WAVERLY, Ohio — Twenty-eight-year-old Edward "Jake" Wagner on Thursday pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated murder in the killings of former girlfriend Hanna May Rhoden and seven members of her family.
The Rhodens were discovered dead the morning of April 22, 2016, exactly five years before the hastily convened hearing at which Wagner admitted his family had conspired to kill them, spied on them beforehand, tampered with evidence and obstructed the years-long search for their killers.
“It’s not anticipated that you will ever be released from prison," Judge Randy Deering told Wagner. "Do you understand that?”
He replied: “I do, your honor."
In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors have agreed to dismiss the possibility of the death penalty for Wagner, his parents and his brother, all of whom face similar charges in connection to the killings. He could still receive up to eight consecutive life sentences for the Rhodens' murders and 160 years imprisonment for the 15 other charges filed against him.
"We are fully satisfied that he has gone into this agreement with his eyes wide open," said defense attorney Gregory Meyers. "He knows he’s going to die in prison without any judicial release."
In addition to pleading guilty to aggravated murder, which is punishable by life imprisonment, Wagner admitted guilt to:
- Felony conspiracy
- Aggravated burglary
- Unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance
- Tampering with evidence
- Unauthorized use of property
- Interception of wire and oral communications
- Obstruction of justice
- Engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity
- Unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, Hanna May Rhoden, who was 13 when their relationship began
Wagner, along with his mother, Angela Wagner; his father, George "Billy" Wagner III; and his brother, George Wagner IV, stands charged in the deaths of 19-year-old Hanna May Rhoden; her parents, Dana Rhoden and Christopher Rhoden Sr.; her uncle, Kenneth Rhoden; her father's cousin, Gary Rhoden; her 16-year-old brother, Christopher Rhoden Jr; her 20-year-old brother, Clarence Rhoden; and Clarence's fiancee, 20-year-old Hanna Hazel Gilley. All eight were shot to death while they slept.
Hanna May Rhoden was the mother of a toddler and had given birth to another child four days before her death. Hanna Hazel Gilley had a child who was less than a year old.
All three children were spared. According to prosecutors, they were the reason the Wagners had attacked.
Prosecutors share new details about murders
The Wagners monitored the Rhoden family for months ahead of time and planned extensively for the murders, which prosecutors said were motivated by a custody dispute between Jake Wagner and Hanna May Rhoden.
Wagner and Rhoden began dating when she was 13, prosecutors said. She became pregnant by 20-year-old Wagner at 15 and gave birth to a daughter. When the relationship ended and Rhoden began seeing another man, with whom she conceived her second child, Wagner began to pressure her about custody over their daughter. In a court document filed in February, prosecutors wrote that Wagner threatened, chased and strangled Hanna, threatening to kill her and "put her body where it would never be found."
His family drew up custody documents that she refused to sign. She wrote in one Facebook message: "(I'll) never sign papers ever. They will have to kill me first.”
She didn't send the message to any of the Wagners, but they saw it. They had already been monitoring Facebook accounts connected to the Rhodens, in some cases hacking in and using the accounts without their owners' knowledge.
Hanna May Rhoden and her family members were dead within four months of the message, prosecutors said. The Wagners began preparations shortly after she sent it, purchasing a cell phone jammer, buying shoes that would later be traced back to crime-scene footprints and crafting homemade silencers to attack their sleeping victims without alerting the others.
They also forged custody documents stating Hanna May Rhoden had agreed that her daughter would pass into Jake's custody if Hanna died; if Jake died, the daughter would go to other members of the Wagner family. The documents also contained the forged signature of Rita Newcomb, Jake's maternal grandmother, who would later admit to prosecution that she had not signed the custody agreement but had lied to conceal her family members' guilt.
According to prosecutors' account of Jake Wagner's confession, he, his brother and their parents committed the eight murders overnight on April 21-22, 2016. The attack spanned four different crime scenes in Pike County: A house shared by Chris Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden; the home of Clarence Rhoden and Hanna Hazel Gilley; the home shared by Dana, Hanna May and Christopher Rhoden Jr.; and the home of Kenneth Rhoden.
Prosecutors said Jake Wagner admitted to taking the victims' cell phones from the scene so they would not be used as evidence.
State and local authorities spent two years searching for the culprits before identifying Jake Wagner and his family in November 2018.
Gov. Mike DeWine, who was Ohio's attorney general when the murders took place, attended the plea hearing in Pike County court Thursday.
"This was cold, cold, cold blood. This was calculated, planned out," DeWine said outside the courthouse. "I want to thank the family for staying with us. It's not easy when investigators can't tell you anything, and they just have to sort of trust you. So they hung in there through this entire time with us. The family's been through hell. While today I'm sure was a very gratifying day, it couldn't have been an easy day."
Current Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost released the following statement Thursday:
“I am incredibly proud of our team at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation whose dedication, perseverance and expertise lead to today’s plea.
The scope of this crime and subsequent investigation surpasses any other in Ohio’s history. The dedicated men and women of BCI rose to the challenge in the pursuit of justice for the victims — and never gave up.
BCI’s work spans countless long nights, weeks and years and will continue until all responsible for these crimes are held accountable.
Today's hearing finally brings some degree of closure to the surviving family members, and I pray that they might find peace in the face of this horror."