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SAN DIEGO (WCMH) – An Ohio seminary student suspected of travelling to San Diego to have sex with multiple infants in Mexico was taken into federal custody Friday at Lindberg Field by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Joel A. Wright, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, is charged in a criminal complaint with two felony counts, according to the ICE. The allegations include travelling with the intent to engage in a sexual act with a minor; and attempting to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country within the Southern District of California.
Father John Allen with the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus said Wright was a student there for one semester. Allen said Wright’s status as a seminarian was terminated the moment he left the seminary without authorization.
The Diocese of Steubenville issued the following statement.
Joel Wright was a first year pre-theology student at the Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio.
Wright was discerning ordination to the priesthood for the Diocese of Steubenville.
Immediately upon learning of the allegations against Wright, Diocese of Steubenville Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton suspended Wright from the studies.
The action is in accord with the diocesan child protection decree.
Wright is expected to be arraigned in federal court Monday.
His arrest follows a months-long undercover child sexual exploitation investigation conducted by HSI special agents in San Diego, according to the press release. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.
“This investigation opens a window into a secret world where sexual predators prey on young children around the globe,” said Dave Shaw, special agent in charge for HSI San Diego. “Pedophiles who mistakenly believe they can escape justice by committing child sex crimes outside the U.S. should be on notice that HSI will seek to vindicate the rights of those victims regardless where they live. Fortunately, in this instance, our perseverance and diligence prevented the sexual exploitation of yet another innocent victim.”
According to the criminal complaint, after receiving a tip, an undercover HSI special agent took over an email account and began chatting with Wright. Wright believed he was still communicating with a Mexico-based male tour guide he met after placing an online ad.
The HSI says the investigation began in 2015, after a person tipped them off about a previous encounter he had with Wright.
The tipster told HSI that he met Wright in Tijuana in 2014, as Wright was allegedly hoping to adopt a child. Wright allegedly traveled to Tijuana and payed the adoption fee, but the tipster never returned to make the deal.
Last July, Homeland Security investigators say Wright used Craigslist again to find a tour guide in Tijuana. By November, investigators say the conversation turned to Wright expressing his desire to have sex with an infant.
“I have not gone all the way before but I have made it very close in the past so I do have (experience),” he said.
Undercover agents kept the conversations going. They say Wright agreed to travel to Tijuana through San Diego–but a day before that, he decided to stay home.
In late December 2015, Wright is said to have posted a third ad.
During the email chats with the undercover investigator, Wright allegedly stated he wanted to travel to Tijuana to adopt or own a child under 3 years old and have intercourse with the child.
Subsequently, Wright booked his flight to San Diego and made arrangements to meet the friend of a tour guide at Lindberg Field. Investigators allege the plan was for Wright and the tour guide to then travel to a hotel in Tijuana where someone would bring him the female infants. Wright was taken into custody by HSI special agents after his plane landed at Lindberg Field Friday morning.
This investigation was conducted under HSI’s Operation Predator, an international initiative to protect children from sexual predators.
HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. From outside the U.S. and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users can call TTY 802-872-6196. Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.