Jake Wagner describes massacre: ‘She looked up and made a gasping noise and then I shot her’

Published: Oct. 24, 2022 at 8:08 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 24, 2022 at 6:55 PM EDT
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WARNING - Trial coverage could contain graphic images or language

WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - Jake Wagner testified against his own brother for several hours Monday as George Wagner IV’s murder trial in the Pike County massacre approaches the two-month mark.

In graphic detail, Jake Wagner calmly described how his older brother helped him and their father, Billy Wagner, shoot and kill the eight victims.

Jake Wagner said he personally shot and killed five of the eight victims: Dana Rhoden, 37, and her three children Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Chris Rhoden Jr. 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20, as well as Frankie’s fiance, Hanna “Hazel” Gilley, also 20 and shot and wounded a sixth, Christopher Rhoden, Sr., 40.

“She looked up and made a gasping noise and then I shot her,” he told the jury as he recounted killing Dana Rhoden.

He said his brother was supposed to shoot Rhoden family patriarch Christopher Rhoden Sr., but froze so Jake Wagner took his brother’s SKS rifle and pulled the trigger.

Pike County massacre: Complete trial coverage

The Wagner brothers and their parents, Billy Wagner and Angela Wagner, are all accused of killing eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families on April 21-22, 2016 in Piketon.

Prosecutors say the Wagners planned the execution-style murders for months so Jake Wagner could have sole custody of his daughter, Sophia, born in 2015 to one of the victims, Hanna May Rhoden.

The other victims are her uncles, Kenneth Rhoden, 44 and Gary Rhoden, 38.

Jake Wagner and his mother pleaded guilty to their roles in the massacre last year.

Their testimony against their own brother/son is part of their plea deals.

Legal analyst talks latest Pike County trial developments

Jake Wagner looked at his brother several times throughout his testimony Monday morning and appeared to be trying to make eye contact with him.

George Wagner IV watched as Jake Wagner walked to the stand and sat down. It was the first time the brothers laid eyes on each other since they were arrested in November 2018.

The family has been locked up in four different jails ever since.

George Wagner IV took copious notes throughout his brother’s testimony.

During the first sidebar, Jake Wagner looked at the Rhodens in the courtroom and appeared to mouth to them: “I’m sorry.”

Several relatives watched his testimony from seats behind the prosecution and defense, including family matriarch Geneva Rhoden.

She sat in the front row after using a walker to slowly enter the courthouse and reach the second floor. It is a walk she has made multiple times ever since the Wagners were arrested.

Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa asked Jake Wagner how close he is to his mother and father.

Close to his mother and “close-ish” to his father, he responded.

“Are you close to your brother?” Canepa asked.

“Very,” he said.

“How difficult is it for you to be here today?” She asked.


He struggled to find the right words to say several times as he testified, telling Canepa more than a dozen times: “I am not sure what the proper word is.”

He admitted to stealing things, along with his father and brother, over the course of his life before the killings: Fuel, lumber, appliances, tools, gates, livestock, fencing, and building materials.

He said his first interaction with Hanna May Rhoden was at the 2010 Pike County Fair in the 4-H Barn.

Hanna was 13 and he was 17.

Eventually, he asked Hanna’s parents if he could date her.

The first few years they were together, he said one of her brothers was with them at all times.

But by the time Hanna was 15, she was pregnant with their daughter. They named her Sophia and called her Sophie.

Jake Wagner smiled on the witness stand when Canepa said his daughter’s name out loud for the first time Monday.

“My baby was born Nov. 13, 2013, at 2:30 a.m.,” he proudly said.

Hanna May Rhoden broke up with him in 2015. He confirmed on the stand Monday he didn’t want the relationship to end.

Hanna Wagner had a second child, a baby girl named Kylie, with a man named Charlie Gilley and was dating another man, Corey Holdren, at the time of her murder.

Canepa told Jake Wagner: “Hanna said you choked her” when he confronted her about men Hanna had their daughter around.

He denied that but said he did take action when he felt she was being “lazy.” “I never choked her. Once I threw my right shoulder up against her and held her up against the barn.”

He testified he was “concerned” when Hanna Rhoden started dating the other men. She stalled on agreeing to a custody arrangement for their daughter, he described.

“I was concerned that Hanna was going to let my daughter get molested like (Hanna) did,” he said on the stand. “My daughter told me that Hanna locked her in her bedroom and let her scream for hours.”

