PIKE COUNTY, OH (FOX19) - Between the sunset of April 21 and the sunrise of April 22, eight members of the Rhoden family were wiped off the face of the earth.
No more birthdays. No more holidays.
Then, 48 hours into the investigation, something happened 18 miles away that changed the public perception of the Rhoden family and the investigation, for good.
THE BIRTH OF THE MEXICAN DRUG CARTEL THEORY
Both ends of Union Hill Road were blocked. Deputies from dozens of Ohio counties were helping the Pike County Sheriff's Office stand guard.
No one, except law enforcement, would be allowed anywhere near the four crime scenes.
Investigators from the Attorney General's Office were on the hunt for clues that would lead them to the shooters who, just two days earlier, shot and killed eight members of the Rhoden family.
The shooting happened sometime overnight April 21, 2016 and into the dark morning hours of April 22. The first of several 911 calls started lighting up Pike County's dispatch center soon after sunrise.
While investigators were working at the scenes and state DNA analyst were working to pull evidence from the items collected two days earlier, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine were in the parking lot of the Piketon government center.
They were preparing to make a statement the Rhoden family said changed everything for them. A statement they said ended the donations for the surviving children and caused a Cincinnati man to withdraw a $25,000 cash reward for information on the case.
It took 20 minutes for Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader and Attorney General Mike DeWine to end that press conference that day. They provided no information on a motive or cause; nothing that would help the Rhodens—and the rest of the world—figure out how and why eight people were gunned down in Pike County.
As the sheriff backed away from the podium and DeWine gave reporters a "Thank you," a woman in a red top walked up and handed the sheriff a piece of paper. Sheriff Reader looked it over, then showed it to Mike DeWine.
It took DeWine 12 seconds to read the document. "Okay, okay. Let's, let's…you want to do it," DeWine asked Sheriff Reader as he finished reading the paper.
"Go ahead," Reader said and DeWine stepped back to the podium.
"Let me go ahead, and I think it's okay for us to confirm. Uh, that we did find marijuana in three locations," DeWine said. "Near the crime scenes or at the crime scenes," a reporter asked DeWine. "At the crime scenes," DeWine answered.
"Like bags of marijuana," a male reporter asked as DeWine shook his head. "A grow operation," a female reporter asked as DeWine stepped back to the podium—littered with news microphones from outlets all over the state.
"These are grow operations. Thank you all very much," DeWine said as he and the sheriff ended the questioning and walked away.
Just six minutes before that statement, a report had asked DeWine and Reader, "In your search of the crime scenes, have you found evidence of marijuana grow operations?"
"I'm not going to comment on that," Sheriff Reader said as DeWine kept quiet and both men took the next question.
A question unrelated to the drug question.
Both DeWine and Reader have provided no further information regarding the alleged "grow operations," since that April press conference. The statement fueled speculation across Pike County, and the world, that the murders were possibly a Mexican drug cartel hit.
"EVERYTHING CHANGED. RIGHT THEN AND THERE"
The donations were starting to flow, Kendra Rhoden said. People who had likely never heard of Pike County, much less the Rhodens, were sending money.
News spread that the children had survived the shootings and one child - in a single night - became an orphan. The number of people wanting to help grew.
Those left to bury the eight thought they'd have little trouble paying funeral expenses with the number of people wanting to help, Kendra said. Funeral expenses that were eight times higher than normal for the Rhoden family.
"It all but stopped after he said that," Kendra told FOX19 NOW. Kendra was also trying to figure out how to bury her family. Specifically, her father, Kenneth. Kenneth was the eighth and final victim found that morning. Investigators said he was shot to death in his camper on Left Fork Road.
It was the only crime scene not on Union Hill Road.
The surviving Rhoden family took when the sheriff and the attorney general made the drug announcement, Kendra told FOX19 NOW investigative reporter Jody Barr.
"It kind of made me angry because once he said that, everything changed. Right then and there," Kendra told FOX19 NOW.
"As far as I know, there was marijuana there. As much as they're saying, I don't believe so," Kendra said.
The attorney general has never given a quantity of drugs he said his agents found at three of the four crime scenes. It wasn't until later that DeWine's office classified the "grow operation" as "commercial."
Investigators have not provided photographs of the marijuana or any of the evidence to show some of the victims had commercial grow operations on their property.
