In Ohio, prosecutors allege scheme by one family to kill another

A faded flier with photos of eight members of the Rhoden family is tacked to a barn on the family’s property on Union Hill Road near Piketon, Ohio. It asks: “Do you know who murdered us on April 22, 2016?” (Ty Wright for The Washington Post)
17 min

PIKE COUNTY, Ohio — Weather has worn the name “Rhoden” from the mailbox on Union Hill Road here in the rural, rolling hills of southwest Ohio.

Six seasons of snow and rain and sun have grayed the outbuildings, faded the “no trespassing” and “private property” signs meant to keep out the curious and the true-crime gawkers. A sole ribbon of once-yellow tape is illegible.

All that remains of evidence that a family once lived — and died — here is a faded poster tacked to a barn and showing photos of smiling faces and a question:

“Do you know who murdered us on April 22, 2016?”

Prosecutors say they know exactly who executed the eight family members, and they are gearing up to present their case to a jury when the first trial in Ohio’s most costly and complex criminal investigation starts in late August. The trial will give onlookers a front-row view into a corner of America known more through stereotypes than complex realities: a place where, often, family protects family at all costs and where love and loyalty trump all else.

“A lot of this, and I don’t mean this in any kind of derogatory way, is the code of the hills,” said Mike Allen, a Cincinnati-based criminal defense lawyer who has monitored the case from the start. “Family sticks together.”

More than six years and thousands of pieces of evidence later, prosecutors are expected to unfurl a diabolical scheme by four members of one family to kill eight members of another.

The alleged motive: to obtain sole custody of a shared daughter, who was a toddler at the time.

George Wagner IV, 30, faces 22 charges alleging that he was part of his family’s criminal enterprise in the planning, plotting, execution and coverup in the shooting deaths of Christopher “Chris” Rhoden Sr., 40; Chris Rhoden’s former wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; their children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, and Christopher “Chris” Rhoden Jr., 16; Frankie’s fiancee, Hannah Hazel Gilley, 20; Christopher Sr.’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44; and their cousin Gary Rhoden, 38.

They were each shot in the head at close range, most multiple times, while some slept in three trailers and a camper in three locations on family land about an hour south of Columbus. A toddler and two infants — both found beside their dead mothers — were unharmed. The killers fired a total of 32 times.

The mass homicide mystified Ohioans and amateur sleuths around the world until authorities arrested Wagner and his family members in November 2018. The family of four had moved to Alaska in the spring of 2017 amid the investigation and returned in the spring of 2018.

Eight killed in ‘execution-style’ shootings in Ohio, some while sleeping, authorities say

Also indicted on the same charges — including eight counts of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and conspiracy to commit aggravated murder — were George Wagner IV’s father, George “Billy” Wagner III, 51; his mother, Angela Wagner, 51; and his brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, 29 — who is the father of the child at the center of the custody dispute. In addition, Jake Wagner was indicted on a charge of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.

A gag order remains in the case, barring anyone involved, including all lawyers, from publicly discussing it. All but one of the police reports, and all of the dozens upon dozens of search warrants and court orders, remain sealed. However, details of the crime and the family dynamics that allegedly fueled it have come to light in motions and related hearings in Pike County Common Pleas Court that ramped up after Jake Wagner pleaded guilty on April 22, 2021. The hearings stretched through that spring and summer.

Special prosecutor Angela Canepa has portrayed the Wagners as an insular family that lived together their entire lives, worked together, were home-schooled together, commingled their money and voted as a group on everything, including the decision to kill Hanna Rhoden, the mother of Jake Wagner’s young daughter, and seven of her family members.

Canepa has painted the family as controlling to the point of violence toward anyone — notably the three women involved with the two Wagner sons — who threatened to disrupt the family’s intimate bond. Jake Wagner’s former wife, whom he met and married in Alaska, is expected to testify for the prosecution in the trial, as is George Wagner’s ex-wife, who relinquished full custody of their son years before Jake’s daughter was born. Both women, Canepa alleges, fled for their lives from the Wagner family.

Canepa also contends that as a family, the Wagners committed crimes including arson, drug dealing and theft.

“They were raised in the ways of committing crimes to survive; to lie, cheat and steal,” she said.

Angela Wagner also hacked into social media accounts, which is how the homicide plot first surfaced, according to the indictment. Canepa said Angela Wagner found a private Facebook message that Hanna Rhoden wrote to George Wagner’s former mother-in-law saying the Wagners would have to kill her before she would ever relinquish custody of her daughter.

Then, Canepa alleges, came that fateful family vote.

Once the Wagners voted to kill the Rhodens, Canepa alleges, they spent about four months methodically plotting and planning the executions to guarantee custody of the then-2½-year-old daughter of Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden. They all conspired to cover up the killings, she alleges, making a plan for the custody of the children in the event the adults were killed or arrested on the night of the killings.