When it was time to give Sophia to Hanna Rhoden, he said “Sophie would scratch and claw my leg and say ‘Daddy don’t let me go.’”

When he asked Hanna Rhoden about this, he said she told him nothing was going on.

“‘Sophie is just being a brat,’” was her explanation, he testified.

“What if your carelessness leads to our daughter being molested like you were?” he said he asked her.

“‘We’ll just have to deal with it,’” he quoted her saying.

Jake Wagner admitted he saw Hanna’s Facebook message to Tabitha’s mother (Tabitha Clayton is George Wagner’s ex-wife) that he would only get custody of their daughter “over my dead body.”

“If want custody Sophie, it will be over my dead body or something similar,” he testified.

Prosecutors have shown the Facebook message in previous testimony. Hanna Rhoden wrote: “I won’t sign papers ever it won’t happen they will have to kill me first.”

Tabitha’s mother wrote back: “Good sweety make sure you (don’t) ever sign anything.”

Jake Wagner told the jury his mother, Angela Wagner, saw this exchange because she was monitoring Tabitha’s mother’s Facebook page and messages to see if Tabitha’s mother would seek custody of Bulvine, George Wagner IV’s son with Tabitha.

He told the jury he decided to kill the mother of his child after seeing her Facebook message and after their argument over their daughter’s safety.

He called that “the tipping point.”

“I had no choice. I decided to kill Hanna. If I didn’t do something, Sophie would be harmed,” he testified.

Jake Wagner said he went to his father for advice and he told him something had to be done, the only option is to kill Hanna Rhoden.

Jake Wagner told the jury he objected to that initially but then felt like it was the only option.

“I told Billy I agreed to do it.”

An early plan to make the killings look like a murder-suicide with her boyfriend, Corey Holdren, was rejected by Billy, Jake Wanger testified.

He told the jury the initial plan was to kill Hanna Rhoden, her father Chris Rhoden Sr., her uncle, Kenneth Rhoden, her older brother, Frankie Rhoden.

But, he told the jury, “They would be witnesses so we had to kill them, too.”

The other victims are: Hanna’s mother and Chris Sr.’s ex-wife, Dana Rhoden; Chris Rhoden Sr.’s cousin, Gary Rhoden, Frankie’s fiance, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley and Hanna Rhoden’s younger brother, Chris Rhoden Jr. were not initially targets, Jake Wagner said on the stand.

Once the decision was made, he said his dad was in charge of planning it.

Jake Wagner said his role was to get the vehicle, a truck that he bought from his great uncle, so it didn’t look like it was a Wagner vehicle at the killings. He said he didn’t want the killings traced to a vehicle of theirs.

George Wagner and his brother dyed their hair dark brown like the Daryl Dixon character in “The Walking Dead,” Jake Wagner said.

To psych himself up before the killings, he told the jury he watched “The Boondock Saints,” a 1999 movie featuring brothers who become vigilantes after killing two members of the Russian Mafia in self-defense.

He smiled when prosecutors played a clip of it in court.

He told the jury about trying to manufacture a gun silencer from two flashlights. He said the first one he tried was a generic brand that didn’t work because the aluminum was too thin.

He also tried to build one out of a brand-name flashlight, Maglite, but that didn’t work either.

Jake Wagner said he got frustrated and tossed it into the family burn barrel at their Peterson Road property.

He decided to use standard oil filters as gun silencers and told the jury it worked.

Prosecutors then displayed a big picture showing a list of all the guns the Wagners had. He kept the list on his cell phone.

Multiple guns are listed for all four members, including even Jake Wagner’s little girl. “Cricket 22″ is under her name. Cricket 22 is a .22-caliber bolt-action rifle designed for children.

Prosecutors pointed out two guns that they called the murder weapons: An SKS rifle and Ruger 1022 rifle.

He said he waited to put on the gray Walmart gym shoes he’d instructed his mother to buy for them to wear at the victims’ trailers.

“I didn’t put the tennis shoes on until I got to the truck because I was afraid they would track soil from my property to Chris Rhoden’s and the other properties,” Jake Wagner said on the stand.

He modified, with his brother’s help, the pickup truck he purchased that his dad drove to the Rhodens’ trailers. He said he built a false bed on the truck and George Wagner IV hid underneath it.

Billy Wagner, George Wagner IV and Jake Wagner went to the trailers off Union Hill Road the night of April 21, 2016, while Angela Wagner stayed home with George Wagner’s son, Bulvine, and Jake Wagner’s daughter.

