Pike County massacre trial: ‘Strong’ evidence to convict George Wagner IV in ‘senseless’ slaughter, state says
WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - The state wrapped up its prosecution Monday of George Wagner IV in the 2016 Pike County massacre with a day-long closing argument that was more a case summary than a summary of the evidence.
George IV’s defense team will now begin their closing arguments at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Once closing arguments are over, the judge is expected to read more than 100 pages of instructions to the jury before they begin deliberations in a case that has taken three months to present with 60 witnesses testifying and more than 1,000 trial exhibits.
Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa started her closing argument Monday by telling jurors they are sitting on the longest-serving jury in a criminal case in Ohio.
The April 21-22, 2016 execution-style shootings of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families is considered the state’s biggest murder case and its most expensive with nearly $4 million spent so far, according to state and local estimates.
The massacre victims are Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his older brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; his cousin, Gary Rhoden; Chris Rhoden Sr.’s former wife, Dana Lynn Rhoden, 37, and their children: Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Hanna Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie’s fiancé, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20.
Their killings were “senseless,” Special Prosecutor Canepa told jurors.
“These murders never should have happened, there was never a reason,” she said. “Eight innocent victims were slaughtered.”
She began to show the jury photos of the victims as she talked about their lives and then their vicious deaths.
The pictures depicted the victims smiling in happier times - and then Canepa flashed to crime scene evidence pictures showing their bloody bodies.
The defense objected to photos of the victims’ bodies. Canepa continued her closing statement without showing the victims’ pictures at all, dead or alive.
George IV, 31, quietly listened at the defense table while she talked, often keeping his head down and taking copious notes as he has throughout the trial.
He was indicted in 2018 along with three members of his family: mother, Angela Wagner, 52; father Billy Wagner, 51 and brother Jake Wagner, 28.
George no longer faces the possibility of the death penalty if he is convicted of aggravated murder charges in the slayings.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering dropped the death penalty last week at the state’s request in exchange for testimony from George’s brother and mother.
The motive in the slayings stemmed from a custody dispute over a young daughter Jake Wagner and one of the victims he killed, Hanna Rhoden, had together, prosecutors say.
Special Prosecutor Canepa spent several minutes mentioning the ex-wives of George and his brother Jake and drawing parallels to the family’s controlling ways up and after the slayings.
Both ex-wives separately fled the Wagner home in fear for their lives as their marriages crumbled amid violence and controlling behavior that began with matriarch Angela Wagner.
Tabitha testified she told George: “You just signed your divorce papers,” after he slapped her face when they argued inside the Wagner home, Canepa reminded jurors.
Tabitha also testified George’s mother threw a wooden board at her and claimed she was going to get a gun to kill her.
Jake’s wife, Beth Anne, wrote in her journal about Angela Wagner’s controlling ways and the violent manner in which the family existed.
She was isolated from Jake’s daughter and George’s son and forbidden to be alone with them after Angela Wagner accused her of trying to poison the family and then claimed she was inappropriate with Sophia.
Adding to the pattern of violence the Wagner brothers exhibited toward the women in their lives, Canepa noted that Hanna Rhoden ended her relationship with Jake Wagner after he choked her.
The Wagners went through court to get custody of Tabitha’s son with George. She signed custody papers thinking she would have access to her son and would share parenting with George, Canepa reminded jurors.
But once Tabitha left the Wagner household, she rarely saw her son and arranged visits were often canceled. Then, after the slayings, the family moved to Alaska for a year from spring 2017 to spring 2018.
Hanna Rhoden refused to sign custody papers giving Wagners any rights to her daughter beyond the informal custody arrangement she had with her ex-boyfriend, Jake: one week on, one week off with their daughter.
When Tabitha’s mother warned Hanna in a Facebook message - one monitored by Angela Wagner - not to sign anything, Hanna responded, “‘They’ll have to kill me first,’” Canepa reminded the jury.
As Canepa continued summarizing the entire case Monday, she told jurors they heard testimony that the Wagners operated like a ‘criminal enterprise” meaning their finances and purchases were intermingled.
She reminded the jury they had seen “strong circumstantial evidence” against the Wagners that proved they committed the murders including:
- Shoeprints left in blood at the crime scenes that matched two sizes worn by the brothers the style of shoes Angela Wagner purchased on April 7, 2016, just days before the slayings.
- Jake Wagner was in Dana Rhoden’s trailer to assemble a crib for Hanna Rhoden’s newborn baby the week of the slayings. Dana Rhoden and her children, Hanna Rhoden and Chris Rhoden Jr., only moved into the trailer three days before they were killed so whoever did it knew the layout, ruling out any possible involvement from a drug cartel.
- A gun silencer investigators found in the well on a former property of the Wagners, on Peterson Road in Peebles, just before they were indicted in 2018.
- Forged and/or backdated custody papers including ones purporting to give custody of Hanna Rhoden and Jake Wagner’s daughter to Jake Wagner.
- A “suspicious” tattoo George got after the murders of an open-mouth skull and crossbones with an eight-ball surrounded by three aces and a pair of dice at five and six that add up to the winning “Yo” 11 bet, one of the most popular bets on a craps game. This bet is good for only one roll.
