WAVERLY, Ohio — George Wagner IV faces trial for the murder of eight members of the Rhoden family who were shot to death at point-blank range while sleeping in their Pike County homes six years ago.
George's trial is the first time anyone suspected of the Rhoden slayings has faced a jury. His trial is set to begin Monday, September 12.
From suspected Mexican cartel involvement to the custody of a then-3-year-old girl to the state of Alaska, the six years since the murders has delivered twists and turns in an investigation that culminates in George's trial.
It was by far the largest criminal investigation Pike County officials had ever seen and then-Attorney General Mike DeWine called it "the most important case going on in the state."
George "Billy" Wagner III, George's father, has also maintained his plea of not guilty, even after several other members of the Wagner family have accepted deals. Wagner III's trial date has not yet been set.
Here is a complete look at the timeline of the six years since the murders:
Friday, April 22, 2016
Eight members of the Rhoden family were found shot to death in their homes.
The crime scene spanned multiple family homes throughout the area; Seven family members were found dead in three different homes on Union Hill Road in Piketon. The eighth victim was found within a 10-minute drive of the others.
Officials said they believe the shootings took place in the early morning hours.
Found dead were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr., 37-year-old Dana Rhoden, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr., 20-year-old Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 37-year-old Gary Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, and 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden.
Christopher Rhoden Sr. and his ex-wife, Dana Rhoden, were parents to Clarence "Frankie," Christopher Jr. and Hanna Rhoden.
Hannah Gilley was Frankie's fiancee. Gary Rhoden was a cousin of the family.
Three children — a 4-day-old infant, a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old — were found unharmed in the homes.
Two recordings of 911 calls were released:
The first call came from a woman named Bobby at 7:49 a.m. That woman was later identified as Dana Rhoden's sister. She told dispatchers she'd come to feed animals, using a key to get into a home in the 4000 block of Union Hill Road and "found them all dead." That home was where Chris and Gary Rhoden were found.
"There's blood all over the house," she told a 911 dispatcher. "My brother-in-law is in the bedroom. Someone beat the hell out of him."
In a 911 call recorded that day at 1:26 p.m., a man at a home in the 700 block of West Fork Road told the dispatcher he walked in calling out for Kenneth Rhoden, his cousin, before finding him shot to death. Kenneth was the last body to be discovered.
April 25, 2016
While searching the Rhoden family properties,officials discovered three marijuana "grow operations" that DeWine called "sophisticated."
The sites were spread across three of the four locations where the Rhoden family members were found shot to death, leading investigators to initially wonder whether the execution-style killings were drug motivated or connected to rival drug cartels in the area.
At the time, DeWine said the sites and number of plants investigators found indicated a professional operation was underway on the Rhodens' properties.
Three trailers and one camper — in which members of the Rhoden family were found dead — were boarded up and towed from Union Hill Road and Left Fork Road weeks after the murders happened.
The mobile homes were packed up and moved to storage in the now-defunct Hadsell Chemical Processing LLC warehouse on State Route 220 in Waverly.
Then-Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader faced scrutiny for moving the family homes, but he insisted they were safe in the warehouse with deputies checking the property hourly.
During a court hearing, Reader theorized that more than one shooter was involved in the massacre. He warned remaining members of the Rhoden family could still be in danger while police still worked to learn who was responsible for the massacre.
Reader revealed that he believes it's likely the killers were local and not a cartel-style execution related to drugs found on the property, as previously suspected. DeWine said he believed the killers had to be familiar with the land around the properties, as well as the properties themselves.
This was the first time law enforcement indicated they were looking in directions other than cartel-related possibilities.
SWAT members and other law enforcement officials searched an Adams County property around 10 miles from where the Rhodens' bodies were found.
During the search, authorities took away trailers belonging to the family of a man who had been in a custody dispute with one of the victims.
Bernie Brown, who owned one of the sites visited by investigators, said authorities searched two large trailers and took one smaller utility trailer owned by the Wagners, a local family. Brown said Jake Wagner sometimes worked for him fixing cars, and that the Wagners had dropped items off at the property about a week earlier.
As the two-day search unfolded, authorities also investigated a Peterson Road property in Peebles, Ohio that was sold by Jake and George Wagner in March, county property records showed
Next, they searched the Flying W Farm in Pike County, which Fredericka Wagner, Jake Wagner's grandmother, owned.
