Defense requests moving final Wagner trial due to widespread, ‘negative’ media coverage

George “Billy” Wagner is facing 22 charges in the murder case.
New judge to be appointed in George ‘Billy’ Wagner case
Published: Jul. 7, 2023 at 9:50 PM EDT
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WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - A visiting judge will decide next month whether to allow a change of venue in the trial of George “Billy” Wagner III in the 2016 Pike County massacre.

Pike County massacre: Complete coverage

His eldest son, George Wagner IV was sentenced late last year to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole on all eight aggravated murder charges and 14 related counts including burglary.

The eight life sentences will run consecutively for the 31-year-old who also was sentenced to an additional 121 years in prison for the other charges.

Now Billy Wagner, 51, faces a similar fate if convicted on the same 22 charges.

Defense attorney Mark Collins wants to move Billy Wagner’s trial due to media coverage of previous court proceedings surrounding the slayings, including George Wagner IV’s trial.

“(This) county has been so saturated with the facts underlying this case that it is impossible for the defendant to receive a fair trial before a jury composed of impartial persons who learn of the case only through the evidence properly submitted during the trial,” he wrote in a motion.

Most of the coverage was “negative” and “blatantly prejudicial” misinformation that “presumes” Billy Wagner’s guilt and has been “plastered” all over southern Ohio, Collins’ motion reads.

He points to the use of the word “massacre” to describe the slayings, the first instance of which came without attribution in the title of a media story published hours after the slayings on April 23, 2016.

The use of that word took off immediately.

Within hours, national outlets were dubbing it the “Pike County Massacre,” and that designation has been synonymous with the slayings ever since he notes.

This and other examples of overwhelming media coverage mean, according to the motion, that no jury seated in the “tight-knit community” of Pike County could fail to carry preconceptions into the courtroom.

“The negative coverage at the click of a button must not be ignored. There is a reason why attorneys cannot use loaded words such as ‘murderer’ or ‘massacre’ in the court of law, and that is [so] that the jury does not hear that which is unduly prejudicial,” the motion states.

“Of course, the limits the court may exercise in an inevitable trial may never matter, as the blatantly prejudicial pervasive information and misinformation continues to to be spread, to the point where readers cannot reasonably be expected to shut from sight.”

Moving the trial to a larger area such as the city of Columbus might offer a more impartial jury, the defense’s court records state. There is a larger jury pool than the 27,000 residents of Pike County - who are steeped in “pervasive media coverage,” the motion states.

Pike County is in the viewing area of Columbus local news.

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George “Billy” Wagner III; his wife, Angela Wagner, and their two sons, George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner, were all indicted in the April 21-22 murders of the Rhoden and Gilley families in rural Piketown, about two hours east of downtown Cincinnati.

Two Wagners, Jake and Angela, pleaded guilty in 2021.

As part of their plea deals, both testified for the state against George in his trial last year.

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

Jake and Hanna began dating when she was 13 and he was 17. Their daughter was born in November 2015.

Hanna broke up with him but he didn’t want the relationship to end. She was 19 when she gave birth to a second baby, this time with another man, just days before Jake killed her, according to his testimony during his brother’s trial.

Jake Wagner said he personally shot her and killed four other of the eight victims: Dana Rhoden, 37, and her two other children, 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.

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

Jake Wagner’s testimony indicated his father fatally shot the other three victims, Christopher Rhoden Sr., Christopher Rhoden’s cousin Gary Rhoden and Christopher Rhoden’s older brother, Kenneth Rhoden.

The case is the largest homicide investigation in state history and also the most complicated one for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

It involves nearly 5,000 pieces of evidence as well as a small army of investigators, analysts, forensic scientists and crime scene advocates.

Gov. Mike DeWine called George Wagner IV’s trial last year “one of the longest, if not the longest, trials in Ohio history.”

So far, the massacre investigation and prosecution has cost taxpayers about $4 million, according to state and local officials

Billy Wagner has pleaded not guilty to all 22 charges against him.

He remains locked up without bond at the Butler County Jail, where he has been held since he was arrested in November 2018.

If his case goes to trial, his youngest son and wife are expected to testify against him just like they did at his eldest son’s trial.

Wagner family members arrested in execution-style murders Pike Co., OH - Attorney General Mike...
Wagner family members arrested in execution-style murders Pike Co., OH - Attorney General Mike DeWine Press Conference
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 to death.(WXIX)

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