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Virginia Carnival Worker Pleads Guilty To Three 'Heinous' Murders Just Ahead Of Trial
James Michael Wright will spend the rest of his life behind bars for the shooting deaths of two women and a teen girl who were found dead on his wooded property in 2019. Wright initially claimed he shot all three victims by accident.
An accused serial killer in Virginia has pleaded guilty to three murders mere days before his trial was set to begin.
James Michael Wright, 26, was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences on Tuesday after submitting a guilty plea for three counts of first-degree murder, according to NBC Bristol, Virginia affiliate WCYB.
Authorities accused Wright of fatally shooting two Tennessee women and a Georgia teenager over a one-month period and burying them on his wooded property in Mendota, Virginia — about 150 miles southwest of Roanoke just north of the Tennessee border — in 2019.
Wright initially claimed the deaths of Elizabeth Marie Vanmeter, 22, Joslyn Alsup, 17, and Athina Renee Hopson, 25 — all of whom he met through his work as a carnival worker — were simply accidental.
Wright’s surprising decision to plead guilty comes just before he was scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 9.
On Tuesday, Washington County Commonwealth Attorney Joshua Cumbow thanked several groups for assisting in the investigation and Wright’s eventual conviction.
“I am very happy to be able to conclude this successful prosecution for the heinous murders of these three victims. My heart continues to go out to their family and friends,” Cumbow stated. “I want to thank the entire law enforcement community of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for coming together to bring this killer to justice. I especially want to thank the people and community of Mendota, Virginia, for their assistance throughout this case and their hospitality.”
Speaking with CBS Johnson City, Tennessee affiliate WJHL-TV, Cumbow called the murders “completely unjustified.”
Wright first appeared on investigators’ radar on March 19, 2019, after he was involved in a head-on car crash with a school bus that left him injured and temporarily confined to a wheelchair. On the scene, officials found a cell phone belonging to Athina Hopson (sometimes reported as ‘Athena’), who was reported missing out of Johnson City, Tennessee, just two days later.
Hopson and Wright had allegedly met one another while Wright was contracted with ‘Pony Express,’ a traveling carnival business based in Blountville, Tennessee, according to the Washington Post.
Following the accident, Hopson’s father left a comment on Wright’s Facebook page.
“Have u seen Athina,” the father posted. “She is missing… people say she was with u… this is her dad.”
In May 2019, while searching Wright’s 77-acre property, investigators found the bodies of Vanmeter, who was last seen in Carter County, Tennessee on Feb. 28, 2019, and Alsup, who was reported missing from Cobb County, Georgia on March 8. Both victims were found in shallow graves.
Hopson’s body would not be found in the initial searches.
During a 7-hour interview with police, Wright confessed he first killed Vanmeter — who reportedly lived with an intellectual disability and had the mental capacity of a 13-year-old — after arguing over a video game, according to WCYB. After Vanmeter allegedly ran from his trailer, Wright said he grabbed his .22 rifle and followed the victim into the woods.
However, Wright claimed he heard what he believed was an animal and discharged his weapon, which resulted in Vanmeter sustaining a gunshot wound to the back of the head.
Wright later told investigators, “it was the only thing I could do,” per the Bristol affiliate.
On the night of Vanmeter’s murder, Wright allegedly published a cryptic post on Facebook, according to the Washington Post.
“I know there’s a special place in Hell for me,” the post read. “It’s called a throne.”
Wright’s defense was similar when explaining his version of events in connection with the murder of 17-year-old Joslyn Alsup, who was killed on March 9, 2019. According to WCYB, Wright allegedly picked Alsup up from Marietta, Georgia, and drove her back to his residence some 300 miles away.
The Washington Post reported Alsup’s father worked with Wright through their carnival work.
Wright claimed he and the teen engaged in sexual intercourse in the woods near his home when, again, he thought he heard an animal, according to WJHL-TV. Wright said he intended to shoot the animal but ended up killing Alsup instead.
Her body was discovered underneath a pile of logs near a creek on Wright’s Mendota property.
As for Hopson, Wright told investigators he hired her to clean his trailer before they ventured into the woods on March 17, 2019. In his confession, Wright said he tripped during their walk and that the same .22 rifle used in the previous two homicides accidentally discharged.
Wright admitted he wrapped Hopson’s body in a tarp and placed her in the back of his pickup truck, according to WCYB. He told detectives he planned to take Hopson to the hospital but that her body fell out as Wright crossed the Nordyke Road Bridge on the Holston River.
He said he left her there after failed attempts to retrieve the victim from the water.
Hopson’s skeletal remains were discovered in January 2021, not far from the other victims, and it was determined she’d been shot twice in the head, WJHL-TV reported.
“He is saying that it was probably an accident,” Hopson’s mother, Bonnie Griffith, told the outlet. “How do you shoot somebody twice, put them in a truck, drop them in a back of a truck, and put them in a river? How do you do that?”
Former Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman called Wright’s statements “hard to believe,” according to the post. Commonwealth Attorney Cumbow told WJHL-TV the story was “outrageous.”
“The public will be safe from him,” Cumbow said Tuesday. “And hopefully, it’s closure for three families and the friends of those three victims.”
Wright remains at the Abingdon Regional Jail until his transfer to state prison.