He said his mother knew where they were going and what they planned to do.

His dad insisted they do it on a cloudy night to prevent satellites from picking up images through clouds.

They also waited for Hanna May Rhoden’s baby to be born before they carried out their deadly attack. Her baby was just five days old when the victims were found on April 22, 2016.

Jake Wagner said once he arrived at the Wagner family property, he walked around with his brother and father from Chris Rhoden Sr.’s trailer to Frankie Rhoden’s trailer.

At that point, Billy Wagner had the cell phone signal jammer (to prevent the victims from calling 911 for help) but it didn’t work because the battery died.

Prosecutors showed Jake Wagner a picture of the front of Chris Rhoden Sr.’s trailer, the front porch. They asked him to point to where Chris Sr. was standing when Jake shot him.

Jake Wagner pointed to the right portion of the front door. He testified that his father went into the trailer where Chris Rhoden Sr. was with his cousin, Gary Rhoden, and then Jake Wagner heard two gunshots.

Chris Rhoden Sr. was shot the most times of all the victims: six times in the face, once in the chest, once in the abdomen and once in the right forearm, according to testimony from a coroner official early in the trial.

Gary Rhoden was shot four times in the face.

Once the Wagner men reached Frankie Rhoden’s trailer, the three Wagner men checked the doors to see if they were locked.

They were, Jake testified, saying: “It could have been a kick-the-door-in type of situation.”

They walked back to Chris Rhoden Sr’s trailer, where Jake Wagner collected his cell phone and his cousin’s, Gary Rhoden.

All three Wagner men got into Chris Rhoden Sr.’s pickup truck and drove by Dana Rhoden’s trailer. They saw no lights on and knew she was not home, so they drove about 6.5 miles to Kenneth Rhoden’s trailer on Left Fork Road and then came right back to Chris Rhoden Sr.’s trailer.

They got out and walked to Frankie Rhoden’s trailer, where the doors were still locked so Jake Wagner said he tried to pry the back door open with his hunting knife but it broke off. He hoisted himself up and went in through a window.

He said his dad handed over his gun once he was inside.

He calmly described to the jury how he walked through the trailer, past Frankie Rhoden’s toddler son, who was sleeping on a sofa, and went into the bedroom where Frankie Rhoden was asleep in bed next to his fiance, Hanna “Hazel” Gilley.

Jake Wagner said he shot Frankie Rhoden in the head, which caused Gilley to stir and make “a waking-up sound.” So he leaned over and shot her as well.

That’s when he noticed their baby was in bed with them. Jake Wagner spared the infant’s life and left the trailer.

He said he didn’t try to collect spent shell casings in the trailer because “To be frank, it was a mess.”

Jake Wagner said he left the trailer through the back door, locking it again once he left.

The Wagner men went to Dana Rhoden’s trailer and Jake Wagner said he went in alone through the unlocked door.

He testified that he could see both Hanna Rhoden’s bedroom and her mother’s bedroom from where he stood in the hallway.

Dana Rhoden had just returned home after working a double shift as a nurse’s aide according to previous testimony.

Jake Wagner said she was awake when he looked into her room.

“She looked up and made a gasping noise and then I shot her,” he said, adding that he saw a “red hole” in her neck when she fell back.

He turned toward Hanna May Rhoden’s room, remaining where he stood in the hall. He believes she also saw him and was breastfeeding when he shot her because she was propped up.

He shot Dana Rhoden again, this time in the head, telling the jury: “I wasn’t sure that I actually killed her.”

Then he fired again, shooting her daughter and the mother of his child again in the head.

Hanna May Rhoden partially fell off the bed. Jake Wagner said he positioned her body so she could keep breastfeeding her newborn baby, whose life he also spared.

If the discovery of the bodies took a long time, he said, “I was concerned that Kylie would starve to death.”

Jake Wagner said he went into Chris Rhoden Jr’s bedroom then and shot him in the head as he slept: “It was all point-blank.”

He said he picked up the shell casings and cell phones and took them. He missed one shell casing that investigators found under Kylie’s crib, according to previous testimony.

From there, the Wagner men got back into Chris Rhoden Sr.’s truck and drove back to his trailer, where George Wagner IV got out and got into the pickup truck they drove to the crime scenes.

Jake Wagner and his father went to Kenneth Rhoden’s trailer.

