Four members of a family have been arrested in the fatal shootings of seven adults and a 16-year-old boy that rocked Southern Ohio nearly three years ago, state officials said.
The brutal killings in the intimate Pike County community made national headlines after the discovery of the bodies in 2016. Rumors of potential motives swirled as police undertook one of the largest investigations in Ohio’s history, leaving many to wonder when — or if — the suspects responsible would be apprehended.
On Tuesday afternoon, answers finally arrived.
“We promised that the day would come when the arrests would be made in the Pike County massacres,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told a crowd of reporters Tuesday. “Today is that day.”
George “Billy” Wagner III, 47, Angela Wagner, 48, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, all of South Webster, were each charged with eight counts of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications, among other related charges in connection with planning and carrying out the killings, DeWine said.
Rita Newcomb, 65, and Fredericka Wagner, 76, the mothers of Angela and Billy Wagner, were also charged and accused of attempting to cover up the crime to mislead authorities, DeWine said. All of the suspects were arrested without incident. It is unclear whether they have retained attorneys.
Early reports of the deaths describe a devastating scene in rural Pike County. An initial call to police on April 22, 2016, cited two male victims, possibly deceased, at a home on Union Hill Road in Piketon, a village in Pike County, Ohio, authorities said at the time. As they were traveling there, deputies were flagged down and given additional information on reports of bodies.
In a recording released soon after the killings, a woman was heard telling a 911 dispatcher that she had found her brother-in-law and cousin inside a trailer without signs of life.
“There’s blood all over,” the woman, later identified as Bobby Manley by the Cincinnati Enquirer, told the dispatcher. Asked if she thought they were dead, Manley indicated yes, adding, “It looks like someone has beat the hell out of them.”
Manley cried into her phone as she waited for help to arrive.
Seven of the victims' bodies were initially found among three different trailer homes, all within walking distance of one another, and many were still lying in bed, DeWine said. The eighth was found at a fourth location that was a 10-minute drive away.
Among those killed were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; and their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20. Frankie Rhoden’s fiancee, 20-year-old Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, as well as Christopher Rhoden Sr.'s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38, were also fatally shot.
DeWine said at the time that the killings appeared to be “preplanned” and “sophisticated.” Hanna Rhoden’s newborn baby was found alive near her mother’s body. Hannah Gilley’s 6-month-old child and another small child were also unharmed, according to the Associated Press.
DeWine on Tuesday said that issues over custody of a young child played a role in the crime.
“There was an obsession with custody, obsession with control of the children,” DeWine said. “This is the most bizarre story I have ever seen, being involved with law enforcement.”
DeWine lamented the ways in which the eight victims were “brutally and viciously” executed. No other suspects are connected to the case, he said, and evidence suggests the Wagners spent months meticulously planning the crimes by studying the Rhoden family’s habits and routines. He alleged that the four suspects knew the layouts of the victims' homes and where they slept, and that after killing them, the Wagners tampered with phones, a silencer, shell casings and surveillance cameras in an attempt to hide evidence.
Each of the Wagners was also charged with conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice, as well as several other charges.
DeWine called it one of the “longest and most complex” investigations in the state’s history. Tens of thousands of hours went into the investigation, spanning 2½ years over 10 states, including Alaska, where the Wagner family moved briefly before returning to Pike County. Police received more than 1,100 tips from the public, tested more than 700 pieces of evidence and conducted nearly 600 interviews over the course of their investigation. DeWine likened the case to a complex puzzle with hundreds of pieces.
“What solved this case was just hard, tough police work, day after day after day,” DeWine said. “These men and women just never gave up.”
Officials Tuesday noted that the families of the victims are still coping with the deaths of their loved ones, and that the suspects' alleged actions left a stain on the county. Sheriff Charles S. Reader said the Wagner family acted “quickly, coldly, calmly and very carefully” to cover their tracks. “But not carefully enough.”
“Pike County is a resilient community,” he said, adding that it should be known for more than being a place where eight people were murdered. “We’re a place that finds justice for victims, and today is a big step on that path.”