It’s not often that a killing in rural Appalachia can be mentioned in the same breath as a Shakespearean drama—or even the legendary feud of the Hatfields and McCoys. But an April 2016 mass murder in the region, about 70 miles east of Cincinnati and 90 miles south of Columbus, carries much of the same high family drama. Few people outside Southern Ohio have heard much about the case, even though it may become the largest homicide investigation in the state’s history.
The Pike County, Ohio shootings are an ongoing murder mystery that pits two families against each other. Seven members of the Rhoden family (plus a fiancée of one of the men) were found shot to death in their residences. Three young children—as well as several pet dogs—were left unharmed at home with the victims.
After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office arrested four members of another local family, the Wagners, for the murders. The connection? Both the Wagners and Rhodens are related to young Sophia Wagner, daughter of both one of the victims and one of the murder suspects. And therein lies the crux of the case, according to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who was the state’s attorney general when the murders occurred: an alleged custody battle over the girl.
Who are the Rhoden family victims?
The shootings traumatized three interconnected families: the Rhodens, the Manleys and the Gilleys. Most victims were found in three trailers on the Rhoden family property in rural Pike County; one was in a camper several miles away. Then-Attorney General DeWine described the shootings as “execution-style” (meaning at extremely close range), according to the Dayton Daily News. Killers shot the eight victims, collectively, a total of 32 times, with one having been shot nine times; some victims showed bruises indicating they might have been beaten, according to The Enquirer (Cincinnati).
On Union Hill Road, early on the morning of April 22, 2016, Bobby Jo Manley called 911 to report that she thought her brother-in-law, Christopher Don Rhoden Sr., 40, was dead. “There’s blood all over the house,” she told the operator. Christopher Sr. was the ex-husband of one victim and father of three others. One of his cousins, Gary Rhoden, 38, was also killed in the home.
In a trailer nearby, authorities found the bodies of Christopher’s son, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, and his fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20, who was shot five times, including once through the eye. Two children were found unharmed at the scene: Gilley’s 6-month-old child Ruger Lee Rhoden and Frankie’s son Brentley, age 3, who was sleeping on the couch that night and, according to the Enquirer, unlocked the trailer door to rescuers. He may not have witnessed the murders, but saw the bloody bodies. Brentley’s mother, Chelsea Robinson, says her son later told her, “I picked up daddy’s hand, and it just fell.”
More victims, found at another Union Hill Road location, included Christopher’s ex-wife Dana Lynn Manley Rhoden, a 37-year-old nurse, and her children Christopher Don Rhoden, Jr., 16, a high school freshman, and Hanna May Rhoden, 19, a nursing assistant. Hanna’s newborn infant Kylie, only a few days old, was unharmed and reportedly found in bed next to her mother’s body. Hanna’s toddler daughter Sophia—whose dad is Jake Wagner and whose custody is allegedly at the center of the tragedy—was with the Wagner family that fateful night.
A few miles away, Kenneth Wayne Rhoden, 44, a utility worker and older brother of the slain Christopher Sr., was found dead, shot once in the eye.
Who are the suspects in the Rhoden family massacre?
On November 13, 2018, authorities arrested four members of the Wagner family of South Webster, Ohio for the killings. They include George “Billy” Wagner III, his wife Angela Wagner, and their sons George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner, Sophia’s father.
According to WSAZ News, DeWine said the Wagner family, who had been prime suspects for some time, had an “obsession” with child custody and “control of children.” Calling the case the most bizarre he had witnessed, he told the press the perpetrators had been planning the killings for months. According to the indictment, they even hacked into the victims’ social-media accounts and used surveillance cameras to spy on them and become familiar with their properties. “The killers knew the territory,” said DeWine.
