The blind seminarian got off the plane shortly after noon on Friday and made his way through the San Diego International Airport. When he got to baggage claim, he took out his cell phone and dialed the number of a woman he’d met on Craigslist.
Authorities say the seminarian believed the woman had agreed to take him to Tijuana and find three toddler girls to rape.
The priest-in-training, a 23-year-old named Joel A. Wright, picked up his duffle bag and walked out of the airport into the sunny California afternoon. And then, without warning, he was under arrest.
The woman he’d been talking with online was actually a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations. The feds had been on Wright's tail for months — and they were ready to charge him with two crimes relating to interstate travel with the purpose of having sex with children.
At his first appearance in U.S. District Court in San Diego, Wright declined to enter a plea and was ordered held. Wright's court-appointed lawyers could not be reached for comment. And his mother declined to comment to BuzzFeed News.
But the federal criminal complaint filed against him outlines the sordid path Wright allegedly took to San Diego, and the unlikely collaborator who brought him down: a con artist based in Mexico who trolled Craigslist for gullible Americans to scam.
Originally from Vermont, Wright was diagnosed with severe glaucoma as a young child, according to a profile of him published by the state’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. After graduating high school in 2010, he enrolled as a seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, where he has since been expelled for what the school called "heinous and reprehensible" allegations.
Federal law enforcement first became aware of Wright in November, when the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children forwarded a tip from a person in Mexico. The person — who is not identified in court records — had contacted staff at the center to alert them about a suspicious American man who was going around Craigslist asking about adopting a Mexican infant.
Agents with Homeland Security Investigations then got in touch with the tipster, who told them the man was a young seminarian at a college in Ohio. Pressed for details about how they found out about Wright, the tipster told agents that they had first spoken to the seminarian a year earlier, after the aspiring priest first posted his request for help adopting a child.
The tipster, it turned out, had answered Wright’s message, telling him that they could help him find a baby to adopt in Tijuana. The seminarian then flew to Mexico in July 2014, meeting the tipster at a budget hotel. The con artist then charged Wright an “adoption fee” and left the hotel, telling him they would fetch the baby and be right back.
The con artist turned tipster, however, never returned. Eventually, Wright realized he’d been scammed and returned to Ohio, according to the federal complaint.
The story could have ended there. But a year later, the con artist found another potential victim on Craigslist: an American man looking for a “female travel guide” to take him around Tijuana, where he wanted to get medical treatment, find a wife, and adopt a child. Authorities say the poster turned out to be the same seminarian from Ohio who had been scammed into handing over cash to a stranger in a Tijuana motel.
Using a new email address, the con artist started a second correspondence with Wright, who prosecutors say eventually admitted that what he really wanted was to have sex with very young children.
"I have not gone all the way before but I have made it very close," the seminarian wrote in an email to the con artist, according to the criminal complaint. "So I do have experience."
It was at that point that the con artist contacted the authorities. Early in December, the tipster gave agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) permission to use the email address to start a sting operation against Wright.
Over the next few months, the seminarian exchanged several emails with the person he believed was his fixer in Tijuana. In some of those messages, which are quoted in the criminal complaint, he allegedly described his desire for them both to have group sex with two “infant babies,” aged 1 and 4.
"With the 4 year old I think I will spank her a while to warm her up and make her a little angry so we can chase her around," the seminarian allegedly wrote. "It is so much more fun when it is a bit of a struggle."
As payment for the fixer’s services, Wright allegedly offered the HSI undercover agent a “vintage European military jacket,” DVD sets of “multiple television series,” and ownership over the child he was planning to adopt.
"I could give you the 4 [year-old] as a present after I finish," Wright allegedly wrote. "And you would have the 4 [year-old] to keep."
On Dec. 10, the HSI undercover agent bought Wright a plane ticket to San Diego, but he never boarded the plane.
"I will not be coming tomorrow," the seminarian allegedly wrote. "Don’t ever contact me again and I wish to have nothing to do with any of your projects or clubs or anything you do. I hereby revoke any promises or relationships we may have entered with you."
Again, that could have been the end of the story. The laws that regulate sting operations require law enforcement to back off the moment the target of the investigation expresses regret or decides they no longer want to participate in the conspiracy.
But then, three days after Christmas, the con artist in Tijuana found yet another suspicious Craigslist post, which authorities believe was written by Wright.
"Looking for a female who can help me when I visit and show me local attractions and good food along with places to have fun," the post stated.
The con artist then created yet another email address and got in touch with Wright, who replied with an ominous question.
“Is there anything you won’t do for me or help me with?” he allegedly wrote.
Yet again, the con artist ceded control of the email account to the American authorities. And once again, Wright allegedly became increasingly explicit in his intentions.
“I want to adopt / own a baby girl (under the age of 3) and I want to have intercourse after I own her, but don’t be telling people,” he allegedly wrote. “I can come next Thursday but I won’t pay until I have seen the baby and I will pay the parents then. The cheapest baby girl under 3 would be good.”
The HSI agent continued to correspond with Wright, who was convinced that his fixer had found a family willing to “rent” him three girls aged 1, 2, and 3. At one point, Wright allegedly asked the undercover agent whether she’d be willing to “stay for a little while in the hotel to watch [him] with them” and make a videotape of him raping the children.
In one of his final emails before his flight to San Diego, Wright reiterated his faith in God.
“Yes, I like Church,” Wright wrote, according to the complaint. “It makes me feel good.”
He now faces the possibility of life in prison.
Joel Wright was a seminarian and had not been ordained at the time of his alleged crimes. A previous version of the headline of this article erroneously referred to him as a priest.
Nicolás Medina Mora is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Nicolás Medina Mora at email@example.com.
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