Opening statements will begin Tuesday in the trial of George Wagner, IV for the murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families more than six years after their deaths.
Prosecutors in Pike County, Ohio claim that Wagner, his mother, Angela; his father, Billy; and his younger brother, Jake, conspired to murder the eight family members in the late evening hours of April 21 and early morning hours of April 22, 2016, so they could have sole custody of a daughter Jake shared with Hanna May Rhoden, 19.
“They’ll Have to Kill Me First”
According to the prosecution’s theory, the conspiracy started in December 2015 when Angela Wagner found a Facebook message between Hanna May Rhoden and George Wagner’s former mother-in-law, Patricia Sexton, in which they discussed the Wagners’ efforts to get Hanna May to sign over custody of the daughter she shared with Jake. Testimony at a motion hearing in August 2020 revealed that Hanna May responded to Sexton: “They’ll have to kill me first.” Special prosecutor Angie Canepa stated at a May 2022 motion hearing that Angela Wagner has admitted to hacking into Hanna May Rhoden’s social media accounts, and the accounts of others, to monitor their communications to gather damaging information. Canepa has said Angela Wagner showed the message to Jake and the murder plot unfolded from there.
The message between Sexton and Hanna May Rhoden is important to the state’s case because it establishes a timeline for the murder conspiracy and shows the Wagners’ alleged “obsession with control and custody of children.” It is expected to be used at trial as evidence.
Sexton is Tabitha Claytor’s mother. Claytor is George Wagner’s ex-wife and she told investigators that the Wagners pressured her to sign over custody of the son she shared with George, according to prior testimony. Canepa stated during a hearing in May that Claytor fled the home fearing for her life after the Wagners threatened to shoot her. Canepa said Claytor told investigators that she signed the documents giving up custody of her son after being told the arrangement would be temporary. Canepa said Claytor was not allowed to visit her son as the Wagners had promised.
In the months after the December 2015 Facebook message, prosecutors said, the Wagners prepared to carry out the murders by buying a number of items including bug detectors that would help locate surveillance cameras on the Rhodens’ properties and brass catchers to catch shell casings fired from guns so they wouldn’t be left at crime scenes. Canepa stated that George Wagner, IV, purchased the “murder truck” used the night of the murders and assisted in modifying it so he and Jake could hide inside of it.
Canepa has also stated that Angela Wagner purchased gym shoes from Wal-Mart for Jake and George to wear only to carry out the murders. The shoes have never been found, but Canepa said Angela Wagner admitted to purchasing the shoes when she pleaded guilty in September 2021. Court documents say that BCI Special Agent Seth Hagaman found surveillance video from a store that showed purchasing the shoes days before the murders. The receipt for the purchase was found in a search of the family’s belongings in May 2017.
On the evening of April 21, 2022, prosecutors say, Hanna May Rhoden’s father, Chris Rhoden, Sr., was expecting Billy Wagner to visit his mobile home on Union Hill Rd. to discuss a drug transaction that would be lucrative for both of them. The discussion about the transaction was a ruse, so Billy Wagner could gain access to Chris Rhoden, Sr. that evening and that Jake and George hid in the “murder truck” to shoot Rhoden from a distance, according to prosecutors.
An autopsy report revealed that Chris Rhoden, Sr. was shot nine times and suffered one defensive wound to the arm that shattered a bone. His cousin, Gary Rhoden, happened to be staying with him that evening and was shot twice in the head and once in the face at close range.
Chris Sr.’s son, Frankie Rhoden, 20, was shot in the trailer next door to his father’s as he slept. An autopsy report revealed Frankie Rhoden was shot three times in the head at close range. His fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley was shot five times in the head as she slept next to Frankie. Their 6-month-old son was in between them and found covered in blood but unharmed the next morning. Frankie Rhoden’s 4-year-old son was found in the home also unharmed.
Chris Sr.’s ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, was shot five times in the head in her trailer down the road. In the same mobile home, Chris Sr. and Dana’s daughter, Hanna May, 19, was shot twice in the head in her sleep as her newborn slept next to her. The infant was unharmed. Hanna May had given birth days before to a baby girl fathered by Hazel Gilley’s brother days prior. Hanna May’s younger brother, Chris Rhoden Jr.,16, was also shot in the head.
Finally, Kenneth Rhoden,44, Chris’s older brother, was found more than seven miles away in his camper on Left Fork Rd. Kenneth had been shot in his sleep once in the right eye. The area where he lived remote with no cell phone service.
