Snakebite death of Middlesboro pastor was quick, son says; medical treatment refused

Jamie Coots handled a snake during an episode of Snake Salvation, a TV series that aired last fall on National Geographic Television. Coots died Saturday after being bitten at his church.
Jamie Coots handled a snake during an episode of Snake Salvation, a TV series that aired last fall on National Geographic Television. Coots died Saturday after being bitten at his church. NGT

MIDDLESBORO — Snake-handling preacher Jamie Coots, who never backed away from his beliefs despite derision, criminal charges and excruciating bites, died Saturday night after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a church service.

Family members of Coots, 42, refused medical treatment for him. He was pronounced dead about two hours after the rattler sank its fangs into his right hand.

His son said the poison overwhelmed his father within minutes of the bite.

"It was the quickest snakebite I ever seen in my life," Coots' son, Cody, said Sunday.

Jamie Coots' death appears to be the first from a snakebite in a Kentucky church service since November 2006, when a woman died after being bitten while worshipping at a Laurel County church.

Coots, a third-generation snake handler, was the pastor of a small church in Middlesboro, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name.

He had long been prominent among the small, close-knit circle of snake-handling Pentecostal churches in Appalachia, but he gained wider notice last fall though a National Geographic Channel program called Snake Salvation, which profiled him and other snake handlers. The show was not renewed for a second season.

Coots and 35 to 40 others were at a service at his church between 8 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday when a 21/2-foot-long timber rattlesnake bit him near the base of his right thumb.

Cody Coots said his father was handling three rattlesnakes near the pulpit at the time.

Jamie Coots quickly became sick and went to the bathroom to throw up, his son said.

"He said, 'My face feels like it's on fire,'" Cody Coots said.

As Cody Coots went to get his car keys so he could take his father home, Jamie Coots lost consciousness. Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling preacher from Tennessee who was with the stricken minister, yelled for help, Cody Coots said.

His father was dead weight; it took five men to carry him to a car, said Cody Coots, who heard his father take one deep breath on the way home. Friends carried Jamie Coots to a recliner in the living room of his tidy brick home near downtown Middlesboro, but he never regained consciousness after leaving the church, his son said.

Someone had called for an ambulance, which went to Jamie Coots' home after finding he had left the church, Middlesboro police Chief Jeff Sharpe said.

Emergency workers tried to get Coots' family to let them take him to the hospital, but they knew he would have strongly opposed that, Cody Coots said.

"He always said, Don't take me to the doctor'" if he was bitten, Coots said. "It was totally against his religion."

People who handle snakes as part of their faith typically rely on prayer for healing after a bite.

Coots' wife, Linda, signed a form declining treatment for her husband, with his son and a police officer as witnesses, Cody Coots said.

The ambulance crew left the house at 9:10 p.m. Jason Steele, a deputy coroner, said he pronounced Coots dead at 10:16 p.m., after being notified to go to the house.

Cody Coots said his father had been bitten more than half a dozen times since beginning to handle snakes at age 23. He had survived serious bites before.

Jamie Coots had told the Herald-Leader that he nearly died in 1993 when a large rattlesnake bit him on the left arm. In December 1998, a rattlesnake he was handling struck the middle finger of his right hand.

In both cases, Coots refused treatment for the painful bites.

"It's a victory to God's people that the Lord seen fit to bring me through it," he said after he was bitten in 1998.

His right arm swelled to the shoulder in 1998, turned purple-red and was puckered with blisters. The end of his middle finger eventually died and fell off.

Coots was charged about six years ago with illegally buying and selling snakes and fined more than $6,000. Last year, he was charged in Tennessee with transporting poisonous snakes he had bought in Alabama.

Sharpe, the police chief, who had talked to Coots at times, said he did not agree with Coots' belief but was impressed by his faith.

"I have a tremendous respect for his determination to uphold his faith," Sharpe said.

Coots' church was the site of a fatal snakebite in August 1995. Melinda Brown, 28, of Parrotsville, Tenn., died after she was bitten on the arm by a large rattlesnake. Her husband, John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, begged her to go to the hospital, but she refused and died at Coots' home.

Three years later, in October 1998, John Wayne Brown, then 34, died of a snakebite he received in church in Alabama.

After Melinda Brown's death, the Bell County attorney filed a complaint charging Coots with violating Kentucky's law against handling snakes in church, but Judge James L. Bowling refused to sign it.

"Although the general public finds snake handling to be a strange and repugnant religious practice, there is no question in my mind that the people who participate in these services believe with all their hearts that God commands them to do so despite the occasional tragic consequences of their actions," Bowling wrote at the time.

Since 1940, it has been illegal in Kentucky to handle poisonous snakes in religious services, but serious attempts to enforce the law ended decades ago because of reluctance by authorities to prosecute people for their religious beliefs.

It is unlikely there will be any charges related to Coots' death.

In his opinion, Sharpe said, unless someone's religious beliefs endanger someone else, government should let people worship as they choose.

Snake handlers, who follow a literal interpretation of the King James Bible, base their belief on Mark 16: 17-18, which reads: "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."

Snake handlers believe they are obeying a biblical command in picking up snakes.

And church members say outsiders place too much emphasis on using snakes in worship, pointing out that the other signs mentioned in the Bible, such as laying hands on the sick, are just as important.

Jamie Coots knew some people regarded his belief as misguided or even crazy, but he was unapologetic.

''We're just normal people living day to day like everybody else, most of us living hand to mouth, but what we believe, we believe, and we practice it," Coots told the Herald-Leader in 1995.

Most mainstream Protestant churches do not interpret the Bible verse as a command to handle snakes.

The practice of handling snakes in fundamentalist churches was once spread across Appalachian areas of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, but it has dwindled since its heyday decades ago.

Cody Coots said he was aware of only a handful of snake-handling churches these days. He handles snakes and preaches, and said he wanted to carry on his father's legacy.

"It's been rough," he said of his father's death. "We'll miss him."

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