PIKE COUNTY, Ohio (FOX19) - The emotional toll of the Wagner cases was on full display Thursday in the words and demeanor of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
The governor heaped praise on investigators after the announcement of a pivotal plea deal. He also grew tearful recalling moments with the Rhoden family, eight of whom the Wagners are accused of murdering execution-style in Pike County in 2016.
“There has never been a case in Ohio history like this,” DeWine said.
Edwards “Jake” Wagner, one of four Wagners charged in the killings, accepted the plea deal on Thursday.
In exchange for removal of the death penalty in all four cases, he confessed, pleaded guilty to 23 charges and led investigators to the weapons and vehicles used. He will serve eight life sentences without parole and testify against his family members.
“Five years ago today, I was here,” DeWine said after the plea deal was announced. “We met with the family members, and I committed to them that we would find who did this, that we would bring them to justice... There was a lot of justice done today.”
FULL SECTION | Pike County Massacre
DeWine highlighted the sparse beginnings of the investigation, around which outlandish rumors initially circulated of Mexican drug cartel activity and the like.
“No one who was not involved in this investigation will ever know how difficult this was, starting with really no evidence,” he said. “[...] We started with nothing.”
The governor praised the Rhoden family for holding their resolve throughout.
“Look, it’s not easy when investigators can’t tell you anything, and they just have to sort of trust you,” DeWine said. “So they hung in there the entire time with us.”
Later he added: “The family has been through hell. While today was, I’m sure, a very gratifying day, it couldn’t have been an easy day. They’ve gotta be leaving here just utterly exhausted and emotionally spent, but these are tough and strong people.”
DeWine became emotional discussing Geneva Rhoden, a family member of the victims who made a tearful plea for information in 2017.
“You lose a family member, you know? One member... how about eight? I don’t know how you survive it. I don’t know how you’d go on. [...] Fran and I lost one daughter. I just can’t imagine what she goes through. But she was there today.”
The governor called the case “by far” the largest in the history of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations.
“Tens of thousands of hours were put in on this case,” he said. “It was really a combination of old-fashioned police work — just grunt, gritty, slow, laborious police work — plus the new technology that we have today.”
The investigation uncovered a complicated, carefully planned mass murder that leveraged surveillance cameras and hacked social media accounts. Said DeWine, “This was cold, cold, cold blood. This was calculated, planned out. It just chills you to think about.”
Authorities have said the motive of the slayings stemmed in part over a custody dispute over a young daughter Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden, one of the victims, had together.
DeWine thanked individual members of the BCI team, the prosecution and the sheriff’s department. “This was a phenomenal team [...] They just worked and worked and worked,” he said.
The governor singled out former Pike County Sheriff Charlie Reader, whom a judge sentenced to prison last month on charges of stealing money seized from arrests and attempting to cover it up.
DeWine said Reader “never gave up on the case” and “was with us the entire way.”
He also said it was Reader who, after a vast amount of evidence had been compiled against the Wagners, finally persuaded the others to pursue indictments.
“It got to a point where [Reader,] he looks up and says, ‘Boys, we gotta go,’ and we said, ‘Yeah, you’re right,’” DeWine said.
The cases against the other three members of the Wagner family are ongoing.
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