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Investigators, surviving Rhodens spent two years going through Hell. They'll have to keep going.

Posted: 10:31 PM, Nov 13, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-14 11:04:06-05

WAVERLY, Ohio -- On the morning after the Pike County massacre, first-year Sheriff Charles Reader called Attorney General Mike DeWine to ask for assistance and Major Ryan Bentley to ask for prayers. 

He would need both to endure the sprawling investigation that followed.

"The images of the houses, the bodies and the scenes -- I can never erase them," he said. "Even 20 years of law enforcement experience cannot prepare you for a day like that, not fully."

For Reader, DeWine and countless supporting investigators, the two-year quest for an indictment was as all-consuming as it was frustrating, DeWine said Tuesday. The wheels sometimes ground to a halt as he attempted to assemble what he described as a "thousand-piece puzzle" with no surviving witnesses to help determine its shape.

Rumors grew wings. The dearth of public information left others in Pike County concerned a similar event could happen again.

"You don’t know who did this," Portsmouth resident David Lewis said. "Guy standing next to me? I often think about that in the store. 'Who’s the person in front of me in line?' You don’t have any idea.”

Surviving members of the Rhoden family wanted information authorities couldn't share.

"It's never enough to know who did it," DeWine said Tuesday. "You can know who did it and you can't prove it."

Building the case that would lead to the Tuesday arrests of six people -- four charged with murder; two charged with aiding in the cover-up; all friends of the Rhodens -- involved chasing 1,100 tips, conducting 550 interviews, serving over 200 subpoenas and analyzing 700 pieces of evidence.

Reader, who described himself as "not the most patient person," spent significant amounts of time camped out in the headquarters of the Piketon Police Department and coordinating with the dozens of investigative agencies involved in analyzing the crimes.

The final piece of evidence linking the six Wagner family members to the murders would not be unearthed until Oct. 30, 2018. 

Reader said Tuesday he spent the time between the murders and that day with the weight of eight lost lives on his shoulders. He spoke frequently with the relatives who continued to hope for a break in the case.

"It's been hard for me during holidays," he said. "Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays that pass. I stay in contact with several family members, and I know how hard it is for them."

Those relatives were the first people to learn of the arrests, DeWine said. 

"They're very happy," he said. "Several members hugged me and hugged the sheriff. Look, they've been through Hell."

They'll have to keep going, Reader added. With suspects identified, the case will proceed to trial, where he predicted one suspect's extradition from Kentucky, the availability of lawyers in a small county unused to death penalty cases, the high profile of the crime and the possibility of four death sentences will likely complicate and lengthen the proceedings. 

"I want to prepare them for that," he said. "‘Hey, even though today's a success, you have that justice now … prepare for the long road ahead, because it will be. 

I feel that families of victims, they get victimized again due to the way the justice system is."

It's never enough to know who did it. Despite the relief of having suspects in custody and confidence in their findings, DeWine, Reader and the rest still have a long journey ahead.

"Clearly, it's not over for anyone," Reader said. "Not me and not the family of the victims. We will continuously work and see it through to the end."