A Virginia man whose work with a traveling carnival may have taken him up and down the Eastern seaboard is now feared to be a serial killer after he allegedly confessed to the killings of two women and a girl who were shot dead over the course of 18 days.
James Michael Wright, 23, was arrested Thursday and charged with three counts of capital murder after agreeing to a police interview to discuss the disappearance of Athina Hopson, officials said.
Hopson, 25, of Johnson City, Tennessee, was reported missing March 21 by a cousin who told investigators Wright had picked her up four days earlier so she could clean his house.
But Hopson never returned, and two days later after she left with Wright, he was involved in a horrific car crash that saw him airlifted to a hospital.
Wright had veered over the center of the road and collided headfirst with a school bus, officials said. Everyone on the bus was unharmed, but the crash totaled Wright’s pickup truck and left him with a broken leg, hip and arm.
Co-workers, friends and family left comments urging him to get well soon on his Facebook, but another comment left during this time was written with a different kind of urgency.
“Have u seen athina,” her father wrote to Wright. “She is missing people say she was with u … this is her dad.”
Hopson’s cousin, Alyssa Chapman, told WJHL-TV she also reached out to Wright to find out where she might be, and she said he claimed to have dropped her off at Chapman’s apartment before the collision occurred.
Chapman didn’t believe Wright and she contacted police. Authorities exercising a search warrant looked through Wright’s damaged truck said they found Hopson’s cellphone inside the vehicle, and another warrant allowing investigators to search Wright’s home was issued.
That same day, Wright allegedly told police he shot and killed Hopson the day he picked her up from her cousin’s home. Hers was the last in a series of three killings for which Wright allegedly claimed responsibility.
Police said he told them he shot and killed 17-year-old Joslyn Alsup on March 9, one day after she was reported missing from Cobb County, Georgia. Police said he also confessed to killing 22-year-old Elizabeth Marie Vanmeter, of Carter County, Tennessee, on Feb. 28.
Vanmeter, who was described in court documents obtained by WCYB-TV as cognitively disabled with the mental capacity of a 13-year-old, was reported missing by her parents March 17.
On the evening Wright allegedly killed Vanmeter, he posted a meme on Facebook that said: “I know there’s a special place in hell for me. It’s called a throne.”
Wright claimed to have fatally shot Vanmeter after they argued, according to police.
He claimed to have had sex with Alsup in the woods near his house and that he accidentally shot her while trying to shoot an animal, court documents obtained by WJHL-TV said.
Police said Wright told them he accidentally shot Hopson twice in the head. He allegedly said they were taking a walk when he tripped and shot her in the head, then tripped and shot her again, court documents said.
Wright said all three killings were accidental, officials said.
“We find that hard to believe,” Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman told reporters Monday.
Investigators said they found Vanmeter and Alsup’s bodies on Wright’s property. One victim was buried in a shallow grave, while the other was near and under logs, officials said.
A gun was also recovered that police said they believe was used in all three killings.
Police said Wright told them he threw Hopson’s body into a river. Wright allegedly said he was transporting her body in the back of his truck when it fell out and rolled down an embankment near the bridge on Norkyke Road, officials said. Cops said he told them he then placed her body in the river.
The search for her body is ongoing.
The victims met Wright through the James H. Drew Carnival, where he was employed as a sub-contractor, police said. It was not immediately clear exactly how the women came into contact with Wright, but officials said Alsup’s father worked with Wright at the carnival.
The owner of the carnival company told WJHL-TV that he has no records of Wright working for him.
When asked if he would classify Wright as an alleged serial killer, Newman said yes.
“We’re working with that carnival to make a determination of the locations they did set up the carnival and attempt to see if there are missing persons that might have been reported,” Newman said.
“That carnival traveled extensively, throughout the East Coast,” the sheriff’s office said.
Wright is being held without bond in the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Abingdon.
If convicted of the charges he is facing, prosecutors said the death penalty is “definitely” on the table.
Anyone having information about the suspect or the disappearance of any of the three female victims is asked to contact the Washington County Virginia Sheriff’s Office at 276-676-6000.