Investigators said the search had been for evidence in the Pike County murders.
June 19, 2017
DeWine and Reader asked the public for help in providing specific information on four members of the Wagner family: George "Billy" Wagner III, Angela Wagner, George Wagner IV, Edward "Jake" Wagner.
Investigators asked the public for information about "any interactions, conversations, dealings, or transactions that the public may have had with these individuals, which could be personal, business, or otherwise. Specifically, information could include, but is not limited to, information regarding vehicles, firearms, and ammunition."
Authorities announced the members of the Wagner family who lived at the Peterson Road property searched by police the month before were believed to have moved to Alaska.
A pastor and family friend of the Wagners told the Dayton Daily News that several members had moved to Alaska and were "trying to move on."
At this point, authorities had not officially named any members of the Wagner family as suspects.
The trailers from the crime scene are moved a second time to preserve evidence, this time to a pole barn built inside the fenced Pike County Sheriff’s impound lot about 3 miles away from the first relocation site.
The first relocation site, a Hadsell Chemical Processing LLC warehouse, was facing foreclosure after the company declared bankruptcy.
Journalists were allowed to review full preliminary autopsy reports after lawsuits were filed by the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Ohio law allows reporters to view preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings, along with photographs.
Initially, only heavily redacted forms of the reports were released in 2016.
Ultimately, the reports revealed that all of the Pike County massacre victims were shot in the head at point-blank range.
The autopsy showed all eight victims were shot with the gun barrel touching their skin or just centimeters away.
The number of gunshot wounds per victims, according to the reports:
- Christopher Rhoden, Sr. (age 40): Nine (face, torso, extremities).
- Dana Rhoden (age 37): Five (head).
- Hannah Gilley (age 20): Five (head)
- Christopher Rhoden, Jr. (age 16): Four (head).
- Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden (age 20): Three (head). Two were “contact wounds” as indicated by soot from the gun on his skull.
- Gary Rhoden (age 37): Three “contact” wounds (head).
- Hanna Rhoden (19): Two (head).
- Kenneth Rhoden (age 44): One (right eye).
November 13, 2018
Authorities announced they arrested six members of the Wagner family for their alleged involvement in the Pike County massacre.
Indictments showed that four members of the Wagner family — George "Billy" Wagner III, Angela Wagner, George Wagner IV and Edward "Jake" Wagner — were charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder. Rita Newcomb, who is Angela Wagner's mother, and Fredericka Wagner, who is Billy Wagner's mother, were charged with obstructing justice and perjury.
Authorities announced they would seek the death penalty for all four family members charged with murder.
DeWine said he believed the massacre of the Rhoden family — the youngest of which was just 16 years old — came down to a custody battle over a toddler. Edward "Jake" Wagner, 26 and Hanna Rhoden, 19 had a child together.
Officials said evidence showed that Billy, Angela, George and Jake developed an elaborate plan to kill the Rhodens. DeWine said the Wagners studied the Rhoden's habits and routines and knew the layouts of their homes.
Authorities alleged the Wagners bought ammunition, a magazine clip, brass catchers and a bug detector to prepare for the crimes. The family also studied "counter-surveillance devices" on the properties, including pets, and tampered with phones, cameras and parts of a home security system, investigators said. The family also allegedly constructed a homemade silencer that was used in the shootings, officials said.
In addition to murder charges, members of the family were also charged with forging child custody documents, DeWine said.
November 28, 2018
George Wagner IV entered a plea of not guilty to all 22 counts he faces. He has been held without bond since, pending his criminal trial.
Billy Wagner entered a plea of not guilty to all 22 charges he faces.
His trial date has not yet been set. Like his son George, he has been held without bond since his arrest.
The state dropped charges against Fredericka Wagner, Billy Wagner's mother.
Fredericka denied any involvement in the crime and pleaded not guilty to the obstruction and perjury charges she'd faced. Prosecutors said she lied to investigators and the grand jury after two bulletproof vests were found in her home. Authorities said they believed the vests were worn by the killers as they crept into the Rhoden homes while the family slept.
Wagner said she bought them through Amazon after the killings happened, to protect her family. Investigators couldn't find a record of her purchase, and filed charges against her.
She later admitted she'd bought them on eBay, and provided receipts verifying they were bought after the Rhoden family was already dead.
"I made a mistake," she said at the time. "I'm nearly 77 years old."
