The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 30, 2012

Details begin to emerge on pastor’s snake bite death

By Samantha Perry
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — A Mercer County pastor who died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a religious service in McDowell County was taken to a Brushfork-area residence before emergency service personnel were called.

Details into the death of Mack Randall Wolford, 44, of Green Valley, emerged Tuesday after it was learned Wolford, pastor of Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka — a church that practices serpent handling — died Monday as a result of a snake bite incurred during a homecoming service.

Lauren Pond, a freelance photojournalist from Washington D.C., was at the weekend service during which Wolford was bitten.

Pond said about 25 people were in attendance at the homecoming service at Panther State Forest. “Randy (Wolford) had invited me down,” Pond said, explaining that she had been working with Wolford for about a year on a documentary project. “I went to it (the homecoming service) last year. This gathering was the second one.”

Pond said Wolford was bitten in the thigh by a timber rattlesnake during the Sunday service.

She said she was shocked when she saw Wolford had been bitten, but those in the congregation did not seem as surprised. “I didn’t expect it to happen,” she said. “I don’t think anyone necessarily expected it, but they’ve dealt with it before so it’s not such a huge shock maybe.”

The area’s most widely known serpent-handling church is Church of Lord Jesus in Jolo, whose minister is Harvey Payne. A family member of Payne’s who answered telephone questions Tuesday noted Wolford was pastor of the Matoaka church, not the Jolo church.

Pond said she did not know Wolford’s medical state after the snake bite. “I don’t know how lucid he was ... people were talking to him.”

“Not too long after the bite — maybe 40 minutes,” Pond said parishioners transported Wolford to a residence in Mercer County.

The Daily Telegraph learned Tuesday Wolford was taken to Plainview Mobile Home Park off Airport Road in Brushfork. It is not known how long Wolford was there before emergency personnel were called.

“We did transport someone from a trailer park with a reported snake bite,” Bluefield Rescue Squad Administrator Sam Pennington said. “I’m not sure what park, but they did transport somebody to Bluefield Regional with a reported snake bite.”

Reports indicate Wolford died Monday as a result of the injuries sustained at the Sunday service.

McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Sid Bell said his office has never prosecuted anyone for serpent handling, describing it as a “constitutionally protected religious service.”

“I can’t find anything in state code or the state Constitution that would make using snakes in a religious service illegal, regardless of where the service was held,” Bell said.

State park officials said they had no knowledge of a religious service including serpent handling taking place at Panther Wildlife Management Area.

“We are not aware of such an occurrence,” Ken Caplinger, chief of state parks in West Virginia, said. “If we were asked for permission for such a thing to occur, we would not provide permission for that to take place ... if somebody were to do something like that, if would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”

Pond noted she was not covering Sunday’s homecoming service for a news story, but a “longer-form, photo-documentary project.”

She said she had been working with Wolford for about a year on the project.

Pond said she first met Wolford on her third visit to Jolo. “He was one of the most open pastors I’ve ever met about the faith. I visited him last November, and hung out with him ... Randy (Wolford) really helped me understand it. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I understand it. I respect it.”

Although initially declining to be interviewed for a news story, Pond did agree to speak to the Daily Telegraph in clarify and confirm reports, and ensure accurate facts were reported to the public.

— Perry is a member of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph editorial staff.