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'We Didn't Believe In The Justice System': Mom Angela Wagner Begins Testimony Against Son In Pike County Massacre Trial

The matriarch of the Wagner family — who are accused in the murders of eight members of the extended Rhoden family over a child custody dispute — took the stand at her son George Wagner IV's trial.

By Megan Carpentier
4 Things to Know About the Pike County Family Murders

The mother in a family of four accused of carrying out a massacre of eight people took the stand to testify against her eldest son in Ohio today as part of a plea deal she arranged with prosecutors last year.

Angela Wagner, 52, pleaded guilty in September 2021 to various charges related to the Pike County Murders. Prosecutors contend that she, her husband George "Billy" Wagner III, 51, their older son, George Wagner IV, 31, and their younger son, Edward "Jake" Wagner, 29, worked together to exterminate the extended family of Hanna May Rhoden, 19 — the mother of Jake Wagner's daughter Sophia — in 2016.

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Jake Wagner, who pleaded guilty to all eight murders in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of parole, testified for five days last week as part of his April 2021 plea deal.

The older brother, George Wagner IV, is currently on trial in the murders. His lawyers argue (and Jake Wagner testified last week) that he was present the evening of the shootings but never pulled a trigger. George Wagner III is scheduled to go on trial next year.

Angela Wagner pleaded guilty to conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, forgery, unauthorized use of property and unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance, and prosecutors have argued that she should serve 30 years without the possibility of parole. She is awaiting sentencing pending her testimony against her son and husband.

Angela Wagner

None of the family members have seen each other since their arrests in 2018, except those who have been in court to testify against George Wagner IV.

Angela Wagner took the stand at her eldest son's trial late on Wednesday morning, and prosecutors led her through a direct examination that confirmed much of what her younger son, Jake Wagner, had told the court last week about the boys' upbringing, according to Cincinnati ABC affiliate WCPO.

She explained that her husband had taught the boys to steal at a very young age, and she and her husband taught them how to destroy the family's property in order to collect insurance money. She also testified that she had credit cards in both son's names, but claimed she always asked them before using their available credit. 

She also extensively countered previous prosecution testimony from George Wagner IV's ex-wife, Tabitha Claytor. 

Claytor had told the court that Angela Wagner was very demanding, claiming she insisted the couple reside in a home with the entire Wagner family, even after they had a child together, and abide by Angela Wagner's rules — which included no contact with her own family. She also claimed that her former mother-in-law gave George Wagner nightly back rubs, even after he married Claytor.

In the end, Claytor alleged that Angela Wagner threatened to get a gun during a family argument, prompting Claytor to leave the home and end her relationship with George Wagner IV — ultimately touching off an ugly custody dispute over their child, Bulvine, which the Wagners won.

Wagner admitted to calling someone to bring her a gun on Claytor's final day in their home, but testified that Claytor was "screaming, yelling, hitting the walls" and she wanted to shock her into calming down, according to WCPO. George Wagner IV, she testified, had been trying to calm down his then-wife in more traditional ways, but Claytor was demanding the family give her Bulvine, which Angela Wagner refused to do while Claytor was having what she termed "an episode."

Angela Wagner also alleged that it was Claytor who cut off contact with her family, as she was reportedly upset that she had been molested as a child and her mother hadn't reported it, WCPO reporter Courtney Francisco tweeted.

She noted that George Wagner IV was granted full custody after the couple's divorce and Claytor received only supervised visits, as determined by the courts.

Angela Wagner than testified that she met Hanna May Rhoden, then 13, at a county fair and the teen girl soon began to date her son, Jake Wagner, who was 17 at the time. Hanna May Rhoden got pregnant with a daughter, Sophia, when she was 15 and Jake was 20. The couple never lived together because Rhoden didn't want to also live with Angela and Billy Wagner, according to texts between them that were already presented to the jury.

Ultimately, the couple broke up in March 2015 and Rhoden both refused to cede custody and began dating other people — including the father of her second child, who was just days old when she was murdered.

In texts seen by the jury, Jake accused Rhoden's family of posing an unspecified harm to their daughter well before their break-up, and he later alleged that her dating other people posed other risks to Sophia. In his testimony, he admitted that he read Facebook messages between Rhoden and Claytor's mother in which Rhoden said she would never cede full custody to the Wagners.

That, Jake said, was when the family decided she needed to be killed, in order to protect Sophia from this unspecified harm.

Angela Wagner testified on Tuesday that Jake Wagner had been immediate suspicious that someone was abusing Sophia and that she said it had to be someone in the Rhoden house. Like Jake, she did not provide further evidence to back up that assertion. The family also never intended to seek assistance from law enforcement.

"We didn't believe in the justice system," Angela testified, according to WCPO. "We didn't believe in children services."

Later, Angela's husband Billy allegedly told her that he saw Hanna May's brother Frankie being what she termed "overly" affectionate with Sophia by kissing the baby on the lips. 

Media Handout From Ohio Attorney General's Bureau of Criminal Investigation

Angela's plan to get greater custody was to tip off the local police to the fact that Hanna May's father, Christopher Rhoden Sr., was growing marijuana, but testified that her husband vetoed the idea. Instead, in January 2016, he convinced her that the only way to get custody was to kill Hanna May and the only way to get away with her murder was to massacre her entire extended family.

The family then proceeded to plan the massacre for months, Angela testified — though she claimed tried to check in with her sons about whether they really wanted to go through with it.

"I was asking, 'Are you sure?'" she testified, according to WCPO. "Nobody wanted to do it … but they had to keep Sophia safe."

Angela testified that she purchase the wrong size shoes for her sons as well as gloves, and stayed home the night her husband and sons went out to commit the murders, babysitting Bulvine and Sophia and using the men's phones to text people to give them an alibi. She fell asleep before they got back, she said.

She told the jury she was shocked when she saw the next day that they'd gone through with it, according to WCPO.

That night, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, was killed, along with: her parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37; her brothers, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20; her uncle, Kenneth Rhoden; her father's cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38; and Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20, who also had an infant with her when she was shot. Hanna May's infant daughter was in bed with her but was unharmed. Frankie Rhoden and Hannah Gilley's child was with them when they were shot and ended up covered in their blood.

Angela Wagner's testimony was due to continue on Wednesday.

For more on the case, watch Oxygen's original series, "The Piketon Family Murders."