Pike County massacre: Hearing held in wrongful death lawsuit filed by victims’ families

Fredericka Wagner wants the court to dismiss her as one of the defendants in the wrongful death lawsuit.
Published: Aug. 10, 2023 at 4:19 PM EDT
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WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - Family matriarch Fredericka Wagner wants the court to dismiss her as one of the defendants in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by relatives of the victims of the Pike County massacre.

Her lawyer made the request in a court filing on Aug. 4 ahead of several pretrial hearings and status conferences on the case that started Thursday.

She owns the massive Flying W farm and could be the only defendant the relatives could seek any damages from. The rest are mostly in jail or prison.

Thursday was the first time the wrongful death case has come up for a public hearing since three members of the Wagner families either pleaded guilty to or were convicted in the April 21-22, 2016 slayings.

“Ferdericka’s in her 80s and we need to get closure on this case,” her lawyer declared. “The plaintiff has no evidence presented that she was involved in any way shape or form.”

Her attorney said Fredericka had no idea that her grandson Jake sunk the murder weapons in a pond on her property.

One of the bulletproof vests found in her house, thought to be bought for her family to use turned out to be manufactured after the Rhodens were murdered.

“She had nothing to do with the Rhoden homicides,” Ferdericka’s lawyer said. “Nothing to do with the cover-up. It was proven beyond all doubt that the allegations in the indictment against her were false.”

The fourth and final member of the Wagner family still facing charges in the massacre is Fredericka’s son, George “Billy” Wagner.

He is expected to go on trial next year.

The Rhoden family attorney has six months to interview the Wagners and collect the evidence against them.

“If we don’t have the testimony or evidence to support the claims that we made, they’ll be dismissed,” the Rhoden family attorney, Brian Duncan, explained.

Ferdericka’s property just south of Pike County is estimated to be worth at least $5 million.

Civil lawsuits in Ohio require the plaintiff to ask for an amount above $25,000.

“In this situation, given the nature, the heinous nature of these actions it would far exceed that,” said Duncan. “I mean, it arguably would be upwards of a million I would assume.”

But Ferdericka’s attorney says the family matriarch should not be part of it.

“She believed her family was completely innocent of this and was stunned, absolutely stunned,” her attorney said. “I mean the earth shook below her feet when her grandson entered his guilty plea.”

The Rhodens stand to gain the most award money if Frederica is included in the lawsuit.

If not, their attorney says he will seek a default judgment against the other Wagners and not take the case to trial.

Duncan says it wouldn’t be worth having the Rhodens relive the nightmare with nothing to gain.

Billy Wagner, Billy’s wife Angela Wagner and the couple’s sons, George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner, were all indicted by a Pike County grand jury and arrested in November 2018 on 22 counts including eight counts of aggravated murder in the 2016 massacre.

Fredericka Wagner, then 76, and Angela Wagner’s mother, Rita Newcomb, then 65, also were arrested.

Both were accused of helping to cover up the execution-style slayings of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families.

The grandmothers were arrested on one count each of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Rita Newcomb, 70, wound up pleading guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of obstructing official business in 2019.

All charges were dropped against Frederick Wagner.

And now, “based on evidence on the record, Fredericka Wagner had nothing to do with the planning, commission or cover-up of the Rhoden homicides,” her lawyer wrote in a pretrial statement week.

“For that reason, summary judgment should be granted to her on all of the plaintiffs’ claims,” the court document reads.

Rita Newcomb, left, and Fredericka Wagner, right.
(Photo: Ohio Attorney General's Office via AP)
Rita Newcomb, left, and Fredericka Wagner, right. (Photo: Ohio Attorney General's Office via AP) (AP)
Photo: The Wagner family from left to right: George "Billy Wagner III, Angela Wagner, George...
Photo: The Wagner family from left to right: George "Billy Wagner III, Angela Wagner, George Wagner IV and Edward "Jake" Wagner. (Photo: FOX19 NOW)

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in November 2020 by relatives and/or administrators of the victims’ estates including Tony Rhoden.

The other defendants named in the lawsuit are Billy Wagner, Angela Wagner, George Wagner and Jake Wagner, Newcomb and two people who are not named.

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.

Their bodies were found in four separate trailers at two locations near Piketon on the morning of April 22, 2016.

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

The eldest Wagner son, George Wagner IV, is currently serving eight consecutive sentences of life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

He also was sentenced to 121 years in prison for other charges.

A Pike County jury found him guilty on Nov. 30, 2022, on all 22 charges, including eight counts of aggravated murder.

The jury deliberated less than a day following a three-month-long trial.

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

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

The death penalty was taken off the table for George Wagner after his brother and mother testified against him for the state.

Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner, both pleaded guilty, months apart in 2021, to their roles in the killings. Jake Wagner confessed to killing most of the victims.

Billy Wagner now faces trial on the same 22 charges George Wagner was just convicted on, including eight counts of aggravated murder.

Billy Wagner’s lawyer has requested a change in venue.

The judge is supposed to rule on that request this month.

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