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Authorities ID remains as missing murder victim in 2019 Mendota slayings
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Authorities ID remains as missing murder victim in 2019 Mendota slayings

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ABINGDON, Va. — The search for Athina Renea Hopson is over.

Hopson was 25, a wispy 5-feet, 2-inches tall and just 114 pounds when a family member reported her missing on March 21, 2019.

Police were initially told she was last seen with a man who drove her to rural Mendota, Virginia, to clean his trailer. That man, James Michael Wright, 24, first told authorities he’d “dropped her off” March 18. Wright later told authorities Hopson’s body fell out of the back of his truck while crossing the North Fork of the Holston River. He said he was taking her to the hospital when the body fell out of his truck and he dropped it in the river, according to court records.

No remains were found in the river.

In a May 9, 2019, jailhouse confession, Wright wrote that he shot Hopson and two other women. Their bodies were recovered, but multiple searches for Hopson again proved fruitless.

“On Jan. 11, 2021, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office responded back to the scene of previous murders involving three victims in the Mendota area,” Sheriff Blake Andis said to begin a Friday morning news briefing. “Detectives, going on a tip, went back to that area. A search was conducted and skeletal remains were found.”

Those remains were sent to the Roanoke western regional office of the medical examiner where DNA analysis confirmed it was Athina Hopson, also known as Athina Huff, Andis said.

“We haven’t gotten a complete analysis from the medical examiner’s office, but preliminary investigation on Ms. Hopson’s death is due to a gunshot wound,” the sheriff said.

The investigation is ongoing.

Andis declined to say specifically where her body was recovered, but the residence was in the 3000 block of Mendota Road. It was there, in 2019, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office found the bodies of Elizabeth Marie Vanmeter, 22, of Elizabethton, Tennessee, and Joslyn M. Alsup, 17, of Cobb County in Georgia.

Vanmeter was apparently killed first, shot Feb. 28, 2019 and her body was buried in a shallow grave near Wright’s home. Alsup was shot and killed around March 9. Wright told authorities he was shooting at an animal and the bullet struck her instead. Her body was found covered with some logs, authorities previously said.

Hopson’s remains were found nearby, Andis said Friday in response to a reporter’s questions.

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“I think officers had been in the area and the remains were hidden underneath some rubble,” Andis said. “It was in close proximity — within a quarter-mile or eighth-mile [of where the other bodies were recovered].”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Cumbow said his office notified Hopson’s family on Thursday.

“This provides a level of closure for them,” Cumbow said. “They were not glad to get the news; it’s a sad event, but they’re at least happy to have the remains of their loved one.”

All three victims were connected to Wright through his job working for a carnival pony show, authorities previously said.

Wright faces three counts each of capital murder, concealing a body and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony after authorities said he confessed to shooting three women over a span of 18 days in February and March 2019.

Former Sheriff Fred Newman described Wright as a “serial killer,” but Andis said they don’t believe there are additional victims.

“It was very early in his, I guess, criminal career — three women in 18 days,” Andis said.

Detectives had recently been working with authorities in Tennessee regarding another missing person but found no trace, Andis said.

Authorities declined to discuss the tip that led to her remains.

“We’ve had a lot of tips since this happened,” Cumbow said. “The law enforcement community has been very good about following up on all of them. We can’t comment other than that, other than to say that every tip that comes in is followed thoroughly and — fortunately — this one worked out.”

The preliminary hearing in this case has been continued due to COVID-19, Cumbow said.

“I’d like to think we’ll get a lot of movement on the case through the spring. I feel very good that, in 2021, this case will be finalized,” Cumbow said. “The death penalty is on the table and he still has three counts of capital murder, however it’s very early in the case to see what the end result might be.”

Wright remains in the Southwest Regional Jail in Abingdon without bail.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC 

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