Once they arrived, Jake Wagner said he pulled up and left the headlights on while his father walked up and banged on the front door.

No one answered. Billy Wagner went inside while Jake Wagner said he remained in the truck.

Seconds later, Jake Wagner saw a muzzle flash and then his father came back out, according to his testimony.

Jake Wagner retrieved a trail camera and its hard drive off a tree. His brother arrived in the truck after their father came back out of Kenneth Rhoden’s trailer.

After Jake Wagner testifies, jurors are expected to hear about evidence from 2018 wiretaps of the Wagners. They also will hear how investigators literally pieced evidence of the crime back together to link the massacre to them.

Angela Wagner is expected to testify against her son later this week or early next.

On Friday, Jake’s ex-wife told jurors that Jake Wagner threatened to kill her in 2018 and said his entire family would too after Angela Wagner made an unfounded accusation alleging that she inappropriately touched Jake’s daughter.

He later told a friend of Beth’s that he was just joking, but she wasn’t buying it and left shortly after.

“I was afraid they were going to kill me.,” she told the jury.

She was the second ex-wife to take the stand to disturbing details about living with the family and fleeing in fear for her life.

George Wagner IV’s former wife, Tabitha, also described a household of constant yelling, hitting, and being left out of family meetings; a mother-in-law who ran the show and hurled unfounded accusations at her that resulted in the final showdowns that ended both young marriages.

George’s ex-wife, Tabitha, testified earlier this month he physically assaulted her because she didn’t want to clean up the kitchen after Angela made lunch.

“Me and George were in an argument and he slapped me,” Tabitha told the jury on Oct. 4. “I told him he’d just signed his divorce papers.”

The dispute grew more violent. She said her mother-in-law “threw a 2X4 board at me and told George she was going inside to get a gun,” Tabitha testified.

At that point, she ran and hid under her husband’s truck.

“I didn’t want to get shot,” she told the jury.

She said the Wagners did everything they could to keep her son from her for more than a year, even instructing her at one point not to tell the boy she was his mother.

Their divorce was final in January 2015 but she would not get custody of her son until she filed legal action for it in 2018.

In other testimony last week, jurors saw text messages last week exchanged by Jake and Hanna that started in 2013. In one of them, Jake threatened to take their daughter “by force.”

Multiple agents with the Ohio Bureau of Investigation have testified since the start of the trial and continue to return to tell the jury more about all the evidence they gathered that led them to believe the Wagners carefully plotted and carried out the killings.

Shell casings and unfired .22 caliber rounds were discovered throughout the Wagners’ Peterson Road home and in outbuildings on the property, White testified.

Agents testified about finding hundreds of shell casings, including shell casings similar to ones found at two of the four different crime scenes.

Matt White, a BCI ballistics and firearms expert, testified that the shell casings found at the Wagner home matched characteristics of the ones found at the crime scenes and bullets found in the victims’ bodies.

He said in his opinion, the fired .22 casings from two of the crime scenes and 12 casings from the Wagner’s former home on Peterson Road were all fired from the same firearm.

White responded no, however, when Wagner IV’s defense attorney asked him if he could tell who fired the gun.

State shoe experts have testified that prints found at two of the crime scenes were from new shoes from gray Walmart tennis shoes, sizes 10.5 and 11. Prosecutors showed the jury the receipt and surveillance photos of Angela Wagner leaving the store with the shoes.

In the weeks and months leading up to the massacre, BCI agents said their investigation determined someone used either Jake Wagner or George Wagner IV’s credit cards to purchase:

  • Parts to make gun silencers including flashlights, drill bits and an air filter
  • 20 bags of concrete mix. During her opening statement, Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa said the Wagners busted the weapons apart that they used to kill the victims and hid them in buckets of cement
  • What is believed to be a $630 cell phone signal jammer (to prevent the victims from calling for help)

Jurors also have heard extensive details about the Wagner family’s finances. A BCI forensics accountant said he examined 17 bank accounts and hundreds and hundreds pages of bank statements.

Michael Kaizar said the Wagners had accounts in the sons’ names and used those to pay bills and household necessities like groceries.

Kaizar testified he noticed frequent transfers between different accounts among the Wagners over 3.5 years that totaled more than $100,000, suggesting parallels to what he often sees in a criminal organization.

Frequent transfers of money, sharing of funds and expenses show that even though accounts may be in separate names, “what you might see is that maybe they are working as a coordinated group.”

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