A vast criminal case alleging that one family plotted the massacre of a rival family has torn apart a rural county.
When eight members of the Rhoden family were murdered in rural Ohio, in 2016, Edward “Jake” Wagner and other members of the nearby Wagner family denied any involvement.
For the next five years, the Wagners continued to dismiss the idea that they had any knowledge of why a person – or persons – had invaded the Rhodens’ compound one spring night and killed them with silenced guns as they slept.
Then on 22 April 2021, exactly five years after the murders, Jake Wagner stood in a courtroom in Pike county, a hilly corner of Appalachia where everyone knows everyone and families stick tightly together, and told a judge, “I am guilty, your honor.”
As part of a deal to avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to 23 charges in connection with the homicides of the Rhodens. One of the victims, 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, was the mother of his child.
Shockingly, he also agreed to testify against his family. His mother, Angela Wagner, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, evidence tampering and other charges, but his father George “Billy” Wagner III and brother George Wagner IV, who are accused of participating in the homicides, maintain their innocence. Due to a gag order, no one involved in the cases can speak to the press.
The Wagners are an insular, close-knit family who homeschooled together and shared their money, according to the Washington Post. Prosecutors say that they planned the massacre for four months and held a vote on going through with it.
“This is very much a family affair,” a special prosecutor, Angela Canepa, said during a hearing in May. “All for one and one for all.”
The investigation even sucked in the family’s matriarchs. Jake Wagner’s grandmother, Rita Newcomb, has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge. Charges against his other grandmother, Fredericka Wagner, have been dropped. Reached by phone at her horse farm and asked if she wished to comment, she said, “No, no,” and hung up.
“I’ve been a judge, a prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer,” Mike Allen, a Cincinnati defense attorney who has been following the case, told the Guardian, “and it is without question the most complex criminal case that I’ve seen in my close to 40-year career.”
Ohioans have been gripped by the saga, which the state governor, Mike DeWine, who was the Ohio attorney general at the time of the killings, has called “by far” the biggest investigation in the history of the state’s bureau of criminal investigation.
The killers acted in “cold, cold, cold blood”, DeWine said last year. “This was calculated, planned out. It just chills you to think about.”
The murders were discovered on the morning of 22 April 2016, when Bobby Jo Manley stopped by the Rhodens’ cluster of trailer homes to see her ex-brother-in-law, Chris Rhoden Sr. Entering his trailer, she found the bloody bodies of Chris and his cousin, Gary. Chris’s ex-wife, Dana, was dead nearby, as were their children – Hanna, Chris Jr and Clarence, known as “Frankie” – and Frankie’s fiancee, Hannah Gilley.
The same day, Chris Sr’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, who lived about 15 minutes away, was also found murdered.
The killer or killers had spared Frankie’s three-year-old son; Frankie and Hannah Gilley’s baby, who was found covered in blood, trying to nurse at his mother; and Hanna Rhoden’s newborn. (Hanna and Jake’s two-year-old daughter, the subject of the custody dispute, was staying elsewhere.)
Chris Rhoden’s pit bulls were also alive and unharmed, a fact that struck many in the community as significant. Dana Rhoden’s father, Leonard Manley, told reporters, “Whoever done it know’d the family because there were two dogs there that would eat you up, but I ain’t gonna say no more.”
As shock and paranoia rippled through Pike county, investigators from a multitude of law enforcement agencies descended on the Rhodens’ properties to try to deconstruct the grisly crime scenes. When police announced that they had found evidence of cockfighting and commercial marijuana growing, it caused wild speculation that the Rhodens had crossed a Mexican drug cartel.
Police and prosecutors eventually identified a less exotic, but equally disturbing, alleged motive. They describe Jake Wagner as a frightening man who fathered a child with an underage girl and stalked her when she tried to escape his control, and his family as a cultish clan who reacted to a perceived slight with extreme violence.
Jake Wagner allegedly began a relationship with Hanna Rhoden when she was 13, impregnating her when she was 15 and he was 20. In addition to homicide, he has been charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.
After she ended the relationship, prosecutors say, he began threatening her. When she had a second child with a different man, Wagner allegedly pressured her to falsely list him as father on the birth certificate. He and his brother George were also allegedly stalking two other women – their respective ex-wives, both of whom are expected to testify that the Wagners made them fear for their lives.
When Hanna Rhoden refused to relinquish custody of the baby she had had with Jake Wagner, the Wagners were enraged. Jake Wagner allegedly threatened to kill her, but she was determined not to give up her child. In a message on Facebook, she wrote that she would “never sign papers ever. They will have to kill me first.”
That was when the Wagners allegedly decided to eliminate Hanna and her relatives so that custody of the child would fall to them. They allegedly bought ammunition, parts for silencers, “brass catchers” to avoid leaving bullet casings behind, and a truck and shoes specifically to use on the night of the killings.
They surveilled the Rhodens to study their habits and sleeping locations, according to an indictment, then killed them under cover of darkness and tried to make the murders appear drug-related.
The crime scene, or scenes, were so complicated that investigators carted away the Rhodens’ trailers whole to preserve their evidence. Even with the assistance of numerous law enforcement agencies, the investigation was daunting in scope.
The Wagners were arrested in 2018, after police allegedly discovered homemade silencer parts and other incriminating evidence on the family’s former property.
In hearings, prosecutors have described the Wagner family as a “criminal enterprise”. The Wagners’ lawyers have tried to fight that narrative.
“A large part of the state’s argument we anticipate is: ‘He’s a Wagner, and this is how the Wagners operate,’” an attorney for George Wagner IV said in a hearing. “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.”
Jury selection for George Wagner IV’s trial began this week in Pike county. His attorneys have argued that it will be difficult to get a fair trial there, given the media attention the case has attracted, the small jury pool, and the fact that many residents have personal connections to the victims or alleged perpetrators. A judge declined an initial request to relocate the trial, pending the outcome of jury selection.
As part of the deal that Jake Wagner struck with prosecutors, his family members will also avoid the death penalty. Given the weight of evidence, it seems unlikely that any of the main defendants will ever see the outside of a prison again.
Allen, the Cincinnati defense attorney, predicts “a guilty finding on every one of them”.