Pike County massacre: Wagner grandmas head back to court - will charges be dropped against 1?

Pike County massacre: Wagner grandmas head back to court - will charges be dropped against 1?
Fredericka Wagner in a Pike County court for a pretrial hearing. (Source: WXIX)

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Two of the grandmothers charged in connection with their family’s involvement in the execution-style Rhoden family massacre are due back in a Pike County courtroom Thursday.

Lawyers for one of them wants the judge to drop all charges.

Fredericka Wagner appeared before a Pike County grand jury nearly a year ago to testify as a witness in the homicide investigation against several members of her family, new court records show.

The portions of her testimony relevant to the case revolved around body armor she purchased for her son, George “Billy” Wagner III, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk wrote in a motion requesting a gag order on her.

She testified she purchased all the body armor after the April 2016 murders of eight members of the Rhoden family because she feared for Billy’s safety, his motion states.

It also came at a time when Pike County Sheriff Charlie Reader warned residents: “If you are fearful, arm yourself.”

She told the grand jury she though she bought two vests on Amazon and would produce receipts for prosecutors.

But she didn’t, despite multiple follow-ups by prosecutors, so they charged the gray-haired, 76-year-old with obstruction of justice and perjury.

Fredericka Wagner, 76, of Lucasville, covers her face as she walks into the Pike County Courthouse for her arraignment Thursday, November 15, 2018. Wagner along with Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster, are accused of perjury and obstructing justice for allegedly misleading investigators; Newcomb is also charged with forging custody documents to cover up the crimes. The women are mothers of Angela Wagner and George "Billy" Wagner and grandmothers of the Wagners' two sons, George Wagner IV and Edward "Jake" Wagner, who are facing murder charges in the deaths of the Rhoden family and Hannah Gilley. The eight homicides took place in April 2016 at four different homes, all around the same time. It would spawn the largest homicide investigation in Ohio history.
Fredericka Wagner, 76, of Lucasville, covers her face as she walks into the Pike County Courthouse for her arraignment Thursday, November 15, 2018. Wagner along with Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster, are accused of perjury and obstructing justice for allegedly misleading investigators; Newcomb is also charged with forging custody documents to cover up the crimes. The women are mothers of Angela Wagner and George "Billy" Wagner and grandmothers of the Wagners' two sons, George Wagner IV and Edward "Jake" Wagner, who are facing murder charges in the deaths of the Rhoden family and Hannah Gilley. The eight homicides took place in April 2016 at four different homes, all around the same time. It would spawn the largest homicide investigation in Ohio history. (Source: Robert McGraw/Chillicothe Gazett)

Her lawyer failed to provide them for several more months, only turning them over finally on March 14 - and they showed she bought the vests on eBay, not Amazon - an honest mistake, her lawyer wrote in court papers.

Now, her lawyers, James Owen and Charles Koenig, want the court to dismiss the charges against her.

No way, prosecutors responded in court records that also asked the judge issue a new gag order specifically for her to prevent her and her lawyer from conducting more media interviews on the case.

Fredericka Wagner’s son, George “Billy” Wagner III; his wife, Angela Wagner, and the couple’s two grandsons, Edward “Jake” Wagner and George Wagner IV, have all pleaded not guilty to the slayings of eight Rhoden family members in Pike County.

The family of four face the death penalty if convicted and are currently housed at separate jails.

Wagner, 76, also has pleaded not guilty to her charges. If convicted, she could face as much as four years in prison.

Angela Wagner’s mother, Rita Newcomb, also was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. In addition, she faces a third charge of forgery related to a custody document involving her now-5-year-old granddaughter.

Newcomb is scheduled to appear at 10 a.m. for a pre-trial hearing Thursday. Fredericka Wagner’s pre-trial will follow at 1:30 p.m.

On Friday, George “Billy” Wagner III has a pre-trial at 1:30 p.m., and Edward “Jake” Wagner is due in court for his pre-trial April 4.

Prosecutors accuse Fredericka Wagner of covering up the murders by lying about bulletproof vests she bought online.

She is free on $100,000 bond with an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet to prevent her from venturing more than 350 feet from her home.

Now, her lawyers, James Owen and Charles Koenig of Columbus, want the charges against her thrown out, court records show. They also want her to be able to tell her side of the story despite a gag order, records state.

Fredericka Wagner testified before a grand jury in July, four months before her relatives were arrested and charged, according to a March 15 motion to dismiss her lawyers filed in Pike County Common Pleas Court.

Owen’s office said “he is not interested in taking your call” when we reached out for comment Wednesday.

Prosecutors cannot comment on the case due to the gag order imposed last year.

Wagner testified she bought two bulletproof vests after the shootings through Amazon, but investigators found no purchase records of the vests they suspect Wagner’s family wore during the slayings, court records state.

She testified she would turn over the receipts to prosecutors but did not, despite multiple attempts with her lawyers, court records show.

Her lawyers finally turned those records over March 14, and they showed she purchased the items through eBay, not Amazon, prosecutors wrote Friday.

The vests are key pieces of evidence against her, the court records indicate.

The next day, March 15, her lawyers filed a motion requesting the charges against her be tossed. The receipt she provided shows she purchased them after the murders, not the night of, as prosecutors suspected, they contend.

As part of their motion, they filed what prosecutors designated as the key portion of her testimony in Pike County Common Pleas Court.

“You ordered a bulletproof vest through Amazon," said Angela Canepa, a prosecutor with the Ohio Attorney General’s office who is the special prosecutor on the case with Junk, according to a transcript attached to the March 15 motion.

“Yes, I guess I did. I will give you the records. You want it?" Wagner said.

“You guess you did or you did it?’’ Canepa said.

“I thought I did,’’ Wagner said, later adding: “It was body armor. It’s called body armor.”

“Okay,” Canepa said.

Fredericka Wagner later added that she bought both vests for her son, fearing one would not fit. She bought her son two different kinds because if it didn’t fit or he didn’t like one, she could send it back.

Wagner said her daughter wouldn’t wear one, and Billy didn’t wear his long: “...he wore it a little bit, he just, I think he was humoring me."

Wagner also said that she herself would not wear one because “I don’t care if they shoot me.”

But when authorities searched her Amazon purchases, they could not find record of the purchases, so she was charged with obstruction and lying to the grand jury.

However, her lawyers wrote in their motion, she made a mistake that she purchased the items through Amazon instead of eBay, and the receipt they have now provided to prosecutors shows she purchased them after the murders, not the night of, as prosecutors suspected.

She paid $284.99 and $379.99 each for the vests on May 7, 2016, more than two weeks after the killings, records show.

“It is beyond dispute that the two bulletproof vests seized from Fredericka’s house on May 13, 2017 were not used in connection with the Rhoden homicides,” her lawyer wrote in her motion to dismiss.

One of the vests was not even manufactured until seven days after the Rhoden homicides, he noted.

Junk argued against the request in his own motion about a week later, on Friday.

He asked the judge to impose a gag order on Wagner for the entire case, not just related to the slayings and her relatives, noting that she already had given two media interviews.

In those interviews, Junk wrote, one of her lawyers, Owen, and Fredricka Wagner discussed the case and revealed information in violation of the existing gag order and in a way that has a “substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an proceeding in this matter.”

Wagner told the Cleveland Plain Dealer she wonders about the accuracy of the investigation into her family, based on the errors she said are evident in her case, the motion states.

Junk also noted in court records that that interview with at least one of the media outlets occurred before Fredericka Wagner’s lawyers filed the motion to dismiss the charges against her and it occurred just 72 hours after Owen turned over the receipts to prosecutors who had consistently been asking for them for eight months and even subpoenaed Amazon to get them.

“The fact that (Fredericka Wagner) commented on her family members’ cases, where gag orders have already been issued, highlights the extreme prejudicial interference that (she) and her counsel have engaged in, and will continue to engage in without a gag order," Junk argued in the motion.

"The statements are improper attempts to influence the public regarding the allegations against (her), along with the matters pending against her family members, in already highly publicized matters where requests have already bee made to change venue due to pretrial publicity.

“It is improper for (Fredericka Wagner) and her counsel to take it upon themselves to generate more publicity that will only serve to frustrate the function of this Court. The actions of (Fredericka Wagner) and her counsel only stand to further complicate the ability to these cases to be tried by fair and impartial jurors from Pike County.”

The victims of the Pike County massacre 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.

The Rhodens were found in four separate trailers at two locations near Piketon the morning of April 22, 2016.

MORE | Pike County Massacre

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, officials said.

Authorities have referred to the case as a puzzle with a possible motive of a heated custody battle over a toddler, Sophia Wagner.

She is the daughter of Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden.

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