POCATELLO — A local man who engaged in sexual encounters with a 13-year-old boy was sentenced to serve 20 years on felony probation Thursday, but will not have to register as a sex offender.
Dennis Justin Wright, 25, of Pocatello, received the sentence from 6th District Judge Rick Carnaroli during a hearing at the Bannock County Courthouse in Pocatello.
Wright was initially charged in August 2019 with rape and lewd conduct against a minor child, both felony charges, after he used a social networking and dating app geared toward gay, bisexual and transgender people to arrange sexual encounters with the boy in May 2019, according to police reports the Idaho State Journal obtained in 2019.
In December 2020, the felony rape and lewd conduct charges were dismissed and two felony counts of injury to a child were filed as part of a plea arrangement with Bannock County prosecutors. Wright pleaded guilty to the two felony injury to a child charges in May.
The plea agreement included terms that if a psychosexual evaluation found Wright was a low risk to reoffend and that there were no other victims that he would be sentenced to a term of probation and ordered to pay a fine. On Thursday, Carnaroli stated Wright passed a polygraph test in reference to the sexual encounters with the underage boy and that the psychosexual evaluation did find that he was low risk to reoffend with no additional victims.
Wright’s Pocatello attorney, Craig Parrish, recommended Wright be sentenced to serve five years of felony probation with an underlying and unified prison term of six years. Bannock County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Erin Tognetti recommended that Wright be sentenced to serve a seven-year felony probation sentence with an underlying and unified prison term of 10 years.
Before Carnaroli handed down the sentence, Wright made a brief statement to the court and Tognetti read a prepared victim-impact statement prepared by the 13-year-old boy's mother.
The mother of the victim in her impact statement said the justice system failed her family, that this situation caused her family great grief and heartache and that she would never forgive Wright for what he did.
“A man got away with rape and other sexual acts with a minor — no mandatory sexual offender registry, no jail time and no consequences of your actions,” Tognetti said in reading the mother’s statement. “You are an adult and knew better. You can’t tell me you look at a 13-year-old and think they are 18, no way in hell. Not one, not two, but three separate occasions and yet never once was age in question. Give me a break — you knew.”
Tognetti continued reading the statement, “You have caused so much pain and heartache for this family. I will never ever forgive you for what you have done. I hope you look into the mirror and realize how disgusting you are and how you lucked out because the victim was a male. If the victim was a female, this would be a whole different case.”
Wright provided his statement next.
“I am truly sorry that this whole situation did happen,” he said. “I am very sorry about it. I am sorry that his mom feels the way she does and about what happened to this person. I am truly sorry. I did not realize what was going on. I am now very aware that this kind of stuff really can happen with online dating.”
Carnaroli made it a point during the hearing to say that the gender and nature of the sexual encounter had zero impact on the case being mediated as opposed to going to trial. Carnaroli explained that senior 6th District Judge Stephen Dunn oversaw the mediation process to ensure the outcome was one that was accepted by state prosecutors, Wright and his attorney and the victim and his family.
“It’s clear that adults are not supposed to have sex with children, period, end of story — both heterosexual or homosexual contact is prohibited,” Carnaroli said. “Sex is for consenting adults, no matter how willing a 13-year-old child may be. … This is not about homosexuality; it’s about sex between adults and a minor.”
Carnaroli ultimately sentenced Wright to serve two consecutive 10-year probation sentences for each of the two counts of felony injury to a child, meaning the sentences would be served one after another over the next 20 years instead of at the same time. Carnaroli also imposed a unified sentence of 20 years in prison if Wright is found to violate his probation in the future that is severe enough to warrant prison time.
Because the charges Wright pleaded guilty to are not sex crimes against children, he will not have to register as a sex offender, though he will participate in probation specific to those who have committed sex crimes against children.
Wright was also ordered to pay approximately $4,800 in fines, court costs and restitution.
According to a redacted police report included in the affidavits of probable cause the Journal obtained in 2019, Wright and his former roommate, Joel Abraham Mingura, 33, of Pocatello, and the underage teenage boy first met each other via Grindr, which boasts that it is “the world’s largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans and queer people.”
Mingura and the 13-year-old boy made plans to meet up in the parking lot of the Pine Ridge Mall on May 24, 2019, police said. Mingura picked up the boy and drove back to his Pocatello home where he and the boy performed sexual acts on each other. Mingura then drove the 13-year-old boy back to the mall parking lot.
On May 25, 2019, Wright and the boy also began texting each other using Grindr. Wright picked the 13-year-old boy up from a gas station parking lot in Chubbuck and drove him back to the Pocatello home Wright shared with Mingura.
Wright and the 13-year-old boy performed sexual acts on each other at the home, police said. Afterward, Wright drove the underage teenage boy back to the gas station, police said.
Wright and the boy also engaged in various sexual acts on May 26, 2019, according to police.
Authorities learned of the alleged sexual abuse from the mother of the 13-year-old boy after she uncovered the messages sent between the boy, Wright and Mingura on the Grindr app on the boy’s phone.
After discovering the messages on the phone, the boy’s mother drove to the home Mingura and Wright shared to confront them, police said. The mother arrived at the home and made contact with Wright, who explained he thought the 13-year-old boy was older than he actually was.
On Aug. 6, 2019, the Pocatello Police Department submitted the case to Bannock County prosecutors who subsequently filed the felony charges against Mingura and Wright.
In February 2020, Mingura agreed to testify against Wright for a reduced charge. In exchange for his testimony, the charge Mingura initially faced, one felony count of lewd conduct with a child under the age of 16, was reduced to two misdemeanor counts of battery, court records say.
As part of the plea agreement, Mingura received a sentence of four years of supervised misdemeanor probation.
Had Wright been convicted of the felony rape and lewd conduct charges, he faced up to life in prison.
Carnaroli addressed Wright directly at the end of the hearing, advising him that he imposed the sentence he did in part to deter others from committing sex crimes against children and to ensure that if Wright truly is a low-risk to reoffend, then there should be no issues with him spending the next 20 years on probation.
“It’s my hope that you do not pose any more than a low risk to society to reoffend,” Carnaroli said. “I also need to make sure that others get the message. I hope you do well on probation and that you do not make the same mistake again, because if you do you have a lot of time over your head. I’ve got my eye on you.”