Former Catawba coach Ralph Wager pleads guilty to molesting boys, gets life in prison
Published 12:30 pm Tuesday, April 7, 2015
UPDATE: Former Catawba College and youth soccer coach Ralph Wager will spend the rest of his life in prison after accepting a plea agreement in his child molestation trial.
Wager, 71, pleaded guilty to nine counts of taking indecent liberties with a child and three counts of first-degree sex offense.
Wager agreed to the plea deal just before jury selection was set to begin today. It comes after the court heard a recording secretly made by one of Wager’s accusers in which the former coach appeared to apologize for committing the crimes.
Two of Wager’s victims were set to testify against him during the trial. Prosecutors said there were more victims from Wager’s time as a soccer coach in New York in the 1960s.
Reporter Shavonne Walker is in the courtroom and will have more details later.
By Shavonne Walker
Jurors will watch a two hour video recording from a law enforcement interview with former Catawba College coach Ralph Wager, who is on trial for allegedly molesting two young boys over 30 years ago.
Wager, 71, was charged in July 2012, 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 trial is expected to begin this week, with jury selections taking place later in the week. The court will likely listen to an audio recording from one of the accusers who wore a wire. Investigators were listening in when that accuser visited Wager at his Charlotte home.
Before jurors could be selected, the court heard several motions and requests by Wager’s attorney, Jay White of Concord.
The court also watched the video, which was recorded in the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office interview room, following Wager’s arrest. Detective Sarah Benfield and SBI Agent Steve Holmes conducted the interview.
The accusations against Wager came to light in 2012 after a man, who was about 9 years old at the time of the alleged incidents, contacted Rowan County Sheriff’s officials. The man, M.H., told sheriff’s investigators he’d been molested by the former soccer and swim coach in 1987 and again in 1989. He was prompted to come forward when he searched Wager’s name online and discovered the coach was working with a youth soccer league in Charlotte.
The second victim, J.C., told authorities he was molested between June and July 1990 when he was 13 years old. He was identified following a Catawba College investigation.
In July 2012, a victim in New York notified officials there accusing Wager of abuse in the 1960s. Wager was a soccer and swim coach and taught at Webster Thomas High School in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester, from 1967 until 1983. New York officials have said the statute of limitations has expired in their case. However, in North Carolina there are no statute of limitations regarding felony offenses.
White made a motion to have the two cases split into two trials, he said, because the incidents and individuals were separate. Assistant District Attorney Paxton Butler argued the victims were about the same age and both involved inappropriate touching.
Judge Erwin Spainhour said he’s tried cases in the past that involved the same victims whose accusers were a husband and wife. The couple were tried a year apart and there was no problem with that scenario.
White said he felt the jurors would be prejudiced if the cases were conducted in the same trial.
Spainhour said he was comfortable with saying the offenses don’t appear to be so separate or distinct.
“The nature of the offenses are very similar and the lapse of time and circumstances are not a concern to the court at this time,” Spainhour said.
He said he would allow the cases to be heard together.
There was a question of whether jurors should be allowed to watch the video, but after watching the video, Spainhour said he’d allow it to be seen to jurors during trial.
White had some concern that Wager was not properly read his Miranda rights. However, Butler argued Detective Benfield read him all of the rights, advised him he could seek an attorney and he signed the statement saying he understood.
“Those are serious allegations,” Wager could be heard saying in the video after SBI Agent Holmes told him about the allegations. Holmes told Wager they were there to get some context as to what happened in the 1980s between Wager and his accuser.
Wager said he spoke with the accuser for the first time in years when he, M.H., stopped by his home a few days prior to Wager’s arrest. Wager told the investigators how and when he initially met M.H.
He’d met M.H. when he was about 9 years old when the child attended a game where Wager was coaching. Wager said he practiced the art of healing and M.H. had seen him perform a series of massages, using certain pressure points on the body on a player. His mother asked if Wager could “heal” her son, who had respiratory issues.
He did, according to Wager, and then the mother asked if Wager could spend some time with her son. The woman was divorced and wanted a male figure in her son’s life.
“She seemed to push him towards me,” Wager said on video.
The boy’s mother eventually died of cancer and he moved in with his father. According to M.H., the alleged abuse stopped, but began again when his father re-introduced Wager back into his life.
There was no discussion during the video of the second accuser because at the time law enforcement were not aware of a second victim. As to the accusations, Wager said in the video that M.H. must’ve felt like Wager was “being too friendly with him.”
“What do you mean?” Detective Benfield asked Wager.
“I’d rather not go into that,” Wager responded in the video.
Wager also said M.H. was very affectionate with him and that he felt like a father to the boy. Wager said he was emotionally involved with the boy.
Wager told the investigators he felt rejected when M.H. and his father moved away.
When the accuser went to Wager’s Charlotte home in 2012, Wager said he believes M.H. overreacted.
“He mistook my affection,” Wager told the investigators.
Wager apologized to M.H. for the abuse, officials have said. Wager explained in the video he apologized to his accuser to say he was sorry for whatever it was M.H. believed had been done to him.
“He said he thought that I was sexually aggressive toward him. I said ‘I’m sorry you felt that way,’ ” Wager said on the tape.
White also asked to sequester witnesses until just before they are called to testify and the judge allowed it. The Concord attorney also requested the victims not be referred to as such. Butler said it was his practice to refer to them as “alleged” victims and he said he’d try his best to refer to them that way during trial.
White also made a motion to exclude television cameras in the courtroom. Judge Spainhour said he would absolutely not allow video cameras of any kind, but did agree to still photography, until Butler asked that the victims not be photographed.
Spainhour then banned all cameras. The judge confirmed there will be no recording devices of any kind allowed in court during trial.
Wager has been under electronic house arrest since he posted bond in August 2012.