When federal agent Jim Reed drove in to a small airport in the East Texas city of Athens mid-morning on September 15, 2014, he was expecting to find a straightforward case of arson—an easy case for the new guy. He introduced himself to the Athens Jet Center’s co-owners, two brothers in their seventies named Wayne and Gaylon Addkison, who led Reed to a small jet, a 1971 Cessna 500 Citation I, that looked like it had been barbecued on a rotisserie. “It was burned in half,” Wayne Addkison recalled. “The nose tipped on the ground and the back half was on the ground too.”
For two weeks the Citation had just been sitting on the tarmac at Athens Municipal Airport, next to the Jet Center, they told Reed. But two days before Reed’s visit, they’d come into work after receiving a call: the plane was in flames. Reed, a fit 29-year-old who was as careful with his clean-cut brown hair and clean-shaven face as he was with his deposition-ready phrasing, was only six months into his job as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Reed didn’t doubt that the fire was the result of arson: A mechanical failure on an inactive Citation was about as unlikely as a lightning strike. As one pilot would later say, “Planes don’t just catch fire in a hangar. They don’t spontaneously combust.” Driving out from Tyler, where he was based, Reed considered the typical arsonists who might be involved. Was this a teen vandal? A local troublemaker?
Later, when he reviewed the airport’s surveillance footage, he could see a shadow of a man thrown from the plane in a ball of fire when it exploded. He checked the area burn centers, hospitals, and morgues. Nobody had turned up with burns. Whoever set fire to the plane had somehow walked away in one piece.
The Addkisons told Reed that a pilot had flown a small plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, in and out two weeks earlier, on August 29—just landed and then quickly took off. That alone seemed strange, the brothers agreed: rare is the pilot who flies into a small airport just to admire the layout. A couple days after that, the Bonanza showed up in Athens again—and this time, one of the airfield’s early risers, a pilot named Carroll Dyson, spotted its thirtysomething, dark-haired pilot slinking around the not-yet-toasted Citation. Innocently, Dyson initiated some small talk, and the pilot told him the Bonanza’s alternator and battery were having issues. “The plane won’t start,” the pilot said. Insistent on helping, Dyson looked at the battery, and then the pilot hopped in and turned the key. The plane started right up. “Well, it’s runnin’ now,” Dyson said. The pilot thanked him and took off.
In a small airport like the one in Athens, planes might come and go unannounced. But Dyson, who owned an aircraft-servicing business at the airport, was diligent about writing down tail numbers. Now Reed took note of the number Dyson gave him for the suspicious Bonanza: N273. Thanking everybody, Reed excused himself and called a worker at the Federal Aviation Administration, who told him that the Bonanza was in the process of being registered—the paperwork was so fresh, in fact, that it was sitting right there on his fax machine. The FAA representative shared the plane’s recent history with Reed: the Bonanza had been purchased in 2013 by Raymond Fosdick, whom Reed would later identify as the dark-haired pilot Dyson had spotted prowling around the airfield. Reed also learned the name of the owner of the burned Citation: Theodore Robert Wright III—“T. R.,” for short. He was a businessman with an address in the coastal town of Kemah, southeast of Houston.
Agent Jim Reed at the Athens Jet Center in July 2020.
Photograph by Zerb Mellish
Reed's Department of Justice ATF badge.
Photograph by Zerb Mellish
Using his phone, Reed googled the two men’s names together. Within seconds, he realized the duo was internet-famous. He scrolled down and read the stories about a disastrous journey T. R. and Fosdick had taken two years earlier, in September of 2012. In what seemed to be a typical flight, the two left Baytown, near Houston, bound for Sarasota, Florida. Halfway there, 11,000 feet in the air, they noticed that their plane, a Beechcraft Baron, had caught fire. They used textbook procedures to carry out an emergency landing in the Gulf of Mexico, ditching the plane thirty miles from shore. Then they waited in the water, where sharks and Portuguese man-of-wars, which sting like jellyfish, have been spotted, to be rescued.
