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Pike County murder trial: Jake Wagner 'could not bear to think' or speak about his crimes after the murders

George Wagner IV’s trial continues with Jake Wagner testifying
Posted at 9:10 AM, Oct 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-26 12:55:15-04

WAVERLY, Ohio — Jake Wagner continued testifying against his brother George Wagner IV on Tuesday, who is on trial for the murder of eight people in Pike County in 2016. He has opted out of being recorded during his time on the witness stand.

Here's why you won't see or hear Jake's testimony.

George Wagner IV — along with his mother Angela, father George "Billy" Wagner and brother Edward "Jake" Wagner — is accused of shooting and killing the Rhoden family members "execution-style." The family's bodies were found on April 22, 2016. He faces eight charges of aggravated murder, along with other charges associated with tampering with evidence, conspiracy and forgery.

Found dead that day were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr., 37-year-old Dana Rhoden, 20-year-old Hannah "Hazel" Gilley, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr., 20-year-old Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 37-year-old Gary Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna May Rhoden, and 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden.

The trial is the first time a person has faced a jury for the deaths of the Rhoden family six years ago.

Jake returned to the stand Tuesday morning, picking up his testimony where he left off Monday.

In the early morning hours of April 22, 2016, around 4:30 a.m., Jake said he, George and Billy returned to their home on Peterson Road. When they arrived, Jake said he parked the truck with the false bed in the new barn and removed the floor mats and all of his clothing.

The three put everything they were wearing — shoes, clothes, masks and gloves — into an old feed trough in the barn that the family used for burning. He also put the cell phones he collected from the victims' homes and a recording device for a surveillance system stolen from Chris Sr.'s house in the trough.

Then, he used a portable grinder to cut up all three guns used in the homicides, he said. The Colt 1911 and Glock were cut into two pieces and, he said he believed, the SKS rifle was cut into three pieces. With an acetylene torch, Jake said he melted the pieces, paying specific attention to the barrel where the cartridges were loaded, the serial numbers and the firing pins.

Those pieces went into a duffel bag he buried in the barn; Jake said he removed a post from the barn and he and George dug a hole underneath and placed the duffel bag inside "for a later date." Jake buried the bag and replaced the barn post.

Angela Canepa, special prosecutor, asked how strong he would say his brother was at the time.

"Strong as a bull ox," Jake said, with a smile.

Jake said George helped him disassemble the false bed in the pick-up truck and Billy drove it off — Jake said at the time he didn't know where Billy took it, but his father returned the same day.

The items in the feed trough were then burned "repeatedly until there was nothing but ash," Jake said. The ash was put in a dumpster on the property that is dumped once a week by Rumpke.

Jake said he and his family watched the news broadcasts about the homicides — though he couldn't remember exactly what was being reported, except for the shots from a chopper circling Chris Sr.'s home. By this time, both the children, Bulvine and Sophia, were awake and watching cartoons in George's bedroom, he said.

After he saw the news, a friend called him, shocked, to ask if he knew. Jake said he acted "shocked and mournful-ish" while on the phone. After, he said he called Chelsea, the mother of Frankie's son Brentley, to ask whether the children — Frankie's infant and Hanna's infant — were ok. She told him they were at the hospital, so he said he told Angela to watch Sophia and he drove to Adams County, where the children were being checked out.

There, he spoke to April Manley, who rode in the ambulance with one of the infants. He said the hospital wouldn't let him see the babies or tell him about them, so he sought to get information from Manley. Earlier in the trial, Manley testified about the encounter and told the jury through tears that Jake had hugged her — something that haunted her.

"Because I had to wonder if he still had my baby's blood on him when he touched me," she said, crying.

As Jake told the jury about their conversation, Manley — seated in the courtroom gallery — kept her head down and didn't look at him.

Jake asked Manley about taking Hanna's baby, Kylie — but "not in a custody way, he said" — and told her Hanna had called him the night before but he hadn't answered; Canepa asked him if that was true and he said "yes."

The next day — Saturday, April 23 — Jake called his attorney to tell him about Hanna's murder, he said. The family never used the forged custody document that named Jake as Sophia's caregiver in the event of Hanna's death, however; because of Hanna's murder, Jake quickly got custody of Sophia, he said. He didn't tell the girl her mother was murdered until a week or two after the homicides, he said.

He, George and Billy all went to the Rhoden family funerals, though they didn't take Sophia to any, even her mother's.

Canepa asked Jake about his relationships with Chris Sr. and Gary. He said he liked Gary and had gone hunting with him on at least one occasion; his relationship with Chris was very close. Chris Sr. had supported him, even after his daughter and Jake broke up, he said.

"I looked at him as a second father and had hoped he would be my father-in-law," he said.

After the murders, Jake said he couldn't bring himself to talk about what happened, even with his family. His mother and father had offered him their ears, but he said instead he decided he would bottle it up, never mentioning what they'd done.

"I could not bear to think of what I was doing at the time, nor what I did afterwards without having immense guilt," he said.

He added that he tried to erase it all from his memory.

