Off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot said he took 'magic mushrooms' 48 hours before allegedly trying to shut down plane engines

Veteran pilot Joseph Emerson, 44, was charged with more than 80 counts of attempted murder after, authorities said, he tried to cut the plane's engines during the flight.


The off-duty pilot accused of trying to bring down an Alaska Airlines flight told investigators that he took psychedelic mushrooms 48 hours before the incident, that he had been depressed and that he believed he was experiencing a mental breakdown, authorities said.

The off-duty pilot — Joseph Emerson, 44, of California — has been charged with more than 80 counts of attempted murder, and the FBI is investigating whether he was under the influence when he tried to shut down the plane's engines while he was sitting in the cockpit of Sunday's flight from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, officials told NBC News.

An attorney for Emerson entered a plea of not guilty related to the attempted murder charges Tuesday afternoon.

“Joseph Emerson is a caring father, a loving husband, and a skilled aviator who is supported and loved by a vast network of friends, family, and colleagues. He would never intentionally hurt another person. Joe was not under the influence of any intoxicants when he boarded that flight. We will pursue a diligent investigation into all the facts and circumstances surrounding the events and request that you respect the family’s privacy," an attorney for Emerson told NBC News.

Emerson also said he had not slept in about 40 hours and indicated his depression may have been boosted by the recent death of a friend, investigators who interviewed him said in an Oregon criminal complaint charging him.

"Emerson indicated he was in mental crisis and had not slept in over 40 hours and requested medical attention," the Oregon filing says.

The Oregon complaint, filed Tuesday, added details — among them that Emerson said he took mushrooms two days before the flight — to the backstory initially sketched out by a federal complaint filed Sunday.

The state case includes 83 counts of second-degree attempted murder and one count of endangering an aircraft; the federal case includes one count of interfering with a flight crew or flight attendants, as summarized by NBC News affiliate KGW of Portland, Oregon.

Emerson denied to investigators he had taken any medications before he got on the flight but spoke about becoming depressed six months ago and said it was his first time taking mushrooms, the federal complaint says.

"I didn't feel OK," Emerson said, telling investigators that he was tired and dehydrated, according to the federal complaint. "It seemed like the pilots weren't paying attention to what was going on."

"I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up," he added.

Joseph Emerson.Joe Emerson / via Facebook

The psychoactive experience associated with the psychedelic mushrooms is said to normally last four to six hours, sometimes eight, but it often depends on dosage, according to experts.

A psychedelic drug researcher, Dr. Charles Grob, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor–UCLA Medical Center, said it was possible the effects of psilocybin could last for days after ingestion under certain conditions.

"I wouldn't doubt that psilocybin mushrooms could have had residual effects even 48 hours after ingestion, especially if he took a large dose and was without any effective supervision, preparation, oversight or follow-up integration," Grob said.

Emerson is being held in an Oregon jail on 167 charges, including the 83 counts of attempted murder. The judge in the case said a custody hearing would be held separately within five days, and Emerson will remain in jail for now.

He was also expected to make his first appearance in federal court later this week.

'I am not OK'

Emerson had been sitting in a flight deck jump seat in the cockpit, which is permitted for pilots who may be commuting between airports.

The federal complaint alleges that Emerson was engaging in "casual conversation" with the other pilots, discussing the weather and his career with Alaska Airlines, when he tried to grab two red handles that activate a fire suppression system. Activation includes cutting power, according to the filing. Emerson threw his headset across the cockpit and told the pilots "I am not OK" as he reached for the handles, the federal complaint said.

Pilot Alan Koziol said a flight screen indicated a fire suppression system was activated, according to the state criminal complaint, but it appeared that the engines had not been cut off. That would have resulted in the plane’s gliding and descending, the other pilot, Emil Riemer, told investigators, according to the state filing.

Riemer said that the plane was “seconds away” from being a glider but that Emerson was not able to pull the handles all the way down before the pair intervened, according to the state complaint.

Experts say the ability to quickly turn off an engine may be crucial in emergency situations, such as fires.

One of the pilots grabbed Emerson's wrists, while the other declared an in-flight emergency, according to the federal document. Emerson had to be "wrestled with" for several seconds until he settled down, the pilots told investigators, the federal complaint says.

Emerson was then forced out of the cockpit, and the other pilots secured the cockpit door, it says.

Flight attendants told investigators that after they were alerted to an issue up front, they went to bring Emerson to the back, the federal filing says.

Emerson said, "You need to cuff me right now or it's going to be bad," according to the flight attendants' account in the federal filing.

Flex handcuffs were placed around Emerson's wrists, it said. While he was seated at the back of the plane, he tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit but was stopped by a flight attendant who placed her hands on top of his, the federal complaint says.

A flight attendant said Emerson made comments like "I messed everything up" and acknowledged that he put people's lives at risk, according to the federal filing.

'I may eye contact with him'

There were 83 passengers on board Flight 2059, the state complaint said. Some on the flight, operated by Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air, lauded the crew's quick actions and ability to stop Emerson.

"I made eye contact with him," Aubrey Gavello said, after Emerson was booted from the cockpit and walked to the back of the plane. "It was, like, one of those soul-chilling, dead in the eyes, just calm and just kind of like he was taking in everyone around him."

About 35 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant "frantically" alerted passengers over the loudspeaker that "we have a situation" and that the pilots needed to land the plane, Gavello said.

No details were given; Gavello said it sounded like a medical-related emergency.

Gavello said she saw the flight attendant and a man, who at the time no one knew was an off-duty pilot, walking from the cockpit to the back of the plane.

She said that the man was in zip ties and that the flight attendant was "trying to calm him down, saying that we were going to get him on the ground and everything was going to be OK."

The man remained seated in the back, Gavello said, and the flight attendant informed the cabin that "I just want to let everyone know they're safe" and reassured the passengers that the plane was not having mechanical issues.

"Her second announcement calmed everyone down," Gavello said, "and then we landed."

The plane made an emergency stop in Portland, where police were waiting to board it and escort Emerson off.

Gavello's boyfriend, Alex Wood, who said he had slept through the ordeal and woke up only when they were landing, had no clue that it was an Alaska Airlines employee who was accused of putting lives in peril and learned more details only when he saw news reports Monday morning.

"It's very scary to know that that person was allowed in the cockpit, in the jump seat, where he was sitting," Wood said.

Gavello said: "I thought I was being dramatic, because I got off the plane and my boyfriend and I weren't sitting together, and I was, like, shaking, and he was asleep the whole time, so he didn't know. And I was like, ‘Am I being so dramatic, or was that really traumatizing?'"  

The investigation

Alaska Airlines said it was "grateful for the professional handling of the situation" by the flight crew. The FBI also said it was investigating with support from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Emerson was initially employed by Horizon Air in 2001, and he has also worked for Alaska Airlines and Virgin America.

A review of his mental state will be part of the investigation, aviation analysts said.

Pilots over 40 must undergo medical evaluations every six months and disclose whether they are having mental health issues or taking medications. But full mental health evaluations are not part of a pilot’s physical exams, according to the FAA. Emerson’s last physical was in September.

Emerson lives with his wife and young children in the San Francisco Bay Area community of Pleasant Hill, where a neighbor said he was surprised by the allegations.