While they floated, T. R. documented their bobbing heads, and their subsequent rescue by the Coast Guard, on an iPad in a waterproof case. Wearing aviator sunglasses and a lightweight sun hat, T. R. looked straight into the iPad’s camera. His partner, Fosdick, was shyer. He smiled in the background with the obligation of a teen whose mom was asking him to pose nicely for a photo. “There’s Raymond,” T. R. said shortly after the ditching. “We seem to be okay, without injuries.” T. R. seemed only slightly out of breath as he navigated the waves on a flotation device. “I believe we’ve been in the water for about an hour now,” he said. “No sign of any rescue or emergency services yet.” As daylight dwindled, the two men treaded water for three hours, until the Coast Guard spotted and rescued them.
Reed also found a clip of the two on NBC’s Today show, one of many media outlets that shared their story. He pressed play and studied T. R. and Fosdick as they narrated their misadventure to awestruck host David Gregory. T. R.—the better-dressed of the two guests—had a lantern jaw, short-cropped hair, and rectangular glasses, and he sat on the set’s beige couch with his left ankle crossed over his right knee. He radiated confidence, intelligence, and ease as he told the tale. “People ask us, ‘Were you worried?’ Well, we weren’t worried at all,” T. R. said. Fosdick looked weary, with his left arm in a sling, yet he attempted the same bluster. Fear did enter his mind, he admitted with a submissive smile. “However, because of experience—because we’ve both been in stressful situations—we remained calm.”
Agent Reed didn’t know what to make of Fosdick and T. R.: First these two guys crash into the Gulf of Mexico together, then each flies into this tiny airport within days of each other, and two weeks later, T. R.’s jet bursts into flames. The more Reed dug, the more certain he became that the Citation fire was just one piece of a grand scheme.
T.R., who is now 35,had alwayssought adventure. When he was nine years old, he pushed a little Sunfish sailboat into Lake Champlain in Upstate New York and tried to sail the ten miles to Burlington, Vermont (much to his parents’ consternation). But as an adult, he found it was business deals that gave him a rush. He liked the competition, the stakes, and the thrill of achievement. And he loved to stir up drama. “He was always looking for something that had a story,” one of his associates told me. “And sometimes, he found things that had a story, and sometimes . . . he kind of created the story himself.”
He used to be just Ted Wright. Back in Port Kent, New York, the fifteen-block hamlet where he grew up, his neighbors would have bristled at calling him “Theodore.” In a town where most people worked at the local prison or the nearby Bombardier railcar manufacturing facility, using a formal name like that would have implied he felt like he was better than they were—though, he did. While other kids wore steel-toed boots and T-shirts advertising car parts, he wore a suit and carried a briefcase. (“I didn’t own my first pair of jeans until I was like twenty years old,” he said.) He was already dressing for the job he wanted: high-stakes player. Even as a kid he was eager to leave Port Kent. “I had to get out of there,” T. R. told me. “Port Kent is an hour south of Montreal, one of the greatest cities in North America, and it’s five hours from New York City, and no one in Port Kent has been to either of those places.”
His parents owned a junk shop and then a Tex-Mex restaurant (“which in [Upstate] New York might as well be food from Mars,” he said), securing his family a middle-class living, but during the mid to late nineties, when he was in middle school, the area fell into a recession and his family slipped into poverty. The Wrights moved into a small rental house.
In high school, T. R. began skipping class and playing pranks, once covering a teacher’s car with AOL CD-ROMs, another time dumping out a teacher’s Diet Coke and replacing it with regular Coke, just to mess with him. A friend whom T. R. met later in life remembered discussing with T. R. a realization they’d both come to when they were young, that the rules of business were man-made and thus, perhaps, fungible. “I mean, he has always been an arrogant prick,” a childhood friend said with affection. “We felt we were smarter than most people . . . I wouldn’t call that a negative thing. I would call that identifying the market.”
