Pike County massacre: Wrongful death lawsuit dropped
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WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - The Rhodens are dropping a wrongful death lawsuit, at least for now, against the Wagners in the 2016 Pike County massacre.
The attorney for Tony Rhoden, administrator of the victims’ estates, filed a notice of voluntary dismissal without prejudice Thursday.
That means they reserve the right to refile the same lawsuit at a later date and definitely plan to, stressed the attorney, Brian K. Duncan.
“Plaintiffs have every intention of refiling this action within the applicable timeframe afforded by and through the laws of the State of Ohio,” he wrote in an email to FOX19 NOW.
“The parties in the criminal cases, inclusive of the Prosecutors, are essentially prohibited from speaking and/or otherwise sharing any information with us by virtue of the gag orders. Thus, we are unable to complete our own investigation until the gag orders are lifted and/or the criminal cases are finalized.”
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in November 2020 by relatives and/or administrators of the victims’ estates including Rhoden.
Eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families were killed April 21-22, 2016 in four separate trailers at two locations near Piketon.
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.
Prosecutors say the motive in the murders was the custody of the young daughter of Edward “Jake” Wagner and Hanna May Rhoden, his ex-girlfriend and one of the victims he confessed to shooting in the head.
Jake Wagner, his older brother George Wagner IV and their parents, George “Billy Wagner and Angela Wagner, were all indicted by a Pike County grand jury and arrested in November 2018.
They were all charged with 22 counts including eight counts of aggravated murder.
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.
The eldest Wagner son, George Wagner IV, fought the charges but lost.
A Pike County jury found him guilty on Nov. 30, 2022, on all 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.
He’s 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.
The fourth and final member of the Wagner family still facing charges in the massacre is Billy Wagner. His trial is now expected to begin in late spring 2024.
His lawyers want to move the trail out of Pike County.
The judge was supposed to rule on that request last month but delayed it until October after the special prosecutor didn’t file her response until just before the hearing began.
Billy and Angela Wagner’s mothers also were charged in connection with the slayings.
Fredericka Wagner, then 76, and Angela Wagner’s mother, Rita Newcomb, then 65, were accused of helping to cover up the killings.
The grandmothers were arrested on one count each of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Rita Newcomb, now 70, wound up pleading guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of obstructing official business in 2019.
All charges were dropped against Frederick Wagner.
Her attorney recently asked the court to dismiss her as one of the defendants in the suit.
She owns the massive Flying W ranch worth millions and could be the only defendant the relatives could seek any damages from. The rest are mostly in jail or prison.
Civil lawsuits in Ohio require the plaintiff to ask for an amount above $25,000.
Fredericka Wagner’s attorney said in a court last month she had “nothing to do” with the homicides and had no idea that her grandson Jake hid the murder weapons, in concrete buckets, in a pond pond on her property.
Billy Wagner also thinks he should be dropped from the case, according to court records filed by his lawyer.
His pre-trial statement says “After a lengthy investigation, authorities suspected Edward “Jake” Wagner of being the perpetrator of the homicides. (“Billie”) was not considered a suspect in the homicides until late in the investigation.”
It goes on to say his youngest son and his wife “have confessed to planning and killing eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families.”
So, Billy Wagner “denies any involvement and liability in the death of eight people found from the morning of April 22, 2016
The Rhodens stand to gain the most award money if Frederica Wagner is included in the litigation.
If not, the Rhodens’ family said last month he would seek a default judgment against the other Wagners and not take the case to trial.
Duncan said last month it wouldn’t be worth having the Rhodens relive the nightmare with nothing to gain.
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