WAVERLY, OH (FOX19) - Ohio’s top cop turned over a $100,000 check to Pike County leaders Thursday toward prosecution of the suspects charged with killing a family of eight, and more money may be coming.
State Attorney General Dave Yost hand-delivered the check to Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk in a news conference in Waverly at the Pike County Government Building.
They were joined by Sen. Bob Peterson, State Rep. Shane Wilkin and all three Pike County Commissioners: Blaine Beekman, Tony Montgomery and Jerry Miller.
Prosecution of the Wagner family for the 2016 Rhoden family slayings is expected to take years and cost millions.
Pike County has a population of 28, 270, an annual budget around $34 million, according to its latest state audit.
It can’t afford to prosecute four death penalty cases, especially amid its current budget crunch - one that Sheriff Charlie Reader has said prompted him to lay off several employees in October, among other cost-saving moves.
Junk has said he wants to keep the trials there. He told Yost the money would help, and he thanked him.
“We are a very small county. Our budgets are limited,” he said. “When everything is over, there will be some tremendous expenditures.”
Yost would not put a price tag on the prosecution, but he did say it would top seven figures.
“It’s a budget wrecker for a small town,” he said. “Justice shouldn’t be a matter of how much pocketbook you have.”
Late last year, the state started to help foot some of the bill.
In December, the Ohio House passed a bill to provide $100,000 to help cover costs in the upcoming trial of six members of a family charged in connection with the killings.
Yost proposed the legislation with Peterson and Wilkin, who said Thursday they are working on getting more money.
While it’s up to state lawmakers to decide how much the state will pay for the trials, Yost said he thinks the state should be responsible for the costs: “The state has interest in justice in these cases.”
The murders are considered the state’s most complex homicide investigation to date, resulting in more than 1,000 tips, hundreds of people interviewed, dozens of search warrants and spanning as far away as Alaska.
Four members of the Wagner family were charged Nov. 13 with gunning down eight members of the Rhoden family execution-style on April 22, 2016.
George "Billy” Wagner III, 47, Angela Wagner, 48, and George Wagner IV, 27 also were arrested and charged with aggravated murder and numerous other charges.
All four have pleaded not guilty and remain locked up at separate jails. The charges carry the possibility of a death sentence if they are convicted.
The victims were family patriarch Christopher Rhoden, 40; his older brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; his cousin, Gary Rhoden; his former wife, Dana Lynn Rhoden, 37, and their children: Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Hanna Mae Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie’s fiancé, Hannah Gilley.
All were all shot in the head -- most several times -- according to autopsy records released in September.
Hanna Rhoden and 26-year-old Edward “Jake” Wagner had a young daughter together. Sophia was 3 when her mother was fatally shot as she slept.
The child was not there at the time and was in Jake Wagner’s custody after the slayings. She is now in state custody in Scioto County, officials have confirmed.
At a Nov. 13 news conference to announce the arrests, then-State Attorney General Mike DeWine revealed an “obsession” with custody and control of the children played a role in the murders.
While searching the crime scenes, officials have said they found marijuana “grow operations,” including one with more than 100 marijuana plants.
Drugs were an “undercurrent” in the case, along with money, according to DeWine, who now is Ohio’s governor.
Two Wagner family grandmothers, Fredericka Wagner, Billy’s mother, and Angela’s mother, Rita Newcomb, are accused of covering up the crimes by forging custody papers related to Jake and Hanna’s daughter,
They also have pleaded not guilty, are free after posting bond and are on house arrest.
A special prosecutor said during their bond hearing late last year that a confidential informant told investigators the four Wagners charged with killing the Rhodens met at Fredericka Wagner’s home and talked about what they would do if anyone was arrested.
The discussion included escaping and getting revenge against investigators, including DeWine, a BCI agent and Reader.
Reader told FOX19 NOW he “was not personally invited to the news conference."
“I will completely agree with Attorney General Dave Yost in the fact that justice should not be controlled by purse strings, as I have stated many times before," he said.
Yost and other county officials have been tight-lipped over the investigation.
In December, an attorney from state auditor’s Public Integrity Assurance Team was appointed a special prosecutor to investigate a complaint of “misconduct” by Charlie Reader.
The allegations come from an anonymous complaint filed last month with the Ohio Auditor’s Office, just four days before arrests were announced in connection with the execution style shootings of eight members of the Rhoden family in 2016.
The complaint also alleges Reader owes two deputies several thousand dollars, a local car dealership owner more than $20,000 and let his daughter drive vehicles impounded by the sheriff’s office.
Later Thursday afternoon, Reader, who was the sheriff just six months when the massacre occurred, held his own news conference.
He criticized commissioners for cutting his budget. He said they would not give him $540 to buy a shock vest the judge ordered for the Wagners to wear during transport from their various jails to and from Pike County Common Pleas Court and during court appearances.