T. R.’s confidence helped him build a lucrative career at a very early age. According to T. R., it began like this: At sixteen, he worked at a kiosk in the local mall, selling cellphone accessories, but around two years later, when the kiosk’s parent company went under, his boss told him that as his last payment he could have all the remaining inventory, signs, and displays from two kiosks—the value of which he estimates at $80,000. He sold that inventory and some additional merchandise and invested the proceeds in setting up more kiosks. By his nineteenth birthday, he said, he had $4.5 million, all of which he invested in a kiosk company he called Wright Marketing Group, spread over forty locations. He eventually broadened sales to novelties and games—“all kinds of stupid gifts, with a two-thousand-percent markup.”
The venture escalated on a kiosk-buying trip to the Shenzhen International Toy and Education Fair, in China, where, T. R. claimed, he came up with an idea for a console for pirated video games called Power Player that would plug into a TV and allow users to play classics like Space Invaders and Galaga. He decided to focus on selling Power Player wholesale. It was a huge hit, T. R. said, until the FBI began arresting the biggest Power Player retail operators. Panicking, he abandoned his business and left the United States with $8,000 to travel in Europe.
This rags-to-riches origin story contains all the elements of a typical T. R. Wright anecdote: big money in the balance, risks taken, and legal minefields skirted, laced with difficult-to-fact-check details. It was easy to believe, for example, that as a teenager he hooked up with a girl about his age while he was on vacation with her and her family. It wasn’t as easy to believe that he then hooked up with the girl’s 35-year-old mother (“the girl hated my guts; I mean, I’m sleeping with her mother”) and that the girl’s father caught T. R. and her mother in the act and drove him to the airport in an excruciating two-hour-long journey. His associate said he wasn’t always sure which stories were true and which were lies—but they were always entertaining.
Though a handful of people were arrested for selling Power Player in 2005, T. R.’s name appears nowhere in news articles about the investigation. T. R.’s family and purported Power Player associates didn’t return phone calls for this article, and the man T. R. said was his lawyer in the Power Player case has died. (A close high school friend who worked in the cellphone kiosk with T. R. remembers that his kiosk business did well—whether it made him a millionaire, he could not say—and said he does remember T. R. importing Power Player.)
“I’m out doing things that I find exciting and that I’m passionate about and I want to do, and the money just ebbs and flows, you know?”
T. R. said he did not face legal trouble and that after the Power Player raids, he laid low in Europe for five months. When he returned home to the United States, he bought a junkyard in Upstate New York and began selling car parts on a website. “Online sales were unheard of in the junkyard business,” he said. Next thing he knew, he was getting calls from all over the country for specific-model seat belts and other useful scrap. T. R. said he isn’t sure how much money he’d amassed by the time he hit the legal drinking age. “Money, for me—it came and went. I never said, ‘I’ve got this much money.’ I’m out doing things that I find exciting and that I’m passionate about and I want to do, and the money just ebbs and flows, you know?”
But it must have flowed a little more than it ebbed, because by his late twenties, T. R. had enough money to purchase a 110-foot yacht. He named it Never Enough. The boat slept twelve people, in a master cabin, a VIP cabin, a guest cabin, and crew’s quarters. He later extended the yacht’s helipad. He docked the yacht in Kemah and rented a home attached to a hangar at the Baytown airport and a spartan guesthouse in Kemah. He continued spending his money on expensive toys: besides boats, there were watches, cars, and, eventually, planes.
The older crowd at the hangars T. R. visited, in Baytown and Galveston, remember that he was a novice pilot when they first met him but that he quickly became adept at flying small planes, big jets, helicopters, and experimental aircraft. In short order, he could even fly a gyrocopter and a hot air balloon. “He was a natural at flying,” said pilot Barry Larsen. No one, though, described T. R. as cautious. Pilot and aircraft mechanic George Gould, who has his own hangar at Scholes International Airport, in Galveston, remembers T. R. as someone who liked to “kick the tires and light the fires,” sometimes ignoring preflight inspections when he was in a hurry. “You’ve gotta be real deliberate in what you’re doing. Some people just—that don’t soak in,” Gould said with a laugh. “Old T. R. had an adventurous personality.”
