Off-duty pilot accused of trying to cut plane’s engines midflight allowed to leave jail before trial

PORTLAND, Ore. — An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to turn off a plane’s engines as it was in the air in October can be released from custody ahead of his trial, a judge in Oregon ruled on Thursday.

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Joseph David Emerson, 44, is accused of trying to cut the engines of a plane traveling from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco on Oct. 22. A grand jury in Multnomah County indicted him Tuesday on 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of recklessly endangering aircraft.

He pleaded not guilty Thursday, and Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan OK’d his release with conditions, The Associated Press reported. The conditions include a $50,000 bond, mental health counseling and the stipulation that he stay at least 30 feet away from any operable aircraft, according to KOIN.

Before the grand jury handed down its indictment, Emerson faced more serious attempted murder charges.

“I think Joe lacked criminal intent,” Emerson’s lawyer, Ethan Levi, told KPTV. “We are very happy they didn’t charge him with attempted murder.”

Emerson also faces a federal charge of interference with flight crew members and attendants. He has pleaded not guilty in federal court, according to the AP.

On Wednesday, a federal judge also allowed for Emerson’s release from custody with conditions.

“We’re so excited,” said Emerson’s wife, Sarah, according to KPTV. “My kids are really happy. We want to have dad back. He’s happy to be able to come home.”

Authorities said Emerson tried to activate the plane’s emergency fire suppression system, which would have shut off fuel to the engines, as he was riding in the cockpit during the Oct. 22 flight. A pilot briefly wrestled with Emerson, keeping him from fully pulling down the handles, before he was kicked out of the cockpit and the flight was diverted to Portland, according to court records. A flight attendant told investigators that she stopped him when he later tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit door.

The plane, which was carrying more than 80 people, landed safely.

Emerson told authorities that he had been struggling with depression and that he had taken psychedelic mushroom about 48 hours before getting on the flight. He also said he had not slept for about two days and that he thought that he was dreaming while he was in the cockpit.

He is expected to be released from jail Thursday and driven back to his home in Pleasant Hill, California, by his wife, where he will stay as he awaits trial, KOIN and KPTV reported.



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