SAN DIEGO (CN) - A former Ohio seminary student charged with planning to travel to Mexico to purchase children to sexually abuse pleaded not guilty to a raft of charges in Federal Court Thursday.
Joel Alexander Wright appeared before U.S. District Magistrate Judge Bernard Skomal. He pleaded not guilty to all felony charges including aggravated sexual abuse, travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct and criminal forfeiture.
Wright faces 60 years to life in prison if found guilty on all charges, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessandra Serano.
Federal authorities arrested the seminarian on Jan. 29 at the San Diego International Airport following a months-long sting operation by Homeland Security Investigations agents in San Diego.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tipped off authorities to Wright's behavior this past November after it was told about a person who placed an ad on Craigslist soliciting the adoption of infants from Mexico, according to the criminal complaint.
Agents worked with the unnamed tipster for months, taking over various email accounts and emailing back and forth with Wright about his plan to purchase young Mexican children under age five to rape, according the prosecutors.
The complaint says Wright offered graphic depictions of what he planned to do to the children he believed he would have access to, including spanking the children and his wish to be videotaped while he raped them.
On Dec. 10, 2015, the undercover agents bought a plane ticket from Columbus, Ohio to San Diego at Wright's request. From there he planned to go to Tijuana and believed he would have access to a one-year old and four-year-old, prosecutors say.
He never boarded the plane bound for San Diego, however, and seemed to get cold feet, cutting off all communication with the undercover agents.
But a couple weeks later on Dec. 28, the same tipster found another advertisement on the Craigslist Tijuana site from a person looking for a female tour guide. It turned out to be Wright, prosecutors say.
The tipster began communicating with Wright, who revealed he wanted to own or adopt a baby girl under the age of three to rape. Wright purchased a plane ticket for San Diego, believing the tipster - who he thought was a guide - would pick him up at the airport and take him to Mexico where he would have access to infant girls, according to the complaint.
Wright was offered transportation upon arriving at San Diego and called who he thought was his guide shortly after 12:30 p.m. to pick him up. Authorities arrested Wright outside the baggage claim area at Lindbergh Field.
Wright was attending school to become a priest at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus during the course of the undercover investigation. Upon hearing about the allegations against Wright, the bishop from the Diocese of Stubenville immediately expelled Wright from the seminary.
Wright's next court appearance is scheduled for April 1.
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