His acquaintances knew him as a hotshot in flip-flops and shorts who’d cruise around Kemah in Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches, pulling up to small airports to check in on his latest acquisitions. “He had a different girl on his arm every time, I’ll tell you,” another airplane mechanic and pilot named Bill Brown said, impressed by T. R.’s company. “I might be old, but my eyes still work.”
Besides women, T. R. was usually accompanied by his friend Shane Gordon. Gordon was a lawyer, fourteen years older than T. R.—“a normal dude with a normal wife with three kids,” according to one acquaintance. By then T. R. had also begun spending time with Raymond Fosdick, who was then in his mid-thirties. The two met when the captain of Never Enough hired Fosdick to help pump sewage out of the yacht. T. R. recalled that Fosdick ended up spraying raw sewage all over himself. “He’s like Kramer,” T. R. said. “He is this endearing idiot that I don’t want to call a friend—he’s just there. He’s like that family member some people have. You just can’t get rid of him.” (Fosdick declined to be interviewed.)
T. R. set up corporations with generic names like Theodore R. Wright Enterprises and Government Auctions Online, as well as companies with less discreet names like Sly International Holdings and Carissus—Latin for “cunning.”
He was living the dream, but he was also restless. In 2012, a year after purchasing the yacht, he bought a training jet for fighter pilots that required MiG parts from overseas. He said he called up a former Soviet test pilot, who found the required parts on a former Cold War base in Hungary. (The pilot T. R. named, contacted in Los Angeles, said he doesn’t remember this incident, suggested someone else assisted T.R., and added that the parts likely came from Bulgaria.)
“There’s a guy smoking a cigarette,” said T. R. of the purchase overseas, “and he comes in real shady. You hand him your briefcase full of cash and you hope to God that six weeks later your containers and MiG parts arrive in California—which they did. So now I have, by my math, two hundred years’ worth of [parts] for my L-39. Well, what am I going to do with that? I’m going to do the same thing that I did with my junkyard business in 2005: I start putting them online.”
And that, T. R. said, is when his business took an unexpected turn.
The MiG parts gave T. R. the calling card he needed to gain a foothold in a high-stakes international game. He learned that countries, just like individuals, look for deals when buying the parts required to maintain their archaic fleets. “I became known as a guy who could deliver anything, anywhere in the world,” he said. If someone required plane parts, he was their guy. Occasionally he sold entire aircraft. Sometimes the planes and helicopters he delivered were demilitarized, with their weapons removed, he said—other times they weren’t.
“Before you realize it, you’ve got a load of freshly overhauled attack helicopters getting snuck out of marseille in the middle of the night.”
He’d never planned to become an international arms dealer, he said. The sales just snowballed. “The deals get bigger and the stakes get higher,” he said, “and before you realize it, you’ve got a load of freshly overhauled attack helicopters getting snuck out of Marseille in the middle of the night going to Chad.”
As always, T. R. enjoyed relaying eyebrow-raising tales of his professional exploits to select friends. Socially, he was elevating his game too. “I never had so much fun with anybody I barely knew,” said one ex-girlfriend, a Swedish pilot whom I reached in Belgium. “He could suggest something like: ‘Can we go to Iceland?’ Or ‘Do you want to join [me in] the Bahamas on Monday?’ ‘I have to fly this private jet; would you care to join?’ . . . You know, he’s so impulsive.” He seemed incapable of banality. A woman who once went out on a date with him to Houston said, “He picked me up in a limo on our date to the freakin’ piano bar.”
Once, when T. R. suspected a minor celebrity he was seeing had intentionally given him food poisoning through a homemade brownie, he told a friend he was attempting to break out of her mansion’s locked gates. “Why are you doing this?” the friend recalled asking him. “You know,” T. R. responded, “worst case, it’ll make a good chapter in my book.”
