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Pilot T.R. Wright III’s life could be compared to a modern-day James Bond, managing to survive a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico, driving fancy cars and jet-setting across the globe while donning the finest designer clothes and accessories.
But the extravagant lifestyle—often detailed in magazine-worthy pictures on Instagram—would come to an abrupt end when federal investigators learned he was financing his larger-than-life lifestyle through an elaborate series of insurance fraud schemes.
Authorities surrounded Wright in June of 2017 at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas as he strode through the hotel lobby carrying a briefcase.
“It was pretty surreal kind of opening that briefcase and seeing here’s this cliché of this guy whose presenting himself as a James Bond-like character walking out of the Trump Tower Las Vegas carrying a briefcase with $70,000 in cash, two pistols, a car title and a burn phone,” Agent James Reed, of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told CNBC's “American Greed” in a new episode airing Monday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT. “I don’t know how to describe it except that was TR.”
Wright, known then simply as Ted Wright, was born in the sleepy small town of Port Kent, New York, located along the shores of Lake Champlain.
“It’s gray. It’s depressing. It’s always overcast,” Wright would later tell “American Greed.” “And the people there, they’ve never left the area. So, as early as I can remember, it was like as soon as I can get out of here, that’s the plan.”
But before making his escape, Wright would learn a valuable lesson about sales and marketing while working at a kiosk at the local mall.
“You have brands. And, whether it’s Coca-Cola or Apple, or yourself, being able to market a brand and make it successful … I mean … people are brands. So, I think that was an early lesson,” he said, noting he also discovered he was a natural salesman.
He’d finally leave New York in his early 20s after following a girlfriend to Kemah, Texas.
“At that time, the business that he was kind of starting and growing was finding boats that had been torn up in the storm and he could fix them up and then he would sell them,” former friend Raymond Fosdick told producers.
Wright also got his pilot’s license, a decision that would be a central aspect of his later schemes.
As he worked to establish himself, he continued to buy boats, airplanes and cars at the lowest price points possible, then fix them up for minimal costs and sell them for a maximized profit.
“I like negotiating. So, I think it’s the deal that I really like,” Wright said. “I guess what’s what gets me excited.”
Wright first came under Reed’s radar in 2014 when a Cessna Citation jet he had flown into the small Athens, Texas airport exploded in flames just days later, leaving the plane charred.
Investigators immediately suspected arson and confirmed their theory after uncovering some grainy surveillance footage that showed a person approaching the plane the night of the fire and opening the cockpit door before a giant fireball engulfs both the plane and the perpetrator.
“The individual then stumbles from the ground around the wing of the plane. It looks like he’s on fire, and heads off into the wooded area behind the plane,” Reed said.
Investigators believed the person was “either dead or severely, severely burned” and began scouring local hospitals and morgues but weren’t able to identify a suspect.
Reed also spoke with Wright, who claimed he had only been hired to pilot the plane, and told investigators its owners were in France.
But when Reed looked into Wright’s background, he was surprised to find it wasn’t the only unusual event in Wright’s past.
Wright and Fosdick both made national headlines in October of 2012 after their small plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico and the pair spent hours in the ocean waiting for rescuers to spot them.
During an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, Wright said the pair had been flying from Texas to Florida when a fire broke out in the cockpit and they had to make an emergency crash landing into the ocean.
But the story never sat right with Reed.
“That was the realization that there was something more to this and at that point the investigation, for me, became 'I need to uncover what is going on who are these individuals and what are they doing,'” he said.
Over the next few years, as Reed continued his investigation, Wright was busy enjoying a lavish lifestyle and marketing himself online and on Instagram as a wealthy businessman. He posted images of himself on exotic vacations, driving pricey sports cars and posing by his numerous planes in a personalized flight suit embroidered with the word “boss.”
“He did have, I think, a lot of adventures,” Katy Vine, staff writer Texas Monthly told “American Greed.” “He did have a wild couple of years, much wilder than most people have in a lifetime.”
He got married and posted images alongside his gorgeous wife as they traveled across the United States and throughout Europe.
“I think we wanted to project sort of an international man of mystery, James Bond, ‘Mission Impossible’-type character. It was almost a caricature of that though,” federal prosecutor Nathaniel Kummerfeld said. “You know it met all the stereotypes, but it was almost too much. It was almost like made for Instagram.”
Investigators would eventually discover that Wright’s extravagant lifestyle was financed by a series of carefully crafted insurance scams.
Wright had created a variety of shell companies designed to hide the fact that he was the true owner of the businesses. He would then purchase a boat, plane or car under one of the companies he owned and create documents making it appear that he sold the item at a much higher price to another company, which he also owned, according to “American Greed.”
“It’s a paper trail that, if the insurance company or anyone does any due diligence, they see an official notarized, stamped, sealed bill of sale from an aircraft escrow and a trust and a lawyer that shows, ‘Oh, no, they paid this much for it,’” Wright would later explain of the scheme to the show. “So, it takes the red flag out of the equation, I guess.”
After the item was damaged or destroyed, Wright collected an inflated insurance payout. According to investigators, the scheme was the real motivation behind the plane crash into the Gulf of Mexico.
According to a federal indictment obtained by “American Greed,” Wright purposely crashed the plane into the ocean to destroy it and cash in on the insurance payout while the plane rested at the bottom of the ocean.
He had purchased the plane for $46,000, then insured it for $84,000, nearly doubling his payout. His financial gains became even greater after he convinced Fosdick to file a lawsuit against him for the crash, secretly collecting another $42,000 from the subsequent settlement for himself.
A similar scheme was hatched for the plane that burned in Athens. According to investigators, he bought the plane for $190,000, then insured it for $440,000, which he collected after it was engulfed in flames.
A court would later determine he had collected $988,554.83 in insurance payouts over the years; although Wright himself would claim the true number was closer to $30 or $40 million.
Fosdick told “American Greed” he didn’t know about the plan to crash into the Gulf of Mexico until the plane was already in the air.
“Once he sets his mind to it, I pretty much know that it’s gonna go down,” he said, later adding, “That’s a pretty traumatic event. Whether it was on purpose or not or anything, it’s still a very traumatic event in a life.”
While he declined to talk about the fire in Athens, prosecutors said Fosdick later confessed to lighting the fire in an attempt to help his friend carry out the scheme.
“Even to this day, I don’t really have friends and I wanted a friend,” Fosdick said of his decision to participate in the schemes. “I wanted a friend, basically, and wanted to be, you know, part of something and that [was] easy for him to kind of prey upon. He didn’t care about anybody or anything. It was all about the money in his pocket.”
The Cookie Crumbles
Fosdick would later agree to cooperate with authorities in Wright’s case and in May of 2017 Wright was indicted in Texas on wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud and arson.
He was sentenced to five years and five months behind bars after pleading guilty to wire fraud conspiracy and arson conspiracy in December of 2017.
Even from behind a prison cell, Wright said he had no regrets except for his occasional partner.
“I can’t say that I regret doing it but I regret the way that I did it,” he said of the 2012 crash into the Gulf of Mexico. “If I could do it again, I would have been alone. I mean, if you commit a crime with someone who you can’t trust who ends up being a rat, that’s a problem.”
Fosdick also pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy and arson conspiracy for his role in the crimes and was sentenced to three years and three months in prison. He was released in 2020.
To learn more about Wright’s quest for a life of adventure and wealth, tune in to “American Greed” Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.
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