MIDDLESBORO — The service was going well Feb. 15 at the small Pentecostal church Jamie Coots pastored.
People felt the spirit of the Lord, said Cody Wynn; they were playing music and singing as some members passed their hands through fire or handled rattlesnakes.
"We's having such a good time," said Wynn.
Coots, 42, had been pastor for 21 years at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, a frame building tucked into a hillside in Middlesboro where his father and grandfather had preached before him.
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The church has about 20 members. There are services when the offering brings in only a few dollars, said Coots' son Cody, 21.
With its drum set and electric keyboard, padded pews and a floor that sags in spots, the church is similar to hundreds of other small rural churches in Appalachia, distinguished only by a belief that Jesus commanded disciples to pick up poisonous snakes and perform other signs.
The principal basis for the belief is in Mark 16: 17-18: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
There are jars containing lye and strychnine, as well as a propane torch, on the pulpit at the church, and people bring their snakes in specially-made wooden boxes with plexiglass or wire-mesh lids, hinged in the middle so they can take out a snake from either end.
Wynn's uncle had died earlier Feb. 15, and he had considered not attending church that night. But Coots, a father figure to Wynn, had encouraged him to come to the Saturday evening service. He went straight from work in clothes smudged with dirt.
Wynn took out a small rattlesnake, about 2½ feet long, and handled it, then gave it to Cody Coots. Wynn, at 6 feet 3 inches and 350 pounds, is known as Big Cody in the church, to distinguish him from the pastor's son.
Cody Coots said he handled the snake, stroking the underside of its head less than an inch from the fangs.
Andrew Hamblin, a charismatic 22-year-old snake-handling preacher from Tennessee whom Jamie Coots had mentored, and three women also handled the snake, Coots said.
Wynn said he was sitting in a corner of the church playing a bass guitar when Jamie Coots walked close to him. The pastor had taken off his shoes and was speaking in tongues as he handled three rattlesnakes amid the noise and emotion in the church, including the one his son and others had handled earlier.
Coots could preach powerfully and had a reputation for handling big snakes as he bounced across the floor. He'd had cobras at times, as well as numerous thick rattlesnakes and cottonmouths.
When people would talk about a snake being mean, "He'd say, 'Let me show you what God does,'" and pick it up, Cody Coots said.
As Wynn watched, though, the 21/2-foot long rattler turned its head and sank its fangs into the back of Jamie Coots' right hand.
"He went, 'Oh Lord' and smiled at me, just like grinned at me," Wynn said.
Coots dropped the snakes at Wynn's feet. Wynn was trying to move the bass aside to pick them up, but Coots bent down and retrieved them before his son took them to put back in the box.
Cody Coots saw his father wiping blood from his hand.
'It cringed my soul'
Coots said the church had recently gone through a time when there wasn't much energy in the services, and relatively little snake-handling. In recent weeks, however, the energy had returned, and his father was fasting and praying in preparation for revival services.
"Dad had his desire back," Coots said.
Jamie Coots had survived severe bites before, losing the end of a finger on his right hand after a rattlesnake bit him in 1998.
So while the bite that night scared some people at the church, his son thought that his father would suffer some but recover as he always had.
It quickly became evident this bite was different, however. Coots said his face was tingling and felt like it was on fire, and headed for the bathroom with his son and Hamblin because he felt he was going to vomit.
In the bathroom, Hamblin was helping Coots stand. Coots, who was calm, looked at him and said "Lord, come by," and then "Oh God, no," and finally, his last words: "Sweet Jesus." Coots lost consciousness; Hamblin believes that's when he died.
Wynn was getting Coots' shoes when he heard someone scream for him to come to the bathroom.
"It cringed my soul," Wynn said.
Wynn and others manhandled Coots into Wynn's car — a Buick LeSabre Coots had given him — to take him home.
"I was speeding as fast as I could go," Wynn said.
Cody Coots slapped his father's face on the way to try to rouse him. He let out one long breath, and his son screamed, thinking it was his last.
Wynn and others carried Coots to his favorite recliner and began fervently praying for God to spare him.
"I told the Lord, 'We need him. I need him right now. You can't take him,'" Wynn said.
The Middlesboro hospital is almost within sight of Coots' house, but his family and friends didn't consider taking him for medical care.
Snake-handlers believe in praying for healing. Coots had refused treatment for previous bites, and had made clear he didn't want his family to seek treatment for him if he was unconscious, saying he would rather die in his chair if it was God's will.
"It was totally against his religion" to seek treatment, Cody Coots said.
Still, someone at the church had called an ambulance, but Big Cody Wynn blocked the paramedics from entering Coots' house.
"If he'd woke up in the hospital, God, I'dve had to fight that man when he got better," Wynn said.
After paramedics insisted they needed to at least check on Coots and have someone formally decline treatment for him, his wife, Linda, said they could come in, Wynn said.
The responders said they might be able to save Coots if they took him to the hospital, but that was not an option for his family, Wynn said. Linda Coots signed a form declining treatment and the ambulance left at 9:10 p.m.
As the minutes wore on and his father never regained consciousness, Cody Coots put lines from an oxygen tank into his father's nose — even though he knew his father wouldn't approve — and put a mirror under his nose to check his breathing.
There was no sign of life.
Coots said when he kissed his father on the forehead, the Lord spoke to him in an audible voice.
"The Lord just said, 'He's gone,' plain as day," Coots said.
He slipped his father's wedding band from his finger. His hand was stiff.
Family and friends wept as a deputy coroner came to take Coots' body. He'd been bitten just 90 minutes earlier.
'A true believer'
Three days later, Coots' family and friends honored his wish for a "spirit filled" funeral, including handling snakes over his body, Cody Coots said.
Workers from Creech Funeral Home brought Jamie Coots' coffin to the church, and people shouted and sang as they handled snakes, including the rattler that had bitten him.
"The power of God moved and everybody handled it," Cody Coots said.
It felt strange to be in church "working the signs" without his father, Coots said, but he felt his father's presence as a comfort.
Cody Coots had been scared for two years to handle a cottonmouth after suffering an excruciating bite from one of the snakes. But at the cemetery the next day, after sitting up with his father's body all night, he handled a cottonmouth.
Coots and Hamblin said Jamie Coots died doing what he loved.
"He was a true believer of the signs," Hamblin said. "He never not one time backed up on it."