“They each had a role to play,” Canepa said. She alleges the following:

  • Angela Wagner bought athletic shoes from Walmart for her sons to wear on the night of the killings. The shoes, which prosecutors allege left bloody footprints at one of the crime scenes, were bought the month of the homicides.
  • George Wagner bought the “murder truck,” which was to be used only that night in an attempt to avoid detection.
  • Jake and George Wagner hid in the truck together when their father went to the home of Chris Rhoden Sr. — the first victim — on the night of the killings on a ruse to involve Rhoden in a lucrative drug deal.
  • The sons had fired weapons under various scenarios to test whether shots could be heard.
  • Jake Wagner bought a silencer in March 2016 and bought parts to build silencers.

“It was all for one and one for all,” Canepa said.

Mass killings are rarely connected to custody issues, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston who maintains a database in collaboration with the Associated Press and USA Today of 498 mass killings in the United States since 2006. He says that the Rhoden family massacre is just one of six mass killings in the past 16 years motivated by child custody. (The child at the center of the custody dispute is now living with relatives.)

In a case with more twists and turns than a mountain road, perhaps the most shocking came in 2021 when Jake Wagner and his mother broke their silence after sitting in jail for 2½ years.

Jake Wagner provided a proffered statement, meaning prosecutors cannot use his statements against him in any future criminal proceedings. In exchange, he pleaded guilty to all 23 charges and agreed to testify against each of his family members. As part of the plea deal, if he testifies truthfully, he and his parents and brother would be spared the death penalty if they are convicted.

Until Jake Wagner stood in court for his plea hearing on the fifth anniversary of the killings and said he was guilty, he and his family vehemently denied involvement in one of the largest mass homicides in Ohio’s history. For years, he and his mother expressed sorrow, repeatedly saying they wanted nothing more than for authorities to arrest the killers of the Rhodens, whom they considered friends and business associates. Angela Wagner said that her husband and Chris Rhoden Sr. were like brothers and that she considered Hanna Rhoden a daughter.

Then Jake Wagner told a judge that he had killed five of the eight victims. He will be sentenced to eight consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.

According to Canepa, Jake Wagner corroborated the evidence investigators had gathered in the case. He also led investigators to the guns used in the killings and the truck the prosecutor alleged his brother bought solely to be used the night of the killings.

Five months later, in September 2021, murder charges against Angela Wagner were dropped. Prosecutors said she was at home with her two grandchildren — including the child in the custody dispute — when the crimes were committed. She pleaded guilty to 14 lesser charges and will be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Still, Jake and Angela Wagner are only half of the story.

George Wagner and his father, Billy Wagner, have maintained not-guilty pleas in the case. Although Billy Wagner’s trial is tentatively set for October, authorities have said they do not expect it to begin until 2023.

Before the trial of George Wagner IV begins on Aug. 29, lawyers must narrow a jury pool in Pike County, where nearly 20 percent of its 27,900 residents live in poverty, according to the 2020 Ohio Poverty Report. Many could face two months without pay if the trial stretches as long as 60 days, as some estimate it could. The county summoned 1,000 potential jurors who were expected to answer a detailed questionnaire. Lawyers narrowed their pool and will continue questioning individual jurors on Aug. 8.

“We were told … that approximately 20 to 25 percent turnout is typical of those summoned to appear for jury duty,” said John Patrick Parker, one of George Wagner’s attorneys. “That’s simply not acceptable if we’re going to have a fair cross section of the community. And when you factor in how notorious this case is … we anticipate there are going to be several factors that are going to make it difficult, if not impossible, to get a fair jury in this county.”

Even Gov. Mike DeWine (R) attended the hearing where Jake Wagner pleaded guilty, Parker added.

“When’s the last time that happened? Of course, he was the attorney general at the time of the investigation,” Parker said. “But, nonetheless, this case has garnered tremendous attention.”

Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering denied Parker’s motion to move the trial.

Some wonder whether a fair and impartial jury can be chosen at all, given the pretrial publicity — including one multi-season podcast about the case that has been downloaded millions of times.

Allen, the Cincinnati lawyer who also has been a prosecutor and a municipal judge, said he is not convinced that the case will end up being tried in Pike County’s Civil War-era courthouse in Waverly.

“I’m still of the opinion that there’s a good chance they’ll all end up pleading to something,” he said. “It seems like the prosecution really has its act together and has all the evidence to convict all of them.

“But again, in this thing, there have been so many twists and turns,” he added. “You never know.”

If George Wagner’s case does go to trial, it remains unclear exactly what his defense will be.

Parker has repeatedly argued in motions that his client should not have been charged with aggravated murder and should not face the death penalty because he did not kill the Rhodens. The attorney maintains that his client was not supposed to go on the killing spree.

“George did not shoot or kill anybody. He did not pull the trigger once,” Parker said during a motion hearing.

In his argument to drop the murder charges, Parker said: “When the state has made a bargain with the killer of at least five people in this case, when the state has decided that he doesn’t deserve the death penalty — we believe it’s unconstitutional, improper and an abuse of power to pursue the death penalty against George, when they admitted he didn’t shoot anybody.”

Parker said in a motion that Jake Wagner “clearly stated that George did not shoot anybody … was not supposed to go with Jake and Billy on this murder spree, and only went at the last second to protect Jake from Billy, who it was thought might kill Jake at the end of the series of aggravated murders.”