After members of the family were interviewed by agents with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations, they began to get nervous, he said; Billy pointed out that BCI could be listening in on the family's conversations and activities.

At that point, Jake said Billy decided it was time to dispose of the duffel bag, which had remained buried in the barn to that point. Jake and his father mixed concrete and poured it into four five-gallon buckets inside of which they placed the gun parts.

George Wagner IV’s trial continues with Jake Wagner testifying
A photo presented by the prosecution of the cement containers that anchored the goose house Jake Wagner made that would be anchored by four cement containers with pieces of the firearms that were used in the eight Rhoden homicides on April 21-22, 2016. The box was placed in the large pond at the Flying W farm owned by Fredericka Wagner, their grandmother. Jake Wagner, 29, was testifying in the trial of his brother, George Wagner IV in the Pike County Common Pleas Court in Waverly, Ohio, Tuesday Oct. 25, 2022. Jake testified George and their dad, Billy Wagner, were together at all four locations, but George didn’t fire a weapon. Jake and his mom, Angela Wagner, have already pleaded guilty. George’s dad, George “Billy” Wagner III will go on trial in 2023.

They then attached chains to the tops of the buckets. Jake said, though George initially helped with the construction, Jake did the bulk of the work on a goose house. He then attached the buckets to the goose house to operate as weights and the family took the whole thing to the Flying W Farm to gift it to Jake and George's grandfather.

The goose house remained in the lake up through the arrest of George, Jake, Billy and Angela, he said.

George Wagner IV’s trial continues with Jake Wagner testifying
A photo presented by the prosecution of a goose house Jake Wagner made that would be anchored by four cement containers with pieces of the firearms that were used in the eight Rhoden homicides on April 21-22, 2016. The box was placed in the large pond at the Flying W farm owned by Fredericka Wagner, their grandmother. Jake Wagner, 29, was testifying in the trial of his brother, George Wagner IV in the Pike County Common Pleas Court in Waverly, Ohio, Tuesday Oct. 25, 2022. Jake testified George and their dad, Billy Wagner, were together at all four locations, but George didn’t fire a weapon. Jake and his mom, Angela Wagner, have already pleaded guilty. George’s dad, George “Billy” Wagner III will go on trial in 2023.

Canepa asked Jake whether he'd created a GoFundMe account to recoup the legal costs of the custody fight over Sophia; he said he didn't create it himself, but he knew about it and, ultimately, said he thinks he received around $1,000 from it.

Questioning pivoted to Tabitha, George's ex-wife, and the fight that ultimately pushed her to flee from the Wagner home. Jake said he remembered the fight happened on November 10 or 11 in 2014, because it was just before his birthday and as a result of the chaos, everyone forgot his birthday.

Canepa asked Jake whether Tabitha or George hit one another; he said he never saw anyone in his family assault Tabitha but he did see her striking George. At one point, he said Tabitha declared she was leaving and stomped into the kitchen, "forcefully" pulling Bulvine from his high chair. As she tried to leave, and George tried to prevent her from leaving with her son, Jake said she hit the boy's head against a door frame as she went through and Bulvine began to cry.

Tabitha then thrust Bulvine into George's arms so quickly they nearly dropped the boy, Jake said, and Tabitha left the house.

He told the jury that Angela, "in her frustration," threw her hands up and said "that's it, I'm getting my gun."

Tabitha left the property, pedaling on a bicycle down the highway, where Jake and George found her. She rode to a gas station and Jake said he told his brother she was likely going to call police, so George needed to call them first because "the first to call is first served." Tabitha hadn't said anything about calling police, he said; she said during her testimony earlier in the trial that it hadn't been her intention.

Jake's memory about the custody fight over Bulvine that ensued was not clear, though he said he remembered George had an attorney and that he'd overheard his brother and mother talking about the situation occasionally. Ultimately, he knew Tabitha was only to have supervised visits with her son and he said he couldn't remember a time she was able to visit without one of the Wagners present.

Questioning shifted to May of 2017, when the Wagner family packed up their belongings and left for Alaska — just over one year after the murders. While they were in Alaska, they learned that BCI agents were performing searches of the Peterson Road home they'd sold before traveling. Jake said he believed his grandmother, Fredericka, called his father to tell him about the searches.

"To be honest, I was not nervous," Jake said when asked how learning of the searches made him feel.

He conceded he might have been upset, but said he was mostly angry with BCI agent Ryan Scheiderer, with whom he'd talked several times before the move. He said he'd told Scheiderer the family would be coming back and he felt the agent was toying with him.

At one point, the family came back to Ohio briefly. On their way, they were stopped by BCI agents at the Canadian border with Montana. Canepa asked if the family was talked to by BCI at that point.

"I wouldn't use that word, but yes," he said.

After they were let go, Jake said the family didn't speak much in the vehicle because they'd all assumed it had been bugged. The first place they went was to a nearby hospital, he said. Bulvine told the family that agents at the border gave him, and maybe Sophia too though Jake couldn't recall, "sleepy Kool-Aid juice or something." They took the children to the hospital to test them for sedatives.

