CINCINNATI — Two local attorneys are calling the Pike County mass murder case into question now that a second high-ranking law enforcement officer connected to the case has been suspended.
Michael Trout was widely called the state's lead investigator into the eight Rhoden/Gilley family murders in 2016.
But the Bureau of Criminal Investigations supervisor is off the case - suspended and demoted - after an investigation into how he managed the unit tasked with closing the case.
Trout remains on paid administrative leave - accused of misconduct, acting in a manner unbecoming of an agent, retaliation against another employee, and lack of professionalism. Trout denied all of the allegations in writing.
The complaints and violations don't immediately raise questions about Trout’s investigative skills or integrity. But in an email obtained by WCPO, an agent under Trout's supervision says he doesn't trust Trout.
And Trout admitted to an outside attorney brought in to look into the complaints against him that there is “dysfunction” in the unit.
“If the head of the unit described it as dysfunctional, that could be a potential problem for trial,” former Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen told WCPO.
"Obviously it will be up to the trial judge, but any good criminal defense lawyer would seize upon that and try to find a way to get it in,” Allen said. “If the questions are permitted to be asked, the jury could make a bad inference on behalf of the investigator.”
Local defense attorney Carl Lewis expressed strongly that the report on Trout could be damaging to the prosecutor’s case.
“For me, I would be asking the court to dismiss this case, to move this case completely out of the hands of the party that investigated it,” Lewis said.
The AG’s Office suspended Trout in August for creating what investigators called a “hostile” and “toxic” work environment, according to state documents released to WCPO.
That investigation reported that the unit under Trout was “severely dysfunctional” for multiple reasons, including Trout’s “intentional misrepresentation or mischaracterization” of facts related to workplace conflict and saying the unit’s “toxic” environment caused agents to lose sleep and fall behind on work.
For its part, the Ohio Attorney General's Office said the investigation into Trout won't affect the case against the Wagners.
“Over 30 law enforcement agencies inside Ohio and nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies from 10 different states, along with federal partners and Canadian authorities, assisted with the Pike County investigation. A review of the agent’s work in a different role after the investigation was completed has no bearing on the pending cases brought against the Wagner family,” the AG Office’s statement read.
The Wagner family - Billy, Angela, Jake and George IV – are charged with the murders. Investigators say custody of a child might have played a large part in the motive.
In September, Billy Wagner's attorney, Mark Collins, raised Trout’s suspension as a possible issue in the case. Collins hasn't responded to WCPO's request for comment.
Trout is the second high-level law enforcement officer involved in the case to be suspended.
Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader was suspended in July - now indicted on 16 counts including tampering with evidence and theft from office.
The allegations against Reader are also unrelated to the Rhoden murders investigation.
“Is this a domino effect?” Lewis wondered. “Is this an unraveling of the fabric? Or is it just one thread that won't affect the entire fabric. Right now, I think it's an unraveling and they need to get ahead of it.”
In June, the state dropped Fredericka Wagner's obstruction and perjury charges because it said it couldn't meet the speedy trial requirement. Defense attorneys said there was no evidence.
WCPO has also reached out to the Pike County Prosecutor's Office and to the attorneys representing all the Wagners. But they are under gag orders.
We've also reached out to Trout and his attorney.