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Why Drug Cartels Were Initially Suspected in the Pike County Murders
The Pike County murders shocked a small Ohio town. Were they drug-related?
In 2016, an Ohio town was shook when eight members of the same extended family were found dead in four different homes, each shot in the head. Three young children (one just days old) were found unharmed, some near their parents’ bodies. The crime rattled the small town of Piketon, Ohio and the larger Pike County area to its very core. No one could figure out why someone would commit these horrific crimes — or who had committed them.
“I’ve been doing this 27 years,” Benjamin Suver, a former Special Agent in Charge of the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, told Oxygen’s The Pike County Murders: A Family Massacre, premiering November 24 at 8/7c p.m. “This was definitely the largest and most complicated mass killings in Ohio’s history.”
With the number of victims, it was hard for investigators to know where to start. But, Suver said, from early on, they were interested in looking into Jake Wagner, the father of 19-year-old Hanna May Rhoden’s oldest child. Hanna was one of the eight family members found dead. While they were chasing down leads and searching crime scenes, however, investigators found something else that could point to a potential motive.
“We did find marijuana... at the crime scene,” said then-Ohio Attorney General (now governor of Ohio) Mike DeWine.
Once investigators found evidence of a marijuana growing operation on Rhoden family properties, they speculated that perhaps drug cartels could be responsible, or that there might be other drug-related involvement, in the Rhoden family murders.
Why were drug cartels suspected in the Pike County murders?
When investigators were working the case and searching the various crime scenes where eight Rhoden family members were murdered, they discovered evidence of a commercial marijuana growing operation. Because it appeared that the Rhoden family was selling marijuana, investigators explored the theory that a cartel may have felt that the Rhodens were interfering in their business and therefore may have been behind the slayings.
In addition to the findings on Rhoden properties, George “Billy” Wagner III — the father of Jake Wagner — told investigators of the Rhodens' alleged ties to drug activity. The Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) received "good information" that Billy and Hanna Rhoden's father, Christopher Rhoden Sr., were involved in selling drugs together, Mike Allen, a legal analyst for FOX19, told The Pike County Murders: A Family Massacre.
Allen added that BCI agents surprised Billy when he was walking out of a supermarket one day, put him in a car and interviewed him.
“Chris was supposed to have some weed coming in," Billy told investigators in the car. "You know, commercial type of weed. And it was a pretty good chunk from what I could gather. From what I heard, he was going to start selling it to the whole damn county.”
BCI Special Agent in Charge Suver told the Oxygen show: “Billy indicated during his interview that Chris Sr. was brokering deals that were going to make him a lot of money and make him a greater threat to the local drug-trafficking community. We later had found out that Billy, in fact, with Chris Sr., were involved in an $800,000 marijuana drug deal.”
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When investigators brought up that they'd been told that Billy and Chris Sr. were business partners and that Billy hauled weed for Chris Sr., Billy denied those allegations and told them, “I hauled a lot of cars for him.”
Defense attorney John Parker told The Pike County Murders: “Billy was known to haul large trucks and he and Chris would take trips together when he transported marijuana but Billy was never charged with criminal activity related to drug dealing.”
Commander Dennis Lowe of the South Central Ohio Major Crimes Unit told The Pike County Murders, "The reasons that the cartel may kill people, certainly infringing on their territory or their business — or even the perception that that has happened — is enough in some cases to get someone killed.”
What evidence of marijuana grow operations were found on Rhoden family properties?
Three marijuana “grow operations” were discovered by investigators at the rural residences where Rhoden family members were killed, then-state Attorney General Mike DeWine said at a 2016 news conference, according to CNN.
According to expert accounts on The Pike County Murders, the property around Chris Sr.'s home contained a big barn where marijuana was growing, and there was a second growing location in the attic of a home on the property. Additionally, a small shed on the property of Chris Sr's brother Kenneth Rhoden, who was also killed in the massacre, was also used to grow marijuana, according to the show.
What are Pike County, Ohio's ties to the drug trade?
The remote location of Southeast Ohio and the fact that it's close to a popular drug trafficking route made the area a hotspot for marijuana growth around the time of the 2016 Pike County murders, according to CNN.
U.S. Route 23 — a known drug trafficking roadway that runs from Florida to Michigan — goes through Pike County. It passes through large-scale drug markets including Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
Dan Tierney, a spokesperson for then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, told CNN at the time that the hilly, wooded area of Southeast Ohio between U.S. 23 and Interstate 70 is known as a good hiding spot for drug activity to both cartels and local growers.
Citing 2014 data from the attorney general’s office, the news outlet reported that nearly a quarter of all marijuana seized by authorities in the state came from Pike and five counties that were close by.
“People who think that the Mexican drug cartels don’t have a presence in Southeastern Ohio, in Pike County, are just mistaken,” Commander Lowe told The Pike County Murders. “For Southeastern Ohio and Pike County specifically, U.S. Route 23 ... is what some people call the Heroin Highway. Typically, what we would see would be methamphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, and we will occasionally see, as well, prescription medication.”
“We located a Mexican national marijuana grower within just a couple of miles of the Rhoden residence," Lowe added.
What have officials since said about theories that the Pike County murders were drug-related?
Despite the Rhoden family's alleged ties to growing and selling drugs, the theories that they were killed by drug cartels or that their murders were otherwise drug-related, were eventually ruled out.
In October of 2016, six months after the murders, investigators said they did not believe that Mexican drug cartels were involved, and that it was more likely that the killers were from the area of Pike County, according to Reuters.
"With the nature of the investigation and the things that have been revealed when conducting the investigation, there would be no indication to me as to any type of Mexican drug cartel being involved," Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader told ABC affiliate WCPO Cincinnati, Reuters reported.
Suver told The Pike County Murders, “This was going to be a capitol murder case. We followed many, many leads to their dead end. Although there were individuals murdered execution style in four locations, we found no credible evidence that cartel members were involved in the homicides.”
Ultimately Hanna May Rhoden’s older child's father, Jake Wagner, and three other Wagner family members were charged in connection to the murders. Three of them have been sentenced, while patriarch Billy is set to face trial in May of 2024, after several delays.
The Pike County Murders: A Family Massacre, a three-part documentary series, premieres on Oxygen November 24 at 8/7c p.m. with two episodes, and continues with a third episode on November 25 at 9/8c p.m. All three episodes will be available to stream on Peacock beginning November 28.