicked out of the flight deck,” and an attendant placed flex cuffs on him.

But as the plane continued to descend, Emerson turned toward an emergency exit door and tried to grab the handle. An attendant stopped him by placing her hands on top of his and secured him with a seat harness in an attendant’s seat in the back of the aircraft, the affidavit said.

Once the plane landed shortly after 6 p.m., Port of Portland police boarded the plane and took Emerson into custody.

Emerson has been a pilot since 2001. He also had been serving as the safety representative for his San Francisco-based Alaska flight crew.

Levi said Emerson no longer has a license to pilot a plane and said he didn’t know what Emerson’s future plans include.

“It’s just gonna be a slow, long process,” his lawyer said.