T. R. often posted selfies on social media, showing him in exotic or daring situations, squinting into the distance with a giant gun in his hands. In the pictures, he looks relaxed and aristocratic, like a model for upscale watches. To burnish his image as a James Bond–type character, he once posted a photo of himself flying a jet while wearing a tuxedo. In one photo, he appeared to be flying with the rapper Waka Flocka Flame. T. R. paraded the life he’d achieved. “He hated being called lucky,” said the woman who went on one date with T. R. He would say, “This has nothing to do with luck.”
In 2014, after returning from the arson investigation visit in Athens, Jim Reed sat in his fluorescent-lit government office cubicle in Tyler and started building a file with a typewritten tab: “Athens jet fire.” The case became almost like a hobby—something Reed would pursue when he wasn’t chasing down the Aryan Brotherhood or street-gang members. He began calling the Texas Department of Insurance and the National Insurance Crime Bureau and studying T. R.’s financial records.
A year later, a picture had emerged. Reed believed he had found two clear cases of fraud. In March 2012, T. R. bought a 1966 Beechcraft Baron—the plane that later ended up in the Gulf of Mexico—for $46,000, then insured it for $85,000. (It is not unusual for companies to insure aircraft for greater sums than they are bought for; values vary greatly by make and model.) After attending training that included water-landing instruction, T. R. departed the Baytown airport with Fosdick. Then the alleged mechanical failure occurred, and the pair ditched the plane in the Gulf of Mexico. T. R. got the insurance money, but that wasn’t all: Reed found that the two also conspired in a personal injury lawsuit. Fosdick sued T. R. and received a $100,000 settlement from T. R.’s insurance company, then turned around and transferred $42,000 to T. R.’s company Carissus.
Then, in March 2014, T. R. bought the doomed Citation for $190,000. One of his companies, Plaisir en Vol (Fun in Flight), co-owned with a Frenchman named Philippe Ardouin, had secured insurance on the plane for $440,000. That fall, after the fire, Plaisir en Vol filed the insurance claims and T. R. received the proceeds. Reed noted that T. R. used the money to buy a Learjet previously owned by tabloid talk show host Jerry Springer.
As records from banking and telephone companies arrived, Reed uncovered even more instances of what he believed to be criminal activity. He learned that in March 2014, T. R. had crashed his Lamborghini, which he’d bought for $76,000, into a water-filled ditch. His insurance company gave him $169,554. In October 2014, T. R. bought a 1998 Hunter Passage sailboat in Hawaii for $50,150. He “sold” it a month later to a man in Honolulu named Edward Delima for $193,500—money T. R. had “loaned” Delima through a mortgage company he and his business partners created. The boat sank in a marina under mysterious circumstances. In 2015 Delima, who had insured the Hunter Passage for an increased value, handed over the $180,023.80 insurance payout to his mortgage company, held in the name of T. R. Wright.
By April 2016, Reed had followed the paper trail as far as he could. It was time to start interviewing co-conspirators. In deciding whom to approach first, he knew he had to choose someone who knew enough to give credible, useful information, but who didn’t have such loyalty to T. R. that he’d turn around and scare all the other co-conspirators out of the country.
He decided to start with Edward Delima, having surmised that he and T. R. were not close friends. Reed flew to Honolulu and, along with a local agent, visited Delima, a 225-pound registered sex offender with a gray beard that grew down to his collar bone, at his workplace. After Reed invited him into the agents’ car, Delima listened to him for a while, taking in the information, sweating a little. Reed mentioned the insurance deposits to T. R. and brought up Delima’s thin history with boats. Delima eventually told Reed everything: how T. R. had asked him to pretend to own the boat, how T. R. had promised him big bucks but ultimately gave him a few thousand dollars. It was useful information, and it was enough to write an indictment, but it wasn’t enough for Reed to indict T. R. for what he felt certain was a much larger tangle of scams.
Then, as Reed was combing through Raymond Fosdick’s Facebook profile, he noticed photographs of Fosdick with a firearm—something Fosdick, who was a convicted felon, wasn’t allowed to have in his possession. Using that as leverage, Reed visited Fosdick at his high-end apartment complex in Uptown Houston. To Reed’s surprise, Fosdick, like Delima, told him everything. He even handed over emails and iMessages between him and T. R. In the iMessages, the men discussed the Athens fire scheme in play-by-play detail. “[Expletive] have your story straight and don’t [expletive] around,” T. R. messaged Fosdick.
