Potential conflicts arise in Wager case

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Superior Court judge said he won’t proceed further in a hearing regarding possible conflicts of interest in a case against former Catawba College soccer coach Ralph Wager until detectives conduct one more interview.

Wager, 70, who was charged in July 2012, is accused of molesting two young boys in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the victims came forward, and another was identified through an investigation by Catawba College.

Assistant District Attorney Paxton Butler and Wager’s attorney, Darrin Jordan, say one of the possible conflicts involves fellow attorney Cecil Whitley. Jordan and Whitley are partners in the same Salisbury law firm.

The prosecutor cited two other possible conflicts. One involves Detective Sara Benfield, who is being represented by Whitley in another matter. The other conflict involves Whitley’s ex-wife, Patricia, and current wife, Nan, both of whom worked at Catawba College at the same time as Wager. Patricia is now retired and Nan is head coach of the softball team, a position she has held since 1983.

Wager is charged with six counts of felony indecent liberties with a child, three counts of felony first-degree sex offense involving a child and three counts of felony crimes against nature. 

The accusations against Wager came to light last summer after a victim, who was about 9 years old at the time of the alleged incidents, contacted Rowan County Sheriff’s officials. The victim told authorities he’d been molested by the former coach on a number of occasions, including in 1987 and again in 1989. He searched Wager’s name online and discovered he was working with children in a Charlotte youth soccer league, which prompted him to come forward.

Once investigators began looking into the accusations, they were made aware of another possible victim. The second victim told investigators he was molested when he was 13 years old, between June and July 1990.

The first victim’s mother made college officials aware of the allegations in the 1980s.

New York investigators were notified in July 2012 about a possible victim who accused Wager of abuse in the 1960s. Wager taught and coached soccer and swimming at Webster Thomas High School in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester from 1967 until 1983. Officials in New York have said the statute of limitations has expired. In North Carolina there are no statute of limitations regarding felonies. Butler, the Rowan assistant district attorney, named other victims from New York during Monday’s hearing. The Rowan County victims say the abuse occurred at Wager’s on-campus house, his office and at a victim’s house.

Butler provided Judge Erwin Spainhour with additional information regarding the case, including a statement from then-Athletic Director Dennis “JD” Haglan. Haglan said that in 1990, after college officials had learned of the accusations, Whitley brought him a letter one morning at 5 a.m. explaining Wager would resign from the college in November, four months after college officials asked him to leave. It was reported in July 1990 that Wager was leaving the college for health reasons, which has since been confirmed to be untrue.

Jordan denies Whitley sent such a letter, and no letter has been found. Jordan told the judge he spoke with Whitley about Haglan’s claim and Whitley denied any involvement. Whitley said he didn’t recall giving a letter to Haglan. There was a letter on file at the college from Haglan to Catawba College officials and a letter to Wager from Haglan confirming his resignation.

Further, Jordan told the court he found the time Haglan asserts to be an odd hour to conduct such business. Detectives had not interviewed Whitley, but Spainhour ordered they do so immediately.

“We have to determine if a conflict exists, and the only way I know to do that is have him be interviewed or put him on the stand,” Spainhour said.

The judge called the case a “convoluted mess.” Jordan said he’d prefer a detective interview Whitley.

The other conflict Jordan and Butler mentioned was that Whitley was representing Benfield, the detective, in a civil matter. She signed a waiver and Wager signed a similar waiver saying they were aware of the potential conflict. Spainhour wanted to make sure Wager would not return to court to recount a possible conflict with the detective in this case in the future.

Whitley’s wife, Nan, told detectives she was at Catawba at the same time Wager was there, but she did not socialize with him.

The hearing took slightly more than an hour and a half and did not require testimony. Wager, whose hair was a little longer than it was six months ago, was wearing a polo shirt and khakis. He was also wearing an electronic ankle monitor. Wager has been under electronic house arrest since he posted bond in August. He spoke briefly only to verify information with his attorney.

The hearing is expected to continue once Whitley is interviewed.

Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253. Twitter: www.twitter.com/salpostpotts.