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DeWine: Wagner family meticulously planned Pike County massacre, fueled by 'obsession with custody'

4 charged with murder; 2 charged with cover-up
Posted: 1:34 PM, Nov 13, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-14 06:16:22Z
Sheriff: 4 arrested in Pike County massacre
Sheriff: 4 arrested in Pike County massacre
Sheriff: 4 arrested in Pike County massacre
Sheriff: 4 arrested in Pike County massacre

WAVERLY, Ohio -- It wasn't about drugs, Attorney General Mike DeWine announced Tuesday.

It wasn't a cartel execution, although it had certainly been made to look that way.

After a "thousand-piece puzzle" of an investigation spanning two years, 10 states and hundreds of interviews, investigators discovered the overnight murders of eight Rhoden family members -- the youngest just 16 -- likely came down to a custody battle over a toddler. 

The culprits, DeWine said, were the child's father and members of his extended family. According to their indictments, four of them plotted meticulously to kill the Rhodens on April 22, 2016, and conceal the evidence after. Two more face charges of aiding in the cover-up. 

"We always felt from the beginning that the perpetrators were very familiar with the victims and their homes," DeWine said. "The Wagners certainly were."

Authorities arrested George "Billy" Wagner III, 47; Angela Wagner, 48; George Wagner IV, 27 and Edward "Jake" Wagner, 26 Tuesday and charged them each with eight counts of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications, as well as other crimes, for the deaths of the eight Rhodens in an event deemed the  Pike County massacre.

"They were brutally and viciously executed," according to DeWine, who described the act as "ruthless, heartless, cold-blooded murder."

Rita Newcomb, 65, Angela Wagner's mother; and 76-year-old Fredericka Wagner, Billy Wagner's mother, face charges of obstructing justice and perjury. Newcomb also stands charged with forgery.

Top row: George "Billy" Wagner III, George Wagner IV, Edward "Jake" Wagner
Bottom row: Angela Wagner, Rita Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner

A Pike County grand jury indicted the Wagners on the charges Monday. DeWine, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader and Pike County Prosecutor Robert Junk announced the arrests Tuesday.

For Reader, who had been sheriff for less than a year on the morning the bodies were discovered, they represent the end of one painful journey and the beginning of another that could last even longer. 

"It’s going to be much, much sweeter when the prosecution is done," he said.

Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden, who was 19 when she was killed, had a child together.  He also faces charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for allegedly having sexual contact with Hanna when she was 15 and he was 20. 

"There certainly was obsession with custody, obsession with control of the children," DeWine said.

Evidence shows that Billy, Angela, George and Jake Wagner developed an elaborate plan to kill the Rhodens, according to DeWine. He said they studied the victims' habits and routines and knew the layouts of their homes. 

The Wagners bought ammunition, a magazine clip, brass catchers and a bug detector to prepare for the crimes, according to the indictments. They also studied "counter-surveillance devices" on the properties, including pets, and tampered with phones; cameras; and parts of a home security system.

In addition to the murder charges, members of the family are facing charges of conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with evidence, unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance, forgery, unauthorized use of property, interception of wire, oral or electronic communications, obstructing justice and aggravated burglary. 

DeWine said all four are also facing charges of forgery for allegedly forging child custody documents.

The victims were found shot to death at four homes on the morning of April 22, 2016. Officials have said they believe the shootings took place hours earlier. 

RELATED:  Pike County massacre suspect was in custody dispute with victim

Authorities had long suspected there were multiple attackers who were familiar with the victims' homes and the surrounding area, about 70 miles south of Columbus.

The victims are: 

  • Christopher Rhoden, Sr. (40)
  • Dana Rhoden (37)
  • Hannah Gilley (20)
  • Christopher Rhoden, Jr. (16)
  • Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden (20)
  • Gary Rhoden (37)
  • Hanna Rhoden (19)
  • Kenneth Rhoden (44)

All of the Pike County massacre victims were shot in the head at point-blank range, and seven of the eight were shot multiple times, according to preliminary autopsy reports viewed by the WCPO I-Team in September. 

One of the suspects was arrested in Lexington. A Lexington Police Department spokesperson said Lexington officers, with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal of Investigation, assisted in the arrest of George "Billy" Wagner III. WCPO news partner LEX18 recorded video of Billy Wagner's arrest:

 

Despite widespread reports that the Rhoden family had been involved in farming and trafficking marijuana, DeWine said he did not believe the drug trade had fomented the murders.

"There was an undercurrent of drugs," he said,. "There’s no evidence of the speculation that this was necessarily drug-related in the sense of the motive." 

Reader became visibly upset when asked about the subject.

"We were working an eight-person homicide, not a marijuana program, and I believe today as I did then that they deserve more respect because they are true victims of a heinous crime that’s never been seen before," he said. As for the marijuana: "I would think that, after two years, we could get over that."

RELATED:  Trailers where Rhoden family members were killed moved for a second time

Pike County Murder Indictments by WCPO Web Team on Scribd