The case had come to remind Reed of the saying “perception becomes reality.”
As evidence mounted, Reed began chatting with a few pilots in the Kemah area under the guise of completing a standard insurance inquiry after the Citation fire. He found that even locals who liked T. R. suspected he was up to something fishy. Many said they’d been wondering when someone was going to come poking around. A few loyally told Reed they didn’t know anything. “Hey,” one old-timer told T. R. later, “there were some insurance guys coming around asking about you.” T. R. just laughed it off.
The case had come to remind Reed of the saying “perception becomes reality.” It seemed to him that Ted Wright had almost willed this character of “T. R. Wright” into existence. From the time he was a schoolkid wearing a suit, he was determined to become a larger-than-life persona, projecting the confident James Bond image in the stories he told his friends and, later, in his social media feeds, even when he might have been struggling financially. By the end of the period under investigation, Reed said, T. R. was “pretty close to everything he was representing himself to be.”
T.R. might have continued his bachelor lifestyle indefinitely if not for a California attorney named Ashley Polston, whom he met over email while making a speculative real estate deal in 2014. (Polston did not return calls requesting an interview.) Curious to see what she looked like, he found her on Instagram. “I just saw her and thought ‘Wow,’” he said. “I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful woman.” He emailed her and wrote that he would love to pick her up and fly her to Las Vegas for the weekend.
Soon, they were rarely apart. “It was a fairy-tale relationship,” T. R. said. “We never had an argument.” One day, when he was in the midst of negotiating a stressful transaction, T. R. flew Polston out to a barrier island in the Mediterranean at sunset and proposed to her. “I definitely became a one-woman man,” he said. “That was a big change. It was life-changing. I suppose I matured overnight.” They originally planned to marry at the renowned Icehotel in Sweden, but because of an unusually warm winter, they held a small, unofficial ceremony in the South of France.
T. R. said they didn’t want to wait to start a family, and in August 2015, they had a baby girl. The family bounced between Las Vegas and Canada, between Europe and the yacht. T. R. decided to rename the Never Enough after his daughter.
T. R. pared down his Facebook and Instagram usage, but the few posts he shared showed far-flung surroundings: the trio posing in front of the Dead Sea, wandering the streets of Aix-en-Provence, in southern France, flying en route to some other destination.
Sometimes they almost seemed like a normal family—albeit one prone to excess. Once, T. R. flew Barbara Carlton, who had been his wife’s birth doula, in a Czech L-39 jet, and turned the plane upside down. “We went four or five Gs, which was plenty,” Carlton said. Aaron Pierce, who was captain of T. R.’s yacht, remembers T. R. telling him, “You’re captain, point us in a direction.” Pierce would take the family along the coastline, from Tampa, Florida, to Lake Charles, Louisiana, cruising at a leisurely ten knots. When they’d pull up to an island, Polston would take their daughter out to play. “They went up to the beach, spent the day, came back sunburned,” Pierce said. “It was just a good family.”
These were some of the best years of T. R.’s life. Sure, he still thought fondly of his early pursuits of women and aerial stunts. But he was finally beginning to feel a more lasting sense of satisfaction.
Which isn’t to say that he abandoned thrill-seeking completely. At one point, T. R. flew a 737 he’d bought, a “mobile command center,” into a desert base in Israel where civilian planes rarely go. “I land, and I’ve got with me my wife and daughter, who is in a Babybjörn under my suit jacket, and I get out of the airplane into the Israeli desert and I start walking the F-16s to pick out which blocks I’m going to buy,” he said. The Israelis, he added, looked at him, with his wife and daughter in tow, in disbelief. Though photography was forbidden at the base, Polston snapped pictures of their daughter playing with rocks as rows of surplus F-16s and Mirages sat in the background.
