The forecast for President’s Day Weekend said it might be in the 60s, so I made a reservation with a bus tour at Reelfoot Lake, a large body of water in the far northwestern corner of Tennessee. Veeka and I would drive there right after church – it was about 74 miles away – snag the early afternoon tour and hopefully see some eagles’ nests. The place was known as a huge sanctuary for many bird populations, including bald-headed eagles that made their home there.
We were bouncing along on an old school bus through snowy fields – apparently this section of Tennessee was somewhat colder than Jackson, I was learning – when I glanced at my iPhone and just on a whim clicked on my email. I saw an email from a friend with a newspaper headline: Jamie Coots was dead.
Now I know what they mean about your world going temporarily black when you get bad news. Jamie Coots was one of two co-stars on the reality TV show “Snake Salvation” and an elder statesman (at the age of 42) of the serpent handling movement. I had interviewed him several times and visited his church. As the other people on the trip chattered about seeing various flocks of snow ducks and the occasional eagle, I sat there in a fog. I could not think. We were 30 miles north of Dyersburg, the nearest city of any size and a good 70 miles north of Memphis, so the Internet was agonizingly slow. I was getting flashbacks to Memorial Day 2012 when I learned that Mack Wolford, another famous serpent handler, had died the night before of snake bite. I called the Washington Post, for whom I’d done a story about Mack several months before. Yes, they wanted a story on the death. I sent them the story Monday night; by Tuesday morning everyone in that newsroom was back from the three-day weekend and someone had decided the story would go atop their Style section. I was told to rework the story. I got it in early that evening and they had it up by 9 pm. For the next 36 hours, it would sit atop their web site. It went all over the world and so did my byline atop it. Only me and the photographer who’d shot the earlier story had contacts in that region, so all the rest of the media could do is quote the Post. It was probably the biggest story of my career. But this time was different. My decision to take Sunday morning “off” from social media had really cost me as tons of reporters were already on the story about Jamie. Because of “Snake Salvation,” images of Jamie were plentiful and lots of media had interviewed him when the show premiered last September. I managed to find a story from WATE TV on my iPhone plus a Facebook post by Cody Coots, the 21-year-old son. Counting backwards, I figured he posted it at about 3 a.m. his time.
This Cody coots dad past away yesterday I’m miss him so much and love him please pray for use we have no live insurance on him if any one has anything to give to help would be greatly appreciate RIP dad i love hope to see you on the other side on day.
The WATE story said that an ambulance had shown up at the church some time after 8 but that Jamie was dead by 10 pm. My goodness, I thought, this was nothing like the agonizing eight to 10 hours it took Mack to die. And what is it about these folks that they always choose to die over a three-day holiday weekend?
I emailed the Wall Street Journal, for whom I’d done four stories September-December about the reality show and the arrest of Andrew Hamblin, the young snake handler who co-starred with Jamie. Sure enough, they wanted a story on Jamie. By the time the bus tour ended and I got home, it was 6 p.m. and the story was nearly 24 hours old. TV crews had shown up at Jamie’s church that afternoon with quotes from Cody and another member known as “Big Cody” Winn. For the next four hours, I worked the phones and combed through Facebook. None of my contacts were answering their phones. Andrew, who had been there when Jamie died, was refusing to do interviews. I’d spent months getting cell phone numbers for folks at these churches, only to have them not pick up when I needed them to. From various media I quickly learned that Jamie had been bitten by a cane break rattlesnake on his right hand; the same hand that had lost a finger several years ago. I called the Middlesboro police and learned they’d gotten the first call around 8:24 p.m., but whoever made the call was not a member of the family. Jamie’s services usually started at 7 p.m., so it’d been well underway by then. According to the Knoxville station WBIR, which seemed to have the most details, Jamie had been bitten on the back of his hand. He dropped the snakes at that point, then picked them back up. After a few minutes, he headed toward the men’s room with Andrew and another handler because he was sick. And then after exclaiming ‘sweet Jesus’ to Andrew, Jamie passed out. At this point, the service must have come to a halt with Jamie being packed up to go home. It took five men to carry him. Cody told the TV station they thought it’d be like before with the eight other bites Jamie had gotten. He’d go home, feel sick for awhile and then get better.
Jeff Sharpe, the local police chief who happened to be working when Jamie died, returned my call at about 9:40 p.m. his time. He was plainly exhausted. One of his lieutenants had told me he’d been answering press calls all day, so I was probably #70 at this point. He had some interesting details I’d not gleaned from the TV. When Sharpe arrived at the Coots home, it was full of church members and family holding vigil. Jamie was seated – even though he was unconscious and dying – in his favorite chair. Meanwhile, Linda Coots – his wife – and Cody were signing a form waiving medical treatment.
“He’d already said before they took him home that he didn’t want to be treated,” Sharpe said. “He’d made his feelings very, very clear about what should happen if he was bit.” Officers left the house at 9:10 p.m., he said, and less than an hour later, they were summoned a second time. Coots had died. And so the chief returned with Jason Steele, the local coroner in tow, he told me. I had a feeling that the chief knew that Coots’ death would be a huge deal, which is why he showed up twice at the house but he said that he made it his practice to show up at the scene of every unusual death.
I told the officer a bit about Mack’s death. Sharpe said, “Something made this happen faster than normal.” I asked him how many press have called. “Lord,” he said, “I have no idea.”
I went back to the Facebook feeds. of Andrew and his wife, Liz. In need of prayer, Elizabeth had posted some time around 11:30 p.m. Saturday. I looked at jamie like a daddy figure he has always been good to me and my family.I love u and miss u so much already.
She got several dozen replies and grief-stricken expressions and 227 likes.
