How Tennessee police caught carnival worker charged with killing 3

A Virginia man has been charged with killing two Tennessee women and a teenage girl he met while working with a traveling carnival. Angela Gosnell, Knoxville News Sentinel

The police officer looking for James Michael Wright found him in the hospital. Days earlier, the 23-year-old Virginia man veered across the center line and slammed into a school bus, totaling his pickup truck and landing himself in the emergency room.

But Johnson City Police Department Investigator Joe Jaynes wasn’t focused on the crash. He wanted to ask Wright about Athina Hopson, a 25-year-old woman who had just been reported missing.

Family members told police that Hopson left in Wright’s truck on March 17. Wright claimed he took her to clean his mobile home in Washington County, Virginia, then dropped her off the next day at her home in Johnson City.

There was just one problem, Jaynes said. No one saw her return.

That conversation in the hospital marked one of the first steps in an investigation that would unfold to span three states and involve the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service. It culminated in Wright being charged last week with fatally shooting two Tennessee women and a Georgia teenager over a span of 18 days from late February to mid-March.

Wright remained jailed Tuesday on three counts of capital murder in connection to the deaths of Hopson; Elizabeth Vanmeter, 22, of Carter County, Tennessee; and Joycelyn Alsup, 17, of Cobb County, Georgia.

Police said Wright admitted to killing the women — whom he met while working for a traveling carnival — and disposing of their bodies near his home. But he insisted each shooting was an accident, Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman said at a news conference Monday.

“We find that hard to believe,” the sheriff said.

An unexpected discovery

In the middle of April, Jaynes traveled to Virginia with another Johnson City Police Department investigator. Joined by a local sheriff’s deputy, the policemen paid a visit to Wright’s mobile home in Mendota, Virginia, a rural community about 45 miles north of Johnson City.

Wright, still recovering from the crash, answered the door in a wheelchair. According to Jaynes, Wright again claimed he had dropped Hopson off in Johnson City, and he gave the officers consent to search his room.

The policemen were looking for any clues related to Hopson’s disappearance. They found something else.

“I’m not going to go into details, but we found property that definitively belonged to Elizabeth Vanmeter — stuff with her name on it,” Jaynes told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “At that point, we didn’t know who Ms. Vanmeter was.”

Vanmeter had an Elizabethton, Tennessee, address, so the officers drove far enough to regain cellphone service before calling the sheriff’s office in Carter County.

The policemen learned Vanmeter had not been seen since the last week of February. The woman who reported her missing on March 17 told police Vanmeter had left home with a man she barely knew, according to the police report.

His name? James Michael Wright.

‘The pony guy’

Police in Virginia drew up search warrants. Inside Wright’s totaled truck, authorities reported finding Hopson’s cellphone. On his property, they found two bodies, which have tentatively been identified as Alsup and Vanmeter.

Investigators questioned Wright and said he confessed to killing the three victims. All had ties to the James H. Drew Exposition, a carnival that had been traveling up and down the East Coast. Wright ran the pony ride.

Alsup, the 17-year-old, met him at the North Georgia State Fair, where her father worked. Wright reportedly told police he accidentally shot her after they had sex in the woods near his home on March 9, one day after she was reported missing. He said he covered her body with some logs.

“He was the pony guy. That’s what we called him. The pony dude,” Alsup’s mother, Cynthia Butterworth, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He would give the kids free rides most of the time. I never expected out of all people he would’ve done this.”

Hopson and Vanmeter each struck up a romantic relationship with Wright after meeting him through the carnival, family members said. Hopson was a coworker, while Vanmeter often hung around the carnival, according to Vanmeter’s sister-in-law, Christina Hutslar.

Hutslar recalled hearing her sister-in-law dote on her new boyfriend, and she said she once met Wright. He came across as “one of those down South country boys,” Hutslar said. “He wasn’t the smartest person you’ve ever met in your life, not the sharpest crayon or whatever, but he was very respectful.”

Vanmeter was kindhearted and quick to assume other people had only the best intentions, Hutslar said. “She was kind of naive, kind of gullible, and it sort of stemmed from that need to be loved by somebody.”

Wright reportedly admitted to shooting Vanmeter after a fight on Feb. 28, and he claimed he accidentally shot Hopson in the head when he tripped and fell on March 17.

“She was a very loving and caring person,” said Hopson’s cousin, Alyssa Chapman, who lived with her and reported her missing. “She would give the shirt off her back for anybody, and if she had money she would give it to them.”

As of Tuesday, crews had not found Hopson’s body, which Wright said he left in a river.

“All I mainly want to say is that she didn’t deserve this,” Chapman said. “She cared for everybody.”