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Prosecutor Lays Out Gruesome Details Of 'One Of The Most Heinous Crimes' In Pike County Massacre Trial
During the opening statements of George Wagner IV's trial, prosecutors contend that the Wagner family meticulously planned the slaughter of eight members of the Rhoden family for months as part of a bitter custody feud.
For months, members of the Wagner family meticulously planned the slaughter of eight members of the Rhoden family in Ohio's Pike County, carrying out the massacre in the dead of the night and taking out any perceived threat in their way, according to prosecutors’ opening statement Monday.
“This was not a crime of passion,” said Angela Canepa, a special prosecutor in the case said in court, according to Law & Crime. “This was not a fit of rage. This was not in self-defense. These murders happened after a period of three months of planning and plotting and purchasing and preparing and executing eight individuals of a family.”
Canepa made the comments Monday as the trial for George Wagner IV got underway. Wagner, 30, is accused of helping his family plan, carry out and cover up in the murders as part of a bitter custody battle between his brother Edward “Jake” Wagner and Hanna Mae Rhoden, 19.
The Wagner family initially planned to just target Hanna Rhoden, a young mother who shared a child with Jake, after she refused to give him custody of their daughter, but that singular focus grew over time to include the execution of anyone who may be able to link the Wagner family to the crime, Canepa said, according to The Associated Press.
Jake Wagner pleaded guilty last year and admitted to shooting five of the victims as part of a deal with prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table.
His mother Angela also pleaded guilty to helping plan the murders. Both family members are expected to testify against George Wagner IV during the trial. The siblings’ father George “Billy” Wagner III has also been charged in the case, but isn’t expected to go to trial until next year.
Prosecutors contend that in the final hours of April 21, 2016, Billy Wagner and his two sons, Jake and George, snuck up onto the Rhoden family’s Pike County, Ohio property and systematically executed eight family members in four separate trailers.
“The three of them in the late hours of April 21, 2016, into the early hours of April of 2016, went up to Union Hill Road to three different locations that you all saw, and one location out on Left Fork Road and murdered eight people who did not deserve to die. I want that to sink in,” Canepa told jurors, according to WKRC.
Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, the family patriarch, was the first to die, according to prosecutors.
The Rhodens had been close family friends of the Wagners, but on the night in question prosecutors said Billy Wagner fired the fatal shot that killed Christopher Rhoden Sr., before crying, out “I just shot my best friend.”
Christopher Rhoden Sr. was shot eight times, including six gunshot wounds to the face, one to the stomach and another to the chest. According to Canepa, the Wagners took him out because as the family’s patriarch they feared he might retaliate against them, Law & Crime reports.
Prosecutors say the Wagners then systematically took out other members of the family, killing most as they slept in their beds, including Christopher’s ex-wife Dana Rhoden and the couple’s three children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Christopher Jr., 16; and Hanna, 19. Frankie’s 20-year-old fiancée Hannah Gilley was also killed while nursing her baby, who was left unharmed in the bed, WXIX reports. Another baby and toddler were also left unharmed next to their dead parents.
Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden and cousin 38-year-old Gary Rhoden were also killed. Some of the victims were allegedly collateral damage and had simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The defendants knew that before they walked out of the door that night to kill these individuals that there might be other people there, and they all agreed those people would have to be killed too,” Canepa said.
She described the killings as “one of the most heinous crimes that has ever been committed in the state of Ohio,” NBC News reports.
The execution-style killings were motivated, according to prosecutors, by a bitter custody dispute between Jake and Hanna, who had written in a Facebook message before her death that she had no intention of giving up custody.
“I won’t sign papers ever,” she wrote in the message to a third party, according to Law & Crime. “They’ll have to kill me first.”
Hanna had been just 13 years old when she began dating Jake, who was then 18. She got pregnant with their daughter two years later but when the relationship fell apart, Canepa argued that the Wagners couldn’t stand the thought of the young child being out of their care and grew upset when Hanna began a new relationship and got pregnant by another man.
“Her crime was not returning the love of Jake Wagner,” Canepa said. “Not submitting to the control of the Wagners.”
George Wagner IV isn’t accused of pulling the trigger during the deadly massacre, but is accused of helping to plan the attack, helping his brother move two bodies and helping the family cover-up their role in the crime in the months to come, according to the Associated Press.
His defense attorney Richard Nash insisted during his opening statements on Monday that George Wagner IV had not been a part of the killings.
"There is no reliable evidence that George planned these murders,” he said, according to WKRC. “There is no independent reliable evidence that George prepared for these murders, and, certainly no reliable evidence that George shot anyone.”
Nash urged the jury not to punish him for the actions of his family members.
"There are certain things in life that we can't control. One of those things is our birth name,” Nash said. “When we were brought into this world, we can't help who our parents were or are, and just like George, he couldn't help that he was born into the Wagner family. The state wants to paint this with a broad stiff brush about the Wagners. Unfortunately, George can’t help that he's a Wagner, but that doesn't make him a murderer."
The trial is expected to continue Tuesday.
The case was covered by Oxygen’s original series, “The Piketon Family Murders.”