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On the fifth anniversary of the bloody, calculated massacre of eight Ohio family members, Edward “Jake” Wagner took responsibility for the heinous killings Thursday in a Pike County courtroom.
Wagner pleaded guilty to killing eight people—including Hanna Rhoden, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter—as the tearful surviving members of the Rhoden family looked on in court, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
“I am guilty, your honor,” a visibly upset Wagner said when asked about killing his one-time love in a carefully planned execution that prosecutors said was triggered by a custody battle over the couple’s child.
As part of the agreement, Wagner, 28, pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated murder and agreed to testify against his mother, father and brother—who are also charged with systematically killing the family in hits carried out at four separate mobile homes on April 22, 2016. George “Billy” Wagner III, Angela Wagner, and George Wagner IV have all entered not guilty pleas to the murder charges against them.
The massacre claimed the lives of Hanna Rhoden, her parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Manley Rhoden, 38; along with her brothers Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, and Chris Rhoden, Jr. 16. Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée Hannah Gilley, 20, and Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s older brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38, were also killed.
In exchange for his plea, prosecutors agreed to take the death penalty off the table and Wagner will serve eight consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole plus more than 100 years for other charges in the case, the paper reports.
Special Prosecutor Angela Capela said Wagner admitted to being personally responsible for five of the deaths, CBS News reports.
He also gave prosecutors a full account of the killings and led them to evidence investigators had not previously discovered, she said. With his help, authorities were able to recover the guns used in the killings and the vehicles the family drove that night, The Columbus Dispatch reports.
All but one of the Rhoden family members had been shot multiple times.
Hanna Rhoden was found laying in bed next to her days-old infant, who was not killed in the cold-blooded execution. Hanna had been shot twice in the head.
Her older daughter, Sophia, who she shared with Wagner, was not home at the time of the killing.
“Hanna Rhoden just had a little baby, the baby was four days old when the murders took place,” Phil Fulton, the pastor of Union Hill Church said in Oxygen’s 2019 special “The Piketon Family Murders”. “That you could walk in with a mother, with a little baby, and murder that mama, that’s pure, pure evil.”
Evidence found by investigators suggested that Chris Sr. and Gary had been awake when they were attacked, according to the local paper.
As Wagner entered the guilty plea in court Thursday, the surviving members of the victims’ families including Geneva Rhoden—the family matriarch who lost two sons in the slayings—and Chris Sr.’s brother Tony looked on.
Wagner briefly addressed those in attendance, saying only “I am deeply and very sorry.”
His attorney Gregory Meyers said although Wagner has not yet been formally sentenced, he understands the terms of the plea agreement and realizes that he will never be released from prison.
“He knows he’s going to die in prison without any judicial release,” Meyers said, according to CBS News. “As horrifying as this is for all, he is as sorry as he could be.”
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office said the scope of the massive investigation “surpasses any other in Ohio’s history,” in a statement released after the plea.
“Today’s hearing finally brings some degree of closure to the surviving family members, and I pray that they might find peace in the face of this horror,” Attorney General Dave Yost said.
Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk noted that the guilty plea came on the five-year anniversary of the deaths.
“It's been a long five years for all of us, most importantly for the surviving family members you see in this court today," he said.
Beth Karas, who hosted Oxygen’s investigative special into the case, told Oxygen.com that after the murders, Pike County had been a “traumatized community” shocked by the horrific violence.
Many in the community even questioned law enforcement's handling of the case, but Karas said Thursday’s plea should put an end to some of those lingering questions.
“I hope it instills a little more faith in the justice system in that community,” she said.
While authorities took the death penalty off the table in exchange for the plea, Karas, a former prosecutor and investigative reporter, said it may have been a necessary trade-off to ensure Wagner would be convicted and spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“I hope that this plea is the beginning of giving the community, and certainly the Rhoden family some sense of justice,” she said. “There is never closure when you lose eight members of one family in the same day … but you get some sense of justice.”
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