In separate arraignments in late November and early December, each of the four suspects was charged with eight counts of aggravated murder—one count for each victim. The suspects were also charged with other offenses, including tampering with evidence (surveillance cameras and phones), conspiracy, aggravated burglary, forgery (in relation to child-custody documents) and obstruction of justice. Jake Wagner was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. (Hanna Rhoden was 15 when Sophia was conceived.)
One key piece of evidence, a homemade gun silencer, which paired with all the other evidence, led to the arrests, according to authorities.
All four suspects have pleaded not guilty to all charges and have been attending separate pre-trial hearings since December. Because investigators are seeking the death penalty for all four suspects, they will likely be tried separately.
What did the grandmothers allegedly do?
In November, Jake’s maternal and paternal grandmothers were arrested and charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. Rita Jo Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner were released after posting bond ($50,000 and $10,000 respectively), according to Newsweek.
Newcomb, who takes care of her own elderly mother, is accused of forging a custody document, obstruction of justice and perjury.
The wealthy Wagner matriarch, Fredericka—who lives on one of the largest properties in the county and raises and sells exotic animals—is accused of obstructing justice and perjury. According to her lawyer, she “passionately and fervently believes in the innocence” of the accused family members.
As of January 2019, both women have pleaded not guilty to all charges and are under house arrest while awaiting trial.
What took so long to make arrests in the Rhoden case?
DeWine called the case “without question…the longest most complex and labor-intensive investigation the Ohio Attorney General’s office has ever undertaken.” Investigators followed more than 1,100 tips, conducted 550 interviews, served more than 200 subpoenas, search warrants and court orders, tested more than 700 items of evidence, and traveled to 10 different states for the investigation. But, DeWine acknowledges that what solved the case was “just hard, tough police work… These men and women never gave up,” he said. “They were as frustrated as we all were.”
One possible factor contributing to the delay: Because of a communication glitch, the $10,000 reward for info in the killings wasn’t publicized until almost three months after it was authorized.
Another potential delaying factor: During the investigation in 2017, members of the Wagner family moved to Alaska with then-3-year-old Sophie; according to The Enquirer, claiming it was to protect her from talk of the murders. They had moved back to Pike County before their arrests.
Also complicating the case were persistent rumors of drug-cartel involvement. At a press conference shortly after the gruesome discoveries, police told reporters that there were hundreds of marijuana plants (valued at nearly a half-million dollars, according to CBS News) being grown at three of the four crime scenes. A press release from the attorney general’s office back in 2012, years before the murders, mentioned a “major marijuana grow site” in the county with possible ties to a Mexican drug cartel.
What’s the latest on the custody battle over Sophia Rhoden?
Six days after the murders, Jake Wagner filed for custody of Sophia. She had been living with both parents until spring 2015, according to the Dayton Daily News. Jake wrote in custody documents: “In late March 2015, Hanna decided I worked too much and that I did not have enough time for her.” They separated and the little girl lived with both families in turn. Sophia turned five in November 2018 while in state custody.
At a hearing a few months after the murders, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said he had “grave concerns” about the safety of the children spared in the killings. Ruger and Kylie Rhoden are reportedly in foster care but can be visited by immediate family members. Bentley is reportedly with family.
How has the community been affected by the murders and aftermath?
According to The Enquirer, the state has paid more than $37,000 for funerals for Rhoden family members. It also agreed to pay an initial $100,000 for the trials of the four Wagner family members charged with the murder, but it will likely cost the small county more than $1 million for all the cases. Current Attorney General Dave Yost is concerned the cost might cripple the small county. State lawmakers will need to approve that spending.
Pre-trial hearings have been underway since December.
“This had been hanging over them like a cloud for years: Were the killers still out there? Is it someone they know? What really happened that night?” he says. “In my visits to the area before the arrests I found people were well on their way to giving up hope that a killer or killers would ever be found. So, this sense of closure was monumental.”
The reporter, who has covered the case since news of the murders first broke, points out that the evidence still must be presented in court, a lengthy process given the many people involved as both victims and suspects. And, he adds, the Wagners must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.