Judge Randy D. Deering ordered Fredericka's charges be dismissed without prejudice and ordered a gag order against attorneys regarding her case.
Rita Newcomb, Angela Wagner's mother, entered a plea deal with prosecution. Newcomb, 66, was charged with perjury, obstructing justice and forgery; Prosecutors accused her of committing these crimes to protect Angela and her family.
Newcomb agreed to plead guilty to obstruction of official business and the state agreed to drop the forgery and perjury charges.
She was initially implicated in forging and notarizing custody documents for the son of Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden, but the state said that its own handwriting expert has analyzed that Newcomb's signature on custody documents tied to the murder investigation was not actually her signature.
Obstruction of official business is a second degree misdemeanor, drawing a maximum jail sentence of 90 days. A sentencing date for Newcomb hasn't been set yet, but she was released from house arrest following the plea agreement.
Reader, who sat at the helm of the Pike County massacre investigation for years, is sentenced to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to theft in office and tampering with evidence.
Reader pleaded guilty to:
- Two felony counts of theft in office, when the value of property or services stolen was between $1,000 and $7,500.
- Two felony counts of tampering with evidence. The evidence included bags of cash in amounts of $7,000 and $621.
- One misdemeanor count of conflict of interest, including using his office to secure a 2013 Nissan Versa.
Court documents state that he will be “forever disqualified from holding any public office, employment or position of trust in the State of Ohio.” Reader was terminated as a “peace officer” in the state as well.
Throughout the investigation into the Pike County massacre, allegations flew regarding Reader and several other Pike County deputies and potential corruption within the sheriff's office.
Reader ultimately never face any charges related to his involvement in the investigation of the massacre, however.
Edward "Jake" Wagner, the family member at the center of the custody battle prosecutors said was the motive for the massacre, pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated murder in the killings of his former girlfriend, Hanna Rhoden, and the other seven members of her family.
“It’s not anticipated that you will ever be released from prison," Judge Randy Deering told Wagner during his plea hearing. "Do you understand that?”
He replied: “I do, your honor."
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 Wagner, 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 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 and Hanna 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 Hanna began seeing another man, with whom she conceived her second child, Wagner began to pressure her about custody over their daughter and allegedly pressured Hanna to put his name on her second child's birth certificate, even though he was not the father.
In a court document, prosecutors wrote that Wagner threatened, chased and strangled Hanna, threatening to kill her and "put her body where it would never be found."
Jake's family allegedly 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.
Four months after she wrote the message, Hanna and seven of her family members were found dead.
Angela Wagner, Jake and George's mother and Billy's wife, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, forgery, unauthorized use of property and unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance.
In exchange for her guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop eight charges of aggravated murder and recommended 30 years in prison with no chance of early release. Like her son's, her plea deal stipulates she will have to testify in the trials of her family members.
She has not yet officially been sentenced.
During several hearings throughout the spring of 2022, prosecutors laid out new evidence.
Painting the Wagner family as a "criminal enterprise" during a hearing on what evidence could be allowed at trial, prosecutors said the family allegedly took a vote to commit the murders and set up a fake drug deal as an ambush.
Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa said Billy set up a fake 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."
In that same hearing, Judge Randy Deering dismissed a motion to change the venue for for the upcoming trial of George Wagner IV; George's attorney argued the media attention and small jury pool, with smaller summons turnout, would make it impossible to get a fair trial, but Deering said he would proceed with trying to seat a jury in Pike County.
In a second hearing in May, George's attorneys moved to suppress audio recordings from days of surveillance on the family. Investigators testified that those recordings were critical to the family's arrest and the charges they face.
August 8, 2022
Jury selection began for the trial of George Wagner IV. He still faces 22 charges, including eight charges of aggravated murder. His trial is anticipated to begin once a jury has been sat, but lawyers for members of the family have repeatedly expressed skepticism that seating an unbiased jury in such a small community would be possible.
Ultimately, a jury of nine women and three men were seated, with six alternates chosen.
September 12, 2022
Opening arguments in George Wagner IV's trial are scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m.
WCPO will livestream the entire trial from beginning to end. You can bookmark our live page here or download our WCPO app on your streaming connected TV (Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV and Android TV). We will also publish recap articles from the courtroom on our website every day court is in session.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this story reported the trial would begin on Monday, August 29. The trial has since been delayed twice.