Originally created 05/17/03

Officers say man admits to sex abuse



AIKEN - Bath evangelist J. Wesley McCoy by his own admission molested a number of young girls in several counties as he crisscrossed South Carolina spreading the gospel, according to a report filed by Pickens County, S.C., sheriff's investigators.

Those who knew Mr. McCoy say his youthful energy, fiery style and studious knowledge of the Bible attracted admiring audiences. Police say he exploited the trust he gained to prey on girls as young as 7.

Investigators in three South Carolina jurisdictions said they suspect the molestations occurred in the homes where Mr. McCoy stayed as a guest, in the 15-foot motor home he hitched to his pickup on travels across the state, and on "youth retreats" sponsored by his McCoy Ministries.

On Friday, the number of suspected victims of the 31-year-old evangelist continued to rise, and Pickens County authorities prepared to secure warrants against Mr. McCoy in connection with sexual acts with at least three victims in their early teens, Pickens County sheriff's Capt. Dewey Smith said.

The investigation could reach Alabama, where a Laurens County girl traveled with the evangelist on a vacation, according to Laurens County sheriff's Investigator Eddie Smith. The victim, now 13, was 7 or 8 when the molestations were said to have begun, Investigator Smith said.

Mr. McCoy, who remains in the Oconee County, S.C., jail on $30,000 bond, now is suspected of victimizing at least six girls, from ages 8 to 14, since 1997 in Laurens, Pickens, Oconee and Aiken counties. He faces multiple felony charges of criminal sexual conduct with a minor and lewd acts upon a minor.

"We're looking at the possibility of more victims," Aiken County Sheriff Mike Hunt said Friday.

After Mr. McCoy's arrest Monday in Easley, Aiken County sheriff's investigators searched the single-story brick home on Minter Street in Bath that Mr. McCoy shared with his wife and 2-year-old son.

Hazel Free, who lives across the street, didn't know what to think when she saw the officers going through the home Tuesday. Then she saw the news of Mr. McCoy's arrest.

"It's just devastating to me," she said. "It hurts me real bad."

Mrs. Free said the McCoys moved to Bath about a year ago but were frequently on the road. Mr. McCoy spent much of his time studying the Bible, she said.

"He's probably one of the youngest guys I've been so impressed with," said the Rev. Johnny Baker, the senior pastor of Abundant Life Church in Greenville, S.C., where Mr. McCoy was twice a guest speaker. "He was a very dynamic, very charismatic person who people were just drawn to."

Authorities said Mr. McCoy was a frequent traveler who took his preachings throughout South Carolina and parts of North Carolina and Georgia. He was recently advertised as a guest evangelist at the Warrenville Revival Center in the Midland Valley region of Aiken County.

"He had a phenomenal following in the Upstate," the Rev. Baker said. "They just had to hear Wesley McCoy was going to be there, and they'd drive in from miles around."

Capt. Smith said the McCoy Ministries Web site, which has since been taken down, advertised a "youth retreat" to be held at Myrtle Beach in November.

The investigation into Mr. McCoy began in early April, when a Westminster woman reported that her daughter had been molested in 2001 by the evangelist at the girl's grandmother's home in Easley.

The girl told authorities that Mr. McCoy slept in the same room with her and committed various sex acts with her. The acts were repeated on other occasions at the home and in Mr. McCoy's home in Bath, she told Pickens County sheriff's investigators.

Police say Mr. McCoy admitted the molestation when questioned by authorities, though he denied certain allegations. A subsequent polygraph test indicated Mr. McCoy was being untruthful in the denials, according to Pickens County sheriff's investigator Mike Lark, who conducted the examination.

Mr. McCoy later "did state that this had happened with other young girls in different jurisdictions," according to a Pickens County police report.

"Something like this just makes you sick and sad at the same time," the Rev. Baker said. "It just leaves you feeling hollow inside."

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1394.