The youngest member of a family charged with the murder of eight people that rocked southern Ohio appeared in court Tuesday, pleading not guilty to nearly two-dozen felonies linked to the 2016 slayings.
A grand jury indicted Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, on a host of related felonies that included the eight aggravated murders, conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice.
Wagner pleaded not guilty in the first of four court appearances that will include his brother and parents through next week.
Judge Randy Deering of the Pike County Common Pleas Court issued a gag order Tuesday, with security increased amid concerns for Wagner’s safety in the wake of his family’s arrest Nov. 13.
The slayings occurred in connection with an issue regarding the custody of a child Wagner had with 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, prosecutors have said.
About 20 members of the Rhoden family were in court to hear Wagner’s lengthy list of alleged felonies, with their arms wrapped around one another, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Some wore black shirts with the eight victims' names topped with angel wings.
Wagner’s brother, George Wagner IV, 27, will appear in court Wednesday. Their mother, Angela Wagner, 48, will follow Thursday, and patriarch George “Billy” Wagner III, 47, will appear Dec. 4.
All four Wagners were charged with the eight murders. The charges carry death penalty specifications, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has said.
Edward Wagner’s attorney, William J. Mooney, and a spokesman for DeWine declined to comment on the case, citing the gag order.
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.
Early reports of the deaths describe a devastating scene in rural Pike County, Ohio. 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, 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.”
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 allegedly 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.
Seven of the victims' bodies were initially found among three 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.
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.
“This is the most bizarre story I have ever seen, being involved with law enforcement,” DeWine said.
He called it one of the “longest and most complex” investigations in the state’s history. Tens of thousands of hours went into the investigation, DeWine said, spanning two-and-a-half 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.
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.