“It Looks Like Someone Beat the Hell Out of Them”
On the morning of April 22, 2016, Dana Rhoden’s sister, Bobby Jo Manley, went to Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s home, as she did each morning, to feed his animals and water his marijuana plants. Manley opened the door and found Chris and Gary Rhoden dead. She called 911 telling the call taker “There’s blood all over the house!…My brother-in-law’s in the bedroom and it looks like someone beat the hell out of them.”
Manley’s brother, George “James” Manley, found his sister, Dana, and niece and nephew, Hanna May and Chris Jr., shot to death in their mobile home. Bobby Jo Manley found Frankie Rhoden and Hazel Gilley shot in their bed and told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2016 that she took the baby covered in blood and Frankie Rhoden’s four-year-old son, out of the home saying: “I was not leaving those babies in there.”
As Pike County law enforcement and special agents from Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation descended upon the mobile homes on Union Hill Rd., the largest criminal investigation in Ohio’s history was unfolding rapidly. As investigators searched for clues, Kenneth Rhoden’s cousin, Donald Stone, called 911 after finding him. Stone told the call taker “All this stuff on the news, I just found my cousin with a gunshot wound.”
Residents in Pike County were scared. Charlie Reader, the sheriff at time, advised residents to arm themselves. Rumors spread throughout Pike County that a Mexican drug cartel had killed the Rhodens because Chris Sr. and Kenneth had marijuana grow operations.
The drug cartel theory was quickly dismissed by federal agents. Family members and residents gathered for prayer vigils to remember the victims and pray for justice. Then Attorney General Mike DeWine said that it was clear from evaluating the crime scenes that the killer or killers were familiar with the layout of the homes and that two guns were used.
In the months that followed, it was revealed that the Rhodens’ surveillance camera system was taken in an effort by the killers to cover their tracks. However, shell casings were found at the scene that would yield invaluable clues along with shoe impressions left in blood.
In June 2016, Jake Wagner filed a petition with the courts asking that he be awarded sole custody of the daughter he shared with Hanna May Rhoden. In the court documents, Wagner said he knew that the child was his despite the fact that paternity had not been established by a DNA test because of the “hammer toe” the child had that was unique to his family. The court awarded sole custody to Jake Wagner.
A year passed, and it appeared to the public that investigators had few leads as no arrests had been made. Dana Rhoden’s father, Leonard Manley, expressed concern, saying he didn’t believe the crimes would ever be solved. He also questioned the abilities of law enforcement, stating: “BCI couldn’t catch a cold!”
In April 2017, Kenneth and Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s, mother, Geneva Rhoden, and his sister, Teresa Grebing, released a video message pleading with anyone with information about the homicides to come forward. The video’s release came days before the one-year anniversary of the murders.
The following month, Ohio BCI agents and other law enforcement descended upon a farm that had recently been sold by George and Jake Wagner. The red house on Peterson Rd. in Adams County, Ohio, had barns and a pen for animals. Court documents would later reveal that shell casings with a unique impression from a Walther Colt 1911 had similar markings to casings found at the Union Hill Rd. crime scenes.
That same day, Friday May 12, 2017, BCI agents also searched what appeared to be horse trailers on a property owned by acquaintances of the Wagners. The property owner said at the time that the Wagners had asked to store their belongings at the property as they had recently sold the Peterson Rd. home.
Angela Wagner told Law&Crime’s Angenette Levy that day that she was out of town on vacation with her family and that they were being “slandered.” Wagner told Levy she would speak to her upon her return — but said later that she was advised by her attorney not to grant the interview.
“Obsessed with Control and Custody of Children”
The following day, Saturday May 13, 2017, agents and sheriff deputies searched the Flying W Farm – a 2,000 acre horse farm owned by Billy Wagner’s parents, Bob and Fredericka Wagner. Billy Wagner was living at the property at the time of the murders.
Following the execution of the search warrants at the properties, Ohio’s Attorney General released information asking for information from people who had had any business dealings with the Wagners, including any transactions involving the sale of guns or vehicles.
In a strange twist only days later, Dana Rhoden’s brother, James “George” Manley was charged with destroying government property. George’s father, Leonard Manley, told Angenette Levy at the time that his son found a GPS tracking device on his vehicle that had been placed there by state agents and that he smashed the device upon discovering it.
Leonard Manley said that investigators told him that Jake Wagner had texted George Manley the night of the murders and that that drew suspicion. It is not clear what, if anything, was determined about the alleged text message.
Prosecutors dropped the charges against Manley days later after his attorney demanded to see the affidavits used to obtain the warrant for the GPS tracker.
A short time later, the Wagners moved to Alaska. Billy, Angela, George and Jake made the move with George’s son and Jake’s daughter. While in Alaska, a pastor at a church claimed in news reports that the Wagners were being slandered. It was during the move to Alaska that Jake Wagner met a woman named Elizabeth Freeman. Freeman and Wagner would later marry and the family moved back to Ohio sometime in 2018.
Unbeknownst to the public at the time, a grand jury began meeting in 2018 to consider charges against the four members of the Wagner family for the murders of the Rhodens and Hazel Gilley. Then, on Nov. 13, 2018, a week after Attorney General Mike DeWine was elected governor, he called a press conference announcing the arrest of the Wagners for the eight murders. DeWine also announced that Billy Wagner’s mother, Fredericka Wagner, and Angela Wagner’s mother, Rita Newcomb, had been indicted on charges related to covering up the murders.
DeWine called it the most bizarre story he’d seen in all his years in law enforcement and that two weeks prior, investigators had found parts of a homemade gun silencer in a well on the Wagners’ former property on Peterson Rd. DeWine said the family was “obsessed with control and custody of children.”
All four Wagners pleaded not guilty. During George Wagner, IV’s arraignment, prosecutors said he had been recorded on wiretaps talking abot carrying out acts of violence against DeWine, lead BCI case agent Ryan Scheiderer and former Pike Co. Sheriff Charlie Reader if the family were arrested.
In the months following the arrests, Fredericka Wagner maintained the drug cartel had committed the murders. The obstruction and perjury charges she faced related to a claim by prosecutors that she lied about purchasing a bullet resistant vest for Billy prior to the murders. Those charges were later dismissed by prosecutors after it was revealed a plate in the vest was manufactured after the homicides. Prosecutors have said they may refile the charges at a later date.
Rita Newcomb faced obstruction of justice and forgery charges after she testified at grand jury that she signed and notarized custody documents for Hanna May Rhoden, Jake and George Wagner. Those documents were created on April 3, 2016 and gave Angela Wagner full custody of Jake and George’s children should they or Hanna Rhoden die.
Newcomb later admitted when pleading guilty that she didn’t sign the documents or notarize them and that her daughter had asked her to lie about doing so. Newcomb said she couldn’t lie any longer and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge and agreed to testify against her family members.
In April 2021, following a number of pretrial hearings, a last minute hearing was scheduled on the fifth anniversary of the Rhoden and Gilley murders. In a somewhat shocking development, Jake Wagner agreed to plead guilty to the 23 charges he faced including aggravated murder, conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, obstructing justice and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for fathering Hanna May’s daughter.
Prosecutors said Jake Wagner led them to the murder weapons, which were recovered from a large pond on the Flying W Farm property, and the GMC Sierra the family bought and later stored in Athens County to carry out the murders. Court documents revealed a Walther Colt 1911, a Glock and an SKS were found in the pond along with buckets of concrete. Jake Wagner also agreed to testify against him brother and parents in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table for all of them.
Months later in September 2021, Angela Wagner pleaded guilty to a number of charges in exchange for aggravated murder charges being dismissed. She will be released after serving 30 years in prison and testifying against Billy and George. Prosecutors said Angela Wagner did not go along the night of the murders but bought items to assist and knew where her husband and sons were going that night and what they were going to do.
In the months leading up to George Wagner, IV’s trial, the court held a number of pretrial hearings. In one, prosecutors discussed “other acts” they planned to introduce as evidence. Canepa stated at a hearing in May 2022 that the Wagners lived an insular lifestyle and lived as one unit – taking votes about every action the family took and even discussing when and how George and Jake would be intimate with their wives.
Canepa stated that the Wagners accused Elizabeth Freeman Wagner of sexually molesting one of the children and that she denied the allegation. Canepa said Freeman Wagner was also accused by the family of trying to poison the children with food and that Freeman Wagner fled the home fearing for her life after the family voted her out. Canepa said she wrote a letter to assist Freeman Wagner in changing her social security number so she couldn’t be located.
George Wagner’s lawyers have filed motions with the court demanding they be given Freeman Wagner’s address in an effort to interview her before she testifies.
More than 250 potential witnesses could be called including 95 agents with Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations and federal officials with the Department of Justice. Many lay witnesses will testify as well.
The jury that will hear the case against Wagner is made up of nine women and three men. The alternate panel is made up of five women and one man. They toured the crime scenes, the Flying W Farm and the Wagners’ former Adams County property in preparation for opening statements.
The trial is expected to last between six and eight weeks. Law&Crime will stream the trial each day on the network’s YouTube channel.
(Photos via the Ohio Attorney General’s Office)
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