Emotional testimony as relatives take stand in Pike County Massacre trial
CINCINNATI (WXIX) - More first responders and civilian witnesses, including Kenneth Rhoden’s son, Luke Rhoden, testified Thursday in the Pike County massacre trial. Watch a full interview with Luke in the video in the middle of this story.
The first two civilian witnesses to take the stand are related to one of the eight victims: Kenneth Rhoden.
George Wagner IV is accused of killing him and seven other members of the Rhoden family in Waverly on April 21-22, 2016.
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.
Earlier Thursday morning, Kenneth Rhoden’s cousin, Donald Stone, broke down on the stand and cried as he recalled finding his cousin’s body on the morning of April 22, 2016.
Most of the victims were shot several times in the head while they slept.
Kenneth Rhoden, 44, however, was shot just once, through his right eye.
He also was found separate from the rest of his family.
Kenneth Rhoden lived alone in a camper on Left Fork Road, about six miles away from where the other victims were found in their mobile homes on Union Hill Road.
Stone recalled finding his cousin’s lifeless body in bed, in the bedroom of the Left Fork Road camper.
The last time Stone saw him alive, he said they attended an auction together.
The two men were very close. They grew up together. Kenneth Rhoden’s mother fed Stone when he was young.
“Just about anytime I was down and out, the man was there to help me,” Stone told jurors.
A recording of the 911 call he placed was played in court. Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa, who questioned him, showed evidence photos of the slaying scene.
He sobbed and put a white tissue to his face at one point, unable to go for several minutes.
Kenneth Rhoden’s mother was in the courtroom, visibly upset at the photos being shown. She wrapped her arms around another relative sitting next to her and they sobbed.
George Wagner IV silently watched from the defense table, where he sits each day between his attorneys.
Kenneth Rhoden’s son, Luke Rhoden, was the second person to take the stand Thursday.
Luke was one of the first people to enter the camper on Left Fork Road on April 22, 2016.
He knew that his uncle and cousins had already been killed and wanted to check up on his dad. So, he went with his cousin, Donald Stone, to his dad’s camper to tell him what had happened.
Luke said he was standing in the living room when Donald came running out of the bedroom.
“He ran past me and told me to get out. Like, he’d been shot,” Luke said on the stand Thursday.
He talked with FOX19 NOW about what this trial has been like for him and his family.
Brett Hatfield, who was a friend of Kenneth Rhoden, was called to testify on Thursday.
He told the prosecution he and Kenneth would ride together to work so on the morning of April 22, 2016, he pulled into the driveway but did not see the house lights come on.
So, Hatfield said he left and went to work.
Around 8 a.m., Hatfield said he got a call that something happened up on Union Hill.
He tried calling everyone in the Rhoden family, but no one answered. He then said he sent a Facebook message to Hannah.
Facebook showed someone read the message, however, no response ever came through.
George IV’s younger brother, Jake Wagner, and his mother, Angela Wagner, will testify against him soon and are considered the star witnesses in this trial.
Both pleaded guilty for their roles in the slayings last year.
It remains unclear, however, if the public will be able to watch and listen to their testimony.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering allows all witnesses to decide just before they testify whether they want it to be filmed.
While Kenneth Rhoden’s relatives allowed their testimony to be shown Thursday, several of the other witnesses have not.
That includes top law enforcement officials who took the stand Wednesday such as Pike County Sheriff Tracy Evans and Sheriff’s Corporal Adam Ball.
Ball was the first law enforcement officer at the crime scene where Chris Rhoden Sr. and his cousin Gary Rhoden were found. They were the first victims located.
Kenneth Rhoden was the last.
Rhoden’s sister and her friend testified Tuesday, kicking off the state’s case.
Like Ball, they described finding Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden, Ball in one of the bloody campers.
Chris Rhoden Sr. was shot six times in the face and once each on the chest and stomach, the prosecution revealed Monday. He also had defensive wounds.
Ball told jurors Wednesday there was so much blood when he walked into the front door that he had to climb over a treadmill and other furniture to avoid disturbing the crime scene and reach Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden.
Their bodies were found lying together on the floor at the foot of a bed.
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.
Angela Wagner 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, the special prosecutor 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.
She 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, Canepa told the jury.
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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