Ohio Police Make Arrests in Brutal 2016 Killings of 8 Family Members
Posted November 14, 2018 12:37 a.m. EST
When eight members of the same family were found shot to death in rural Ohio in 2016, the massacre stunned and frightened the community, and investigators wondered at first whether the gunman could be among the dead.
When the authorities later announced that marijuana operations were found near the crime scene, it raised the possibility that the slayings could be drug-related.
On Tuesday, after more than two years of speculation about why the family was executed that night, as most of the victims slept, law enforcement officials announced arrests in the case, which Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general, described as “a thousand-piece puzzle.”
A husband, wife and their two adult sons were charged with aggravated murder and could face the death penalty if convicted; the couple’s mothers were accused of participating in a cover-up. The authorities said the suspects had been friends with the family that was killed.
On Tuesday, DeWine offered little explanation for the killings, other than to say the crime was related to child custody issues.
He said that there was an “undercurrent of drugs” in the case, but that the killings were not drug-related, The Associated Press reported. “This is just the most bizarre story I’ve ever seen in being involved in law enforcement,” said DeWine, who was elected governor this month.
The killings took place in a hilly, sparsely populated area of southern Ohio, about 70 miles east of Cincinnati and a similar distance south of Columbus. On April 22, 2016, the Pike County Sheriff’s Office discovered seven bodies in three houses near each other. Another family member was found dead in a house a few miles away. Three young children were found in the houses unharmed, the authorities said.
The victims had each been shot in the head, officials said. One mother was killed in her bed, with her infant nearby.
All the dead were connected to the Rhoden family: Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; and their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence (Frankie) Rhoden, 20. The other victims included Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah (Hazel) Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44; and his cousin Gary Rhoden, 38.
The authorities conducted an extensive investigation, which they said included following up on more than 1,100 tips from the public, conducting more than 500 interviews and testing more than 700 items of evidence.
Investigators eventually learned of a homemade firearm suppressor, which they believe was made by the family suspected in the killings, the Wagners of South Webster, Ohio, near Pike County.
On Tuesday, the authorities arrested George (Billy) Wagner III, 47; his wife, Angela Wagner, 48; and their sons, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward (Jake) Wagner, 26. Each was charged with eight counts of aggravated murder.
Jake Wagner is the father of Hanna May Rhoden’s older daughter, who was staying with the Wagners the night the killings took place. He was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Rhoden when she was 15 and he was 20, the authorities said.
The mothers of Billy and Angela Wagner — Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster, and Fredericka Wagner, 76, of Lucasville, Ohio — were also arrested. They face charges including perjury and obstruction of justice.
“We look forward to the day when the true culprits will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy,” John Clark, a lawyer representing the Wagners, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Clark could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
In a news release, DeWine, the state attorney general, said that the suspects meticulously planned the slaying using their knowledge of the victims’ homes, routines, sleeping locations and pets.
“These suspects developed a calculated plan to execute the victims in the middle of the night and then carefully cover their tracks,” he said. “Their alleged plan was sophisticated, but not sophisticated enough.”