Pike County murders: Rita Newcomb’s trial begins Monday

Trial delayed until Dec. 2
Rita Newcomb Court Aug. 28
Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-18 10:42:01-05

The trial for Rita Jo Newcomb, the matriarch of a Pike County family accused of murdering eight people in 2016, was supposed to begin Monday morning.

Though she is not charged with the murders, Newcomb stands accused of perjury, obstructing justice and forgery to protect her daughter, son-in-law and grandsons charged with the killings.

Newcomb's trial was delayed on Monday; a hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2.

The saga spans three years of investigations, arrests, hearings, dismissals and gag orders. Here’s what you need to know as her trial starts.

Who is Rita Jo Newcomb?

Newcomb, 66, is accused of lying to cover up her family's involvement in the Pike County massacre, but she isn’t implicated in the murder itself. Her charges stem from lying to a grand jury and forging custody documents. In subsequent hearings, she's been warned against aiding the legal defense of four members of the Wagner family charged with the murders after a judge issued a no-contact order.

But Newcomb's attorney, Franklin Gerlach, describes her as a grandmother on a fixed income.

"She's not charged with any violent crime — any nature at all," Gerlach said at 2018 hearing. "These are all paper-type crimes and we felt that justice in this particular matter would be a reasonable bond would be set, and she be permitted to sign her own bond."

How is Newcomb related to the Wagners?

Newcomb’s daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons were charged with the aggravated murders of eight members of the Rhoden family, charges which carry death penalty specifications and other crimes.

Her daughter is Angela Wagner, who is married to George “Billy” Wagner and is the mother of Edward “Jake” Wagner and George Wagner IV. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Who are the victims?

Eight members of the Rhoden family, including Kenneth Rhoden, 44; Christopher Rhoden, Sr., 40; Dana Rhoden, 37; Gary Rhoden, 37; Hannah Gilley, 20; Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Hanna Rhoden, 19; and Christopher Rhoden, Jr., 16, were found dead in four homes on April 22, 2016.

A grim preliminary autopsy report shows the victims were shot at point-blank range, some multiple times. Three children in the homes were found unharmed.

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, and Gary was a Rhoden cousin.

Did the families know each other?

One of the eight victims, Hanna Rhoden, had been in a custody dispute with Edward “Jake” Wagner over a child they had together, according to her grandfather.

Mike DeWine, the state attorney general at the time, said the Wagners conspired to kill the Rhodens over the dispute and cover up their tracks. Evidence shows they spent months planning the crime and studying the victims' habits and routines, according to DeWine.

"They were brutally and viciously executed," he said in November 2018.

What happened in the lead-up to Newcomb's trial?

A Pike County grand jury indicted Newcomb and the Wagners on Nov. 12, 2018, and police arrested Newcomb on Nov. 13. After she pleaded not guilty, a judge placed her on house arrest.

In January, Newcomb's attorney asked that she be allowed to visit her mother's farm to feed the horses and dogs there, a request Judge Randy Deering denied.

Deering also issued no-contact orders to Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner, who was similarly accused of lying to cover up the murders. The order prevented the pair from speaking to the other four Wagners or aiding their legal defense.

At a June hearing to dismiss Newcomb’s charges, prosecutors asked for her $50,000 bond to be revoked for violating Deering’s no-contact order.

At the next hearing, on Aug. 28, Deering warned Newcomb could be jailed if she continued making phone calls to discuss legal defense in her family’s upcoming trials.

Newcomb’s trial was set to start Oct. 21, but it was delayed until Monday.

When are the rest of the Wagners on trial?

The Wagners have pre-trial hearings scheduled for later this winter. George “Billy” Wagner’s hearing is set for Dec. 9. Angela Wagner and Edward “Jake” Wagner will appear in court on Dec. 11 in separate hearings. George Wagner IV’s hearing is set for Jan. 21, 2020.

Like Newcomb, prosecutors accused Billy Wagner’s mother, Fredericka, of covering up the Rhoden murders, saying she lied about the purchase of a bulletproof vest. A judge dismissed the 76-year-old’s charges in June after her attorneys showed receipts for the vest dated after the murders. At the time, prosecutors said the charges could be re-filed.

Jury selection for Newcomb's trial begins Monday at 8:30 a.m. in Pike County Court.

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