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Family Of Four Charged In Pike County Murders

Authorities set up roadblocks at the perimeter of one of four properties near Piketon, Ohio following the murders of the Rhoden family on June 21, 2016.
John Minchillo
Associated Press

The Ohio Attorney General’s office has announced charges against four people in the Pike County massacre case, which has remained unsolved for more than two years.

Attorney General Mike DeWine, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader, and Pike County Prosecutor Robert Junk announced charges Tuesday against family members George Wagner III, 47, Angela Wagner, 48, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward "Jake" Wagner, 26.

A Pike County grand jury on Monday indicted all four on charges of aggravated murder. All four suspects are in custody, DeWine said, and prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty.

The suspects – a husband and wife, along with their two sons – are accused of planning and murdering eight members of the Rhoden family on the morning of April 22, 2016.

"We believe the Wagners conspired together to make an elaborate plan to kill the eight members under the cover of darkness and then cover their tracks," DeWine said at a press conference Tuesday.

The victims include Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr. and 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden; Frankie Rhoden's fiancée, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden; and Christopher Rhoden Sr.'s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden.

The victims, who included seven adults and a teenage boy, were found shot to death at four homes near Piketon. Autopsy reports showed all but one of the victims were shot multiple times in the head, and some also had bruising. Some of the victims were killed while they slept.

Two babies and a young child were left unharmed.

Jake Wagner, one of the suspects, had a three-year-old daughter with Hanna Rhoden, one of the victims, at the time of her murder. The daughter was not present during the attacks. DeWine would not go into detail about the suspects' motives, but said that custody of the daughter played a role.

“There certainly was obsession with custody. Obsession with control of children," DeWine said. "I just might tell you, this is the most bizarre story I have ever seen in being involved in law enforcement.”

Attorney General Mike DeWine flanked by Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Attorney General Mike DeWine flanked by Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader.

DeWine accused the Wagners of spending months planning the murders, saying they studied the victims' habits and routines, knew the layouts of their homes and where they slept, and tampered with evidence such as phones and surveillance cameras. The four suspects are also charged with conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice.

They're also charged with forgery related to the custody case of Jake Wagner's daughter.

“They did this quickly, coldly, calmly and very carefully," Sheriff Reader said at Tuesday's press conference. "But not carefully enough. They left traces. They left a trail.”

Two other family members, grandmothers Rita Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner, were arrested for helping cover up the crimes.

Reader says the arrests were made without incident. George Wagner was arrested in Fayette County, Ky., on Tuesday morning. Angela Wagner was arrested at her home in Scioto County. The two sons were arrested at a traffic stop in Ross County, and Rita Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner were arrested at their respective homes.

DeWine said they do not have evidence that other individuals are involved, beyond the six family members announced Tuesday.

"They clearly have been the prime suspects for some time," DeWine said.

According to the Associated Press, investigators conducted over 550 interviews, processed over 700 pieces of evidence and were assisted by dozens of law enforcement agencies. But they were often tight-lipped about their findings, and resisted releasing information such as autopsies to the media. Authorities said they often encountered difficulties finding information, because many locals were afraid of retaliation if they cooperated with the investigation.

In April,authorities saidthey had narrowed the investigation to focus on the Wagners, who had left the state for Alaska but recently returned to Ohio. They were reportedly close friends with the Rhodens, and lived near the scenes of the killings. Back in June 2017, the Attorney General's office put out a request for information on the Wagner family but did not name them as suspects.

Attorney John Clark, who represents the Wagner family, says they look forward to their day in court so they can clear their names. In a statement, Clark says the family is waiting for the day "when the true culprits will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy."

Pike County Prosecutor Robert Junk says the court process will likely take several years before it's completed, due to the number of defendants and array of charges. He also says empaneling a jury in Pike County could be difficult.

"This case has received more publicity than anything we've ever had in the county, so it may very well need to be moved to another county," Junk said.

Junk will lead the case in court, along with incoming Attorney General Dave Yost and special prosecutors from the Attorney General's office.

This article will be updated with more information as the story develops.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.
Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.