Man admits kidnapping pastor from Florence church, pleads guilty
By Tonya Brown (WPDE)
FLORENCE COUNTY, SC (WPDE) — Joseph Alan Wright, 39, pleaded guilty Thursday morning in federal court to the December kidnapping and carjacking of a pastor from his church on Cherokee Road in Florence.
The kidnapping ended with the pastor’s successful rescue and Wright’s arrest.
The Honorable Sherri A Lydon accepted Wright’s plea on the condition that he understand the nature of the charges against him.
U.S. attorney Everett Eugene McMillan prosecuted the case on behalf of the government.
McMillan said he was glad the case was resolved with a guilty plea from Wright.
This particular crime happened from a place where someone should be the safest. From a sanctuary. And our whole community should be a sanctuary from violent crime. And, it’s our goal to return it that way. Our office is engaged with many local offices. Florence police, in this case. The sheriff’s office. Myrtle Beach, or Horry County. All the local agencies we can. To try to fight violent crime. And that we continue to do so this summer. This is just one of many cases in which we are trying to reduce the problem of violent crime. This is plaguing our communities right now,” McMillan said.
On Dec. 21, 2021, Wright allegedly abducted Reverend Charles M. Pittman, Jr. from Immanuel Baptist Church in Florence at knifepoint at around 10:20 a.m., according to a related criminal complaint filed with the court.
According to the complaint, Wright forced Pittman into his vehicle in the church parking lot and then drove off at high speed.
Almost immediately, the complaint said church workers realized something was wrong and contacted the police.
They tried to contact the pastor on his cell phone but were unable to reach him, so the Florence Police Department began trying to locate him through other electronic means, such as obtaining information from from OnStar, mobile phone providers and credit card usage records. , according to a press release from the Ministry of Justice.
The complaint also says officers quickly contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for further assistance after learning of the abduction.
Officers were then able to quickly locate the stolen vehicle in Lumberton around 12:09 p.m., less than two hours after the incident began, the statement said.
Florence police officers told the Lumberton Police Department, who dispatched officers to locate the vehicle, rescue Pittman and arrest Wright, all without incident, according to the statement.
Pittman was in court for Wright’s hearing and said seeing him brought him back to the day of the incident.
“It brought back memories of that day. I also thought it was a step closer to an official resolution. Just the process works as it should. And that justice is taken care of,” Pittman said.
Pittman’s wife of nearly 43 years, Marcia, said seeing Wright wasn’t easy.
“My heart sank. When Mr. Wright walked into the courtroom. Because for me it was the first time I had seen him. And I wanted to look at him and say why? Why would you want to do that? But, then the Lord reminded me, to God be the glory. Because he protected the love of my life. I just can’t express how grateful I am to everyone. But most of all to the Lord,” Marcia Pittman said.
Wright admitted each count.
“I am guilty, Your Honor,” Wright said.
Wright will be sentenced in approximately 90 days.
McMillan said the federal charge carries a sentence of up to life in prison.
“In this case, there will be a conviction report for the judge. And ultimately it will be up to the judge. But, before she decides that, she will hear from us. And above all, she will have news of the victim. And he will have the opportunity to share his vision of things. And I’m sure she’ll take all of that into account. When deciding on the appropriate sentence,” McMillan explained.
Pittman said he prayed for Wright, but felt he would have to face the consequences of his actions.
“Forgiveness is necessary. It’s necessary. But there is also the idea of responsibility. And that there are consequences to his actions. Whatever they are. And I think it’s appropriate here as well,” Pittman said.
Pittman and his wife said they were grateful that this terrible situation was soon resolved and over.
“To me, it’s such a relief. It’s such a relief that we don’t have to do this. And just feel the pressure of this. And in many ways, reliving this again. It’s not just one of the things that we can move forward. Put it behind us. And we’re just grateful to God for bringing us through this process. To be with us and take care of us,” Pittman said.
The case was investigated by a joint team including the Florence Police Department, Lumberton Police Department and the FBI.
Wright remains in federal custody at the Florence County Detention Center.