Pike County massacre trial resumes with jury instructions, opening statements
PIKE COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - The first trial in the 2016 Pike County massacre resumed Monday morning with jury instructions and more than five combined hours of opening statements.
The murder trial of George Wagner IV in the execution-style shooting deaths of eight members of the Rhoden family is being held in Pike County Common Pleas Court in Waverly, Ohio. That’s about 99 miles east of downtown Cincinnati.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering is presiding. He announced first thing Monday that all witnesses who will testify must stay outside the courthouse after opening statements until they are called to testify.
The slayings are considered the state’s biggest and most complex homicide investigation to date, resulting in more than 1,000 tips, hundreds of people interviewed and dozens of search warrants.
The trial began late last month with the final selection of jurors who then toured key locations in the case. The jury consists of nine women and five men plus six alternate jurors.
With more than 250 people on the potential witness list, attorneys have told the jury to expect the trial to last anywhere from six to eight weeks.
Opening statements concluded around 3:30 p.m. Monday.
Wagner IV, 30, is the first member of his family of four who was all charged in the case to go on trial.
He is accused of killing Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his older brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; his cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38; 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, 20.
The victims were found fatally shot in the head, all but two while they were sleeping, in mobile homes and a camper on April 22, 2016.
Once Judge Deering gave the jury their instructions, Special Prosecutor Angie Canepa spent more than five hours outlining the state’s case against Wagner IV and his family.
New details released during the special prosecutor’s opening statement Monday revealed one of the victims, Chris Rhoden Sr., was shot a total of eight times: six times in the face and once each in his stomach and chest.
Canepa told jurors he was killed because he was the patriarch and would avenge his daughter’s death: “They considered if they got rid of him basically the structure of the family would fall.”
Gary Rhoden and Dana Rhoden were each shot four times in the face.
Chris Rhoden Jr. was shot four times in the head.
The only non-Rhoden family member killed, Hannah Hazel Gilley, was shot five times in the head/face.
Frankie Rhoden was shot twice in the head.
Canepa mentioned a family member discovered the bodies of Frankie Rhoden and Hannah Gilley and their infant son, who was unharmed.
“And she finds both Frankie and Hannah Hazel laying in bed, clearly dead,” Canepa said. “Hannah Hazel apparently was nursing Ruger at the time of her death.”
Hanna Mae Rhoden, whose big crime was not returning the love of Jake Wagner, was also shot twice in the head, Canepa told jurors.
“The defendants knew that before they walked out of the door that night to kill these individuals that there might be other people there, and they all agreed those people would have to be killed too,” Canepa said Monday.
Wagner IV was indicted and arrested along with three other members of his family in November 2018 on a total of 22 charges, including eight counts of aggravated murder.
He’s also charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, four counts of aggravated burglary, three counts of tampering with evidence, one count each of forgery, unauthorized use of property, interception of wire, oral or electronic communications, obstructing justice, and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.
Wagner IV has pleaded not guilty and his lawyers have argued the confessions of his brother and mother last year prove he didn’t shoot and kill anyone.
Canepa agreed in a December 2021 hearing that Wagner IV didn’t kill anyone.
In the state of Ohio, however, someone can be sentenced to death for an aggravated murder conviction if they help plan it or cover it up.
The judge denied a motion from Wagner IV’s lawyers during that hearing to dismiss the eight aggravated murder charges.
Two key witnesses for both the prosecution and defense will be George’s younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, and his mother, Angela Wagner.
Both pleaded guilty last year for their roles.
Jake Wagner, 28, was convicted of eight counts of murder and 15 other charges including gun specifications, conspiracy, burglary, possession of dangerous ordnance and tampering with evidence.
He admitted to killing five members of the Rhoden family, shooting a sixth, and spying on the family before the killings, tampering with evidence, and obstructing the years-long search for the killers.
In exchange, prosecutors say they will drop the possibility of the death penalty for his entire family and he agreed to serve eight life sentences without parole.
His lawyer said Jake Wagner “knows he’s going to die in prison without any judicial relief.” He is held at the Franklin County Jail.
Jake was the ex-boyfriend of one of the victims, Hanna Mae Rhoden.
Authorities have said the motive of the slayings stemmed in part over a custody dispute between a young daughter Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden had together.
Jake was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Hanna Mae Rhoden when she was 15 and he was 20 years old.
The couple split up and a bitter custody dispute ensued over their daughter with Hanna Mae Rhoden refusing to sign shared custody papers, according to prosecutors.
“They will have to kill me first,” she wrote in a 2015 Facebook message, prosecutors have said.
Jake Wagner also was upset she was seeing another man and became pregnant with that man’s child and was exposing their daughter to people he felt she should not be.
That compelled the Wagner family to plot the killings, buying supplies such as ammunition, magazines, clips and parts to build gun silencers, according to prosecutors.
On Monday, prosecutors said they have pictures of Jake holding a type of gun they think was used in the murders.
“At that point, we believe we had the murder weapon or at least one of the murder weapons in Jake’s hand,” Canepa told the jury during opening statements.
The belief that agents had the murder weapon led George Wagner to text his entire family, Canepa states.
“You will hear George threatening harm to the agents on the case,” Canepa told jurors. “And, you will hear him saying that it is a family emergency when special agent Scheiderer texts a picture of Jake holding the 1911 [pistol].”
With all the evidence the state says it has against the Wagners, George IV’s defense team says the jury must tie it to their client.
“As you hear the evidence, in this case, you must ask yourself, every time you hear ‘the Wagners,’ think of how that applies to George,” Defense Attorney Richard Nash said during his opening statement remarks.
The defense team only had about an hour to speak with jurors on Monday. They are expected to continue with their opening arguments on Tuesday. Then, the prosecution will call its first witness.
His mother pleaded to conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, several counts of aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, and other charges as part of a plea deal.
The remaining eight counts of aggravated murder were dismissed.
The prosecution is recommending the 51-year-old woman serve 30 years in prison with no possibility of the death penalty. She currently is held at the jail in Delaware County.
The other Wagner still facing trial and accused of actually shooting and killing anyone is the family patriarch, 50-year-old George “Billy” Wagner III.
He has pleaded not guilty and remains locked up at the Butler County Jail.
He is charged with eight counts of aggravated murder, four counts of aggravated burglary, three counts of tampering with evidence, two counts of unlawful possession of dangerous ordnance and single counts of conspiracy, forgery, unauthorized use of computer or telecommunications, interception of wire, oral or electronic communication, obstructing justice and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.
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