- Shell casings found at the family’s home on Peterson Road that matched spent cartridges found at one of the crime scenes on Union Hill Road
The jury also saw plenty of direct evidence tying George to the crimes including false statements the Wagners gave state investigators insisting everything was fine between Jake and Hanna Rhoden when she was killed.
At that point, tensions over custody were at a boiling point, according to the prosecution.
“Then we see the Facebook message from Hanna May saying that she won’t sign papers, that they would have to kill her first and we know that in four short months later, she and seven members of her family are dead,” Caneps told jurors.
The testimonies of Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner also are direct evidence.
Jake and Angela pleaded guilty last year to their roles in the slayings and testified for the state against George as part of their plea deal, including the removal of the death penalty.
Jake will still spend the rest of his life locked up in prison and knows that, his attorney has conceded in open court.
Jake could receive up to eight consecutive life sentences for the Rhodens’ murders and 160 years imprisonment for the other charges.
The prosecution has recommended Angela Wagner receive 30 years with no possibility of the death penalty.
George, by comparison, could spend the rest of his life behind bars if he is convicted on some or all of the charges.
George is the first one to be tried for the massacre. In all, he is charged with 22 crimes including eight counts of aggravated murder.
The other charges he faces are conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, four counts of aggravated burglary, three counts of tampering with evidence, one count each of forgery, unauthorized use of property, interception of wire, oral or electronic communications, obstructing justice, and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.
He has pleaded not guilty and his attorneys say he was not even there on the night of the slayings.
His defense lost a request last week for his acquittal due to a lack of evidence.
Judge Deering soundly rejected it in a decision that was hardly a surprise.
The judge already denied one defense attempt last year to throw out the murder charges.
Prosecutors have repeatedly argued George Wagner IV “certainly is complicit” in the execution-style killings, most at close range and some while the victims were sleeping even though he didn’t actually shoot anyone.
The state contends he is still eligible for aggravated murder convictions because he actively participated in the planning and covering up of the killings.
He also was at all four crime scenes as or immediately after the victims were killed in their trailers at two locations in Piketon, they say, and George’s mother and brother’s testimony backed that up.
Angela Wagner and Jake Wagner’s testimonies basically corroborated each other’s version of events - and they have not seen each other’s statements or testimonies, the state contends.
“They don’t blame somebody else,” Canepa noted to the jury Monday, adding that they didn’t blame Billy Wagner and Angela Wagner didn’t just blame her youngest son, Jake.
“The reason their stories match,” Canepa said of Jake and Angela, “is they both finally decided to tell the truth. The only thing we are interested in is how these crimes were committed and how it (sic) happened.”
Canepa referred then to one of George’s attorneys telling Jake “he got the deal of the century” during cross-examination.
She refuted that, noting Jake pleaded guilty to (most) of the crimes he was charged with and the state did it with the victims’ families’ consent.
After Jake Wagner confessed in April 2021 and then appeared in court to plead guilty, Canepa announced he had led investigators to where they hid the murder weapons and a pickup truck that was specifically purchased to drive to and from the crime scenes and then sold immediately after.
“It’s not good if just one or two of them are held accountable and the other escape. That’s not good,” she told the jury.
“So, armed with that, we sit down with Jake and, you heard for a very long time, over 12 hours in two days. There were a lot of things that we did not know that he told us.”
When Jake took the stand against his brother 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, her father, Chris Rhoden Sr.
He implicated his father in the murders of Chris Rhoden Sr., Gary Rhoden and Kenneth Rhoden.
Angela Wagner confirmed on the stand during her testimony that she was responsible for the slayings too, even though she didn’t shoot a single person and wasn’t with her sons and husband at the murder scenes.
She responded “Yes,” when Canepa asked her if she was “guilty of the murders.”
Both Jake and Angela testified to George’s involvement in the plotting and covering up.
Jake said on the stand his brother went along with Jake and his father to the killings to protect Jake. They rode under a pickup truck bed they made to conceal themselves, he claimed.
At one point, their father pulled over and asked Jake Wagner if he really wanted to go through with the killings. Jake testified that he did and his father got back in the pickup truck and kept going to the victims’ trailers.
Jake also testified Geoge was armed with an SKS rifle but wound up not pulling the trigger when it came time to shoot Chris Rhoden Sr., so Jake took the weapon and shot Chris Rhoden Sr. once instead.
When Jake confessed to authorities, he asked them to tape his statement so his family could hear his words, Canepa told the jury.
He also signed an agreement that stated he had to be truthful and give a full and accurate account to the state and then again in his testimony to the jury for the death penalty possibility to be removed against his whole family, Canepa said.
“He didn’t do this plea to get his family in trouble. It’s the opposite. He’s trying to get his family out of as much trouble as possible,” Canepa told the jury.
“He asked us if there was any way he could see his family one last time, his mom, his dad, his brother and hug them before they go to prison for the rest of their lives. Now, if you are lying about them being involved, if George is completely innocent, didn’t know anything about this.....do I expect you to hug me? How ludicrous would that be?”
In a surprise move, George took the stand in his own defense earlier this month and 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 testified.
Under cross-examination, George said his mother and brother both lied during their testimony and their 2021 confessions to prosecutors.
Proposed jury instructions filed last week 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 the others is so similar it establishes his modus operandi of execution.”
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