Snake-bitten By the Law: Ten Arrested in “Undercover Snake-Trading Sting”

(above cover of The Serpent Handlers from

Saturday brings news of one of those only-in-Kentucky stories, as ten people were arrested on charges of snake-trading by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (story from the Associated Press via the Courier-Journal):

The pastor of a Kentucky church that handles snakes in religious rites was among 10 people arrested by wildlife officers in a crackdown on the venomous snake trade.

More than 100 snakes, many of them deadly, were confiscated in the undercover sting after Thursday’s arrests, said Col. Bob Milligan, director of law enforcement for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

Most were taken from the Middlesboro home of Gregory James Coots, including 42 copperheads, 11 timber rattlesnakes, three cottonmouth water moccasins, a western diamondback rattlesnake, two cobras and a puff adder.

Handling snakes is practiced in a handful of fundamentalist churches across Appalachia, based on the interpretation of Bible verses saying true believers can take up serpents without being harmed. The practice is illegal in most states, including Kentucky.

Coots, 36, is pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, where a Tennessee woman died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service in 1995. Her husband also died when he was bitten by a snake in northeastern Alabama.

Coots was charged Thursday with buying, selling and possessing illegal reptiles. He had no listed telephone number. There was no phone listing for the church.

“It is disturbing to me that individuals would keep such dangerous wildlife in their homes and in neighborhoods where they put their families, visitors and neighbors at such high risk,” Milligan said.

The snakes, plus one alligator, were turned over to the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade. Most appeared to have been captured in the wild, with some imported from Asia and Africa.

Jim Harrison, director of the nonprofit zoo, said the reptiles most likely would have become exotic pets if they had not been seized..

“There’s been a large trade in exotics for years,” he said. “Some people are just fascinated with them.”

Undercover officers purchased more than 200 illegal reptiles during the investigation, some of which were advertised for sale on Web sites.

Gregory James Coots is also the subject of Fred Brown’s The Serpent Handlers, which looks like a fascinating read. Coots isn’t quoted in the article, and Jim Harrison of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo gets the last word:

“You can purchase anything off the Internet except common sense,” Harrison said. “A venomous snake isn’t a pet. You don’t play with it. If you do, you’re an idiot.”


2 Responses to “Snake-bitten By the Law: Ten Arrested in “Undercover Snake-Trading Sting””

  1. Just a side note – according to the book “Misquoting Jesus”, by Bart Ehrman, this entire sect is based on a faulty Bible. The passage Mark 16:18 (“And they will take up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any poison it will not harm them, and they will lay their hands on the sick and they will become well”) is not found in the oldest Bible manuscripts. It was added by a later copyist.

  2. ” according to the book “Misquoting Jesus”, by Bart Ehrman” is precisely right. Bart Ehrman oft makes use of selective material and shoddy research in order to advance his agenda, which is to undermine Christianity and thereby advance his own atheist beliefs.

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