Pike County massacre trial: Judge denies acquittal for George Wagner IV

Pike County massacre trial: Judge denies acquittal for George Wagner IV
Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 7:44 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 21, 2022 at 11:50 AM EST
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WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - The jury in George Wagner IV’s murder trial is off this week for the Thanksgiving Day holiday but we are still seeing some key developments.

Pike County massacre: Complete trial coverage

On Monday, Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering rejected the defense’s “Rule 29″ motions to acquit George Wagner IV in the 2016 Pike County massacre of eight people for lack of evidence.

Deering said, “reasonable minds could conclude that the defendant is guilty” of the various 22 charges facing George based on the evidence presented in court, including eight counts of aggravated murder.

The judge’s decision hardly comes as a surprise.

Deering already rejected one defense attempt last year to throw out the murder charges.

George Wagner and his family: mother, Angela Wagner; father Billy Wagner and brother Jake Wagner, were all indicted in the shooting deaths of the Rhoden and Gilley families in November 2018.

His attorneys are hoping now that at the very least, he is found not found guilty of murder.

Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa argued that George “certainly is complicit” in the victim’s execution-style shootings, most at close range and some while the victims were sleeping.

Both the state and defense agree he didn’t shoot anyone - but he is eligible for aggravated murder convictions because he actively participated in planning out and covering up the killings, prosecutors say.

For now, the death penalty remains on the table for George as a possible sentence if he is convicted of aggravated murder.

However, the state is expected to request that the death penalty specifications be dropped as part of plea deals with Jake Wagner and his mother that had them testify recently against George.

They are required to file motions asking the judge to dismiss the death penalty before closing arguments and jury deliberations.

The conspiracy charges against George could carry a life sentence but there would still be a possibility that one day, he could walk out of prison on parole.

More hearings and motions are expected this week before the court closes Thursday and Friday for the holiday and reopens Monday, Nov. 28 for closing arguments.

The state and defense rested on Friday after more than two months of testimony.

Attorneys on both sides also still disagree over a few of the more than 1,000 exhibits the state presented to the jury and wants now to officially enter into the court record as evidence.

The judge has to approve all evidence or it won’t be put in the court record and considered by the jury as they decide George’s fate.

Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner pleaded guilty in 2021 to their roles in the slayings and testified against George and Billy in exchange for their plea deal.

The state can dismiss the death penalty specifications against the other family members as part of their testimonies.

Jake confessed and apologized for the crimes. In an interview, he led investigators to the weapons and vehicles used in the killings.

Jake was the ex-boyfriend of one of the victims, Hanna Mae Rhoden, 19.

Authorities have said the motive of the slayings stemmed in part from a custody dispute over a young daughter Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden had together.

When Jake Wagner took the stand for four days last month, he calmly told the jury in graphic detail how he personally shot and killed five of the victims - including the mother of his child - and shot and wounded a sixth.

He implicated his father in the murders of Chris Rhoden Sr., Gary Rhoden and Kenneth Rhoden.

He confirmed his brother never fired a shot - but he testified his brother extensively participated in the planning, preparation and cover-up.

Angela Wagner testified that she, her sons and husband all helped to plan the slayings, prepare for it and cover it up afterward.

Even though she didn’t shoot a single person and wasn’t with her sons and husband at the murder scenes, Angela Wagner responded “Yes,” when the state asked her if she was “guilty of the murders.”

In a surprise move last week, Wagner IV, 31, took the stand in his own defense last week.

He insisted he is not guilty of any of the killings.

George testified his family never approached him about the murder plot and he was asleep the night of the slayings.

Had he known, he claimed he would have stopped them.

“I don’t know how, but I would have never let it happen,” he told the jury on Wednesday.

Under cross-examination, George testified his mother and brother both lied during their testimony and their 2021 confessions to prosecutors.

Proposed jury instructions filed Monday by George’s attorneys elaborate further on that with respect to Jake Wagner’s testimony.

Jake testified he shot one of the victims, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, in the eye, the court records state.

“Jake’s testimony was corroborated by the coroner’s report concerning the gunshot to Gilley. The coroner testified that Kenneth Rhoden was also shot in the eye. However, Jake denied shooting Kenneth.

“In addition, Jake testified he shot Frankie Rhoden, Hanna Rhoden, Dana Rhoden and Christopher Rhoden Jr.,” the filing continues. “The coroner’s lab report corroborates Jake’s testimony that he shot all of those individuals in the head. The coroner testified that Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden suffered identical headshot wounds, however, Jake denied shooting Chris and Gary.

“The identity of the killer of Chris Sr., Gary and Kenneth is all in dispute,” the defense maintains in the proposed jury instructions. “Jake’s method of killing to others is so similar it establishes his modus operadi of execution.”

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