Former Catawba soccer coach faces sex offense charges

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 19, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Former Catawba College soccer coach Ralph Wager was arrested Wednesday, accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with a child during the coach’s time in Salisbury in the 1980s.
Authorities don’t know if the accusation is an isolated case or could lead to more people stepping forward.
“We can’t say exactly one way or the other,” Capt. John Sifford of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday. “The possibility exists that there are other victims. They could be here in Rowan County or they could be in Mecklenburg County.
“It hasn’t become known until today. Others may step forward.”
Wager, 69, is accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with a child under the age of 10 during the time he worked at Catawba in the late 1980s.
Authorities arrested Wager at his Charlotte home Tuesday and brought him to Rowan County, where he faces three counts of first-degree sex offense with a child, three counts of crimes against nature and three of felony indecent liberties with a child, all felonies.
He was booked into the county jail early Wednesday morning under $500,000 bond and was scheduled to appear in court later.
Sifford said the Sheriff’s Office is investigating a single case, but he said information about the victim is not being released.
“Both were associated with the college in some form or fashion,” he said. “They were both connected with sports-oriented activities there at the school.”
The alleged victim came forward in May after performing an Internet search and finding that Wager continues to work with children, Sifford said.
“He felt compelled to come forward to prevent additional victims,” Sifford said. “That was his driving force to come forward.”
Sifford said he could only speculate about whether the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky motivated the victim to report the alleged incident.
“It’s certainly a possibility that seeing all this stuff in the media may have prompted him to think about his own experience and check out the suspect,” he said. “It’s very possible.”
An official with Creative Player, a Charlotte-based organization that holds soccer and coaching clinics, said Wednesday he was surprised about the news that Wager has been charged with multiple sex offenses.
John Pietek, founder of the organization, said Wager has worked as a camp counselor for Creative Player in the past.
“I’ve known Ralph since I was 14 years old because I’m from Rochester and I played (soccer) for three years under Ralph at Catawba,” he said. “Obviously, because of my association with him for years, Ralph and I were friends.”
Wager moved to Charlotte after resigning from his post as head soccer coach of Catawba, a position he held from 1983 to 1990. He was inducted into the college’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
Since then, he conducted youth soccer programs in the area and worked with Pietek at the Creative Player camps.
“I probably work with Ralph about three weeks out of every year,” he said. “During that time, I never saw anything that would make me feel that he was not professional in his relationship with adults or children.
“We’re always on the field together, I’ve never seen him alone with a child in any capacity.”
Pietek said Wager has not been working as a camp counselor for him this summer. He said he’s still trying to find out “what the heck happened.”
“I hope it’s looked into and resolved,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything about the case because I don’t know the circumstances.”
Wager is currently employed as a coach at the Charlotte-based soccer association Steele Creek Soccer Club. A man who answered the phone at the club Wednesday declined to comment on Wager’s arrest.
“I don’t know anything about it,” he said before hanging up the phone.
Wager’s name had appeared on the coaching staff page on Steele Creek’s website as recently as Wednesday morning. Later, his name and biography had been removed.
Catawba spokeswoman Tonia Black-Gold said officials at the college learned of Wager’s arrest from the Sheriff’s Office Wednesday morning. She said President Brien Lewis, who joined Catawba in April, was out of town but vowed to provide investigators any assistance necessary.
“It predates most of the people who are here, but our thoughts are with the alleged victim and President Lewis has said we will cooperate fully to get the criminal investigation resolved,” Black-Gold said.
Wager, who worked under the late Catawba president Stephen Wurster, resigned from his job as a coach and physical education teacher at Catawba in July 1990.
He told a Post reporter at the time that stress forced him to leave. He had received advice from a medical professional to take a break due to physical symptoms related to stress.
During his time at the college, he spent most of his summers running soccer camps, according to a Post story about his resignation.
The Post reported Wake Forest University approached Wager with a coaching offer in 1985, but he stayed in Salisbury because he had just helped get soccer started at the local high schools and youth leagues.
He introduced soccer at Salisbury High School before it spread to other county schools.
Before coming to Catawba, Wager developed youth soccer programs in his hometown of Webster, N.Y., and coached at Thomas High School for 16 years.
The investigation continues. Anyone with information is asked to contact Lt. Chad Moose or Detective Sara Benfield at 704-216-8739.
Reporter Shavonne Potts contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.