Kendra, and many others in her family, don't believe the amount of marijuana investigators said they found at the properties was anything near a commercial grow operation.
"If they had as much marijuana and they were selling as much marijuana as they're saying, then I wouldn't be busting my butt to put myself through LPN school, Or, Chris wouldn't have had to work four different jobs and my dad wouldn't have had to work every day, drive back and forth to Columbus to make a living," Kendra said.
Kendra said all the victims were holding jobs: the adults, she said, would work no less than 40 hours a week. Her Uncle Chris, Uncle Gary and her father, Kenneth, Kendra said, worked no less than 50 hours a week.
Sometimes 60 hours, she added.
All evidence, Kendra said, to show the marijuana grown by some of the victims wasn't being sold in any quantities that would cause investigators to bring that up without context at a press conference.
"I'm sorry, but if I'm selling 100 pounds of marijuana and getting $10,000, I'm not going to get up at six in the morning every single day, drive to Columbus and work all day and then drive home, sleep for two hours, then get back up and do it again," Kendra said.
We asked Kendra whether some people could look at the jobs as a possible cover for a commercial marijuana trafficking operations. She says there's no way.
"It don't make sense. Who would do that? Even if you're trying to cover up the fact that you're doing it," she rebutted.
"WE'RE WEARING THAT NOW"
The interview with Kendra Rhoden and her mother, Stacie Rhoden-Rigsby happened Oct. 10 and lasted a little more than a half-hour. We met with them for more than three hours that night.
Much of the conversation centered on their confusion over why the murders happened and who wanted their family dead.
The drug cartel conversation crept up near the end of the interview. Kendra wanted to tell the public about what speculation over a possible drug cartel hit had done to her and her family.
"We go out in public and people look at us like we're drug heads. That the only reason we have a car or anything is because we sell drugs, or my father sold drugs. That's not the case. I've had a job since I was eight years old," Kendra said.
Kendra also pointed to the fact that she's had a car payment since before her father was killed and continues making payments on a laptop she purchased for school. Those facts, Kendra argued, shows that her family wasn't "running drugs" as part of some larger drug manufacturing operation.
"I've worked for everything I've owned. I don't mess with drugs," Kendra said.
RHODENS: THE DRUG ANNOUNCEMENT GAVE INVESTIGATORS AN OUT
In the days following the Pike County Sheriff and the Ohio Attorney General's announcement that they'd found commercial drug grows at some of the Rhoden properties, speculation started to build in the public about a possible reason for the killings.
A Mexican drug cartel hit.
That speculation might have also been batted around by investigators, but we don't know. That's because the attorney general still hasn't confirmed that.
As close as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has come to giving more information about who possibly committed the murders is through this statement:
"The attorney general believes the people who committed these crimes are multiple people and they had to have been familiar with the properties and the lands around the properties," Spokesman Dan Tierney told us by phone on Oct. 17.
A few days before, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader told Cincinnati news station WCPO that he "believed" the killers were "locals" and not involved in a Mexican drug cartel.
The attorney general's office dismissed Reader's assertion in the WCPO interview, with Tierney telling FOX19 NOW that the sheriff "qualified" his remarks to that reporter as "theories of the case," not an investigatory development.
The Rhodens believe the drug allegations—in the first place—gave investigators "a way out" of having to ever solve the case.
"You don't believe the cartel had anything to do with this, do you," Barr asked Kendra. "No, I don't," Kendra answered.
"It's easier to just say, well, it's the drug cartel than to say someone in our community could have done this. It's easier to just write it off as drug-related than to sit here and go through the entire process to figure out who done [done] it, why they done [sic] it. If you say cartel, everyone's going to go for it because there's drugs," Kendra said.
The Rhodens never thought a drug cartel had anything to do with the murders, Kendra told FOX19 NOW. The reason they thought that: the drugs on some of the Rhoden properties were never grown and sold. They believe—and have from the start—the killers came from right around the Pike County area.
They killed, the family believes, for some other reason.
Kendra believes, the killers are still somewhere around there today.
"I believe the community knows more than they're saying. Someone has to know something," Kendra said.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's spokesman would not schedule an interview with DeWine for us, instead he declined our offer to interview DeWine for this report. Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader has not responded to e-mails or text messages seeking comment.