Ohio law holds, however, that someone involved in a conspiracy to commit murder is as guilty as the person who actually carries out the killing.

“Even if he didn’t pull the trigger, even if he were not there, he can still be convicted on a complicity theory or an accessory theory,” Allen said.

Ohio, like other death-penalty states, has had difficulty obtaining lethal-injection drugs. DeWine has put executions on hold until state legislators approve another method. Ohio’s last execution was in 2018.

George Wagner’s attorneys contend that their client should not be tried on the basis of his family’s past.

“A large part of the state’s argument we anticipate is: ‘He’s a Wagner, and this is how the Wagners operate,’ ” Parker said. “The jury needs to understand the basic premise of our criminal justice system is as follows: Our law punishes people for what they do, not [for] who they are, and so the jury will need to focus their attention on what the evidence proves that George did or didn’t do.”

Parker continued in court: “And he can’t be convicted on what his other family members may have done, or may have testified about.”

Jurors are expected to visit the property where the homicides occurred, although authorities towed away the trailers and camper in 2016. They have been stored in police custody since.

Deering approved a prosecution motion to allow jurors to view other properties that police repeatedly scoured for evidence, including a farmhouse in Peebles, Ohio, where the Wagners lived and where they allegedly voted to kill the Rhodens.

That was news to the new owner, Dwayne DeWeese, 53, who bought the 71½-acre property in 2017, just before the Wagners moved to Alaska.

It’s not the first time he has been surprised.

DeWeese said that he and his wife, Kim, were set to unload their first trailer of household goods on May 10, 2017, when hundreds of police officers swarmed the area with four-wheelers, metal detectors and a search warrant that included a long list of items that investigators were seeking: firearms, bullets, burglary tools, soil samples, vehicle tire impressions, electronic devices, and illegal drugs including marijuana, pharmaceuticals, heroin, cocaine, MDMA — also called ecstasy — and any evidence of drug trafficking.

That was the first of six searches at his property; the last was in the spring of 2021. DeWeese said investigators took at least three guns, bullet fragments and casings from a wooded area behind the house where, he said police told him, the Wagners practiced shooting. Investigators also cut down trees and hauled away sections with bullet fragments in them.

DeWeese said investigators searched a pond on the property, looked in two cisterns — emptying one — and told him they found parts of a homemade gun silencer during one search. He also said they dug holes and left metal fragments all over the property and never put anything back the way they found it.

“The first few times they were here, they were looking for the guns,” said DeWeese, who is fed up with the police, the onlookers and the attention. “They said they thought those guns were buried here.”

DeWeese is also upset that authorities never told him that the Wagners moved back to the area from Alaska. He found out from someone else that they were back in Ohio and working at a trucking company.

An investigator testified this spring that authorities put listening devices in the driving and sleeping cabs of the R&L Carriers trucks the Wagners drove and monitored their conversations. He also testified that they tapped the Wagners’ phones. He declined to elaborate on what, if any, information of investigative value they gleaned from the surveillance.

The DeWeeses say they do not keep up with the case. They said they are private people and don’t want to be bothered. But, gawkers have filmed the house, and one man even trespassed, taking photos of the outbuildings and vehicles and posting videos on Facebook pages dedicated to the case.

DeWeese said he’s sure the attention will intensify again in August.

Court personnel are gearing up as well, including by trying to accommodate the families, the news media and the public in the courtroom.

Families will get priority seating in the courtroom. A Rhoden relative has always attended the hearings. Family matriarch Geneva Rhoden, 79, who has been ill, hasn’t been able to attend all the hearings. But when she does, she sits in the front row, often with an oxygen tank, flanked by some of her children.

She was in the courtroom when Jake Wagner pleaded guilty, and when he turned to the family and apologized.

She quietly wept.

Leonard Manley, the outspoken father of Dana Manley Rhoden and one of the first to point a finger at the Wagner family as possible suspects in the early days of the investigation, attended that hearing as well. He died one month after Angela Wagner admitted her involvement.

And as the criminal cases continue, an unlawful-death lawsuit is pending against the Wagner family, including its matriarch, Fredericka Wagner, 80, whose horse-breeding business and more than 2,000-acre property in the area is worth an estimated $4 million. Authorities initially charged her with helping her family plot a coverup, but prosecutors dismissed the charges. She has denied any involvement in the killings.

The Rhoden family intends to use any damages awarded in the civil case for the benefit of Hanna Rhoden’s two children and Frankie Rhoden’s two children, said Brian K. Duncan, the attorney representing the family in the lawsuit.

Nearly three years after ‘execution-style’ killing of family, four charged with murder

He said the arrests brought family members some peace of mind, but little else.

“They are exhausted,” Duncan said. “They have to relive these events almost on a daily basis.

“And every time there is another court hearing or court proceeding, or it is brought to their attention, they relive it again.”


Because of a production issue, a previous version of this article misstated the name of R&L Carriers. The article has been corrected.

Chris Graves is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.