“I got to the point where I was probably too arrogant and cocky for my own good,” T. R. said. “I thought that I would never be arrested, or that I could buy my way out of it. That’s how things work in the rest of the world.”
By the summer of 2017, Jim Reed had been piecing together information about T. R. for three years. He’d practically memorized the web chart he’d taped to the wall to map out T. R.’s schemes. Reed felt a strong sense of urgency. Here, he thought, is a guy who can drive or fly just about any vehicle, with ties to foreign governments, who is known to use satellite phones and pay in cash, and who deals with foreign corporations that would give him funding outside U.S. jurisdiction. He wanted to get T. R. into custody before he fled the country, never to be seen again.
The problem was finding him. He couldn’t connect T. R.’s name to any U.S. properties.
Then, late in June, Reed was checking email on his phone when he got a location alert. A cellphone record showed T. R. in Las Vegas.
Reed called the U.S. Marshals Service in Nevada and boarded a plane the next day, expecting to spend a day or two preparing a plan for the arrest. Instead, when he walked into the Las Vegas ATF office, local agents and marshals were waiting for him, and one asked if he was ready to pick up T. R. right then. “We’re gonna go get this guy,” one said. No one, not Reed or any of the marshals and agents, was going to take any chances that T. R. would get away.
They drove directly to Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, where Reed knew T. R. stayed from time to time, and convened with other marshals and agents who’d arrived earlier in the lobby. The group had set up a sting beyond anything Reed had ever seen in person, like a scene out of a seventies action film: almost a dozen agents, dressed to blend in, were stationed inside and outside the hotel. (While Reed does not remember every disguise, T. R. swears they included a janitor with a push broom, a gardener, a tourist with a camera, a man dressed in a full cowboy outfit, and one guy “dressed like the Indian from Village People.”) Reed waited in the bustling hotel lobby, with its giant crystal chandeliers, trying to decide whether he should stay put or ask management to tell him which room T. R. was in.
Fifty-nine floors up, T. R. was about to close a deal based in Israel on which he’d staked 95 percent of his net worth. “We were in the eleventh hour, about to get paid,” T. R. said. He was also juggling unrelated business: he had to deliver a bribe for an official of a foreign government. He placed $70,000 in cash into a Louis Vuitton briefcase, along with the title for a Ferrari, two pistols (he often carried at least one firearm), and two cellphones, one of them disposable, and took the gilded elevator down.
Reed, still waiting in the lobby, recognized T. R. from the photos he’d been collecting over the years, and his adrenaline shot up. T. R. strode across the white marble floor and out the door. Reed followed him outside as T. R. took his keys from the valet and stepped toward his car, a Ferrari.
In an instant, it seemed like the entire hotel—from the janitor to the gardener—turned toward T. R.
In an instant, it seemed like the entire hotel—from the janitor to the gardener—turned toward T. R. “T. R. Wright!” Reed said. “We have a federal arrest warrant.”
T. R. turned and froze, shocked. “What’s going on?” he asked as agents surrounded him. When Reed took T. R’s briefcase and opened it, the contents were almost laughably cliché, like a Jason Bourne starter kit. T. R. claimed that he was just going out to run some errands—an answer that didn’t satisfy anybody.
As T. R. sat in a temporary holding cell that night, Reed thought that the evidence of insurance fraud was overwhelming enough that T. R. would be held without bond. “This guy met every standard for federal detention,” he said.
The next day, in federal court in Las Vegas, Reed took his seat and watched as T. R. marched into court with his high-paid lawyer, Gabriel Grasso, who was one of the lawyers who represented O. J. Simpson in Simpson’s infamous 2007 sports memorabilia robbery attempt. He listened as Grasso argued that T. R. Wright was a law-abiding businessman who deserved some time to get his affairs in order. The judge refused to hear any argument to the contrary. Reed never even took the stand. As the judge granted T. R. a conditional release—he would have to pay $150,000, hand over his pilot’s license and passport, and wear an ankle monitor—Reed sat in despair: he was sure he’d never see T. R. again.
