The residents of Pike County were shocked when investigators arrested four people from a family considered “royalty” within their rural community for the cold-blooded murders of eight members of a neighboring family, all shot “execution style” in their homes on a quiet night in April 2016.
But perhaps most shocking was the arrest of the prominent family’s matriarch, 76-year-old Fredericka Wagner, who is accused of helping to cover up the brutal crimes but has not been charged with the murders herself.
She’s charged with obstruction of justice, while her son, George “Billy” Wagner III, his wife, Angela Wagner, and the couple’s two sons George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner are charged with murdering seven members of the Rhoden family and one of the victim’s fiancée. All four have entered not guilty pleas and an attorney representing the family has said they will be vindicated in the charges against them, according to the .
The disturbing allegations against the family are a stark contrast from the respected post they once enjoyed in the small rural Ohio community.
“Most everyone agrees that the Wagners are Pike County royalty,” legal analyst Beth Karas said in the Oxygen special “The Piketon Family Murders” airing Sunday at 7/6c. The special looks into the shocking allegations against the Wagner family and explores what could have prompted the calculated slayings of the Rhodens, which were carried out on the same night in four separate residences under the cover of darkness.
Four members of the Wagner family are accused of killing Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, his ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 38, and their three children, Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 20; Hanna Rhoden, 19, and Chris Rhoden, Jr., 16, as well as Christopher Sr.'s older brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, a cousin Gary Rhoden, 38, and Frankie Rhoden's fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20.
Shortly after the arrest, former Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced in a press conference that the slayings may have been the result of a custody dispute. Court documents filed in the case revealed that Jake Wagner filed for custody of the daughter he shared with Hanna Rhoden just six days after the family was killed, according to the AP.
While the head of the Wagner family, Fredericka Wagner, isn’t accused of carrying out the murders, she is accused of lying to try to protect her family.
In a pre-trial hearing in January, it was revealed that the obstruction and perjury charges against her were related to statements she made to a grand jury about the purchase of vests, local station reports.
Fredericka Wagner told a grand jury in July 2018 that she had purchased two bullet proof vests found in a bedroom used by her son Billy after the murders because she was concerned the assailants were “going to kill him too,” according to excerpts of the testimony obtained by the news channel.
Prosecutors believe the two vests were used in the murder, while Fredericka Wagner’s attorney, James Owen, claims they were purchased 15 days after the family massacre. He filed a motion to dismiss the charges against her in March saying Fredericka Wagner had only mistaken where she purchased the vests from. She told the jury they were purchased from Amazon, while Owen now says they were purchased on Ebay.
“The alleged perjury was a figment of their imagination," Owen told the station. "They indicted her for a crime that never happened without a time machine.”
But just who is the woman behind the allegations?
The family’s matriarch owns more than 1,700 acres of prime land within the county, valued at more than $4 million dollars, making her a known and respected figure within Pike County.
“The jewel of her real estate crown is a prosperous and exclusive 300-acre horse farm called The Flying W,” Karas, who leads the investigation into the shocking murders, said in the special.
The family breeds specialized horse breeds, including Friesian Georgian Grande horses, Friesian Sporthorses, Gypsy Vanner Horses and Drum horses, according to the . They also sell KuneKune pigs for $1,000 and American Mastiff dogs.
Her property holdings also include a church and group home near the farm, according to .
But, Fredericka Wagner wasn’t only known for her business dealings. The great-grandmother also taught Sunday school classes, provided meals to the needy and tried to give back to the community she calls home before her arrest.
Patricia Sexton, the ex-mother-in-law of George Wagner Jr., worked for Fredericka Wagner for more than 10 years and called Fredericka “like a mother” to her.
“She’s been really, really supportive of anything I needed or went through,” Sexton told Oxygen.
Sexton said Fredericka Wagner is also great with children, often hosting weekly meals for children of low-income families.
“Every Sunday and every Thursday she had a dinner, because a lot of the kids go without food because there’s some low-income homes, and those two days a week she made sure they had a good meal,” she said.
In February, Wagner’s attorney requested the grandmother, who is currently on house arrest, be allowed to attend her church and teach Sunday school every Sunday afternoon, according to local station .
As part of the request, her attorney included a letter from Aaron David Spencer, the pastor of the Lucasville Mission Church, supporting the request.
"I can attest to the fact that Fredericka Wagner never missed a service with exception of the time her husband was on hospice ... She began attending the Mission again the very next Sunday and never missed a service since," he wrote, adding that the children in her class missed seeing her each week.
News of her arrest left some in the community in shock.
“When Fredericka’s been arrested, I almost sat down in the chair and cried, I didn’t know what else to do,” Sexton told Oxygen. “That would be the farthest thing from my mind I could have thought would ever happen.”
But while some in the community saw the Wagner family matriarch as a generous and caring staple within the community, others have questioned her business practices.
Fredericka Wagner and her late husband, George “Bob” Wagner reportedly entered into at least 132 land installment contracts in recent decades. The contracts gave the Wagners the right to the deeds on land while buyers tried to pay off their principal and interest, according to The Enquirer article published in USA Today in November.
These interest rates were often high, sometimes over 10 percent. If the buyers weren’t able to keep up with their payments, the land defaulted to the Wagners.
The arrangement is often used by families who couldn’t qualify for a loan from a bank, an attorney told the paper, and can in some cases be considered predatory.
However, Owen told Oxygen the attorney interviewed for the paper was not talking specifically about land contracts established by the Wagners and has denied that Fredericka Wagner’s practices were predatory.
“I can tell you that there are other owners in Pike County that sell and rent lots, either rent them or sell them by land contract and that Fredericka’s prices and charges are below market,” Owen told Oxygen. “She, for one, doesn’t require a down payment and depending on whether the people have any credit, her interest rates and selling prices are less than the other options that people have.”
He claimed that usually if Fredericka Wagner ends up filing eviction or suits the people are usually very far behind in their rent and she never tries to get past judgement for past rent.
“She just seeks possession of the property and the person isn’t paying her rent they have enough trouble and she’s not going to try to take judgement against them for that,” he said.
One tenant who asked to remain anonymous told the paper that her rent has increased 25 percent since the murders.
However, Owen told Oxygen that Wagner had only increased the rent of two tenants and it was only by $25 a month.
“One of them had been a tenant since 2012 and it was the only rent increase they had,” he said.
Owen called the article by the Cincinnati Enquirer a “hatchet job” and said he and Wagner were not given adequate time to respond to all the allegations included in the article, particularly because Wagner was on house arrest and didn’t have immediate access to records that were more than ten years old.
As the family’s legacy now hangs in limbo, the community of the once quiet county remains divided about just who members of the Wagner family truly are.
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