Defense requests mistrial in Pike County trial, judge gives ruling as court resumes
WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - The defense team for George Wagner IV returned from a one-hour break Wednesday and immediately requested a mistrial.
The defense argued the “grisly” images shown in the trial would evoke anger from the jurors. Wagner IV’s attorney said that anger would in turn be used against his client.
“They’re intended to gain sympathy from the jury,” John Parker said. “To have the jury make an emotional reaction and to distract them from the disputed issues.”
Judge Randy Deering then gave the prosecution a chance to state its case.
“We are being very conservative in the photos that we use only to help the witnesses expound upon their testimony as the court has noted,” countered Special State Prosecutor Angie Canepa. “I have not noticed any reactions from the jurors. Certainly, nobody has broken down crying and had to stop us or anything of that nature.”
Judge Deering agreed with the prosecution and denied the motion to dismiss.
Dr. Karen Looman, Chief Deputy Coroner for Hamilton County, returned to the stand after testifying on Thursday.
She discussed the autopsy of Hannah Hazel Gilley, saying bleeding from Gilley’s ear was a sign her inner ear bone was broken.
Dr. Looman said, based on the typical damage a .22 does and the damage shown in Gilley’s injuries, she wondered if a different kind of .22 ammo was used.
Earlier in the day, the jury in the Pike County massacre trial saw photos of the inside of the trailer where Frankie “Clarence” Rhoden and Gilley were shot to death in April 2016.
The couple was asleep in bed. Frankie Rhoden was shot three times in the head. Gilley was shot five times in the head and face.
The Hamilton County chief deputy coroner said Frankie’s wounds showed he was shot with the same size bullet as Gilley.
But their 6-month-old baby was spared and found between their bodies, Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa said during her opening statement.
Another juvenile was found alive in the trailer on the Rhoden family property along Union Hill Road: the baby’s 3-year-old brother.
BCI Agent Todd Fortner told jurors he collected evidence outside the trailer and inside, explaining what he chose to save (cigarette butts, doorknobs) and why (DNA testing).
Both sides agreed that there was no DNA evidence found at the home from George IV or any of his family members.
He also showed jurors photos he took of all rooms on April 22, 2016, taking them through the images down a narrow hallway to a back bedroom where they were shot to death.
Prosecutors say the front door of the trailer was locked until Frankie’s 3-year-old son Brently let a family member in who then found the bodies.
Attorneys say the back door was unlocked but items on the other side of it were not disturbed.
Agent Fortner testified that the air conditioning unit underneath a window in the back had grass clippings on it and a patch of moss appeared to be missing on the siding.
The window leads to a bedroom adjacent to the one where Frankie Rhoden and Hazel Gilley were found
As the state continued presenting its case, George Wagner IV, the 30-year-old man charged with killing the couple and six other Rhoden family members, sat at the defense table looking down or ahead.
In the gallery, Gilley’s mother, Andrea Shoemaker-Carter, wiped tears from her eyes.
George Wagner IV 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.
The victims were all shot execution-style, most as they slept and most several times in mobile homes and a camper on April 21-22, 2016.
Deputy Coroner Dr. Karen Looman told the jury on Tuesday that she performed the autopsies on all but one of the victims over the weekend of April 23-24, 2016.
She performed Chris Rhoden Sr.’s separately on April 25, 2016, because he was shot more than the others and she knew she would need more time to find all the bullets in his body.
Chris Rhoden Sr. and his cousin, Gary Rhoden were found in Chris Rhoden Sr.’s trailer on Union Hill Road.
The condition of his body made it clear he was shot with a high-powered rifle like an AR-15, Looman confirmed under questioning by Canepa.
“His forearm was so destroyed and lacerated that the skin was peeled back,” Dr. Looman told the jury. “You could see the muscles, you could see the fractured pieces of bones in there. There was so much trauma there you couldn’t see an entrance or exit wound. His arm was barely hanging onto the end of his elbow.”
Looman said when they opened his body bag to do his autopsy, his brown sweatshirt was pulled up over his head.
Two bullets fell out of it and a third bullet was found in the body bag.
Canepa already revealed during her opening statement Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden were the only victims who were not shot in bed or as they slept. Gary Rhoden was shot four times in the face.
Looman said their autopsies led her to determine they were the first victims to be shot to death and it was at close range.
She also announced another new detail: Both men died at about 11 p.m. on Thursday, April 21, 2016.
The estimated time of death for each victim has not come out before now.
Investigators have always said they were all killed overnight Thursday, April 21, 2016, into Friday, April 22, 2016.
Hanna May Rhoden was shot twice in the head, according to Canepa.
Christopher Rhoden Jr. was shot four times in the head.
Their mother, Dana Rhoden, was shot four times in the head.
The motive in the slayings, Canepa told jurors during her opening statement, was the control and care of the then-2-year-old daughter of one of the victims and Wagner IV’s younger brother, Jake Wagner.
Hanna May Rhoden and Jake Wagner began dating when she was 13 and he was 18. She became pregnant at 15 with Sophia.
They broke up after their daughter was born.
Hanna May Rhoden refused to sign custody over to Jake Wagner, so the Wagner family carefully planned the murders and killed her family and anyone else there who could be a witness, Canepa has said.
Chris Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden, was an “add-on,” Canepa told jurors during her opening statement last week. He knew the Wagners planned to visit the Rhodens the night of the slayings.
He was the last victim found, at his camper about 6.5 miles away on Left Fork Road.
Kenneth Rhoden was shot once in the right eye.
Fortner and another BCI special agent, Shane Hanshaw, have testified about processing the crime scenes to collect as much evidence as possible.
They were among scores of law enforcement officers who responded as the bodies of the Rhoden family members were discovered on the morning of April 22, 2016.
The veteran law enforcement officers have been explaining to the jury how they gather a wide variety of evidence including ballistics, blood patterns and shoe prints from and around the trailers.
Hanshaw processed the crime scene at Chris Rhoden Sr.’s trailer, where he was killed along with his cousin, Gary Rhoden.
Wagner IV is the first member of his family of four to go on trial.
George IV’s younger brother, Jake Wagner, and his mother, Angela Wagner, will testify against him in a couple of weeks and are considered the star witnesses in this trial.
Their testimony is not expected for a couple of weeks.
Both pleaded guilty for their roles in the slayings last year.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering is allowing all witnesses to decide if they want their testimony recorded and shown.
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.
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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