PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Salem man responsible for Hawaiian Airlines Flight 39's mid-air turnaround and return to Portland on Jan. 6 made his first court appearance Monday as a federal magistrate explained the felony flight interference charge the government filed against him.
Joseph Hedlund Johnson, 56, walked into and out of the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Portland Monday afternoon - he remains a free man for now. But if convicted, Johnson could face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for allegedly interfering with the Maui-bound plane's flight crew.
Johnson denies interfering in any way with the flight crew. In an exclusive interview with KGW News, Johnson said the comment card that flight attendants gave to the captain was in fact sealed in a postage-paid envelope addressed to Hawaiian Airlines corporate office.
He said he wrote the card to kill time after he'd read everything else he could find on the five-hour-long flight from Portland to Kahului International Airport. Johnson even suggested that it was flight attendants, not he, himself, who broke federal law by opening sealed U.S. Postal Service correspondence.
Johnson went on to call the comments he wrote a joke with references to various pop culture celebrities like Mike Meyers of Saturday Night Live, Jason Alexander's Seinfeld character George Costanza, and the 1970s sitcom Gilligan's Island.
Flight 39's captain and crew felt the note was threatening enough to warrant a lock-down of the pilot's cockpit and a mid-flight return to Portland, where Johnson and his girlfriend were briefly detained by the FBI and Transportation Security Administration.
Two days later, U.S. Attorneys announced an arrest warrant for Johnson but allowed him to surrender voluntarily on Monday for arraignment. More: Read arrest warrant
Uncooperative from the get-go
The FBI and TSA claim Johnson brought attention upon himself early into the flight for refusing to stow his carry-on luggage according to the attendant's instructions. Later, Johnson wrote the disruptive note (see comment card below) and handed it to a flight attendant, who then handed it over to the captain.
Click here to read transcript of comment card
According to Oregon state criminal records obtained by KGW, Johnson has been convicted of multiple misdemeanor and felony charges dating back 20 years. Most of the charges involved theft or assault resulting in four separate imprisonments. In 2002 Johnson was court-ordered to undergo anger management, drug and alcohol treatment.
Expensive F-15 fighter jet chaperone
Flight 39 returned to PDX accompanied by two F-15 fighter jets. The decision to call in military jets was made by NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and could have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, according to an aviation analyst at PDX.
When the pilot announced a turnaround, passenger Michelle Yturri of Eugene thought there was some sort of technical malfunction.
We landed, see the fire department surrounding our plane as we landed - next thing you know they tell us we can't get out of our seats, Yturri said. All of a sudden the doors open and police are there escorting people out.
Authorities and bomb-sniffing dogs searched the plane but nothing dangerous was found. The FBI quickly determined the incident was not terrorist-related; rather, the passenger's behavior had prompted the decision to turn the plane back.
Inside the plane
Roman Ozeruga's sister Inna was on the plane. He told KGW.com that she had texted him from on-board, telling him that a man and woman had been escorted off the plane after landing. Passengers on the plane were directednot to speak to one another for about 45 minutes while crews searched the plane and the man's belongings, according to the Ozerugas.
Inna Ozeruga told her brother the plane was kept away from the gates during the search. He did not know how close his sister was sitting to the man in question. She also told him some passengers decided to deplane and not go to Hawaii.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski commended all involved in the safe landing of the plane and the swift response by federal, state and local agencies.
The flight took off back to Maui around 2:40 p.m. and landed at Kahului International Airport in the northcentral Maui coast after 8 p.m.