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Snake-handling Ky. pastor who appeared on reality TV show dies from snake bite at church

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In this 2013 photo provided by National Geographic Channel, Jamie Coots, a pastor in Middlesboro, Ky., poses for a photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Courtesy National Geographic Channel

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In this 2013 photo provided by National Geographic Channel, Jamie Coots, a pastor in Middlesboro, Ky., poses for a photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Courtesy National Geographic Channel

MIDDLESBORO, Ky. - Jamie Coots, a snake-handling Kentucky pastor who appeared on the National Geographic television reality show "Snake Salvation," died Saturday after being bitten by a snake.

Coots was handling a rattlesnake during a Saturday night service at his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro when he was bitten, another preacher, Cody Winn, told WBIR-TV (http://on.wbir.com/1cLrs8A).

"Jamie went across the floor. He had one of the rattlers in his hand, he came over and he was standing beside me. It was plain view, it just turned its head and bit him in the back of the hand ... within a second," Winn said.

When an ambulance arrived at the church at 8:30 p.m., they were told Coots had gone home, the Middlesboro Police Department said in a news release. Contacted at his house, Coots refused medical treatment.

Emergency workers left about 9:10 p.m. When they returned about an hour later, Coots was dead from a venomous snake bite, police said.

In January 2013, Coots was caught transporting three rattlesnakes and two copperheads through Knoxville, Tenn. Wildlife officials confiscated the snakes, and Coots pleaded guilty to illegally wildlife possession. He was given one year of unsupervised probation.

Coots said then he needed the snakes for religious reasons, citing a Bible passage in the book of Mark that reads, in part: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

Coots said he took the passage at face value.

"We literally believe they want us to take up snakes," Coots told The Associated Press in February 2013. "We've been serpent handling for the past 20 or 21 years."

After he was bitten Saturday night, Coots dropped the snakes, but then picked them back up and continued on. Within minutes, Winn said Coots headed to the bathroom.

His son, Cody, told the television station his dad had been bit eight times before, but never had such a severe reaction. Cody Coots said he thought the bite would be just like all the others.

"We're going to go home, he's going to lay on the couch, he's going to hurt, he's going to pray for a while and he's going to get better. That's what happened every other time, except this time was just so quick and it was crazy, it was really crazy," Cody Coots said.

National Geographic said in a statement it was struck by Coots' "devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced."

"Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith," the statement said. "We were honoured to be allowed such unique access to pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship."

In 1995, 28-year-old Melinda Brown, of Parrottsville, Tenn., died after being bitten at Coot's church by a 4-foot-long timber rattlesnake. Her relatives disputed accounts that the mother of five had been holding the snake that bit her and disagreed with witnesses who said she refused medical treatment as she suffered the effects of the venom for two days at Coots' home.

The Bell County attorney at the time wanted to prosecute under a 1942 state law that made it illegal to handle or display snakes during religious services. But the judge refused to sign the criminal complaint.

"If the court thought that a trial would act to deter future snake handling in church, my decision would be different," Bell District Judge James Bowling Jr. wrote to the county attorney. "But you and I both know that this practice is not going to stop until either rattlesnakes or snake handlers become extinct."

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