Rhoden family ‘angry, hurt, confused’ amid Pike County investigation
PIKE COUNTY, OH (FOX19) - Standing in the front yard of the home she once shared with her mother and her father, Kendra Rhoden flipped through hundreds of text messages she's saved on her phone.
Those messages and a lone voice mail are the only pieces Kendra still has of her father, Kenneth Rhoden.
"When you get a chance I want you to look up on the internet, see if you can find me another orange Stihl hat. With white letters," Kenneth said in that voice message before hanging up.
"It was his favorite hat, ever," Kendra remembered with a laugh.
Before we left her home last week, Kendra jogged back to her room and came back out with an old, worn ball cap. It's an old hat she snagged from her dad's truck a few years ago. A hat she held close to her several times as we stood and talked in the grass of her front yard.
“I’m so glad I took this from him,” Kendra said, holding the hat and smiling. “It still smells like him,” she said.
But, the smiles disappeared when she relived the morning of April 22. The morning that would "rip every one of our hearts out," Kendra said.
"KENNETH'S DEAD, YOUR DAD'S GONE"
The first call came early. It was a family member telling Kendra Rhoden her Uncle Chris had been shot.
"You try to get a hold of everybody, nobody's answering," Kendra said, recalling the morning she frantically tried to reach her family by phone.
By 1 p.m. Kendra - and the world - would find out it was more than just Uncle Chris. Killers had slipped down Union Hill Road and murdered her Aunt Dana, Uncle Chris, Uncle Gary and cousins Frankie, Hannah Gilley, Chris Jr. and Hanna May Rhoden. Most were shot, the attorney general said, in their beds.
The crime scene on Left Fork Road surrounded a camper. Inside was Kendra's father, Kenneth. His was the eighth body found that morning.
"We're calling him. We're leaving messages. He was supposed to be at work. Well, then, 12 o'clock came around, he was supposed to be on break. My dad never ignored me," Kendra recalled. She'd thought her dad was at his job in Columbus.
Then, the family sent a friend and a Rhoden cousin over to check Kenneth's home. The pair called Kendra's aunt to tell her the news.
That aunt broke the news to Kendra as the remaining Rhoden family members stood together, awaiting updates from law enforcement near Union Hill Road that morning.
"She just said Kenneth's dead. Your dad's gone."
"It was one of those things, you know. Punch me, wake me up. Nothing would have woke me up. Still to this day, sometimes I'll wake up and it'll be just like a dream," Kendra said.
"It's like watching the entire world just fall apart and you're just stuck there. It's like feeling your soul leave your body, feeling your heart stop. It's like walking through your day, you're there, but you're not alive," Kendra said, trying to describe the milliseconds after being told her father was murdered.
Kendra didn't yet have all the details. Her cousin, Donald Stone, described the scene inside Kenneth's camper to FOX19 NOW in an interview following the murders in April.
"I walk in and I see a tray of marijuana plants on the floor and I turn around and I walk back out the building and I say we need to call 911," Stone said.
"I look over and I see Ken's leg on the bed. I hollered at Ken, I said Kenneth can you hear me? I walk up to the foot of the bed and I raise my head up and looked and seen blood in his eyes. And I knew then he was dead," Stone told FOX19 NOW.
Kenneth Rhoden is buried in Piketon, just a few miles from Kendra home. He's buried next to his son, Austin Caine Rhoden. Kenneth adopted Austin in the 90s. Austin passed away after a battle with cancer in November 1995.
He was just six and a half years old.
"What do you think you owe your dad now," FOX19 NOW's Jody Barr asked Kendra.
"Justice. I owe him to find out who done this to him."
UNGUARDED, UNSECURED RHODEN EVIDENCE
"Everything that my kids have left of their father is there," Stacie Rhoden-Rigsby said.
Everything investigators hauled away from Union Hill and Left Fork Road and dragged down Highway 32 into a chemical company's warehouse is still there. Investigators did it, they said, to preserve and to protect the evidence.
We found the main gate to that warehouse unlocked and unguarded. The pictures. The clothes. The cars. The trucks.
All the usual things we leave behind when we leave for good.
The Rhoden family members still living in Pike County want most of it back. Everything, except the homes.
It's the last pieces they'll ever own of the eight members of their family who were murdered on April 22, 2016.
Ever since the April massacre, the people closest to the victims have kept quiet, dodging cameras. Aside from talking with a few print reporters, the Rhoden family has grieved privately.
Which means the public knows very little about the fights they've endured since burying their loved ones.
Probate "has been a god-awful fight," Len Manley told FOX19 last month. Manley's daughter, Dana, was one of the eight killed. Manley said he delivered "papers" to the Pike County Sheriff's Office more than six weeks ago, trying to get Dana Rhoden's purse.
Manley needed it so he could track down her bank account and property she owned so he could start the process of probate.
"The sheriff won't answer our calls; nothing," Manley said. "They won't even return call from my attorney's office. We're stuck," Manley said.
Kendra Rhoden only wants her father's personal items. And, his Ford Ranger. And, a stack of old family pictures she gave him of the two of them so he could make copies.
Included in that stack is a picture of Kendra as a toddler wearing a pink snow suit, playing by her father's side as he worked on a demolition derby car in the snow.
He never got to finish copying those photographs before his life ended on April 22.
The photographs are still inside his camper, Kendra said, and neither the sheriff's office nor the Ohio Attorney General's Office will release the property to her.
