WAVERLY, Ohio — In the end, one of Ohio’s most complex and costly murder trials came down to one brother’s word against the other’s.
The jury of nine women and three men deliberated a little more than seven hours Wednesday after hearing from 60 witnesses and viewing nearly 5,000 pieces of evidence that included crime scene and autopsy photos in a trial that stretched into 13 weeks.
Wagner IV, who showed no emotion Wednesday, faces life in prison for his involvement in the killings 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. He will be sentenced in mid-December.
Several members of the Rhoden and Manley families, who sat stoically through every day of the trial, gasped and wept as Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering read the guilty verdict on each charge, including eight counts of aggravated murder.
Tony Rhoden, a brother, uncle and cousin of the victims, thanked prosecutors, jurors and “the citizens of the state of Ohio for bearing this burden that should have never happened to this family.”
He said Wagner IV is a human who lost his humanity on April 22, 2016.
“I feel sorry for him,’’ Rhoden said outside the courthouse just after the verdicts were read.
Rhoden, who gripped the hand of his mother, Geneva Rhoden, as the verdicts were read, said family strength supported them through the grueling years of the investigation and the trial. It will again during the trial of Wagner IV’s father, George “Billy” Wagner, 51, who faces the same charges. His trial is expected to start sometime next year.
Tony Rhoden said the verdict brought him “a little bit of peace. We still have a long way to go. We’ll get there because we are family.”
‘No other choice but to kill Hanna’
The trial pitted a brother against a brother — and a mother against her oldest son — in a part of the country where loyalty to family has long proved the best path to survival. The case also took jurors into the Wagner family’s criminal enterprises, including drug dealing, small- and large-scale theft, arson for profit, and scrapping metal and swapping guns.
The family’s final criminal act together was murder, prosecutors argued, to gain sole custody of a daughter shared by Hanna Rhoden and Edward “Jake” Wagner. The Washington Post is not naming the child, who Tony Rhoden said is being well cared for without elaborating.
Jake Wagner, 30, and his mother, Angela Wagner, 52, testified that the family killed to protect the child, whom they were convinced had been molested by a Rhoden family member. That allegation was never substantiated, special prosecutor Andrew Wilson told jurors Tuesday, because it was not true.
In chilling, matter-of-fact testimony, Jake Wagner said: “I had no other choice but to kill Hanna,” the mother of his child. Hanna Rhoden’s father, older brother and uncle were targeted, Jake Wagner testified, because his father, Billy Wagner, feared they would exact revenge for her death “like snipers on a hill.”
The other victims were killed simply because they were home and they would be witnesses to the crimes, he testified.
Jake Wagner said that after assembling silencers, buying a phone jammer and a bug detector, and hacking into social media accounts, he, his brother and father drove to Chris Rhoden Sr.’s home, where the killing started.
He said the plan was for his brother, armed with an SKS rifle, to shoot Rhoden Sr. But when his brother did not fire, Jake Wagner said, he grabbed the gun and fired instead, shooting Rhoden Sr.
Jake Wagner, who pleaded guilty in April 2021, testified that he killed five of the victims with a .22-caliber Walther Colt 1911 handgun and that his father killed three with a .40-caliber Glock handgun. He testified that his brother did not kill any of the victims.
Jake Wagner faces eight consecutive life terms in prison without parole, plus 160 years. As part of his plea bargain, his testimony removed the death penalty from his case and his brother’s. And, if prosecutors deem honest his required testimony in his father’s trial, they will remove the death penalty for that case as well. Angela Wagner also pleaded guilty in 2021, and prosecutors dropped murder charges against her. She will serve 30 years in prison as part of a plea agreement that required her testimony against her son and husband.
Wilson, the prosecutor, told jurors that even if Wagner IV did not fire a gun, he was complicit in the planning, execution and coverup of the murders. And, he argued, Ohio law dictates that complicity makes him guilty of the killings.
In the final days of the trial, Wagner IV stunned prosecutors and onlookers when he took the witness stand and repeatedly denied that he had any knowledge before, during or after the killings of his family’s plot.
His attorney John Parker asked him, “If one of them had come to you and asked you to be involved in something like this, what do you think you would have done?”
Wagner IV replied, “Well, first thing: I would not have believed that my family would be capable of doing something of this magnitude.”
He added: “Theft is one thing; murder is an entirely different thing.”
An exhaustive investigation
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who was the state’s attorney general at the time of the killings, and the prosecutors in the case praised the state’s Bureau of Criminal of Investigation agents, analysts and forensic scientists for their tenacious work in the case. Without them, they all agreed, the case would not have been solved.
“They put this case together. They figured out what at times seemed like such an implausible motive: the custody of a child. The murder of eight innocent people. But they did it,” DeWine said Wednesday at a news conference in Columbus.
Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk choked up repeatedly Wednesday night, saying, “Good won today, and evil lost.”
He expressed gratitude for the extensive help his county received in the case.
“We are a poor county. We are still a poor county. … But we’ve got a lot of good people here,’’ he said, adding that the state and local officials provided funding and resources to the county through the years. “There is no way we would have ever been able to do this alone.”
During the trial, analysts and scientists testified about how they were able to piece together key evidence in the case, including:
- Guns and silencers: Jake Wagner led investigators to the three weapons he testified that he tried to saw into pieces and burn after the murders before burying them in cement in five-gallon buckets that the family hid in his grandparents’ pond. BCI firearms examiner Matthew White dug the pieces and parts out of the buckets, reconstructed them and test-fired them. Those casings matched shell casings investigators retrieved from the Wagner family home.
- Shoes and bloody shoe prints: Investigators matched bloody shoe prints at one crime scene to two pairs of shoes Angela Wagner bought for her sons at Walmart before the killings.
- A Wagner laptop: Criminal intelligence analyst Julia Eveslage testified that she combed through hundreds of thousands of social media messages and found a Facebook message from Hanna Rhoden that said the Wagners would have to kill her before she ever gave up custody of her daughter, which prosecutors said was the impetus for the crime.
- Wiretaps: Eveslage walked jurors through recorded conversations between Jake and George Wagner that gave jurors a peek into the controlling family dynamics, special prosecutor Angela Canepa said.
Wilson and Canepa applauded the agents’ work, adding they were awed by the Rhoden, Manley and Gilley families’ resilience, patience and strength.
Addressing the family at the news conference on Wednesday evening, Wilson said: “You handled yourself with grace. You handled yourself with dignity and you handled yourself with restraint. And I will be forever amazed at your ability to do that. And, really, what you did is you represented your family well. I’m sure they would be so proud of the fact that you stood vigilant for them.”
Chris Graves is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.