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Prosecutors lay out possible new evidence in Pike County massacre trial

George Wagner IV motions hearing
Posted at 9:28 PM, May 02, 2022

WAVERLY, Ohio — Prosecutors in the Pike County massacre case laid out new evidence Monday to paint the Wagner family as a "criminal enterprise" during a hearing on what could be allowed at trial, saying the family allegedly took a vote to commit the murders and then set up a fake drug deal as an ambush.

In a list of so-called "other acts" evidence, which it wants to use in George Wagner IV's upcoming murder trial, the prosecution say the other bad acts describe the Wagner family as a unit bent on criminality.

"This is very much a family affair," said special prosecutor Angela Canepa. "All for one and one for all."

A list of the evidence, submitted to the court more than one year ago, focuses extensively on other members of the Wagner family. In court Monday, prosecutors described patterns of behavior against Jake Wagner's ex-wife and ex-girlfriend.

A custody dispute over Jake Wagner's daughter with Hanna Rhoden prompted the planning of execution of the massacre in April 2016, investigators said. The document describes his relationship with Rhoden as "controlling," even abusive. It claims there is evidence he threatened to kill her, was jealous of her other relationships and tried to have others spy on her.

Canepa said Jake Wagner pressured Rhoden to put his name on her second child's birth certificate, even though he was not the father. She said Jake Wagner treated an ex-wife and ex-girlfriend in similarly threatening ways, noting the ex-wife eventually signed over custody of their child for limited visitation.

"How are these relevant for the crime for which Mister Wagner has been indicted?" defense attorney Richard Nash asked.

Other evidence listed ties more directly to the murders, including how the Wagners got onto Rhoden property the night of April 21, 2016.

Canepa said the Wagner patriarch, Billy, set up a fake "lucrative" drug deal meeting with Christopher Rhoden Sr. at his Union Hill Road property, but it was an ambush.

"Chris Sr. expected to see Billy Wagner that night," Canepa said. "He did not know Jake and George were present, because they were hidden in the car."

That new fact squares with an anecdote Dana Rhoden's late father, Leonard Manley, told reporters shortly after his daughter and her family were found dead.

“Whoever done it know’d the family because there were two dogs there that would eat you up, but I ain’t gonna say no more,” Manley said at the time.

Prosecutors pointed to votes taken by the family as another example of its solidarity. Canepa said the family members took a vote on the murders themselves. She said mom Angela Wagner told investigators about it when she pleaded guilty to conspiracy, evidence tampering, burglary and other charges last year.

"She speaks vividly of recalling speaking to Jake and George and asking if they were sure they wanted to go through with this, to which they both said 'yes,'" Canepa said.

But George Wagner's attorneys, who have continued to argue he did not shoot or kill anyone involved, said the evidence doesn't relate to the charges against him.

"What did George do? What was George's involvement in participating in an 'enterprise?' asked Nash. "That, we didn't hear in much detail today."

Jake Wagner pleaded guilty to murder — reportedly confessing to killing at least five of the family members — on the fifth anniversary of the massacre. As part of the plea deal, none of the Wagner family members will face the death penalty if Jake testifies against them at trial.

George Wagner and his dad Billy have not taken a plea deal.

Judge Randy Deering also dismissed a motion Monday to change the venue for the case. Wagner's attorneys argued the media attention and small jury pool, with smaller summons turnout, would make it impossible to get a fair trial.

Deering said he would proceed with trying to seat a jury in Pike County. It is set for August.

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