Pilot Who Disrupted Flight Said He Had Taken Psychedelic Mushrooms, Complaint Says

An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who tried to shut off the engines during a flight on Sunday told investigators that he had been sleepless and dehydrated since he consumed psychedelic mushrooms about 48 hours before boarding and that he had been depressed for a long time, state and federal court documents said.

The pilot, Joseph D. Emerson, 44, also told the police in an interview after he was taken into custody that he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown,” according to federal court documents. He said he had struggled with depression for about six years and that a friend had recently died.

An officer and Mr. Emerson “talked about the use of psychedelic mushrooms, and Emerson said it was his first time taking mushrooms,” the federal documents said. The documents did not elaborate on the quantity of psilocybin from mushrooms that he said he had consumed, and it was not known if the authorities had given him a drug test.

In the interview, Mr. Emerson also gave his version of what happened when he was riding inside the cockpit in a jump seat, a common practice for off-duty pilots shuttling to and from work.

“I didn’t feel OK,” he told the police, according to the federal complaint. “It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on.”

He also told the police, according to the complaint, “I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

Mr. Emerson, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., was charged in federal court on Tuesday with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants, prosecutors said.

He was also charged in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Ore., with 83 counts of attempted murder and one count of endangering an aircraft, court records show. During a brief appearance in court on Tuesday, a lawyer entered not-guilty pleas on his behalf.

Mr. Emerson has been an airline pilot for more than two decades. Throughout his career, he has completed his required Federal Aviation Administration medical certifications, and his certifications have been never denied, suspended or revoked, Alaska Airlines said. Multnomah County court records indicate he does not have a criminal record.

On Sunday, Mr. Emerson was riding in the jump seat of the jet, an Embraer 175, the authorities said. Flight 2059, operated by Horizon Air, a regional subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, left Everett, Wash., about 5:23 p.m. bound for San Francisco, with four crew members and 80 passengers onboard.

At first, there was no indication that there was anything wrong with Mr. Emerson, as he chatted with the two pilots about the weather and different types of aircraft, the court documents said.

But when the plane was about halfway between Astoria, Ore., and Portland, one of the pilots saw Mr. Emerson throw his headset across the cockpit and announce, “I’m not OK,” the complaint states. The pilot then saw Mr. Emerson try to grab two red handles that cut off fuel to the engines, the complaint states.

After a brief physical struggle with the pilots, Mr. Emerson “quickly settled down” and left the cockpit, the complaint states.

Alaska Airlines said in a statement on Monday that, because “some residual fuel” remained in the line, “the quick reaction of our crew to reset the handles restored fuel flow and prevented fuel starvation.”

If Mr. Emerson had successfully pulled the engine shut-off handles down all the way, “then it would have shut down the hydraulics and the fuel to the engines, turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds,” the complaint states.

While walking to the back of the plane after he left the cockpit, Mr. Emerson said to a flight attendant, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” according to the complaint. After Mr. Emerson was restrained in the back of the plane, he tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit door, but was stopped by a flight attendant, federal prosecutors said.

Another flight attendant heard Mr. Emerson “make statements such as, ‘I messed everything up’ and that ‘he tried to kill everybody,’” the complaint states.

The crew diverted the plane to Portland International Airport, where it landed safely at about 6:30 p.m.

After he was escorted off the plane, a passenger, Aubrey Gavello, told ABC News: “The flight attendant got back on the speaker and said, plain and simple: ‘He had a mental breakdown. We needed to get him off the plane immediately.’”

Mr. Emerson joined Horizon Air as a first officer in August 2001, Alaska Airlines said. In June 2012, he joined Virgin America as a pilot. When Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin in 2016, Mr. Emerson rejoined the company as a first officer for Alaska Airlines. In 2019, he became a captain, the company said.

The pilot’s claim that he had used psilocybin mushrooms before boarding comes as psychedelics have been gaining medical and legal acceptance, propelled by a growing body of research suggesting that they can be used to treat mental disorders.

But experts were skeptical that Mr. Emerson was still under the influence in the cockpit.

Juliana Mercer, a Marine Corps veteran in San Diego who has helped connect former service members to psychedelic therapies, said that, in her experience, the effects of psychedelic mushrooms last no longer than seven or eight hours and completely leave a person’s system within a day.

“There’s a potential for paranoia,” Ms. Mercer added, “but not 48 hours post-consumption, unless there’s an underlying mental health condition.”

Bob Jesse, an adviser to the U.C. Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics and the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, said that psilocybin would be long gone from the body by then.

“But a strong transient mental experience, drug or non-drug, could further destabilize someone who’s already unstable or fragile,” Mr. Jesse said.

On Jan. 1, Oregon became the first state to legalize the adult use of psilocybin mushrooms. And voters in Colorado approved a measure last year to decriminalize them, setting the state on the path to a legal therapeutic market.

In other states, including Texas, lawmakers have authorized studies for treating ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” status for research.

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