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The months-long trial of one of four family members accused of an overnight massacre that left eight people dead in rural Ohio has come to a close.
Defendant George Wagner IV, 30, gave two days of testimony last week, denying his alleged role in the murders of seven members of the Rhoden family, plus the fiancée of one of the victims, according to CBS Cincinnati affiliate WKRC-TV. Wagner IV would be the last witness to take the stand before both the defense and state rested on Friday.
Wagner maintained he was asleep when the execution-style shootings occurred sometime between April 21 and 22, 2016, across several Pike County dwellings where the Rhodens lived, according to CBS Columbus affiliate WBNS-TV.
Wagner IV's testimony came after the highly anticipated testimony of his younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, 29, who implicated himself and his father, George “Billy” Wagner III, as being the triggermen. Wagner testified his brother was on the scene, but never fired a shot.
Billy Wagner pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and is expected to go to trial at a later date.
Jake Wagner is currently serving eight life sentences for the murders, which allegedly took place over a custody dispute between him and victim Hanna May Rhoden, 19, over their then-3-year-old daughter, Sophia. His testimony comes as part of his 2021 plea agreement.
The Wagner matriarch, Angela Wagner, 59, also pleaded guilty to charges connected with the murders, including conspiracy and aggravated burglary. She was also called to the stand in her elder son’s trial.
Angela and Jake both testified they feared unsubstantiated claims that Sophia was being sexually abused. Both also admitted the four accused relatives, as a family, agreed to wipe out the rival Rhoden clan.
Last week, Wagner IV stated he was unaware of his family’s alleged role in a diabolical plot to kill the eight victims, testifying that learning of the deaths was “more heartbreaking and emotional than anything in my life,” according to WBNS-TV.
The victims included Hanna May Rhoden, 19; her parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr, 40, and Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37; brothers Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20; and Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20.
Also killed was Christopher Sr.'s cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38, and brother, Kenneth Rhoden.
"I never would have believed my family would be capable of doing something of this magnitude,” Wagner IV testified last week, according to WBNS-TV.
In 2017, the Wagners sold their farm and moved to Alaska with Jake Wagner and Hanna May’s daughter, who was reportedly with Angela Wagner on the night of the shootings. Wagner IV testified he believed the move was to remove Sophia from the negative press surrounding their alleged role in the murders, according to Fox Newport, Kentucky affiliate WXIX-TV.
Wagner IV said he agreed with state bureau agents to try and get Jake to confess to the crimes, but to no avail.
“He [Jake] swore up and down he didn’t know who did it and that he didn’t have nothing to do with it,” said Wagner IV.
Wagner IV admitted he initially believed agents were trying to frame his brother and parents, stating, “I was raised to believe all law enforcement was crooked,” according to ABC Cincinnati affiliate WCPO-TV.
“I know now that [Jake] was just lying through his teeth,” said Wagner IV.
Even after Jake pleaded guilty to the crimes, Wagner IV said he was still in disbelief, according to WXIX-TV.
“I’m ashamed to know that my family would do something like this,” he said.
Prosecutors picked Wagner IV’s testimony apart by pointing out several inconsistencies between his courtroom testimony and the statements he gave state agents who intercepted the Wagners in Montana on their way back from Alaska in 2017, according to WKRC-TV. One of the inconsistencies was the defendant’s courtroom claims that he went to sleep on the night of the murders at around 10:00 p.m., though he previously told agents it was sometime after midnight.
During rebuttal, prosecutor Angela Canepa asked the defendant what fate should await whoever killed Gilley and the Rhodens, according to WCPO-TV.
“What should happen to anybody is they should have death given to them,” said Wagner IV.
Wagner IV is charged with nearly two dozen crimes, including eight counts of murder. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.
On Friday, after the defense and state rested, Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering said closing arguments would begin on Monday, Nov. 28, after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, according to WKRC-TV. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Deering wished the jurors a happy holiday before excusing them from the courtroom.
Although jurors were excused, lawyers still met to address the defense’s “Rule 29” motion to dismiss Wagner IV’s case on the grounds of lack of evidence.
On Monday, Judge Deering rejected the defense’s motion, claiming, “reasonable minds could conclude that the defendant is guilty,” according to WXIX-TV.
Several hearings are expected to continue this week without the jury, including the state’s anticipated motion to drop the death penalty specifications, taking into consideration Jake and Angela Wagner’s contingent testimony.
Should the death penalty specifications be lifted, prosecutors must submit their filings before closing arguments.
The case was covered by Oxygen’s original series, “The Piketon Family Murders.”
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