Pike County massacre: Life in prison with or without parole for George Wagner IV?

Pike County massacre: Life in prison with or without parole for George Wagner IV?
Published: Dec. 16, 2022 at 9:51 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 16, 2022 at 9:57 AM EST
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WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - George Wagner IV will be sentenced Monday to life in prison after he was found guilty of killing eight people in Pike County more than six years ago.

Wagner IV, 31, was convicted of planning and covering up eight murders with his family April 21-22, 2016 in rural Piketon, about two hours east of Downtown Cincinnati.

The jury convicted him of all 22 charges including eight counts of aggravated murder. They deliberated less than a day before reaching the verdict on Nov. 30 after the three-month-long trial.

Anyone in Ohio convicted of aggravated murder is required by state law to be sentenced to life in prison.

It’s not clear yet, however, if Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering will order the life sentences to be consecutive or concurrent, or with the possibility of parole.

The death penalty is off the table after Wagner IV’s brother and mother testified against him for the state.

Relatives of the victims are expected to attend the sentencing, where they have the opportunity to address the convicted killer.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called the trial “one of the longest, if not the longest, trials in Ohio history.”

The brutal murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families also are considered the state’s largest and most expensive homicide case to date.

Estimates from state and local officials last week placed the costs at nearly $4 million, all funded by the state of Ohio.

Pike County massacre: Complete trial coverage

The bodies of members of the Rhoden family were discovered the morning of April 22, 2016. All...
The bodies of members of the Rhoden family were discovered the morning of April 22, 2016. All were shot execution style.(WXIX)

The victims of the massacre were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his older brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; his cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38; Chris Rhoden Sr.’s 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 “Hazel” Gilley, 20.

Two infants and a toddler were spared by the killers and left behind at the murder scenes: a 5-day-old baby girl, a 6-month-old baby boy and a 3-year-old boy.

Prosecutors said the motive in the murders was the custody of the young daughter of Jake Wagner and one of the victims he confessed to shooting in the head twice, Hanna May Rhoden.

The young couple 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.

George, his brother Jake Wagner, 28, and their parents Angela Wagner, 52, and Billy Wagner, 51, were all indicted on capital murder charges more than two years after the slayings, in November 2018.

Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner both pleaded guilty to their roles last year. Jake Wagner was first, in April, and his mother pleaded out in early fall.

They both took the stand and told the jury George Wagner IV planned, participated and helped cover up the slayings.

Both the state and defense agreed George didn’t shoot or kill anyone, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Prosecutors argued George was complicit in the killings and should be convicted on all charges including eight counts of murder.

He was the first one of the four Wagners to be tried.

George’s father Billy is continuing to fight the charges and will be tried next year.

In the background, the residence where some of the Pike County Massacre slayings took place...
In the background, the residence where some of the Pike County Massacre slayings took place can be seen.(Court TV)

The state wants the court to impose “the most punishment and penalty it can in this case”: maximum sentences on all 22 charges including eight consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Wagner IV, along with his brother, mother and father “should never live outside of the prison walls ever again,” reads the state’s presentencing memo, signed by all the two special prosecutors, Andy Wilson and Angela Canepa, along with Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk.

Wagner IV “committed the very worst form of these offenses and there are no factors under the sentencing guidelines that would justify giving him anything less than the most this court can in terms of sentencing,” the memo states.

“To do anything less would be to demean not just the seriousness of these offenses and his conduct, but also to demean and disregard his impact on the victims, specifically, the lives of each of the innocent victims that were lost that night.

“The eight individuals who were children and parents and brothers and sisters, two of whom were nursing their infants, and all of whom should have had long lives in front of them, loving and living with their families and their faith. Two of the surviving infants and toddlers of these eight victims were effectively orphaned that night, and the remaining two lost at least one of their parents that night.

“The daughter of Jake and Hanna May will have to live with not only the fact that her father killed her mother, but also the alleged motive behind it, for the rest of her life. Clearly, the surviving other family members of the victims in this case have been impacted, too, not the least of which is Geneva, the mother and grandmother of all the victims. But certainly, so many have suffered greatly due to the atrocities committed by (Wagner IV) and his family - too many, frankly, to name, but there are brothers and sisters and daughters and sons and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins, and just so many others who loved the victims in this case and have been impacted by this terrible crime.

“Some have also passed since the inception of this case and are not here today to see justice served upon all of the monsters who killed their loved ones.”

Wagner IV’s lawyers, John Parker and Richard Nash, requested that he receive a sentence with a “realistic parole board date at which time the board can properly determine whether he should be released from prison based on his conduct and contemporary standards.”

“Human dignity demands as much,” they wrote.

They also noted he didn’t actually kill anyone.

“Jake, the actual killer of at least five of the eight victims, receive life without parole; George was convicted under a complicity theory and did not kill anybody. Angela, the mother of both Jake and George and perhaps the mastermind, received a penalty of only 30 years and will be released (from prison) in about 26 years. She was not held largely accountable for any of the homicides.”

Wagner IV’s attorneys also allege he was denied a fair trial and due process on the following grounds, according to a copy of the motion filed this week:

  • He “was forced to have a jury that was conviction prone” because the death penalty as a possible sentence upon conviction was only dismissed the moments before closing arguments and after jury instructions “had been haggled over for days by the parties.”
  • The court quashed his defense’s subpoena for his brother’s attorney’s notes/documentation of his brother’s private communications with his attorney about the facts of the case. When his brother, Jake Wagner, testified about those conversations, he waived attorney-client privilege, George Wagner’s attorneys argue. They maintain they were unable to cross-examine his brother, Jake Wagner, on the story he told to his attorneys. “Inconsistencies are often the key for a jury to determine one’s credibility. Jake admitted he lied to his attorneys but George has been denied the opportunity to determine the exact lies and what his counsel’s notes can prove about his lies.”

FOX19 NOW Legal Analyst Mike Allen, Hamilton County’s former prosecutor, is doubtful George Wagner will get a new trial: “There doesn’t appear to be any significant errors that Judge Deering made so he will deny the motion for a new trial.”

Allen thinks the judge will follow the state’s sentencing request and impose maximum consecutive sentences.

“Obviously you don’t know for sure but if you look at the state’s sentencing memorandum they are pretty thorough in covering the things they need to cover with respect to it being the worst form of the offenses. They break down all the factors that the judge has to consider in imposing the sentence and one of them is that this defendant committed the worst form of the offense. It would be hard to argue that what happened out there in Pike County was not the worst form of the offense.”

“The sentencing will be emotional. There is no question about it. I know the judge did a pre-sentencing report which is not available to the public. In that presentencing report, the victims’ families can give input but I think they also will give the family members the chance to speak in court. I just don’t know how many and who. I don’t think it’s going to be a quick sentencing at all, like everything else in this case, which is appropriate.”

“You have to give the victims’ families a chance to address the court. It helps in closure for them. They can pretty much say what they want. If they want to turn their head and look at him while they talk I don’t think the judge would have any problem with it. That whole family was slaughtered. It will be interesting. I will be watching Monday.”

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