Snake-handling pastor in Kentucky dies from snake bite during church service

MIDDLESBORO, Ky. — A snake-handling pastor who appeared on the National Geographic television reality show “Snake Salvation” has died after being bitten by a snake during a weekend church service in Kentucky.

Jamie Coots was handling a rattlesnake at his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro when he was bitten on the hand Saturday night, another preacher, Cody Winn, told WBIR-TV. After the bite, Coots dropped the snakes, but then picked them back up and continued on. Within minutes, Winn said Coots headed to the bathroom.

“He had one of the rattlers in his hand, he came over and he was standing beside me. It was plain view, it just turned its head and bit him in the back of the hand … within a second,” Winn said.

When an ambulance arrived at the church at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, they were told Coots had gone home, the Middlesboro Police Department said in a statement. Contacted at his house, Coots refused medical treatment.

Emergency workers left about 9:10 p.m. that night. When they returned about an hour later, Coots was dead from a venomous snake bite, police added.

The snake-handling pastor’s son, Cody Coots, told the television station his dad had been bit eight times before, but never had had such a severe reaction. The son said he had thought the bite would be just like all the others.

“We’re going to go home, he’s going to lay on the couch, he’s going to hurt, he’s going to pray for a while and he’s going to get better. That’s what happened every other time, except this time was just so quick and it was crazy, it was really crazy,” Cody Coots said.

In January 2013, Coots was caught transporting three rattlesnakes and two copperheads through Knoxville, Tenn. Wildlife officials confiscated the snakes, and Coots pleaded guilty to illegally wildlife possession. He was given one year of unsupervised probation.

National Geographic said in a statement that it was struck by Coots’ “devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced.”

“Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith,” the statement said. “We were honored to be allowed such unique access to pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship.”

Coots said in February 2013 that he needed the snakes for religious reasons, citing a Bible passage in the book of Mark that reads, in part: “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.”

The pastor said that year that he took that passage at face value.

“We literally believe they want us to take up snakes,” Coots told The Associated Press at the time. “We’ve been serpent handling for the past 20 or 21 years.”

In 1995, 28-year-old Melinda Brown, of Parrottsville, Tenn., died after being bitten at Coot’s church by a 4-foot-long timber rattlesnake. Her relatives disputed accounts that the mother of five had been holding the snake that bit her and disagreed with witnesses who said she refused medical treatment as she suffered the effects of the venom for two days at Coots’ home.

The Bell County attorney at the time wanted to prosecute under a 1942 state law that made it illegal to handle or display snakes during religious services. But the judge refused to sign the criminal complaint.

“If the court thought that a trial would act to deter future snake handling in church, my decision would be different,” Bell District Judge James Bowling Jr. wrote to the county attorney. “But you and I both know that this practice is not going to stop until either rattlesnakes or snake handlers become extinct.”

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