Kenneth Rhoden's camper and his vehicles were hauled to Hadsell Chemical company's manufacturing facility in May, along with the other three Rhoden crime scenes. The four mobile homes are stored inside the company's Highway 220 processing plant.
Dozens of cars, trucks, ATVs, enclosed trailers and heavy equipment are locked inside a fenced lot outside the chemical company.
On Aug. 14, we started a surveillance project at the chemical plant. We spent several hours each night and day between August 14 and August 22, watching the warehouse. We inspected the main gate leading into the warehouse parking lot to see if it was locked.
Our surveillance continued for the next six weeks. By the end, we'd spent more than 70 hours watching the Rhoden evidence warehouse. We never saw a Pike County deputy there securing it.
We were never stopped and questioned about why we were near the warehouse, at all hours of the day and night.
And, we found the gate leading into the main entrance of the warehouse left open and unlocked, except for only a couple of nights during that six-week span.
"When you saw what we found at this warehouse, what went through your mind," Barr asked Kendra Rhoden. "Anger. I went completely numb. But, all I could feel was anger," Rhoden said during an interview two weeks ago.
For the next several days, Rhoden said she tried to schedule meetings with Pike County Sheriff Charlie Reader and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
She wanted answers about the Rhoden evidence warehouse. Kendra sent Facebook messages to the sheriff and called his office, she said. By the time we interviewed her on Oct. 10, she'd never heard back from the sheriff.
"It's like they want to avoid me," Kendra told FOX19 NOW, "Because they know they messed up."
The sheriff, Kendra said, finally agreed to meet her. That meeting happened two days after our interview. Kendra said she left that meeting with the sheriff feeling "very little satisfaction" over our legal analysts' claims that any future prosecution of the Rhoden massacre could be jeopardized over the unsecured, unguarded evidence at the warehouse.
"We're worried that people weren't exactly doing their jobs to the full extent they should be," Kendra said. "Not watching the warehouse, the evidence they moved—supposedly to protect it—that's the reason they moved it and it's not been protected since June," Kendra said.
Stacie and Kendra said they knew long before we aired our first reports on the unguarded evidence warehouse that it was no longer being guarded by the Pike County Sheriff's Office. The women live three miles from the warehouse.
They pass it multiple times a day.
There's been nobody there since probably June," Stacie Rhoden-Rigsby said, "I noticed the gate was not all the way shut, so therefore, you know it's not locked. It's been unsecure and we've known for a while."
We requested Pike County spending records on the Rhoden investigation to see if the sheriff's office had paid for any around-the-clock security detail at the warehouse. The initial records Sheriff Charles Reader provided us were incomplete and only showed a $1,400 security camera system installed at "the Rhoden Command Center," the invoice showed.
Reader later provided FOX19 another spreadsheet showing spending on the Rhoden investigation. This spreadsheet contained overtime spending, which the initial spreadsheet did not disclose.
In the latter spreadsheet, Reader listed June 25 as the last overtime expenditure.
That's about the last time the Rhodens said they remembered seeing a deputy at the warehouse. When they saw the gate opened overnight and on weekends, they thought they were about to hear the news they've all been waiting for: the killers had been identified.
"Initially, when I first seen it, I thought there might have been a break and they just didn't have no use to guard it anymore," Stacie said.
As the weeks passed, the Rhodens said that hope faded.
"That's when I realized they're just not taking the care that they initially were when everything first happened. It's like they don't care," Stacie said.
"It's not being taken care of, it's not being guarded," Stacie said during our interview, "Anybody can go in there at any point in time to mess with, throw evidence in there that's not been there; anything."
FOX19 NOW INVESTIGATION SPARKS SECURITY CHANGE
We interviewed Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader on Sept. 26. In that interview, we showed the sheriff what we found during our six-week surveillance of the warehouse. Reader later admitted in that interview that he did not have 24/7 guard of the Rhoden evidence warehouse.
By Sept. 28, there was a new chain and lock on the main gate at the warehouse.
Our report was published the night of Sept. 28. It detailed what we found at the warehouse: unmanned guard shack, the unlocked gate, a gate blocking an access road beside the warehouse secured with a piece of wire and never seeing a deputy on patrol at the warehouse.
In those reports, former Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said investigators might have jeopardized the prosecution of the case because the evidence was not being guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Any evidence that they would pull out of that thing would be virtually useless," Allen said as he stood in the parking lot of the Rhoden evidence warehouse in September.
"You can walk straight through the gate there and over that fence. An old man like me can get over that thing in 20 seconds," Allen said, pointing out the fact that the main gate into the warehouse compound was cracked open and unlocked while we stood in the parking lot shooting the interview.
Reader and Attorney General Mike DeWine both said they disagreed with Allen's assertion that they would have trouble submitting evidence and that the case was "jeopardized" because of what we found at the warehouse.
By 4 a.m. Sept. 29, just hours after our investigation aired, we saw Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader removing the wire that had secured the gate to the access road and replaced it with a padlock. Reader also hung four "no trespassing" signs on the gate and hammered stakes in the ground on either side of the gate.
The gap on the left side of the gate was wide enough to drive around before the stakes went up.
Later in the morning on Sept. 29, we spotted the sheriff guarding the main gate into the warehouse. He was sitting in his marked patrol truck with his parking lights on. The sheriff was gone a short time later.
"He got called on it so he had to go out and do something and that's what he did," Stacie said.
"On a level of one to ten, how frustrated are you with law enforcement in this case," Barr asked Kendra. "A nine. I'm saving my ten," she said.
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