A former Catawba College and youth soccer coach received a life sentence Tuesday after he pleaded guilty to nine counts of taking indecent liberties with a child and three counts of first-degree sex offense with a child.
Ralph Wager’s surprise plea came shortly after Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled that a second incriminating tape could be used against Wager in this week’s trial.
The charges involved two boys – a 9-year-old and a 13-year-old – and incidents that took place between 1987 and 1990.
Wager said he wanted to apologize for everything he had done, according to WBTV, the Observer’s news partner.
“I love you all,” he said.
The mother of one of his victims called him delusional.
In a secretly recorded conversation with his now-adult victim played in court on Tuesday, Wager all but acknowledged molesting one boy.
“I never had any sexual relationship before like that, with a man or anything like that,” Wager said during the recording. “I wanted to feel a closeness, a bond, an intimacy, or something so that you would want to stay close to me.”
The recording was made in 2012 after his first victim – who swam at the college’s pool years ago as a 9-year-old – contacted Rowan County sheriff’s detectives.
The boy, who’s now in his 30s, contacted authorities when he learned the coach was working with a youth soccer league in Charlotte.
After leaving Catawba College in 1990, Wager created the Challenge soccer league and mentored hundreds of young boys and girls. He told police that he helped train about a half-dozen teams around Mecklenburg County, where the kids ranged from 9 years old to 17 years old. No allegations about Wager have surfaced from his time in Charlotte.
Wager is also accused of sexually abusing the then-13-year-old. He met both boys during his time at Catawba.
Monday, during pre-trial motions, Spainhour had ruled a lengthy police interview with Wager could be admitted.
During that interview, Wager said he and the 9-year-old slept in the same bed and he gave the boy massages.
When asked about specific acts, Wager declined to comment.
“I wanted to have some type of intimacy with him,” Wager told detectives. “… I don’t think I crossed the line. Maybe I did.”
Three other victims from Wager’s time in New York during the 1960s were also scheduled to testify.
After Wager’s 2012 arrest, N.C. Youth Soccer suspended Wager and placed him in a national database of disciplined coaches.
Keith Price, president of N.C. Youth Soccer, said Tuesday that more than 2,600 people are in the database. They range from coaches who have fought during games to those who have molested kids.
“The protection of youth players in the NCYSA system is a top priority…,” Price said. “We remain committed to doing all we can to keep all players safe and to protect them from being subject to horrendous criminal acts such as those Mr. Wager pleaded guilty to today.”
A Catawba College spokeswoman said the school would remove Wager from the Sports Hall of Fame this week. Wager coached at Catawba from 1983 to 1990. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
In July 2012, detectives placed a wire on the first victim and took him to Wager’s south Charlotte townhouse, the court learned Tuesday.
When Wager opened the door, he warmly greeted the young man, noting that it has been nearly 25 years since he last saw him, WBTV reported.
The two exchanged small talk before the alleged victim started talking about the abuse.
Wager told the man he was “struggling” in his personal life at the time and said “that was a co-dependent relationship that I had with you,” WBTV reported.
Wager acknowledged that the relationship was “not healthy” and “too intense,” and said, “I learned a lot from that.”
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 said. “The guilt feeling, it just made me feel empty.”
Wager has claimed that he could heal a person by touching pressure points. During the police interview, Wager said he helped reduce the boy’s 104-degree fever and cure his bronchitis.
“You didn’t heal me, Ralph, you messed me up for years and years and years and years,” the alleged victim said.
“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 tape ended Tuesday, 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 many things are not.
Wager was on house arrest in Charlotte with electronic monitoring while he awaited his trial. His attorney was Jay White of Concord.