Feb. 17--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.