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Joe Sharkey

Joe Sharkey, a columnist for the New York Times, writes extensively on business travel and accommodations, and has written several books on criminality and a novel. Sharkey has been a reporter and Assistant National Editor for the Wall Street Journal, the City Editor for the Albany Times-Union, and a reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He lives in the New York area.


Joe Sharkey's most acclaimed book was released in 1994, Bedlam: Greed, Profiteering, and Fraud in a Mental Health System Gone Crazy, an investigation of the burgeoning psychiatric industry. Focusing on sensational cases in Texas and elsewhere within the United States, Sharkey exposes how powerful elements within the industry maneuvered to exploit exploding new markets when health insurance providers began covering costs for in-hospital mental health treatment, in part by basing admission and discharge decisions solely on insurance. Sharkey traces soaring mental health costs to the arrogant and often criminal marketing practices of biological psychiatry, which Sharkey asserts began when the industry boomed in the late 1980s, with the number of psychiatric hospitals more than doubling between 1984 and 1989.

The theme throughout Bedlam is that often unwarranted kidnappings of vulnerable individuals - covered by lucrative insurance policies - are driven by high powered marketing campaigns, often concocted simply to foster fishing expeditions sanctioned by health and law enforcement officials. Sharkey provides anecdotal tales of how juveniles and adults were coerced into treatment on fabricated pretenses or simply because they were seen as nuisances by others. Sharkey exposes schemes to fill beds at for-profit mental and addiction facilities, which were offering bounties of up to $1500 to clergy, teachers, police and "crisis counselors". Sharkey compares the bounties, and the overall manner in which facilities fill beds, to the marketing of hotel accommodations, depicting one case in which a marketing scheme was lifted directly from the business plan of the Holiday Inn hotel chain.

The psychiatric industry, warned Sharkey (whose late father-in-law was a respected psychiatrist involved in setting up not-for-profit community mental health clinics during the 1980s in New York state) has been lobbying legislatures for an increasing share of government health spending. Despite such warnings by Sharkey and mental health watchdogs, similar practices have continued to evolve in Texas (where many of the events depicted in Bedlam took place), in the form of the Texas Medication Algorithm Project, and at the federal level with the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.

Other books

Another of Sharkey's books is Above Suspicion, the story of FBI agent Mark Putnam, who murdered his mistress in an eastern Kentucky mining town, in which Sharkey implicitly condemns the FBI for encouraging the use of paid informants. That book has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon's Type A Productions.

"Lady Gold," a novel Sharkey co-wrote with former New York Police Department detective Angela Amato, was purchased by Paramount Pictures and is in development as a feature film by Mel Gibson's production company, Icon.

In Deadly Greed, Sharkey explores the sensational 1989 Boston killing, in which Charles Stuart fatally shot his pregnant wife Carol and caused racial tensions by accusing a black man of the crime.

Airline crash

Joe Sharkey was one of seven people aboard an Embraer Legacy business jet involved in the crash of Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907, using a Boeing 737-800, on September 29, 2006. The private jet lost a wing tip and part of its tail, but landed safely in a Brazilian military air base located in the Amazon jungle. The Embraer Legacy jet was owned and operated by ExcelAire Service Inc., a charter company headquartered in Ronkonkoma, New York. All 148 passengers and six crew members aboard the Gol Airlines Flight 1907 perished. The Legacy jet was on its maiden flight from Embraer's headquarters in São José dos Campos, near São Paulo, to the United States. Sharkey was on a freelance assignment in Brazil for Business Jet Traveler, a business magazine specializing in corporate aviation. Sharkey said the Legacy jet stabilized after the apparent collision, until it landed at the Serra do Cachimbo airbase in the state of Pará. In a New York Times front page article titled "Colliding With Death at 37,000 Feet, and Living", filed on October 1, 2006, Sharkey reported:

And it had been a nice ride. Minutes before we were hit, I had wandered up to the cockpit to chat with the pilots, who said the plane was flying beautifully. I saw the readout that showed our altitude: 37,000 feet. I returned to my seat. Minutes later came the strike (it sheared off part of the plane’s tail, too, we later learned).

During an interview with NBC's Today Show on October 5, 2006, Sharkey said he was relaxing in his cabin seat with the window shade down when he was jolted by a bang. "It was more like a car that hits a pothole rather than 'boom!'" he said. The plane steadied itself and it became serenely silent again. It was only when Sharkey opened the shade and looked out his window that he noticed something was dreadfully amiss. "My heart just sank because I looked at the wing tip and I saw that it was shorn off,” he told Today host Matt Lauer. "Basically four feet of the wingtip, the part that curves up, the winglet, gone... I’ve flown a lot, and I’m thinking, 'This is definitely, definitely not good.'"

