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Prosecutors say a series of texts can help explain how bitter custody battle between two young people led to a massacre that left eight people dead in rural Ohio.
George Wagner IV, 30, is standing trial for the 2016 shooting deaths of eight people: seven members of the Rhoden family as well as the fiancée of one victim. The defendant is one of four members of the Wagner family, who have been accused of killing the extended Rhoden clan execution-style as they slept in what’s been commonly referred to as the “Pike County Murders.”
On Thursday — nearly two months into George Wagner's murder trial — state agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) provided texts to show that the murders stemmed from animosity that developed between the defendant’s younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, 28, and his ex-girlfriend, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, according to ABC Cincinnati affiliate WCPO-TV.
Jake Wagner pleaded guilty to the murders in April 2021 and is currently serving eight life sentences in prison.
Prosecutors have long argued that Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden became embroiled in a custody war over their daughter, Sophia, and Jake drew his family into the feud.
BCI intelligence analyst Julia Eveslage testified that agents extracted texts between the couple — who always lived separately — after finding Jake Wagner’s phone in his vehicle near the Canadian border in Montana. The phone was discovered about a year after the Wagner family relocated from Ohio to Alaska with Sophia in tow, before deciding to return to the mainland in 2018. They were arrested after their return to Ohio.
For months, Hanna May Rhoden and Jake Wagner argued back and forth because Hanna, then 15 years-old, wanted a place of her own to live with Jake and the baby, and Jake wanted Hanna and the baby to move in with him and the rest of the Wagner family.
Part of Hanna’s concerns stemmed from the ways in which Jake Wagner’s mother, Angela Wagner, had allegedly previously inserted herself into both George Wagner IV's relationship with his then-ex, as well as the the custody battle over George Wagner's son, Bulvine.
George Wagner's ex, Tabitha Claytor, testified earlier this month that George insisted they live with his parents and under "Angela’s rules,” describing Angela as a domineering matriarch who controlled her sons and their relationships with women and girls.
Some of the texts between Jake and Hanna May introduced at George's trial dated back to October and November 2013 — before their daughter Sophia was born on Nov. 8, 2013 — according to WCPO.
“I done told u she is living with me now u can live with us or not that’s ur choice,” Jake Wagner texted five days before their child’s birth.
Hanna, then 15, responded by saying it would be a mistake for Jake, then 20, to take their daughter.
“Hanna I’m telling you right now make a choice and make it now if u do this it’s over and I’ll take Sophie and if I have to by force,” said Jake. “I love u with all my heart if u love me and Sophie u will make the right choice I want u to live with me and Sophie. That don’t mean we have to stay at my house all the time but she will live wear ever I am.”
Jake's texts suggest he had issues with Hanna’s 16-year-old brother, Chris Rhoden Jr. — one of the eight victims his family is accused of murdering in April 2016. Jake texted, “at least no one at my house would hurt a baby,” according to WCPO.
In October 2014, Hanna sent Jake four gun emojis pointed at a single emoji of a woman’s head with the caption, “is what you wish would happen.”
By the end of March 2015, Hanna and Jake’s relationship began to crumble, according to WCPO.
“I don’t want to be with you,” Hanna texted. “You hurt me.”
“Baby plz u hurt me too,” Jake responded.
Jake texted Hanna that she had a one-day deadline to return to him, though Hanna refused. She made several references to where Jake allegedly put his hands on her. The allegation was supported by testimony from Hanna’s friend, Chelsea Robinson, who claimed Hanna told her Jake threatened to “chop her legs off” so she couldn’t leave him.
By the summer of 2015, Jake was upset that Hanna seeing another man and accused her of stepping outside their Christian-based beliefs, according to WCPO.
“I want to be proud to call you her mother, Hanna,” Jake texted.
Less than a year later, Hanna was gunned down in bed with her days-old infant (who was not Jake Wagner’s child) at her side, though the baby was physically unharmed. Also shot to death were Hanna’s parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37; Hanna’s brothers, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20; as well as her uncle, Kenneth Rhoden. Christopher Sr.’s cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38, and Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20, were also shot to death.
Hanna and Jake’s daughter, Sophia, was staying with the Wagner family on the night of the murders and was not harmed. Frankie Rhoden’s 3-year-old son from a previous relationship and his six-month-old child with Hannah Gilley were also in their home on the night of the murders but not physically injured.
Jake Wagner, George Wagner IV and their parents, Angela and George “Billy” Wagner III, were all charged with the murders in 2018. Angela pleaded down to lesser charges, including conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, and was sentenced to 30 years behind bars. Jake Wagner also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life. George Wagner III and George Wagner IV pleaded not guilty.
Of the two, George Wagner IV is the first to go to trial for the 2016 murders, and he maintains that he didn't pull the trigger.
Jake Wagner is taking the stand Monday to testify against his brother, according to Fox Newport, Kentucky affiliate WXIX-TV.
The case was covered by Oxygen’s original series, “The Piketon Family Murders.”
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