Pike County jury sees photos of murder weapons hidden in cement-filled buckets
WARNING - Trial coverage could contain graphic images or language
WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - Confessed Pike County killer Jake Wagner returned to the witness stand Wednesday to testify for the third day in a row against his brother, George Wagner IV.
For the first time, jurors saw pictures of the three guns, parts and some of the ammunition that Jake Wagner says were used to kill eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families on April 21-22, 2016.
Jake Wagner said he broke up the guns, burned parts off them and then he and his father placed the guns and parts into 5-gallon buckets filled with cement, as well as live ammo for one of them, the .40-caliber Glock that Billy Wagner used.
The buckets were attached to a goose house the Wagner brothers gave to their grandfather for the lake at Flying W Farms in Lucasville.
Jake Wagner told the jury earlier this week he used a Walther Colt 1911 .22 caliber pistol in the killings, Billy was armed with the Glock and his brother had the SKS rifle.
His brother was supposed to shoot Chris Rhoden Sr., but froze, so Jake Wagner said he took the SKS and pulled the trigger, shooting Chris Rhoden Sr. just once as he stood by the front door of his trailer.
In other highlights from Jake Wagner’s testimony Wednesday,
- He requested to see his family one final time before they are all locked away in separate prisons for the rest of their lives. It has not happened yet. “I wanted one last family moment together if they are convicted,” he told Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa.
- He requested that his confession be recorded because he wanted his family to hear it and know why he was making the deal and cooperating.
- When Canepa asked why he pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated murder) when he killed five, he responded: “I just took it all, I reckon.”
- Jurors saw a photo that has been referred to mutiple times in previous witness testimony, most recently when Jake Wagner’s ex-wife testified on Friday: The picture of his hand holding one of the murder weapons. BCI sent it to George Wagner while the brothers were on the road truck driving, Jake Wagner testified.
- He said his father was upset with him and his brother for dying their hair darker just before the killings. Jake Wagner told the jury he was taught ‘when you was to hide from someone, hide in plain sight.’
- He revealed he decided to take the plea deal when his grandmother, Rita Holcomb, did. She said at the time she just couldn’t lie to God. He told the jury: “To me, it felt like the answer I was looking for at the time, an answer from God. It was weighing me.”
- At some point after the killings ,he said his dad asked him if he regretted doing the homicides ‘I had told him that I did not,’ he said. Canepa asked him: “Is that true?” No, he just told his dad that to make him feel better. If his dad felt what they had done wasn’t worth it, he said he feared his dad would commit suicide.
On cross examination, George Wagner’s attorney, John Parker, told Jake Wagner: “You got the best plea deal in the state of Ohio.”
Parker asked about Jake Wagner’s medications. Jake Wagner didn’t know the names, but said he took anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. He also takes a daily vitamin and something for his thyroid.
Throughout questioning, Jake Wagner smiled so Parker finally asked him about that.
“I smile at the worst times. It has nothing to do with emotions,” he responded.
Other highlights from the cross:
Parker to Jake Wagner: “George didn’t fire a shot, did he?”
“George didn’t like the idea (of the murders) whatsoever. Remember that?”
“Yes, I do.”
Parker: “George went to protect you from your father? Isn’t that true?”
Jake Wagner lay under Chris Rhoden’s Sr.’s silver truck after taking George Wagner’s SKS rifle from him when he said his brother, who was supposed to shoot Chris Sr., froze.
Jake Wagner said he fired it at Chris Sr. as he stood on the front porch.
Parker to Jake: “You laid under the truck like a sniper and shot Chris with the SKS?”
Parker: “You considered him a second father?”
Billy Wagner was inside the trailer when Jake fired the SKS at Chris Sr., according to Jake Wagner’s testimony Wednesday.
He said he heard two additional shots from inside the trailer. Then, his dad walked out.
Jake Wagner said he was hysterical.
He had to calm down his dad.
“It’s too late to back out,” Jake said he told him.
Parker asked him about Kenneth Rhoden being shot in the eye.
Jake Wagner said he saw a photo of Kenneth Rhoden’s shot-up face didn’t focus on it: “I have no memory of the gruesome parts of the crime.”
Parker asked him about confronting Hanna Rhoden over their daughter and asking her what happens if she gets molested.
Jake Wagner testified earlier this week Hanna Rhoden’s response to the question was “If it happens, we will just have to deal with it.”
“Could you have gone to a judge with your fears instead of killing Hanna?” His brother’s attorney asked him on the stand.
“I could have, yes.”
