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Three women went missing in 18 days. Police blame a serial killer in a traveling carnival

James Michael Wright. Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority — The Washington Post

On the morning of March 19, a 23-year-old man veered over the centerline and collided headfirst with a school bus, contorting his silver Chevy pickup truck into a collection of scrap metal.

The kids were all right. But the pickup driver, James Michael Wright, had to be airlifted to the hospital for a broken leg, hip and arm, as the wheelchair-bound man would soon tell his Facebook followers. Thoughts and prayers poured in from friends and family, as well as from his colleagues at a traveling carnival.

But amid all the sympathy, one comment stood out for its desperation - from a father searching frantically for his daughter.

"Have u seen athina," he wrote. "She is missing . . . people say she was with u . . . this is her dad."

The man left his phone number, but Wright was likely not to call. Just two days before the near-fatal bus crash, police say, Wright fatally shot 25-year-old Athina Hopson in the head - ending an alleged 18-day killing spree in Washington County, Virginia.

Between Feb. 28 and March 17, police now say, Wright killed three women between the ages of 17 and 25 whom he met while working at the traveling carnival, luring them to Mendota, Virginia, where he lived, before fatally shooting them. At a Monday news conference, Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman said Wright had been arrested on three charges of capital murder and that he confessed during a police interview.

He claimed the shootings were all accidental, Newman said.

"We find that hard to believe," the sheriff said.

Newman said police agencies in three states, each searching for a different missing woman, zeroed in on Wright after Hopson's disappearance in March - the last of the three victims.

It's unclear how Hopson might have met Wright through the James H. Drew Exposition, the carnival traveling up and down the East Coast where Newman said Wright worked as a subcontractor. But Hopson's cousin, Alyssa Chapman, remembered Wright coming over to her apartment to pick up Hopson periodically, she told WJHL. Hopson's mother, Bonnie Griffith, told the news station Hopson was struggling financially and was cleaning Wright's house for money.

On the night of March 17, Chapman remembered, Wright arrived to pick her up for the job - but he never brought her back.

Then two days later came news of the bus crash.

Chapman grew more concerned. After the crash, she contacted Wright to ask where Hopson was, WJHL reported. He claimed he got into the accident just after dropping her off at Chapman's apartment in Johnson City, Tenn., about 40 miles south of Mendota.

But Chapman, suspecting he was lying, reported her cousin missing to police on March 21. She told authorities Hopson was last seen alive with Wright.

That's when police looking for two other women in Tennessee and Georgia realized a common denominator in all three cases: The women all somehow knew Wright through the carnival, Newman said. He said police began drawing up search warrants.

Inside Wright's totaled truck, Newman said, police soon found Hopson's cellphone. On his property, they found two bodies. They have tentatively been identified as 22-year-old Elizabeth Marie Vanmeter of Carter County, Tennessee, and 17-year-old Joslyn Alsup of Cobb County, Georgia. Alsup's father worked with Wright at the carnival, Newman said.

On Friday, just after police found the bodies, Wright confessed, Newman said.

"Basically this individual killed three women in an 18-day period," Newman said. "The accident he had two days after the last killing certainly put an end to that series of incidents."

According to Wright's alleged confession, he killed Vanmeter on Feb. 28 after getting into an argument, then buried her outside near his home, Newman said. Vanmeter's parents reported her missing March 17. Court documents obtained by WCYB describe Vanmeter as cognitively disabled, with the mental capacity of a 13-year-old.

On the evening of that killing, Wright posted a meme on Facebook from another account that appears to be his. "I know there's a special place in hell for me," it said. "It's called a throne."

On March 8, Alsup was reported missing. Wright allegedly shot and killed her the next day. According to court documents obtained by WJHL, Wright claimed they had sex in the woods near his house and that he accidentally shot her while trying to shoot an animal. (The age of consent in Virginia is 18.) He then placed her body beneath a stack of logs in the woods near his house, Newman said.

And lastly, on March 17, Wright allegedly shot Hopson in the head twice. He claimed this time that they were going for a walk, and that he tripped and shot her in the head, then tripped again and accidentally shot her again, according to the court documents. Rather than bury her, Wright claimed that he put her in the back of his truck to take her to the hospital. On the way, Newman said, Wright claimed her body fell out, rolling down to a river embankment near a bridge.

He then put her body in the water, Newman said.

In an interview with WJHL, Griffith questioned how he could shoot someone twice on accident.

"What was going through this man's head?" she said. "Why would he do this to these girls that are innocent?"

Police have still not recovered Hopson's body from the river.

Newman said he has no reason to believe Wright intended to harm himself by crashing into the bus two days after allegedly killing Hopson. He declined to release any additional information about the alleged motive in the killings.

Now, he said, police are working with the Drew Exposition carnival company to trace its route along the coast and throughout the Southeast. (The owner of the carnival company, however, claimed to WJHL that he had no records of Wright working for him.)

"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.

Asked if he would consider Wright to be an alleged serial killer, Newman said yes.

Washington County Commonwealth Attorney Joshua Cumbow said it is possible his office will seek the death penalty.

Wright is being held without bail in the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail. It was not immediately clear if Wright had a defense attorney.

This article was written by Meagan Flynn, a reporter for The Washington Post.