WAVERLY, OH (FOX19) - The youngest suspect in a family of four charged in the execution-style killings of a southwestern Ohio family made a brief appearance in a Pike County courtroom Thursday morning.
Edward “Jake” Wagner traded his jail uniform for blue jeans and a black, button-down shirt with a white t-shirt underneath. His brown hair was tied neatly back in a ponytail.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering asked Wagner if he was satisfied with his legal counsel, seated on either side of him at the defense table.
He smiled and said he was.
The case returns to court Jan. 24.
By that time, Deering said, prosecutors and defense attorneys will have drafted a copy of the gag order Deering imposed in the case last month when Wagner made his first court appearance.
The gag order will be presented to the judge, argued in court and then ruled on by Deering, who will then officially enter it into the court record.
Jake Wagner, 26, of South Webster and his parents, George “Billy” Wagner III, 47, Angela Wagner, 48, and older brother, George Wagner IV, 27, were all arrested Nov. 13 on eight counts each of aggravated murder with the possibility of the death penalty.
They are accused of killing seven members of the Rhoden family, plus the fiancée of one of the Rhoden victims, at four different Pike County homes early April 22, 2016.
The Wagners have all pleaded not guilty, waived their rights to speedy trials and are being held without bond at separate jails. Jake Wagner is at the Franklin County Jail in Columbus.
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, his indictment shows.
Jake Wagner is the father of Hanna Rhoden’s older daughter, who was in the care of the Wagners the night the homicides took place.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has suggested custody over that child, who is now 5 years old, was a big factor in the case.
“There certainly was obsession with custody, obsession with control of children,” he said in a Nov. 13 news conference after the arrests were announced. “This is just the most bizarre story I’ve ever seen in being involved in law enforcement.”
Sophia was in Jake Wagner’s care the night of the slayings as part of a regular visitation plan. He petitioned Pike County Juvenile Court for sole custody six days after the murders and was awarded custody in June 2016.
All four suspects also are accused of forging custody documents and threatening in conversations to exact revenge against anyone who went with them. That included the men leading the joint investigation: Ohio Attorney General (now Gov.-elect )Mike DeWine, Pike County Sheriff Charlie Reader and an agent with DeWine’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI).
Jake Wagner’s grandmothers, Rita Newcomb, and Billy Wagner’s mother, Fredericka Wagner, also were arrested Nov. 13 in connection with the case.
Both Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster, and Fredericka Wagner, 76, of Lucasville, were indicted on felony charges of obstructing justice and perjury for allegedly misleading investigators over the course of the investigation.
Newcomb is also charged with forgery and Fredericka Wagner is accused of engaging in at least one of the revenge conversations at her farm.
Both are out on bond and house arrested, but Wagner has asked the court to reconsider her case so she can leave home to go to work.
The judge is expected to render a decision on that when she appears at her pre-trial hearing next month.
Jake Wagner’s mother, Angela Wagner, asked the court last week to consider moving the case out of Pike County to ensure she receives “a fair trial before a jury untainted by pre-trial publicity.”
Her lawyer also asked the court to permit her to come to court wearing civilian clothing without of restraints and to dismiss the death penalty specifications against her, arguing Ohio’s death penalty is unconstitutional.
A gag order has been issued in the case, preventing attorneys and law enforcement from discussing it.
The Wagners were indicted last month by members of a Pike County grand jury who examined evidence in the case since July.
The indictments were filed less than a week after authorities confirmed the existence of a homemade firearm suppressor believed to have been built by the suspects, DeWine has said.
The slayings are considered the state’s most complex homicide investigation to date, resulting in more than 1,000 tips, hundreds of people interviewed and dozens of search warrants.
Killed were: 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.
Most of the victims were killed as they slept, officials have said. Three young children at home at the time of the murders were not physically hurt.
The Wagners are also facing several additional charges including conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with evidence, unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance, forgery, unauthorized use of property, interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications, obstructing justice, and aggravated burglary.
The indictments allege that the suspects purchased ammunition, a magazine clip, brass catcher(s), and a bug detector in preparation for the crimes. They also allegedly obtained and shared information about the physical layouts of the victims' properties, their habits and routines, sleeping locations, and countersurveillance devices present on their properties, including pets.
The indictments accuse the Wagners of tampering with phones, cameras, a silencer, shell casings, and parts of a home security system.
The prosecution of the Wagners is expected to cost millions and be lengthy.
It remains unclear what impact recent revelations that one of the men who helped to lead the investigation, Pike County’s sheriff, is now under investigation himself by the State Auditor’s Office will have on the prosecution.
The investigation into Reader was announced last week, about a month after an anonymous complaint about him was sent to the auditor’s office late the afternoon of Nov. 9.
That was just four days before Reader and DeWine appeared side-by-side at a news conference along with Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk to announce the arrests.
DeWine has said his office had nothing to do with the investigation into Reader and declined comment on the allegations.
Reader is accused of stashing money confiscated from drug busts in a small safe in his office that only he had the combination to and using it to support his gambling habit.
The amount of money allegedly taken was not listed.
The complaint also alleges Reader let his daughter drive vehicles impounded by the sheriff’s office, borrowed thousands of dollars from two deputies and owes a local car dealership owner more than $20,000.
“Reader just does whatever he wants and no one ever calls him on it,” the complaint reads. “We are scared to death of him.”
Junk requested and received a court-appointed special prosecutor from the state auditor’s office to investigate the claims and prosecute them if necessary.
Reader repeatedly has declined to comment on the accusations or not responded to questions.
He has referred reporters to his attorney, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment from FOX19 NOW over the past week.
But his lawyer, James Boulger of Chillicothe, told The Columbus Dispatch the complaint may be the result of “bitterness” over layoffs in September.