Parker: “You could have gone to Dana about your fears right?“
“Yes,” he responded, adding that he wasn’t in the best light Hanna Rhoden’s mother at that point, however.
“I thought I had no other option,” he said.
Parker asked Jake Wagner about his mother: “Angela (Wagner) tried to talk you out of the murders to protect you, right?”
The cross-examination will continue when court resumes Friday morning.
When it does, Jake Wagner’s testimony will continue off-camera.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering ruled that won’t change after an hour-long hearing Wednesday morning before the jury was brought in.
Throughout this trial, the judge has given all witnesses the option to have their testimony recorded on camera with an audio feed also being supplied on a livestream.
When witnesses opt-out of being recorded, only people in the courtroom can see and hear it.
Multiple other witnesses have testified on camera including both George Wagner and Jake Wagner’s ex-wives, some relatives of the Rhoden family who cried on the stand at times as they recounted painful memories of their slain loved ones, agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the deputy coroner at the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office who performed autopsies on all of the victims.
Few have opted out but some have, including Pike County Sheriff Tracy D. Evans, who was the first law enforcement official on the scene the morning the victims’ bodies were found.
The elected official testified early on in the trial and told FOX19 NOW on Wednesday his decision to take the stand off camera was not due to any security concerns.
“It was personal reasons. That (case) affected me quite a bit because I was first on scene. It was for personal reasons. I did not want to see my face on YouTube five years from now, five months from now and it would just bring back bad memories.”
On Tuesday, however, an appeals court ordered the judge to keep the cameras on for all witness testimony unless he holds a hearing first and certain criteria to allow off camera testimony is established:
- Reasonable & substantial basis for believing public access could harm or endanger fairness of adjudication
- Potential for harm outweighs benefits of public access
- No reasonable options to closure
So Deering scheduled the hearing with less than 24-hour notice.
Media attorney Jack Greiner urged the judge to have Jake Wagner testify on camera or at least provide an audio feed due to the high public interest in the case, which is Ohio’s largest and most expensive murder investigation/prosecution to date.
The judge, however, ultimately chose to keep Jake Wagner’s testimony off camera. He cited concerns for Jake Wagner’s safety as a jail/prison inmate.
The judge announced his decision immediately following testimony from a veteran official in the state’s prison system, Robert Horton.
Under questioning by Special Prosecutor Andy Wilson, a member of Gov. Mike DeWine’s cabinet who is a senior advisor to Criminal Justice Policy, Horton said on the stand that inmates who testify against other inmates - particularly family members - are under heightened risk for being attacked and could even be killed.
That heightened security risk also applies to prison staff, Horton confirmed.
“Have you heard the phrase ‘Snitches get stitches?’”Wilson asked Horton.
He responded: “I have heard the phrase, yes.”
Wilson and Jake Wagner’s attorney also argued that changing the rules now and requiring Jake Wagner to testify on camera after he’s testified off camera the last two days could have a chilling effect on the rest of his testimony.
What’s more, both Jake Wagner and George Wagner’s attorneys objected in general over a variety of other concerns including their clients’ constitutional rights.
The judge said the decision to allow Jake Wagner to testify off camera applies only to him, not all the other witnesses who may want to opt out, too.
By noon Wednesday, the Fourth District Court of Appeals issued a new order modifying Tuesday’s decision. This one says any witness who objects may not be photographed, videotaped or otherwise recorded.
Angela Wagner is expected to testify against George Wagner IV next week.
The judge alreadhy has said the prosecution already indicated last month they wanted both Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner to testify off camera.
Since Angela Wagner and Jake Wagner confessed to their roles in the slayings, their testimony against George Wagner is part of their plea deals with the state.
In testimony on Tuesday, Jake Wagner told the jury how his brother and their dad helped him get rid of the guns and other things they used in the execution-style killings of eight people in April 2016.
He told the jury his family agreed to tell law enforcement they were all at home watching TV when the slayings happened on April 21-22, 2016.
“I believe my dad said don’t offer gains,” Wagner recalled on the stand.
Under questioning from Prosecutor Canepa, he said he and his family never talked about the killings or his daughter’s custody, which is believed to be the motive in what has become Ohio’s biggest and most expensive murder case to date.
“No. I couldn’t without having immense guilt ...I decided to erase the memory completely.”
On Monday, Jake Wagner nonchalantly described committing crimes such as arson and theft for years with his family and talked just as calmly about gunning down most of the eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families.
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, 19.
The other victims are her father, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his older brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; his cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38; his former wife, Dana Lynn Rhoden, 37, and their sons: Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie’s fiancé, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20.
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