First witnesses take the stand Pike County massacre trial
PIKE COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - The first witnesses for the prosecution took the stand Tuesday as the trial continues in the 2016 Pike County massacre.
George Wagner IV faces several charges including eight for aggravated murder in the execution-style shooting deaths of eight members of the Rhoden family.
He has pleaded not guilty to 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 May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie’s fiancé, Hannah Gilley, 20.
Wagner IV, 30, is the first member of his family of four to go on trial.
His younger brother, Jake Wagner, and his mother, Angela Wagner, both pleaded guilty for their roles in the slayings last year and are expected to testify now against him.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering is allowing all witnesses to decide just before they testify whether they want it to be filmed. Most of them are opting out so far.
FOX19 NOW Reporter Mike Schell is in the courtroom listening to testimony and updating our coverage throughout the day. We are streaming what we are permitted by the court to show on our app and Facebook page.
The first two witnesses who testified for the prosecution Tuesday told jurors about the bloody scene they found at the victims’ mobile homes on Union Hill Road in Waverly.
Bobby Jo Manley, the sister of Dana Rhoden, and Manley’s friend, Billy Morgan, discovered four of the bodies on the morning of April 22, 2016.
Manley found Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden after she arrived with Morgan to feed their animals, a job they were paid to do.
Chris Rhoden Sr., was shot in the face six times and once each on the chest and stomach, the prosecution revealed Monday. He also had defensive wounds.
While Manley was on the stand Tuesday, prosecutors played the 911 call she made after making the grim and bloody discovery.
A relative of the victims, family matriarch Geneva Rhoden, sobbed in the courtroom with her two daughters at her side.
Manley was initially stoic while listening to her 911 call. She eventually wiped tears from her eyes, too.
Morgan told jurors he knew something was wrong when both of Chris Rhoden Sr.’s inside dogs were sitting outside on the front porch.
When Morgan walked through the front door, he said he saw a recliner that had been pulled from its usual place.
He testified that he also saw a knife and pair of vice grips next to blood on the floor. The vice grips, he said, were ones Chris Rhoden Sr. always kept in his pocket.
Manley and Morgan both told jurors they found the bodies of Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden lying at the foot of a bed. A white quilt covered Chris Rhoden Sr.’s body.
Wagner IV’s defense team briefly questioned Manley and Morgan.
The attorneys focused on the marijuana grow facility in Chris Rhoden Sr.’s shed and his alleged involvement in raising chickens for cockfighting.
Both Manley and Morgan said they didn’t know anything about it.
James Manley, Dana Rhoden’s brother, was the third witness.
He allowed his testimony to be recorded and broadcast.
The jury was released for a short break a few minutes after 3 p.m. and when the fourth witness - a deputy- took the stand, he declined to have his testimony recorded.
The fifth and final witness of the day was Justin Waring, an emergency medical technician (EMT) who was among the many first responders who went to the Rhoden’s trailers the morning the bodies were found.
More testimony is expected Wednesday.
The star witnesses for the prosecution, Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner, are not expected to take the stand this week.
The trial itself will last some six to eight weeks, prosecutors have said.
The slayings are considered the state’s biggest and most complex homicide investigation.
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.
George IV’s mother, Angela Wagner, has 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.
Wagner IV’s lawyers have argued the confessions of his brother and mother last year prove he didn’t shoot and kill anyone.
Canepa herself has 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 late last year from Wagner IV’s lawyers to dismiss the eight aggravated murder charges.
During her opening statement on Monday, Special Prosecutor Angie Canepa said the primary target of the massacre was Hanna May Rhoden, the mother of a 2-year-old girl, Sophia, with Jake Wagner.
They had their daughter when Hanna May Rhoden was 15 and Jake Wagner was 20 but broke up. Hanna May Rhoden began seeing someone else and had another baby with that man.
Hanna May Rhoden refused to sign custody papers to share care of their daughter with Jake Wagner by late 2015, and that was the motive behind the slayings.
Hanna May Rhoden’s Facebook messages, which were written just months before the murders, were introduced as evidence Monday.
She wrote: “I won’t sign papers ever it won’t happen they will have to kill me first.”
George IV’s attorney, Richard Nash, told jurors during his opening statement that his client didn’t kill anyone and only heard about the murders hours afterward when his brother received a phone call about them.
Nash said evidence will show George IVs’s younger brother, Jake Wagner, killed all eight victims, not the five he has pleaded guilty to.
Nash also told jurors George IV was an outsider in his family who fought with his father, disagreed with how his family lived and stayed away after getting his driver’s license when he was 16.
“We’re here to hear evidence about George Wagner,” Nash told jurors. “George cannot help that he was born into the Wagner family.”
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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