SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - Former Catawba College soccer coach Ralph Wager received life in prison after pleading guilty to multiple counts of sex offense involving children Tuesday afternoon. A judge allowed a secretly recorded conversation to be played between Wager and one of his two alleged victims.
In the conversation, Wager seemed to acknowledge that he had a sexual relationship with the young boy.
Wager 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 alleged crimes happened nearly thirty years ago.
To the surprise of many in the courtroom, before the jury was selected, Wager pleaded guilty to nine counts of indecent liberties and three counts of first-degree sex offense.
Wager, who by his demeanor seemed to be reacting more to a loss in a friendly soccer match than a life sentence in prison, apologized to the victims and their families, but also added "I have absolutely no hard feelings at all to anyone here. I have taken responsibility and love all of you. I want to personally apologize for things I have done."
Wager frequently turned and smiled towards the victims and their families.
"I think he's delusional," said the mother of one of the victims. "I think he needs to spend a lot of time on his knees and he needs to ask forgiveness. The thing that I think is that he's sorry he got caught, he would have continued, but I think he's sorry he got caught, he's been doing this for too long, he's too good at it."
A pause and a "yes," is how Wager responded when he was asked, "Are you in fact guilty?"
Victim John Cannon, who was 13 when Wager molested him several times told Wager "I hold no ill will, I don't. Get help, whatever that may be. Get help. It's become a heavy burden it really has."
Wager tried to interrupt Cannon, saying that he was getting help, but a bailiff and Wager's lawyer both firmly told him not to talk.
Cannon gave permission to WBTV to use his name and likeness. Following court he told WBTV that he has moved on from his past, and that he had assumed that Wager had been dealt with many years ago.
"I thought it would have been handled years ago, or I would have brought it forward," Canon said. "I let it go a long time ago, I thought it had been handled, so there's no reason for me to let that affect my life."
Cannon's mother also talked about forgiveness, but was adamant that Wager could have been stopped years ago.
"What burns me up the most is the day that it happened with my son and I came to the sheriff's department and asked for help, and they turned me away," Kathy Dycus told WBTV. "It could have stopped a long time ago, I've got to find peace within because I'm the one that let that monster get close to my family."
Dycus said that when she reported the incident to the Rowan Sheriff's Office some 25 years ago, that she was turned away and that no investigation took place. She also blames Catawba College, saying that they had been told about the prior incidents with the first victim, but did nothing.
Prosecutors read a letter from school's Athletic Director to the then President Dr. Stephen Wurster. In the letter, the AD tells Wurster that Wager had recently committed "a serious error in judgment," and that the popular coach must resign. The AD says that if Wager doesn't leave, and if the allegations become public knowledge, it could permanently harm his reputation and the reputation of the school.
"Catawba College has cooperated fully with the criminal investigation involving Mr. Wager," officials said in a statement after the sentencing. "We want to express our deepest sympathy to the families and individuals whose lives were so dramatically affected by his actions."
Wager has said in the past that he left Catawba for "health reasons," but prosecutors said in court that Catawba College officials who were aware of the incident at the time reported being unaware of Wager having any health issues.
"When allegations concerning Mr. Wager were brought to the attention of the College's leadership in 2012, we closely examined best practices and our policies to see what additional steps we could take to protect children involved in activities on our campus," the statement continued. "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."
Earlier in the morning attorneys were going through pre-trial motions prior to the start of jury selection. Prosecutors played a secretly taped conversation between Wager, 71, and the first of the alleged victims.
That alleged victim, who was around 9-years-old at the time of the reported incidents, contacted the Rowan County Sheriff's Office and told investigators he was molested by the former soccer and swim coach in 1987 and 1989.
He came forward when he searched Wager's name online and discovered the coach was working with a youth soccer league in Charlotte.
In July 2012, that alleged victim was wired up with two different recording devices as well as a transmitter. Investigators took him to the south Charlotte townhouse where Wager was living.
When Wager opened the door, he warmly greeted the young man, noting that it has been nearly 25 years since he last saw him.
The two exchange small talk for several minutes. At one point, the alleged victim makes a transition from what he says were happy memories, to some that were more disturbing.
Wager told the young man that he was "struggling" in his personal life at the time, and says "that was a co-dependent relationship that I had with you."
Wager acknowledged that the relationship was "not healthy," "too intense," and said, "I learned a lot from that."
"I was distraught about that," Wager says in the tape. "I thought you…when you left I was very distraught."
Wager says in the tape that he was helping the boy in order to help the boy's mother. The mother was dying of cancer at the time and was divorced from the boy's father.
"I was basically sacrificing everything that I could for you," Wager is heard to say. The former coach also recounted that by using special "healing techniques," that involved massaging certain "pressure points," he was able to reduce the boy's 104-degree fever and eliminate his bronchitis.
When the alleged victim mentioned the reported sexual nature of their relationship, Wager replied in a way that seemed to acknowledge that such an incident took place.
"That's something that bothered me," Wager is heard saying. "The guilt feeling, it just made me feel empty…I don't know how to say it. After that relationship fell apart I had absolutely the worst feeling about it."
"I never had any sexual relationship before like that," Wager says, "with a man or anything like that. I wanted to feel a closeness, a bond, an intimacy, or something so that you would want to stay close to me," Wager added.
At one point during the taped conversation from 2012, the young man again transitioned the conversation and tells Wager that he never healed him of anything, and that in fact, he had caused him severe emotional damage.
"You didn't heal me Ralph, you messed me up for years and years and years and years," the alleged victim says.
"I'm so sorry," Wager replied, "It left a hole in my heart that that happened. I still feel about you, you're one person I felt like I never did what I needed to for you."
After the conversation concluded, the tape continued to record as the alleged victim gets into the car with the investigator. The young man can be heard crying, and says, as if he is speaking to Wager, "you're not a [expletive] healer, you're a [expletive] infection, a [expletive] cancer."
After the tape ended, Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled that it could be used in court as part of the evidence, telling the lawyers that some things are beneficial to Wager, while there are many things are not.
Wager was on house arrest with electronic monitoring. His attorney was Jay White of Concord.