PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who is accused of attempting to shut off a plane’s engines mid-flight on Sunday had his first appearance in federal court Thursday afternoon.
Joseph Emerson, 44, faces 167 charges related to the incident, including 83 counts of aggravated attempted murder. He pleaded not guilty to the charges on Tuesday. He also faces a federal charge for interference with flight crew members and attendants, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon.
Emerson’s wife, Sarah Stretch, was in the courtroom to support him. She told KOIN 6 that her husband had been battling depression since the death of his best friend but says this incident still came as a complete shock, and that her husband never would have knowingly done what he is accused of.
“He never would have done that. He never would have knowingly done any of that,” Stretch said outside the courtroom. “That is not the man that I married, the man that all of these people in this world are coming together to support.”
Emerson’s attorney, Ethan Levi relayed a message on behalf of his client saying, “Joe wants to firstly, thank the flight crew of the Horizon Flight 2059 for their timely and heroic actions. He gives special thanks to the flight attendants who treated him kindly and fairly on the way back to Portland.”
Levi went on to say, “I want everyone to know that Mr. Emerson, Joe did not intend to harm himself or any other person. He was not suicidal nor homicidal during this incident, and we hope to provide further details as we learn more.”
Judge Youlee Yim You issued an order of detention for Emerson. Although his legal team did not formally request his release during the initial appearance, Levi later confirmed they are seeking Emerson’s release from both state and federal custody.
“We hope to convince both governments, state and federal, that he’s not a danger,” Levi said.
Federal documents show Emerson had been riding in the flight deck jumpseat – not piloting the plane – when a pilot saw him “throw his headset across the cockpit and announce ‘I am not okay’…before allegedly grabbing the plane’s engine shut-off handles.”
The pilot told investigators he wrestled with Emerson to stop him, adding that if he had been successful, “it would have shut down the hydraulics and the fuel to the engines – turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds.”
After landing at PDX, Emerson told police he believed he was having a nervous breakdown and he hadn’t slept for 40 hours. According to officials, the pilot also said he became depressed six months ago and had used psychedelic mushrooms for the first time 48 hours prior to getting on the plane.
Court documents also show that Emerson told officers his account of the incident.
“I didn’t feel okay. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’t, it didn’t seem right,” Emerson said. “I’m admitting to what I did. I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys.”
Emerson’s next arraignment is scheduled for Nov. 22.