I honestly feel like I’m in a bad dream and can’t wake up, she then wrote.
Late Saturday night, Andrew posted: really needing everyones prayers tonight. I was there for the last service with him. he was like a dad to me. everyone just keep us all in your prayers. and there will be church tomorrow at 1:00 at tabernacle church of God. remember us when you pray.
About 6 a.m. Sunday Andrew posted: as I set here this morning I try to think of what dad would have said. I miss him so bad. I will never forget how God moved on us last night together for one last time. everyone please keep all of us in your prayers. everyone remember service today at the Tabernacle at 1:00. Mark 16:18 is still forever real. Now Mark 16:17-18 are the verses that serpent handlers quote about believers picking up serpents. The verse does not say they will not get hurt.
Tributes had poured in all day Sunday on Jamie’s Facebook page, which had mushroomed to 2,685 ‘friends’ after ‘Snake Salvation’ ran. At one point, Cody Coots posted a message asking for funds.
Dad passed away yesterday, he wrote. I miss him so much and love him. Please pray for us. We have no life insurance on him. If any one has anything to give, help would be greatly appreciated. RIP dad. I … hope to see you on the other side one day.
A support page for the Coots family had 1,106 “likes” by Sunday night. Fortunately I had been interviewing Jamie here and there over the past two years and had developed quite a respect for him. Those quotes formed the basis of my article, as his home in Middlesboro was 400 miles away and there was no chance I could get there to report from the scene. We had talked in November, which is when he’d told me of the new jobs that he and Cody and his daughter Trina had gotten. He seemed so happy then. He was driving a school bus part time. I got through to the National Geographic spokeswoman who sent me their statement on Jamie’s death. They are planning a tribute to him, she said. I filed the story at 10 pm Sunday and by the time I was up the next morning, it was on the Journal’s web site.
A few more details poured out that Monday, including this report from the Lexington Herald-Leader about Jamie’s last minutes. I realized that reporters must have gone to Jamie’s church on Sunday, then nabbed Cody after the service. That’s the only time I spotted him talking with the press. I got an email, then a phone call from CNN, asking for names and phone numbers and hinting they might need me to speak for one of their broadcasts. I did one radio interview in the midst of a busy day, then sat down that evening to read through Facebook. Liz has posted at about noon that:
the next news media who writes or calls my phone I’m fixing to show them my bad side.sorry jamie is not going to be ur big story and pay day. leave his family alone already !
And … the family asked us not to do interviews or release any info i have to respect his wife son and daughters wishes.
About an hour later, she posted: as I turn over to mark 16:18 its still written in red.the word of God will stand forever. just because jamie is gone doesn’t mean its still not real.I’m still a believer.
The big news on her mind and that of the 124 people writing on her feed is Westboro Baptist Church’s announcement that they’d be picketing Jamie’s funeral. People discuss which bikers or “good ‘ole redneck boys” they can get to block WBC from getting close to the funeral home.
I know how to scare WBC away, says a truck driver from western Kentucky. Lets all go approach them and offer to hand them a nice fat rattler!!! He then adds: if they go messing with country folks in eastern Ky they will get worse than a beating, Watch the movie Next of kin.
Then, a nurse said – Praise the Lord!!! We just heard back!!!! There are people in route to protect the Coots and the Hamblins from all these horrible people associated with the Westboro Baptist Church!!!
At this point, I switched to Twitter to learn more. Westboro had tweeted: Westboro Baptist @WBCSays Feb 17 WBC will picket funeral of charlatan “Pastor Jamie” Coots, tomorrow, 2/18/14-7:30pm @ Creech FH, 112 S 21st, Middlesboro, KY. Isa 47:10-13.
Tweets poured in, including:
• bo silcox @bosilcox Feb 17
@WBCSays i hope you do come here we the people of middlesboro will run your ass off.
And this one: @WBCSays This is absolutely ridiculous. You pretentious assholes better think twice. I know Middlesboro people won’t put up with this.#smdh.
Of course I was dying to be in Middlesboro for this showdown but I didn’t want to drive 400 miles to the wake and then have someone decide I was only “media” and shut me out of the funeral. I am more than that, but when people are upset, they lash out at whomever’s convenient. Plus, I had an 8-year-old to think of and no one to leave her with. I contacted someone at the Chattanooga paper and they told me they were sending up two reporters and one photographer. I later found their piece on Twitter about what happened Tuesday evening. It sounded like all of Middlesboro turned out for the wake with people lining the main street partly to eviscerate the Westboro people if they dared to show up. They never did. TV crews stayed a respectful distance. WATE wrote this and WBIR filed this report. I got just about all the coverage of the funeral off of Twitter, actually. One thing I’ve found truly bizarre is the near-absence of the Knoxville News-Sentinel from covering this story. All they had from the funeral was this Associated Press story. I couldn’t even find a Twitter presence from them.
The sad conclusion to all this is that Jamie is gone. I can’t say I knew him very well, but he took my calls and clued me in on some of the background stuff going on in his movement. He was compassionate and seasoned; a real pastor. His presence was deeply sought in churches all over Appalachia and I saw the reverence that other people showed him in churches in Alabama and Tennessee; churches he took the trouble to visit even though it was a long drive. I specifically remember one evening in June at the Sand Mountain church where he stood in the middle of the platform and handled several snakes for at least 10 minutes while the rest of us just stared. He had a regal presence and such class. It is not for nothing that the town came to his funeral. As someone called “Poetry Share” said on Facebook: I remembered something brother Jamie Coots once said. He said I had rather die and leave this walk of life from a serpent bite with people standing around me praying as to be in a car wreck with people standing around me cussing. Soooo sounds like Jamie.