‘They’d have to kill me:’ Evidence reveals motive in Rhoden massacre

A guilty plea on Thursday came exactly 5 years after the execution-style murders in Pike County.
Digging into the evidence against the Wagner family
Updated: Apr. 23, 2021 at 8:16 PM EDT
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PIKE COUNTY, Ohio (FOX19) - Hanna Mae Rhoden’s refusal to sign forged legal documents granting custody of her 2-year-old daughter to Jake Wagner, the child’s father, is what ultimately cost her her life — and the lives of seven of her family members.

Prosecutors had previously sketched the custody dispute in vague outlines. Specifics of the dispute are among the new details emerging after Jake Wagner on Thursday accepted a plea deal in the 2016 massacre.

Also new: Jake Wagner himself pulled the trigger in five of the execution-style killings.

It remains unclear whether he murdered the mother of his child.

The guilty plea came five years to the day after the infamous Pike County murders that spawned, according to Gov. Mike DeWine, the largest investigation in Ohio history.

The investigation uncovered a complicated, carefully planned mass murder that leveraged surveillance cameras and hacked social media accounts. Said DeWine on Thursday, “This was cold, cold, cold blood. This was calculated, planned out. It just chills you to think about.”

Charges remain against three other members of the Wagner family.

In exchange for removal of the death penalty in all four cases, Jake Wagner 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 the others.

>> ‘Nobody expected this:’ Why a legal expert is shocked by Jake Wagner’s plea deal

The plea deal revealed Jake Wagner was trying to force Hanna Mae Rhoden, then 19, to sign forged court documents giving over custody of the girl, now 7, who today is in the care of surviving members of the Rhoden family.

Jake Wagner was charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Hanna Mae Rhoden when she was 15 and he was 20.

On Dec. 15, 2015, according to evidence revealed on Thursday, Jake Wagner hacked into Hanna Mae Rhoden’s Facebook account and read a private message saying she would never relinquish custody of the daughter and that “they’d have to kill” her before she signed the documents.

Jake Wagner would spend the next four months preparing — buying ammunition, magazines and brass catchers to collect shell casings rather than leaving them as evidence.

He bought materials to make silencers for a rifle and two handguns.

He used cell phone jammers and video surveillance equipment to study the habits of his victims.

Then on April 22, 2016, he carried out the plan, personally murdering five of the eight Rhodens across three different homes.

FULL SECTION | Pike County Massacre

When the judge heard the story from the prosecution on Thursday, he asked Jake Wagner if the sequence of events was accurate.

“I agree,” Jake Wagner replied, “and I am deeply sorry.”

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