"To my understanding, the test results were negative," said Jake.

The family returned to Ohio for just one month, staying in hotels before turning around and heading back to Alaska. To avoid another encounter between the children and border agents, Jake said he and George each drove a trailer up while Billy, Angela, Sophia and Bulvine flew after driving to Washington.

Once back in Alaska, Jake and the family began attending the Immanuel Baptist Church in Seward, AK. Jake said he attended the most often, though everyone in the family attended periodically. It was there Jake met his future wife — and, subsequently, future ex-wife.

Jake became flustered when he was asked her name and said he was struggling to recall her last name.

"That's shameful," he said and laughed nervously, but he was able to produce her name: Elizabeth Freeman.

Her name is now Elizabeth Armer, and she testified Friday, telling the jury about her relationship with Jake and her travels with the family after they left Alaska for the final time.

Jake said the pair dated for around six to seven months before he proposed to her on a beach, though he struggled to recall details like when in the year it may have been. The two planned to have a long engagement, but were pushed to move the wedding date up rapidly — Armer said they intended to remain engaged for two years, but she found herself walking down the aisle just one month after Jake's proposal.

The wedding date had to be quick, Jake said, because the Wagners had decided they were moving back south, to the "lower 48." He, Jake and Billy had failed to secure work long-term, they'd struggled to find affordable property to buy and Sophia and Bulvine missed farm life. Jake said he worried a long-distance engagement would be the end of his relationship with Armer, so the pair were quickly married in March 2018.

The day after the wedding, Jake and the rest of his family left Alaska, headed for Missouri; Armer flew down later to join them after a holdup with her passport. Jake said the family planned to try and find a farm in Missouri, and consistent work. Billy decided to return to his mother's home at the Flying W Farm and he and George drove back to Ohio; George returned just one day later, Jake said.

Jake and George were able to find jobs, but the family couldn't find a property to purchase; Jake said he believed their request for a loan was denied. After a couple of weeks in a hotel, Jake said either Angela or George came up with the idea to return to Ohio and move into Angela's father's home; he'd died while the Wagners were in Alaska, though the family didn't return for his funeral.

They tried to make their return to the region quietly, Jake said, so they wouldn't attract media attention. By this time, a press release asking for any information on the Wagner family was circulating from then-Attorney General Mike DeWine's office.

George, Angela, Jake, Armer and the two children moved into the house on Havener Lane — though Armer didn't stay long. Jake described the house to the jury, detailing who slept in what rooms and the trucking job he and George picked up that took them on the road five days a week. Though he'd spoken to Armer about moving into a space of their own together, that never happened.

Canepa asked whether there's been issues within the family about Jake telling Sophia she could call Armer "mom," but Jake said that hadn't been the issue.

"They had said I should not make her call Beth Ann her mother," he said.

He denied telling Armer she couldn't see her family after they were married, telling the jury he'd only told her he never wanted two of her brothers, who'd sexually abused Armer as a child, to know where they lived.

Several other moments during their relationship that Armer touched on vividly were not as clear in Jake's mind; he didn't recall her being accused of giving the children food poisoning or stealing money and the main thing he remembered about her journals was an entry where she expressed concern that, between Sophia and Angela, she'd have to compete for her husband's attention.

One thing did stand out in Jake's mind: Angela's claim that Sophia told her Armer had touched her inappropriately. Jake said he wanted to believe what his mother claimed wasn't true, but he was concerned about the seriousness of the allegation. Canepa asked if he remembered telling Armer what he would do to her if he found out it was true, and Jake balked. He said he told Armer that if he found out anyone — not just her — had touched Sophia inappropriately, he would "physically beat the person to death with my hands."

The statement is in conflict with Armer's testimony. She told the jury "he laid it out very clearly" that if she was guilty, "the right thing to do" would be to create Lucille — a barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat featured in the TV show The Walking Dead — before stringing Armer up in the barn and using the bat to beat her to death. Then, they would bulldoze the barn to dispose of the evidence, she said.

Canepa asked Jake whether he'd come to a conclusion on the validity of Sophia's claim; he said ultimately, yes, he had. He said he questioned Sophia and prayed on the issue for weeks before he got an answer.

"She relayed that she felt that Beth Ann was stealing her daddy from her and that she just wanted her to leave," said Jake.

Court adjourned for the evening with Jake still on the witness stand; the prosecution will continue questioning him Wednesday morning.

More about Jake Wagner and his plea deal:

Jake pleaded guilty to the murders in April 2021, accepting a deal from the state.

In exchange for Jake's testimony in the trials of any family members who face a jury, prosecutors have agreed to dismiss the possibility of the death penalty for himself, his parents, Angela and Billy, and his brother, George Wagner IV, all of whom face similar charges in connection to the killings.

In addition to pleading guilty to all eight counts of aggravated murder, which is punishable by life imprisonment, Jake admitted guilt to:

  • Felony conspiracy
  • Aggravated burglary
  • Unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance
  • Tampering with evidence
  • Forgery
  • 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

You can read recaps of each day of the trial in our coverage below:

Watch opening statements below: