Ohio attorney general withdraws from prosecuting Pike County massacre case

Updated: Jun. 22, 2020 at 12:21 PM EDT
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WAVERLY, Ohio (FOX19) - In another stunning development in the Pike County massacre case, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office was permitted Monday to withdraw from prosecution.

The judge approved the AG office’s request during a hearing Monday for one of the suspects.

Deputy Attorney General Carol O’Brien filed motions Friday in all four suspects’ cases notifying the court agents that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation would continue its work, but the office no longer will provide prosecutors to assist Pike County.

The lead special prosecutor on the case for the AG’s office, Angela Canepa, abruptly quit last month. She did not provide a reason for leaving the agency in her one-line resignation letter.

Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk asked her to stay on the case anyway and filed a request to the court asking her to be appointed a special prosecutor again, at least individually.

“This case has always belonged to Pike County Prosecuting Attorney Rob Junk and will continue to belong to him for prosecution as he sees fit,” the AG’s motion reads. “BCI will continue to assist Prosecutor Junk, including the services of a victim advocate for the family members of the victims, throughout the prosecution of this case.

“The Ohio Attorney General’s Office is working with Prosecutor Junk to promptly provide him all copies of all materials related to the prosecution of this case currently in its possession. The old saw about too many cooks spoiling the soup is never more true than here. These cases require a single vision and coherent strategy.”

WATCH LIVE: Youngest Wagner charged in Pike County massacre to appear in court -->

Posted by FOX19 on Monday, June 22, 2020

In court Monday, O’Brien told the judge there are “no substantive issues.” Canepa was on the case since the beginning, she said, and the Rhoden family has made it clear to the AG’s office they want Canepa to remain.

Junk told the judge Monday he didn’t have any problem with the AG’s office withdrawing.

We reached out to a spokesman for the AG’s office for comment.

“We do not have any comment beyond the filing and what was discussed in court this morning,” responded Steve Irwin.

Andy Wilson is joining the prosecution team now that the AG has withdrawn.

Four members of the Wagner family, George “Billy” Wagner III and Angela Wagner and their two sons, Edward “Jake” Wagner and George Wagner IV, were charged in the April 2016 slayings.

If convicted, the Wagners could be sentenced to death. They are all being held at separate jails in Ohio.

They are expected to go to trial sometime next year.

On Monday, Billy Wagner and Jake Wagner had a brief hearing.

In Jake’s case, the prosecution has until August 21 to finish providing evidence and documents obtained during discovery to the defense.

His next hearing is scheduled for September 21.

Billy Wagner’s attorney is seeking “reasonable bond,” but that motion will be held on August 6.

Monday is the first time the case has returned to court since Canepa quit.

Her resignation was the latest in a series of changes among authorities in 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.

Those changes and other circumstances prompted Billy Wagner’s attorney to file a motion earlier this month outlining several other issues it says have raised questions about the state’s case, specifically:

  • Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader’s indictment and suspension. He was indicted on multiple charges including ones he misused public funds for personal gambling purposes. The charges are not related to the slayings, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
  • The demotion, investigation, and resignation of former lead investigator Michael Trout last year. He was put on paid administrative leave and then left before he could be demoted for unprofessionalism and retaliation against subordinates, state records show. Court records say this was in part to the investigation into the Rhoden deaths. (Attorney General Dave Yost hired outside counsel to look into allegations Trout created a hostile work environment and had anti-African American and gender bias, state records show. The claims about bias were not substantiated.)
  • A break-in at the trailer where evidence in the case is being held
  • The state dropped charges against Billy Wagner’s mother, Fredericka Wagner
  • Another person charged in connection with the case, his-mother-in-law Rita Newcomb, was permitted to plead to a misdemeanor
  • Canepa’s resignation from AG office

The motion also says the state has delayed filing discovery in the case since Wagner’s indictment in November 2018.

“Review of the incomplete discovery reveals no connection between Mr. Wagner and the Rhoden family deaths,” his attorney’s motion states. “The State provides no eyewitness testimony alleging seeing Mr. Wagner perpetrating the crimes as charged. There is no evidence linking Mr. Wagner to these alleged crimes. There is no physical evidence that links him to any of the crime scenes.”

This combination of undated photos provided by the Ohio Attorney General's office show Rita...
This combination of undated photos provided by the Ohio Attorney General's office show Rita Newcomb, left, and Fredericka Wagner. Authorities announced Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, that the two women have been arrested for impeding the investigation into the slayings of eight members of one family in rural Ohio two years ago. (Ohio Attorney General's office via AP)(AP)

The victims in the Pike County massacre are 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 shot in the head April 22, 2016, most several times, according to autopsy records.

Authorities have said the motive of the slayings stemmed in part over a custody dispute over a young child Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden had together.

READ MORE | Pike County Massacre

Eight members of the Rhoden family were killed in Pike Co. in April 206.
Eight members of the Rhoden family were killed in Pike Co. in April 206.

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