Though Reed had heard that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Tyler was working around the clock filing motions to set a hearing as soon as possible, he was still shocked when T. R. walked into the federal courthouse in Beaumont with his family ten days later. Typically, detention hearings are a simple affair, running twenty minutes or so. This one was hours long, filled with bombshell details.
When Reed took the stand, he argued that T. R. was dangerous. He was, Reed said, a person who had worked with the Zetas, a notoriously violent Mexican cartel. This was an overblown accusation, T. R. told me, since all he did was sell two helicopters, through a law firm in San Antonio, to a client who just happened to be in the Zetas, and then, later, buy one of the helicopters and its logbook back. Reed added that T. R. had once fired a blank round at a business partner’s head to threaten him. (“Couldn’t have happened that way, as I always keep a round in the chamber,” T. R. countered later.)
And, of course, T. R. was a skilled pilot.
“He’s the most extreme flight risk I’ve ever seen,” Reed concluded.
T. R. pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit arson and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and was sentenced to 65 months in a low-security federal prison in Big Spring. He was also ordered to forfeit his Learjet and to pay $988,554.83 in restitution to various insurance companies (the $70,000 confiscated from him in Las Vegas was applied to that restitution). His associates, including Fosdick, Gordon, and Delima, pleaded guilty shortly thereafter. Ardouin was eventually deported.
Today, in his cell, T. R. is counting down the days until his release, set for February 2022. He hopes for an early release for good behavior, and he fantasizes about his first weekend out, when he hopes to dine at Ferraro’s Italian restaurant in Las Vegas. To pass the time, he began helping other inmates pursue their GEDs, and he is taking college correspondence courses, “the path of least resistance” toward a business administration PhD. “I simply thought, if someone is going to call me a con man or [say] ‘you’re an asshole,’ well—it will be doctor asshole,” he said.
T. R. reflects occasionally on his crimes, but he doesn’t blame Gordon, Delima, or even Ardouin for giving investigators information. He reserves most of his resentment for Fosdick, who, he says, “sang like a canary” and ruined him. Not only did he lose his assets, but his family. A few years into T. R.’s sentence, Polston sent a note asking him not to contact her anymore. T. R. was devastated. “I miss her terribly,” he said.
But what seems to irk him the most is the narrative behind his indictment: he rejects the government’s portrayal of him as a fraudster focused on petty crime. International arms dealing had become his identity; trashing a few vehicles barely gave him pause. The boat in Hawaii was an insurance scam he carried out for money, he admits, but he had alternative explanations for the other incidents: the Gulf ditching was a way to promote the waterproof case that protected his iPad in the water, made by a company where a friend worked. (T. R.’s friend denied this and said he didn’t know T. R. at the time.) The Athens fire was a favor for another friend. And the Lamborghini, he said, was an honest crash. “Yes, I had around $35 million in fraudulent insurance claims around the world,” he wrote me, slipping into characteristic grandiosity, “but I never did that for the money. It was almost always for another reason—simply the excitement of ditching a plane or parachuting out of one at night along a beach to let it crash on its own in the middle of the Atlantic.”
But that was the point: to will into existence something that sounds so outrageous that people would describe it as “unbelievable.”
Maybe, he added, it was a little bit about the money.
His stunts may sound implausible to some, he acknowledges. But that was the point: to will into existence something that sounds so outrageous that people would describe it as “unbelievable.” That was the fun of it the whole time, the joy of being able to tell stories that demanded his audience’s attention, making them wonder if their lives were maybe a little gray in comparison.
Some days, when he’s reminiscing in his cell, he tries to look on the bright side. If he hadn’t gotten caught when he did, his business only would have escalated toward riskier, more-dangerous illegal dealings. “I probably would have had a RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] indictment; I probably would’ve been offered twenty years, gone to trial, and gotten life,” he said. “So part of me says, ‘Yeah, I got screwed in getting five years for petty little insurance fraud.’ But at the same time, you know, maybe it’s the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Worst case, it would make a good chapter in his book.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Flight Risk.” Subscribe today.