Off-duty pilot charged with attempted murder for trying to shut off engines had a 'panic attack,' his lawyers say

Lawyers for the off-duty pilot facing attempted murder charges after allegedly trying to shut off an airplane's engines while on a flight last month have spoken out about the incident, saying their client, Joseph Emerson, "suffered a panic attack" while on the flight.

In a lengthy statement, Levi Merrithew Horst PC, the firm that represents Emerson, said the plane incident occurred as the pilot was traveling from Washington, where he had just gathered with friends to remember "his best friend, a former Alaska Airlines pilot who died suddenly and unexpectedly several years ago."

Emerson, who was charged late last month with 83 counts of attempted murder after he allegedly tried to shut off the engines by pulling the fire extinguisher handles, was in a dream-like state during the incident, his attorneys said.

PHOTO: In this image taken from a video, Joseph David Emerson, 44, an Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to disable the engines Horizon Air jet, appears in Mulnomah County court in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 24, 2023. (Multnomah Circuit Court via Reuters)
PHOTO: In this image taken from a video, Joseph David Emerson, 44, an Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to disable the engines Horizon Air jet, appears in Mulnomah County court in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 24, 2023. (Multnomah Circuit Court via Reuters)

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"While on this flight, Captain Emerson suffered a panic attack and the illusion of being in a dream. His actions during that flight were a well-meaning attempt simply to wake himself up from the dream. No harm to anyone was contemplated or intended," the firm's statement read.

According to his attorneys, two days before the Alaska Airlines flight, the pilot had taken "a small amount of psilocybin," which is found in mushrooms, as Emerson was paying tribute to his late friend. The off-duty pilot "had never taken mushrooms" prior to the incident, his lawyers said, adding, "[o]ther than this incident, Captain Emerson does not use drugs."

Emerson was also "suffering from a combination of stress, fatigue, and dehydration, as well as untreated anxiety and depression," the lawyers said in the statement. He had been trying to manage his "mental health with meditation and exercise," the lawyers said, because he believed he "would be grounded and could lose his medical clearance and his job if he sought traditional mental health treatment."

His legal team said the pilot of 20 years is sorry for what happened.

"Captain Emerson apologizes for his actions. He also thanks the flight crew for their response and for showing him kindness and grace during his mental breakdown," the statement read.

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The plane Emerson was on was scheduled to fly from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco before it diverted to Portland after a "credible security threat related to an authorized occupant in the flight deck jump seat," the airline previously confirmed to ABC News.

The suspect allegedly tried to pull the fire extinguisher handles on the engines, preliminary information obtained by investigators indicated, according to a federal official briefed on the probe. The suspect was overwhelmed by the flight crew and subdued, and then handcuffed to a seat, the federal official told ABC News last month.

Emerson was taken into custody, the Port of Portland previously confirmed. In addition to the attempted murder charges, Emerson is also facing 83 counts of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, and one felony count of endangering an aircraft.

Emerson appeared in court last month wearing a blue jail uniform but did not address the judge. His attorney, Noah Horst, entered a plea of not guilty.

The suspect was en route to San Francisco, where he was scheduled to be on a flight crew of a 737, the federal official said.

Alaska Airlines said the off-duty pilot was sitting in the flight deck jump seat -- which is in the cockpit -- and "unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the operation of the engines."

He was heard in the moments prior saying something similar to, “I’m not right,” a federal official told ABC News following the incident.

The captain and first officer "quickly responded," Alaska said at the time, adding engine power was not lost, and the crew secured the aircraft without incident.

ABC News' Amanda Maile, Clara McMichael and Josh Margolin contributed to this report.

Off-duty pilot charged with attempted murder for trying to shut off engines had a 'panic attack,' his lawyers say originally appeared on abcnews.go.com