A tragedy of Shakespearean proportions rocked rural Ohio in 2016. Now, the family at the centre of a cold-blooded massacre will soon appear in a trial that prosecutors hope will finally give concrete answers to a small community torn apart by violence.
On April 22, 2016, seven adults and one teenager, all members of the Rhoden family in Pike county, Ohio, were shot in their sleep, “execution-style,” according to prosecutors. The assailants had broken into the family’s compound of trailers and left alive a toddler and two newborns.
When the bodies of the family were discovered, the children were found covered in blood and one of the newborns was trying to nurse on her dead mother.
Exactly five years after the murders, a man pleaded before a judge that he was guilty of the killings. His name was Edward “Jake” Wagner and one of the victims, Hanna Rhoden, 19, was the mother of his 2-year-old child.
To avoid the death penalty, Jake pleaded guilty to 23 charges in connection with the massacre of the Rhodens. He not only implicated himself, but also agreed to testify against his entire family.
Jake’s mother, Angela Wagner, has ended up also pleading guilty to conspiracy, evidence tampering and other charges related to the homicides. But Jake’s father and brother, George Wagner III and George Wagner IV, respectively, have maintained their innocence.
Even Jake’s grandmother was wrapped up in the plot, with Rita Newcomb pleading guilty to a misdemeanour obstruction charge. Jake’s other grandmother, Fredericka Wagner, initially had charges laid against her but they have since been dropped.
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In a small community in Appalachia where everyone knows everyone and family ties run deep, the Wagners seemingly took things a step further. According to the Washington Post, they are an insular, close-knit family that homeschooled their kids.
“There certainly was obsession with custody, obsession with control of children,” then-Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine said at a press conference at the time.
Prosecutors will argue before a 12-person jury that the Wagners planned the massacre of the Rhoden family for months in order to secure custody of the daughter Jake had with Hanna when she was underage.
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DeWine, now the state’s governor, called this case the biggest criminal investigation in Ohio’s history “by far.”
“This was calculated, planned out. It just chills you to think about,” DeWine said last year, adding that the killers acted in “cold, cold, cold blood.”
Special prosecutor Angela Canepa said of the case, “This is very much a family affair,” during a hearing in May. “All for one and one for all.”
The incident has been named the “Pike County Massacre.”
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Bobby Jo Manley was on her way to visit her ex-brother-in-law when she stepped into a bloodbath.
She had driven to the Rhoden compound of trailer homes to visit Chris Rhoden Sr., 40, when she discovered him dead and bloodied along with the bodies of his cousin Gary, 38, and ex-wife Dana, 37. Chris and Dana’s children, Hanna, Chris Jr., 16, and Clarence, 20, were all dead too. Clarence’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20, had also been murdered.
According to prosecutors’ narrative of events, some of the victims were collateral damage, “killed because they happened to be there,” Canepa said.
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The only survivors left were Clarence’s three-year-old son, Clarence and Hannah Gilley’s infant, and Hanna Rhoden’s new baby (her child with Jake was not staying at the compound when the murders happened).
On the same day, Chris Sr.’s brother Kenneth, 44, was also found murdered at his home 15 minutes away from the trailer complex.
When investigators arrived at the Rhoden compound they found a grisly and chaotic scene. Law enforcement ended up hauling away the trailers whole in order to preserve the evidence.
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Investigators found evidence of cockfighting and commercial marijuana growing at the Rhoden complex, fuelling wild speculation that the family had crossed a Mexican drug cartel.
Law enforcement and prosecutors eventually started building a case around the Wagner family, painting Jake as an intimidating man and his family as a cultish clan capable of extreme violence.
Jake Wagner started a relationship with Hanna Rhoden when she was 13, prosecutors say. By the time Hanna was 15, Jake, who was 20 at the time, had impregnated her. Along with the homicide charges, Jake was booked for unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.
When Hanna ended the relationship, Jake started threatening her for custody of their daughter, prosecutors say. Hanna ended up having a second child with another man and Wagner allegedly pressured her to falsely list him as the father on her new child’s birth certificate.
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Prosecutors say that Jake became enraged that his daughter was being exposed to Hanna’s new boyfriend and his family. He pushed Hanna to transfer custody rights of their child over to him but she refused.
Hanna wrote that she would “never sign papers ever. They will have to kill me first,” in a Facebook message on December 2015.
Jake’s mother Angela allegedly hacked into Hanna’s Facebook account and read the message. That’s when prosecutors say the Wagners began to plot her murder and the murder of any Rhoden they believed would get in the way of them claiming custody of her child.
According to prosecutors, the Wagners planned the massacre together and put the decision to a family vote.
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The Wagners allegedly built home-made silencers for their guns, which police found after executing a search warrant in 2018, and bought “brass catchers” to avoid leaving bullet casings at the scene of the crime.
Prosecutors believe they also bought a truck and shoes specifically for the massacre and used “phone jammers” to prevent the victims from calling for help.
According to an indictment, the Wagners stalked the Rhodens to study their habits and learn where they slept.
Prosecutors have described the family as a “criminal enterprise” but the Wagners’ lawyer has tried to push back against that characterization.
“A large part of the state’s argument we anticipate is: ‘He’s a Wagner, and this is how the Wagners operate,’” said a lawyer for George Wagner IV. “The jury needs to understand the basic premise of our criminal justice system is as follows: our law punishes people for what they do, not [for] who they are.”
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But according to other women who have dealt with the Wagners, this behaviour is completely plausible.
George IV’s ex-wife, Tabitha Claytor, with whom he shares a son, is slated to testify in the trial. She told police that the family pressured her to sign papers giving up custody of her son because they promised that the arrangement would be temporary. The family then stopped allowing her to see her son, she says.
Jake is also accused of stalking his ex-wife, who is expected to testify that the Wagners made her fear for her life.
The four Wagners were arrested in 2018 after police found parts for a homemade silencer and bullet casing and shoes that matched what was found at the crime scene in the family’s home.
Shockingly, in 2021, Jake Wagner shattered the family unity and confessed to the killings. Part of the plea deal he secured means that he and his family won’t face the death penalty if convicted.
Jake said in court that he was “deeply and very sorry” for the murder of the Rhodens and his lawyer said that he understands he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“He knows he’s going to die in prison without any judicial release. As horrifying as this is for all, he is as sorry as he could be,” defence lawyer Gregory Meyers said during the plea.
After Jake confessed, his mother Angela Wagner soon followed. She gave prosecutors new information and agreed to testify against her husband and son, George III and George IV, in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence. Angela confessed that she helped plan the murders but was not there when it happened.
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Neither George III or George IV have pleaded guilty but defence lawyers for George IV argued that he only went along with the massacre because he feared their father, George III, would kill Jake if he didn’t participate. They also allege that George IV did not directly kill anyone.
“George did not shoot or kill anybody that’s a named victim in this case,” lawyer John Parker said in a hearing. “He did not pull the trigger once.”
Prosecutors, though, have argued that who pulled the trigger is not important under Ohio law, as all four of the Wagners conspired to commit the murders.
Opening statements in George IV’s trial were set to start Sept. 6 but an unspecified illness has delayed proceedings another week. The trial officially began last week with the seating of 12 jurors who will determine the fates of the Wagners.
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