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Man in notorious Ohio mass family killing sentenced to life without parole

George Wagner IV, center, stands next to his attorneys as he is sentenced Monday in an Ohio courtroom for his role in the killings of eight members of an Ohio family. (Brooke LaValley/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)
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WAVERLY, Ohio — George Washington Wagner IV, one of the people at the center of eight coldblooded killings that devastated a southern Ohio family, was sentenced Monday to an equal number of consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole.

Wagner, 31, stood with his hands in the pockets of his jeans and his head tilted down as Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering imposed the sentence, which included another 121 years imprisonment on lesser charges.

“The court finds no remorse has been shown, only denial,” Deering told Wagner, who took the stand in his own defense late last month and testified he knew nothing about his relatives’ 2016 plot to kill members of the Rhoden family over the custody of a shared child.

Wagner’s brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, and their mother, Angela Wagner, testified against him during the nearly 13-week jury trial — as part of plea agreements they reached separately with prosecutors last year. Jurors convicted him on all 22 counts in about seven hours. His father, George “Billy” Wagner, 51, has pleaded not guilty to the same charges and will face trial sometime next year.

Richard Nash, one of the younger Wagner’s lawyers, said his client “maintains his innocence’’ and will appeal. Jake Wagner testified that his brother did not kill any of the victims but was involved in the planning.

Many of the deceased were shot as they slept, including two young mothers with infants. They included Christopher “Chris” Rhoden Sr.; his former wife, Dana Manley Rhoden; their children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, Hanna May Rhoden, and Christopher “Chris” Rhoden Jr.; Frankie’s fiancee, Hannah Hazel Gilley; Christopher Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, Gary Rhoden.

The oldest victim was 44, the youngest 16.

In grisly testimony over four days, Jake Wagner testified that his father came up with the plan to kill the Rhodens after they became convinced that the toddler-aged daughter Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden shared was being molested by Rhoden family members. That claim was never substantiated, and prosecutors contended the Wagners wanted sole custody of the child and killed to get it after realizing that Hanna Rhoden would never agree.

Before sentencing, 10 members of the Rhoden, Manley and Gilley families shared victim-impact statements filled with overwhelming grief, anger and pain. Prosecutors, sheriff’s deputies and state crime scene investigators, many of whom had worked on the case since the day the bodies were discovered, openly wept in the courtroom.

“My heart is forever broken,’’ said Gilley’s mother, Andrea Shoemaker, whose hands shook as she read from her statement. She yelled at Wagner, calling him the devil and a monster whose actions had robbed children of their parents and parents of their children and uncles, aunts and nieces and nephews.

“Life in prison is too good for you,’’ she said as she pounded on the lectern. “George Wagner IV, what have you won after all you have done?”

One of the most poignant moments came as a letter was read from the son of Clarence Rhoden, who was sleeping on his father’s couch the night of the killings. Brentley was 3 at the time and was one of the three young children the killers spared. He found his father, covered in blood, dead in bed.

“Dear George: I find myself wondering why you killed my daddy. There is things that make me sad because I can’t learn from him … like working on derby cars and coon hunting,’’ the boy said in his letter, which his mother, Chelsea Robinson, read to the court. “I have been scared since that night knowing bad guys came into my house when I was sleeping. I am always scared now that I will lose my mommy.”

“You did that to me,’’ continued Brentley, who is now 10. “I just want you to know that I hate you and your family.”

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