An engineer on board noticed the damaged wing was starting to peel, and Sharkey said it was then that everyone on board started to think about dying. "That’s the point in which it was clear that one way or another we were going down in unpleasant circumstances, and probably, since we couldn’t find a runway, we were going to ditch." The pilots, Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, were composed and focused, like "infantrymen who were well trained." Still, Sharkey and the other passengers, despite an uneasy calm, grew concerned. "It was very serene," Sharkey said. "At first it was just quiet and grimly concern. That's the point at which it was clear that we were, one way or another, we were going down in an unpleasant circumstance." He said he scribbled a quick note to his wife, "I expressed my love, my appreciation and the fact that I accepted death." He put the note in his wallet, thinking it might eventually be found. "And then I thought … it was almost bizarre … Is this going to hurt? And how badly is it going to hurt?" The pilots eventually spotted a remote military airstrip and safely put the plane down. Sharkey said that when he found out, several hours later, that the Legacy jet hit a commercial airliner, he thought "We should not be the ones walking away from this." Asked, at the end of the interview, about the pilots who saved his life, he said: "I think we need to be careful about how the evidence is evaluated, because I think these guys are in some peril."

The NTSB released results of a preliminary analysis of the Legacy's flight data and cockpit voice recorder showing that the Legacy pilots had tried to contact air traffic control at least fifteen times in the thirty minutes prior the collision without success.

Blog Controversy

On his blog, “Joe Sharkey at Large” (), Sharkey wrote of being held for 36 hours for interrogation after the forced landing, and of being "astonished to be alive, but extremely worried about the fate of the two pilots and the ExcelAire executive still being detained." (On October 2, a Brazilian state prosecutor ordered the pilot, Joseph Lepore, and the copilot, Jan Paul Paladino, both U.S. citizens, to relinquish their passports until further investigation was conducted.) Following his brief blog posting, an onslaught of highly critical comments started to be posted. These comments, most apparently originating from Brazil and written in English, Portuguese or Spanish, referenced his blog comment, his New York Times story, and other statements he supposedly made. One recurring accusation was of insensitivity towards the victims on the Gol flight, for hailing the pilot and copilot as "heroes". Others accused him of avoiding reference to allegations that the Legacy jet was flying at an altitude not in conformance with its authorized flight plan. Others disparaged him for blaming the Brazilian airspace infrastructure and for questioning the objectivity of the local authorities' investigative efforts. A number of comments posted were supportive, and attempted to show that Sharkey's statements were being misinterpreted and that the critical postings were mostly inconsistent and prejudiced.

On October 6, Mr. Sharkey deleted his blog. He restarted the blog anew the next day, with comments no longer enabled, and wrote about his experience and his views on the ongoing investigation, the pilots' retention in Brazil, and the attacks against him and the others aboard the Legacy jet.

On October 7, Sharkey wrote in his blog:

Mid-Air Collision in Brazil Dear Readers,

I've temporarily taken down the earlier contents of this blog because it had degenerated into a forum for rumor, wild speculation and threats, almost exclusively originating in Brazil. That vitriol serves no legitimate purpose and I will not allow this blog to host any of it.

As most of you know, I was a passenger in a Legacy 600 business jet that was involved in a mid-air collision with a 737-800 airliner over the Amazon rain forest on Sept. 29. Through some inexplicable stroke of fate, the seven of us in the smaller jet survived while the 154 people in the 737 died. We who survived did not know that a 737 had hit us until 3 hours after we made our emergency landing at a remote Amazon airfield. Our plane had been flying routinely on a steady course at the time we were hit.

The grief and anguish that we who lived felt for those who died was and is profound and invincible.

I and the six honorable men who survived with me will always grieve for the dead and their loved ones and friends. But right now I also am deeply concerned about the fate of the two pilots of the Legacy — Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino. Joe and Jan are two stand-up guys, veteran pilots who saved my life and the lives of all who were with me, and who were stricken with profound sorrow when they learned that a 737 had hit us without warning, and with such a tragic loss of life.

Joe and Jan remain detained in Brazil while an investigation continues into the cause of this horrible accident. Speculation and wild rumors are rife. But I was there. I implore those who are so quick to blame the Legacy pilots to let the investigation continue and wait until the facts have been determined in an honest and INDEPENDENT inquiry before rushing to judgment in a politically intense environment.

On October 8, he wrote:

MID AIR COLLISION II. Brazil. I've been always ready to make this bet since the afternoon Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino saved our butts by putting down a damaged aircraft in that obscure Amazon air base near Cachimbo (as they considered ditching before the once-secret base turned up visually).

It's going to work out that Joe and Jan did nothing wrong.

But that's not how the Brazilian police authorities in Mato Grosso evidently want it to work out. The air base where we made our emergency landing was in the state of Para. Mato Grosso is the state just south. The collision seems to have occurred just south of the border with Para, and Mato Grosso police authorities were eager to claim jurisdiction once the Brazilian military had finished questioning us.

