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'I Had No Choice:' Convicted Killer Testifies Against Brother In Pike County Family Massacre Trial
Jake Wagner testified that he fatally shot Hanna May Rhoden — the mother of his then-3-year-old daughter — as she breastfed her days-old newborn.
Convicted killer Jake Wagner continues with his highly-anticipated testimony against his brother in the continued courtroom saga in Pike County.
George Wagner IV, 30, is the first of four family members to face trial for the 2016 Pike County Massacre, an overnight ambush that left eight people shot to death in rural Ohio.
Having previously pleaded guilty to the murders, Edward “Jake” Wagner — who was embroiled in an ongoing child custody dispute between him and victim Hanna May Rhoden — testified for several hours at the Pike County courthouse on Monday, as reported by Fox Cincinnati affiliate WXIX-TV. He detailed how he, George Wagner IV and their father, George “Billy” Wagner III, all took part in the killings.
“To be frank, it was a mess,” Jake testified.
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The Wagners were charged with murdering Hanna May Rhoden, 19, the mother of Jake’s then-three-year-old daughter, Sophia. Also killed were Hanna’s divorced parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37; brothers Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20; and uncle, Kenneth Rhoden.
Christopher Sr.’s cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38, and Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20, were also left dead in the attack, which occurred across several rural dwellings near Piketon, Ohio in April 2016.
Jake Wagner, 29, is currently facing eight life sentences for the murders, while his father, Billy Wagner, pleaded not guilty to murder charges and has yet to face trial.
Jake testified Monday that the “tipping point” in the decision to kill off the Rhodens and Gilley came after he and his mother, Angela Rhoden, discovered Facebook messages between Hanna May Rhoden and George Wagner’s former mother-in-law. In their correspondence, Hanna said the Wagners would obtain custody of Sophia “over my dead body,” according to WXIX-TV.
“I had no choice,” Jake testified. “If I didn’t do something, Sophie would be harmed.”
After going to Billy Wagner for advice, the three accused men allegedly decided as a group to kill the family off, figuring it was best to wait until after Hanna’s unborn child was born. (The infant, whom Jake did not father, was five days old when the massacre occurred and was left psychically unharmed in the attack).
Billy Wagner allegedly insisted he and his sons go on a cloudy night because he believed it would obscure images taken by overhead satellites, per Jake’s testimony. Jake and this brother then allegedly outfitted a truck (previously purchased from their great uncle in an attempt to water down the connection between the Wagners and the Rhodens) and created a false bed for Billy to hide.
Angela Wagner — who pleaded down to lesser charges and is currently serving a 30-year sentence — reportedly stayed home with Jake’s daughter, Sophia, and George’s son, Bulvine, when the murders took place.
The men allegedly amped themselves up for the attack by watching the 1999 film “The Boondock Saints,” which portrays a pair of brothers killing in the name of vigilante justice, Jake testified. The Wagner brothers also allegedly dyed their hair to mimic the character of Daryl Dixon from “The Walking Dead” series (played by Norman Reedus, who also stars in “The Boondocks Saints”).
According to Jake Wagner’s testimony on Monday, Billy first entered the trailer containing Christopher Rhoden Sr. and his cousin, Gary, both of whom sustained multiple gunshot wounds to the face, WXIX-TV reported.
His testimony supports previous reports that Christopher Sr. was the first to die.
George Wagner IV was allegedly supposed to shoot Christopher Sr. first but froze, prompting Jake to first pull the trigger, according to NBC Cincinnati affiliate WLWT.
Jake described how the Wagner men then went back and forth between several Rhoden homes while driving in Christopher Sr.’s truck before eventually arriving at the trailer of Frankie Rhoden and Hannah Gilley.
Jake admitted to climbing through a window and first shooting Frankie and then his fiancée in their bed.
Frankie and Hannah’s infant was with the murdered couple but left physically unharmed. A second child belonging to Frankie Rhoden was asleep on the sofa and also unharmed.
Jake testified the three accused men then drove to the trailer of his child’s mother, Hanna May, who lived with her mother and younger brother, according to WXIX-TV. Jake entered the home alone before first shooting Dana, who had just returned from her work shift as a nurse’s aide.
“She looked up and made a gasping noise, and then I shot her,” Jake testified Monday.
Jake confessed to shooting Hanna May as she reportedly breastfed her newborn daughter, Kylie. Jake said he repositioned Hanna May’s body so the infant could continue feeding from her mother’s breast while Jake went back and forth to shoot Dana and Hanna May additional times to ensure they were dead.
“I was concerned Kylie would starve to death,” Jake testified.
Jake said he then went into Christopher Jr.’s room and shot him point-blank in the head as he slept.
The Wagner men allegedly drove between several dwellings once again before going to the trailer belonging to Kenneth Rhoden, some six miles away, when Billy went inside and allegedly shot him to death, per Jake’s testimony.
Jake claimed their targets were Hanna May, Christopher Sr., Dana Manley-Rhoden, and Gary Rhoden, according to WXIX-TV. The other four victims were killed because “they would be witnesses,” he stated.
On Tuesday, Jake’s testimony continued with how the three men returned to their Peterson Road home after the killings at around 4:30 a.m. They allegedly parked their outfitted truck in the “new barn” before removing the vehicle’s floor mats and clothing, according to ABC Cincinnati affiliate WCPO-TV.
The trio then allegedly put a mountain of potential physical evidence into a feed trough, which they used for burn piles, including clothes, masks, gloves and electronic devices such as mobile phones and recording devices taken from Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s home. The items were incinerated until they were “nothing but ash,” Jake testified.
Jake admitted to using a portable grinder to cut murder weapons, which included a Colt 1911 .22, a Glock .40, and an SKS rifle. He then melted the metal and placed the parts in a duffel bag before he and George buried the bag in the barn.
The next day, Jake claimed his daughter, Sophia, was with him when he saw news of the murders on television.
Jake admitted documents were forged to help them obtain custody of Sophia but were never submitted to his lawyer because, with Hanna May’s death, he was granted custody right away, according to WCPO-TV.
Jake described the emotional toll he felt after the killings, even referring to Christopher Sr. as “a second father” he hoped would one day be his father-in-law.
“I could not bear to think of what I was doing at the time, nor what I did afterwards without having immense guilt,” Jake stated.
Jake stated he even attended the Rhoden’s funerals, according to Law & Crime.
Later, according to Jake, it was his father, Billy, who grew uneasy about the gun parts being buried in the barn following interviews by state agents. Billy and Jake then placed the guns in buckets filled with concrete mix, later used as weights for a floating goose house, which was gifted to Billy’s father on the property of the Wagner’s Flying W Farm.
Jake’s highly-anticipated testimony comes as part of a plea deal, which has him serving life without the possibility of parole in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table.
George Wagner is charged with nearly two dozen crimes, including eight counts of murder.
Jake Wagner’s testimony continues Wednesday, while Angela Wagner is expected to take the stand later this week or early next. Jurors will also hear wiretapped conversations from the Wagners in 2018, which allegedly implicated them in the murders.
The case was covered by Oxygen’s original series, “The Piketon Family Murders.”