Ralph Wager to serve life in prison; victim, mother speak out
By Shavonne Walker
John Cannon was 13 years old when he was molested by then Catawba College coach Ralph Wager. He spoke in court after a judge sentenced Wager to life in prison and to media following court.
The Post does not typically name victims of sex offenses, but Cannon gave permission for his name and face to be used. Cannon was one of five men who came forward accusing Wager, now 71, of touching them inappropriately when they were young.
Wager abruptly changed his plea following a break in court earlier Tuesday. No plea had been offered by the Rowan District Attorney’s Office. Instead of proceeding with a jury trial, Wager pleaded guilty. The court, including Judge Erwin Spainhour, Wager’s attorney, Jay White of Concord, and Assistant District Attorney Paxton Butler, had been listening to an hour-long audio and partial video recording where one victim visited Wager just prior to his July 2012 arrest.
The victim, who the Post is identifying by his initials, M.H., approached Rowan County authorities to tell them he’d been molested by Wager when he was 9 years old. He told investigators the abuse occurred in 1987, stopped, and then continued in 1989 when his father, unaware of the abuse, re-introduced Wager back into his life.
Authorities say John Cannon is the second victim who was discovered following an internal Catawba College investigation after Wager’s arrest. Cannon spoke to Rowan County Sheriff’s detectives, detailing similar instances of abuse. He told officials he was molested between June and July 1990.
Wager was charged in 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.
He pleaded guilty to nine counts of taking indecent liberties with a child and three counts of first-degree sex offense. Spainhour told Wager he could have received a maximum sentence of three life sentences plus 90 years. He was taken into custody immediately after sentencing.
In the audio and video recording, Wager met with victim M.H., who at one point told Wager he was there to talk about being molested as a child and how it affected him for over 20 years.
Wager told M.H. that he’d never had any sexual relationship with a man or anyone like that before. Wager could be heard on the recording saying he wanted to feel a closeness, a bond, so that the victim would want to stay close to him.
Cannon spoke in court and said he held no ill will toward Wager. He urged Wager to get help, “whatever that may be. Get help,” he said.
Interrupting him, Wager said aloud he was getting help. His attorney and a bailiff sitting close by told him to stop talking.
Wager often smiled and nodded his head in agreement as the prosecutor read statements taken from not only Cannon, but M.H. and three other victims. All of the victims received gifts and attention from Wager. In all of the instances, he used the “art of healing” as a reason to touch the boys. The boys were athletes and some were raised by single mothers.
In some incidents, Wager made the boys perform sex acts on him and in other cases he touched them inappropriately.
The incidents came to light after M.H. searched Wager’s name online and found he was working with a youth soccer league in Charlotte.
White, Wager’s attorney, said one of the reasons his client changed his plea was because he did not want the victims to endure a trial. He told the court there had been no other victims that he’s found since the 1990s.
“He did things that were very inappropriate,” White said.
Wager spoke to the victims, saying he had no hard feelings toward any of them.
“It’s important we all achieve forgiveness,” Wager said.
He said he had tremendous respect and love for all of them.
“I apologize for the things I’ve done,” Wager said.
He encouraged the victims to visit him in prison.
Kathy Dycus, the mother of John Cannon, said she wishes someone would have listened to her years ago. She said she reported the abuse to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and was turned away. She holds Catawba College responsible for not taking action, especially with the knowledge of M.H., the first victim.
The mother of M.H. informed college officials that she no longer felt comfortable with Wager around her son. College officials at the time responded by telling Wager to have no contact with the swim team where he’d have access to the victim and other members of the team. He continued to coach and organize summer camps.
Dycus worked at the college and brought her son to work with her on occasion. She regrets letting Wager into her son’s life.
Butler read a letter written by Dennis “JD” Haglan, who had just been appointed Catawba athletic director, to then President Dr. Stephen Wurster. The letter said Wager made a “serious error in judgment” and he was prompted to resign. Haglan wrote that if Wager did not leave, it could affect his reputation and that of the college.
Haglan said he told Wager to write a resignation letter and say whatever it was he needed to say, but he needed to step down. Wurster died in the early 1990s.
Wager told investigators he left the college because of health reasons. He told them he was simply burned out.
Catawba College spokeswoman Tonia Black-Gold said the college has fully cooperated with the criminal investigation involving Wager.
“We want to express our deepest sympathy to the families and individuals whose lives were so dramatically affected by his actions,” Black-Gold said.
She noted that over 25 years have passed since Wager worked for the college. She said when the allegations concerning him were brought to the attention of the college’s leadership in 2012, they worked closely to examine the best practices and their policies to see what additional steps could be taken to protect children who are involved in on-campus activities.
“From that review came several changes in the way we train and sensitize our employees and operate programs serving children on our campus to provide a safe environment for minors and all constituents at Catawba,” Black-Gold said.
She said even prior to the internal review, the college had been running background checks on all full-time employees, which include state and national criminal checks as well as clearance through the national sexual predator database.
In 2013, all Catawba employees were connected to NCAlert, a program that notifies those who register through email within 24 to 36 hours if someone has been charged with a crime.
Also in 2013, Catawba College instituted a Minors Policy that requires employees and all volunteers working with minors to also have a background check.
Black-Gold said all summer camps fall under the Minors Policy guidelines. All volunteers must have background checks and complete training before they’re allowed to work with minor children, she said.
Wager’s attorney said his client did not have a criminal record prior to being charged in 2012.
Catawba officials have initiated the removal of Ralph Wager from the college’s Sports Hall of Fame. Mention of Wager’s induction during a 2008 ceremony has been removed from the college’s website.
“We expect that action to be completed in the next few days,” Black-Gold said of the Hall of Fame removal.
Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.
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