Authorities: Custody dispute played role in family’s slaying
WAVERLY, Ohio (AP) — Authorities arrested a family of four Tuesday in the gruesome 2016 slayings of eight people from another family in rural Ohio, a crime that prosecutors suggested stemmed from a custody dispute.
The announcement marked the culmination of a massive investigative effort that began after seven adults and a teenage boy were found shot in the head at four separate homes in April 2016. The killings terrified local residents and spawned rumors that it was a drug hit.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said a grand jury indicted the four on aggravated murder charges and they could be sentenced to death if convicted. DeWine gave scant detail about why the victims were killed, but he said the custody of a young child played a role. He added that the accused had carefully planned the murders for months.
“There certainly was an obsession with custody, obsession with control of children,” DeWine said.
Those indicted were Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, his father George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; Billy Wagner’s wife, 48-year-old Angela Wagner and George Wagner, 27. The four lived near the scenes of the massacre about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Columbus and had long been considered chief suspects, DeWine said.
“They did this quickly, coldly, calmly, and very carefully. But not carefully enough,” said Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader. “They left traces. They left a trail.”
The victims were Jake Wagner’s longtime former girlfriend, 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, who shared custody of their daughter, her parents, siblings and other relatives. Rhoden had been in bed with her newborn when she was killed. The baby wasn’t hurt.
A coroner said all but one of the victims was shot more than once, including two people shot five times and one shot nine times. Some also had bruising, consistent with the first 911 caller’s description of two victims appearing to have been beaten.
“I just might tell you this is just the most bizarre story I’ve ever seen in being involved in law enforcement,” said DeWine, who was elected governor earlier this month.
A lawyer for the Wagner family maintained their innocence.
“We look forward to the day when the true culprits will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy,” the lawyer, John Clark, said in a statement Tuesday. “The Wagners are also very hopeful that in the ensuing months there will be a thorough vetting of all the facts.”
DeWine and Reader said Tuesday that the Wagners studied the layouts of the victims’ properties, as well as their habits, routines, sleeping locations and pets. The indictments accuse the Wagners of tampering with phones, cameras, a gun silencer, shell casings and parts of a home security system.
DeWine said there was “absolutely no evidence” anyone else was involved.
Investigators scrambling to determine who targeted the Rhoden family and why conducted over 130 interviews and processed over 100 pieces of evidence and 550 tips, with assistance from more than 20 law enforcement agencies. The last significant piece of evidence was collected Oct. 30, DeWine said.
First mention of the suspects came in June of 2017, when authorities announced they were seeking information about the Wagners, including details on their personal and business interactions, and conversations people may have had with them.
None was named a suspect at the time. Investigators also said they had searched property in southern Ohio sold by the Wagners.
Both Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner told the Cincinnati Enquirer that they were not involved in the April 2016 killings. Angela Wagner said what happened was devastating and Hanna Rhoden had been like a daughter to her. She said that her husband, Billy, and Christopher Rhoden Sr., one of the victims, had been more like brothers than friends.
The Wagner family lived in Peebles, Ohio, at the time of the killings but later moved to Alaska, returning in the spring.
Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk cautioned that the case could last several years, and it’s possible the trial relocated because of the publicity.
“This has been so long coming. Thank God!” Verlina Jarrell, of Circleville, Ohio, co-administrator of a Facebook page about the “Pike County massacres” with some 650 members, told The Associated Press.
The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna; Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden. Hanna Rhoden’s days-old baby girl, another baby and a young child were unharmed.
Authorities said marijuana growing operations were found at three of the four crime scenes. While that’s not uncommon in this corner of Appalachia, it stoked rumors that the slayings were drug-related.
DeWine said “there’s an undercurrent of drugs” in the case, but there’s no evidence the killings were related to drugs. He wouldn’t elaborate.
Police in Kentucky say the FBI tracked “Billy” Wagner to Lexington, where he was arrested without incident at around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. Lexington police weren’t sure if he had been living in the area.
The mothers of Angela Wagner and “Billy” Wagner also were arrested in Ohio and charged with misleading investigators.
Jake Wagner was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Rhoden when she was 15 years old and he was 20 years old, DeWine’s office said.
Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus. Associated Press Writers John Seewer in Toledo and Dylan T. Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.