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Pike County Family Massacre Testimony Focuses On Custody Battle Between One Convicted Killer And Victim

The murder trial of George Wagner IV continues after testimony that the defendant's brother, Edward "Jake" Wagner — who previously pleaded guilty in the case — allegedly threatened to chop off the legs of one of the victims. 

By Jax Miller
What Was The Motivation For the Pike County Murders?

The trial continues for one of four family members accused of carrying out a massacre in rural Ohio that left seven members of another family plus an eighth person dead.

The murder trial of George Wagner IV, 30, enters its fourth week after witness testimony supported prosecutors' theory that the Pike County Massacre in 2016 occurred because of a custody feud between the defendant’s brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, and one of the victims, Hanna May Rhoden, 19.

Jake Wagner — who previously pleaded guilty to the murders — and Hanna May Rhoden shared a young daughter, Sophia, whom prosecutors say was the subject of long-standing feud between the two.

George Wagner IV is currently charged with eight counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, four counts of aggravated burglary, three counts of tampering with evidence, and one count each of forgery, unauthorized use of property, wire interception, obstruction of justice and corruption.

A police handout of George Wagner IV

Prosecutors say the Wagner brothers and their parents, George Wagner III and Angela Wagner, fatally shot Hanna Rhoden and her relatives execution-style at several dwellings in southern Ohio’s Pike County sometime between April 21 and April 22, 2016.

The victims included: Hanna; her parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37; her brothers Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20; and her uncle Kenneth Rhoden.

Also killed in the nighttime attack were Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38, and Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20.

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

Chelsea Robinson — who befriended Hanna May in 2013 while dating her brother Frankie Rhoden and is the mother of Rhoden’s 3-year-old son — testified Friday that Hanna May lived in fear of Jake Wagner.

A distressed Hanna May reportedly called Robinson in 2014 to detail Jake Wagner’s alleged threats, according to Law & Crime. Amid a series of objections from George Wagner IV’s legal representatives, the judge allowed jurors to hear Robinson’s testimony but reminded the jury that Robinson was not a character witness and that her testimony instead pointed to a possible motive for the murders.

Robinson then testified that Hanna May recalled to a time when Jake threatened to cut her legs off if she attempted to leave, according to Law & Crime and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“If she tried to leave, he was going to chop her legs off so she could never leave the house,” said Robinson.

Chelsea Robinson was expected to face cross-examination on Monday, according to Fox Cincinnati affiliate WXIX.

Also expected to take the stand this week is Tabitha Claytor, who had been married to the defendant at the time of the murders, according to Law & Crime. Chelsea Robinson testified that Hanna May told her of an incident in which matriarch Angela Wagner allegedly chased Claytor out of the Wagner home with a shotgun, with George IV and Jake there.

Tabitha Claytor was embroiled in her own custody battle with George IV, whom she married in 2012; she eventually lost custody of the couple’s son. According to special prosecutor Angela Canepa, the Wagners made it a point to keep Claytor away from her child, going as far as to accuse her of child abuse, according to the Enquirer.

Canepa called the couple's arrangements “historically one of the worst custody agreements anyone’s ever seen.”

Claytor’s mother allegedly warned Hanna May not to sign over custody of Sophia over to the Wagners, according to WXIX.

“I won’t sign papers, ever. It won’t happen,” Hanna May allegedly wrote Claytor’s mother in a Facebook message. “They will have to kill me first.”

Media handout of family members arrested in connection with Pike County Murders

The Wagners were early suspects in the killings but were not charged until 2018. Before then, prosecutors say they sold the family's 71-acre farm and moved to Alaska with Sophia after allegedly forging documents.

During the family’s year-long stay in Alaska, Jake Wagner reportedly married a woman named Elizabeth Freeman in 2018, whom the Wagners eventually accused of sexually abusing Sophia, according to the Enquirer.

“I had only just gotten married when I found out that not only was my husband not who he said he was but literally a person’s worst nightmare,” Freeman said in 2019.

Jake Wagner pleaded guilty to 23 criminal charges in the case, including eight counts of murder, in exchange for eight life sentences. He is expected to testify in the murder trial of George Wagner IV, who maintains he wasn’t the triggerman in the murders.

Angela Wagner was initially charged with murder but pleaded guilty to lesser charges, including conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and burglary. She is currently serving a 30-year sentence behind bars.

As part of their plea deals, Angela and Jake did not face the death penalty, though neither one is eligible for parole.

George Wagner III pleaded not guilty and is expected to face trial at a later time. If either he or his son is convicted, they could face the death penalty.

The case was covered by Oxygen's original series, "The Piketon Family Murders."