And by the way, all of us on that plane were working stiffs, not corporate fatcats on a lark. Despite outrageous tales being spread by certain elements of the news media in Brazil — where a presidential election is mired in unstable politics — we flew across the Amazon straight and narrow. To say these two pilots turned off a transponder so we could do "trick maneuvers" without being detected is to precisely define the word "lie." I was there. I was working on a laptop at the time of impact on the wing just beside me. That plane was flying as straight and steady as a Continental jetliner between New York and L.A.

I myself am sick and tired of hate mail and death threats that enter my e-mail inbox each day. It is time to say enough.

All of us on that flight have said over and over and over again, including during two grueling days of detention and questioning when it became increasingly clear to me that the police authorities were looking for a scapegoat, that were on a calm, routine flight when the impact occurred. We did not know what hit us (and would not know for three more hours).

With a damaged and deteriorating left wing and a damaged tail, Joe and Jan — expecting to have to ditch — managed through sheer luck to find an airstrip in the wilderness and then physically wrestle that plane onto an unknown runway.

As I said, not until three hours later did we learn that a 737 with 154 aboard had gone down at the site of the impact.

We were treated well, though questioned repeatedly, at the military base. In police custody in Mato Grosso, however, Brazilian police authorities had raced to claim criminal jurisdiction after we had been confined and questioned at the air base for a night and a day. I was held imcommunicado. So, I assume, were Joe and Jan.

When we left the air base on a military jet and landed several hours later (during a violent lightening storm, by the way) at Cuiaba, the police headquarters in Mato Grosso, were questioned all night until 5.30 a.m. By now, U.S. diplomatic representatives were on the scene. To them, I objected to being detained without charge and without the ability to make a phone call. It never occurred to me to demand legal representation, but it should have. I did manage to quietly befriend a secretary who allowed me limited use of her computer to grind out a fast e mail message to my wife and to some colleagues.

Now that I am home, the theme of the hate mail (some with the words "You Must Pay for Crimes" and "Die Assassin" and far worse in the message field), has consistently been that we are lying and that I, as the only witness who is able to talk openly and to write about this, am abetting a coverup.

Yes, 154 people died in that tragic split-second when that 737 (perhaps with a heroic pilot himself trying but unable to save the lives of those aboard both airplanes) hit us 37,000 feet about the Amazon. Our anguish about the horrible deaths of those strangers is profound. Our astonishment that some freak oversight of fate allowed us to walk away alive will follow us to our own graves.

Those of us who survived have been accused — in the Brazil media, quoting police sources — of coordinating our stories. This is insulting nonsense. Part of the absurd reasoning for those accusations in Brazil is that our testimony (each of us were questioned separately and intensely) was remarkably similar. This is a chapter out of Kafka! Of course we all told the same story. That's because we all told the exact truth. It is insanity — if not felonious mendacity — to define consistency in truth as conspiracy to lie.

Joe and Jan should not still be detained in Brazil 10 days after the accident, where anti-Americanism continues to fan the flames.

Joe and Jan are not shadowy international figures, able to slip into obscurity. They are two guys with families from Long Island. If the Brazilian authorities need them in the future, there are legal procedures in place to return them to Brazil.

Every day that these two straight-arrow American guys are held in custody is a disgrace. I have not been in contact with either Joe or Jan since last Sunday, when I left San Jose for the airport in São Paulo. All of us had an emotional farewell.

I had never met them before the night prior to our fateful flight on the new Legacy 600 from Sao Jose, but I know them well enough, after the time we spent in this ordeal, to say this: I stand up for them. Period.

On October 10, Waldir Pires, the Brazilian Defense Minister, answering a newspaper interview question concerning claims of inadequate air traffic control coverage in Brazil, stated:

"I cannot anticipate testimony that may be given, for example, by this [Joe Sharkey] in the United States. It is evident, it seems to me that his personality is a little frivolous, because with the number [of accidents] we have and the statements he makes, it [(Sharkey's statement)] is something absolutely inadequate."

Pires was later fired for "gross incompetence" in his handling of aviation crisis of 2006-2007.

On October 12, the blog was again deleted. In entries MID AIR COLLISION III, IV and V, published after October 8, Sharkey lamented the reactions in Brazil, including that of Pires, reaffirmed his concern over the fate of the pilots, and called for their return home.

Sharkey's 2007 comments about Brazil exist in the "Joe Sharkey: Brazil" blog.


  • 1990 (reprint date) Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders
  • 1991 Deadly Greed: The Riveting True Story of the Stuart Murder Case that Rocked Boston and Shocked the Nation
  • 1993 Above Suspicion
  • 1994 Bedlam: Greed, Profiteering, and Fraud in a Mental Health System Gone Crazy
  • 1998 Lady Gold (with Angela Amato)


External links

  • - Lists weblog entries citing The New York Times articles authored by Joe Sharkey
  • - 'How to Expand Air Travel Service? Try Offering a Sky Cab', Joe Sharkey New York Times (December 9, 2003)
  • - 'Joe Sharkey Article on Paranoia and Violence', Marca Bristo (August 6, 1998)

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