Ohio family arrested for 2016 massacre of 8 people
WAVERLY, Ohio (WSYX/WTTE) — Six people - all from the same family - have been arrested and charged in connection with the cold-blooded, "meticulously planned" murders of another family, in part because of a custody dispute according to authorities.
The arrests in the 2016 Pike County massacre were announced by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine Tuesday. Four members of the Wagner family were indicted on multiple charges, including aggravated murder with death penalty specifications. George "Billy" Wagner III, 47, Angela Wagner, 48, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward "Jake" Wagner, 26 were all charged with planning and carrying out the murders of eight Rhoden family members. Two other family members, Rita Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner, the mothers of Billy Wagner and Angela Wagner were also charged in connection with the case, accused of helping cover up the murders.
"All eight victims were killed in cold blood. They were shot in their own homes, they were brutally and viciously executed," Attorney General DeWine said, announcing charges in the case.
The Wagners are accused of killing Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden, 37, and their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 20. Frankie Rhoden's fiancée, Hannah "Hazel" Gilley, 20, was also killed, along with the elder Christopher Rhoden's brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38. Three young children who were in the homes at the time of the murders - just three years, six months, and five days old - were spared in what DeWine called the killers' only show of mercy.
Investigators found the suspects spent months planning the crime, studying the victims' habits and routines and knew the layouts of their homes along with where they slept. "It was meticulously planned, they thought about it," DeWine said.
Investigators say the family conspired together to kill the Rhoden family, and that indictments show custody of a young child plays a role in the case. Hanna Rhoden, one of the victims, had a young daughter with Jake Wagner, one of the suspects charged. That child was staying with the Wagners on the night of the murders.
DeWine says authorities spent two and a half years thoroughly investigating the case, beginning the day of the murders - April 22, 2016 - and discovered the last piece of significant physical evidence, a homemade firearm suppressor believed to have been built by the suspects, on October 30, 2018 . "They were careful when they committed these horrendous murders, they were clearly planned, and were executed very carefully," DeWine said.
An emotional Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said he will never forget April 22, 2016 and that it forever changed his life. Reader said they have obsessively focused on this case, being "patient when it was painful" to make sure they were able to get what they needed and find answers.
"Members of one family conspired, planned, carried out, and then allegedly covered up their violent act to wipe out members of another family," Reader said. "They did this quickly, coldly, calmly, and very carefully. But not carefully enough." Investigators say they left a trail of clues including parts to build a silencer, forged documents, cell phones and cameras that were tampered with, and a number of lies they told.
“I made a promise to the victims’ families and to the people of Pike County that we would solve this, no matter how long it took,” said Sheriff Reader
DeWine says the Wagners have been prime suspects for some time, but investigators were careful to follow the evidence and build a case. The Wagner family was wanted for questioning in June 2017 after they left Ohio for Alaska. The family claimed they moved to Alaska to operate heavy equipment or drive trucks, per a KTUU report.
Addressing the evidence of drug sales and marijuana grow operation found at the Rhoden property after the murders, DeWine said there was "an undercurrent of drugs" but only referenced custody as a motive for the murders. The Attorney General said he could not speak much about it ahead of the court case, but there was "an obsession with custody, an obsession with control."
The suspects were indicted this week by a Pike County Grand Jury. Authorities said Billy Wagner was arrested near Lexington, Kentucky Tuesday in a horse trailer that was pulled over. Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said his deputies had followed Wagner there and contacted local authorities to initiate the arrest. Angela Wagner was arrested at their home in Scioto County, and the two sons, George Wagner and Jake Wagner were both arrested during a traffic stop in Ross County.
The young child at the center of the custody battle is now in the care of Children's Services.
The Wagners are facing eight counts of aggravated murder, along with a series of additional charges including conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with evidence, unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance, forgery, aggravated burglary, and others. Jake Wagner is also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Hanna Rhoden when she was 15 and he was 20. Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk says it will likely be several years before all six defendants are brought to trial.
"We have never stopped working to find the people responsible for these savage crimes, and our sympathies continue to be with the victims' families," said Prosecutor Junk. "There is still a lot of hard work ahead of us, but we will continue to fight to hold these alleged killers accountable."
The Wagners' attorney, John K. Clark, Jr. released a statement saying "The Wagners eagerly look forward to their trial and to have their day in Court so they can vindicate their names. The Wagners are also ever hopeful that in the ensuing months there will be thorough vetting of all the facts."
The full autopsies for the Rhoden deaths were released just a few months ago after a lawsuit from newspapers. The autopsies revealed each victim, except Kenneth Rhoden, had multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
Authorities estimated they spent tens of thousands of hours on investigative work in the case, followed more than 1,100 tips, conducted 550 interviews, tested more than 700 pieces of evidence, and served more than 200 subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders during the investigation. Several dozen state, local, and federal agencies also helped in the more than two year investigation.
You can read the full indictments online here.