Rhoden case: New details emerge as judge rules George Wagner IV to stand trial in Pike County

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Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering conferences with attorneys during a Sept. 10, 2021 hearing.
Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering conferences with attorneys during a Sept. 10, 2021 hearing.

A Pike County judge on Monday denied a request to change the venue for the upcoming aggravated murder trial of 30-year-old George Wagner IV, who along with his mother, father and younger brother, were all charged in connection with the execution-style killings of eight members of the Rhoden family on April 22, 2016.

Judge Randy Deering did not rule, however, on whether certain evidence laid out by the prosecution during the hearing will be included in Wagner's trial, which is tentatively set to start on Aug. 29.

Rhoden family homicides: Former prosecutor says length of time to trial isn't unusual

George Wagner IV, his parents George "Billy" Wagner III and Angela Wagner, and their other son, Edward "Jake" Wagner are all charged in connection with the fatal shooting of Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; their daughter, 19-year-old Hanna May Rhoden; their sons, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 20; Frankie's fianceé, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Chris Sr.'s brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; and Gary Rhoden, 38, a cousin.

Killed in the Rhoden family homicides in April of 2016 were, top row from left: Christopher Rhoden Jr., Christopher Rhoden Sr., Dana Manley Rhoden, and Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden; bottom row, from left, Hanna Rhoden, Hannah Gilley; Kenneth Rhoden, and Gary Rhoden.
Killed in the Rhoden family homicides in April of 2016 were, top row from left: Christopher Rhoden Jr., Christopher Rhoden Sr., Dana Manley Rhoden, and Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden; bottom row, from left, Hanna Rhoden, Hannah Gilley; Kenneth Rhoden, and Gary Rhoden.

Jake Wagner, 29, pleaded guilty to all 23 charges against him on April 22, 2021, the fifth anniversary of the homicides. In exchange for his confession and plea, Jake Wagner will spend the rest of his life in prison and prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty option for all four Wagners.

Investigators have said disputes over custody and control of a toddler child of Jake Wagner and Hanna May Rhoden, who attended Piketon High School, went to the prom together and had a child together, prompted the violence. That toddler child, another child Hanna had just four days ays before she was killed, and an infant child of Hannah Gilley were the only ones spared in the killing spree.

George Wagner III and George Wagner IV have asked the judge to drop the death penalty charges against them ahead of trial, but Deering has not done so because a condition of the agreement was that both Jake and Angela Wagner must testify at trial, so the death penalty option remains in place.

Angela Wagner — who prosecutors say helped to plan the killings and knew about them but did not participate — pleaded guilty to lesser charges in September. As part of her agreement to testify against her family, the now 51-year-old will spend 30 years in prison.

Pike County killings:A look back at what happened

A look at the Wagner family: They spoke to the Enquirer

New details emerge during hearing

During Monday's hearing, Angie Canepa, special prosecutor with the Ohio Attorney General's office, discussed evidence prosecutors intend to or want to introduce at trial.

Canepa said investigators had a wiretap that allowed them to hear conversations between brothers George IV and Jake, including conversations where they acknowledged that police were listening. George was the one who most vehemently threatened law enforcement prior to the arrests, she said.

The four Wagner family members charged shared all their finances with each other and made decisions as a group about every aspect of their lives, Canepa said. While this included committing the homicides, it also involved relationships and selecting partners, as well as sharing intimate details of ongoing relationships.

The elder Wagners had a history of seeking control over the offspring of their two sons and of seeking to isolate and control their girlfriends/wives, Canepa said. This included making the grandchildren call Angela their mother and becoming upset when Jake’s wife, the child’s stepmother, called the wife "mom," prosecutors said.

To help demonstrate the control the elder Wagners had, George IV’s ex-wife would testify that she was only allowed to call her mother once a year, Canepa said.

There were threats of violence against former partners, including one incident where Angela told son George’s now ex-wife that she would “go get the gun," Canepa said. The woman fled the home, hid in a barn until dark and then rode a bike to a nearby gas station to call for help, she said.

Canepa said the woman Jake met and married while in Alaska became a concern to the Wagner family, and she even kept a journal about their controlling nature. Jake didn’t want to end the relationship, but gave in to the other family members who voted that he end the relationship.

Billy, the Wagner patriarch, got close to Chris Rhoden Sr. by using a pretend drug deal he said they could partner on, Canepa said. On the night of the homicides, she said, George and Jake were hiding in a truck especially purchased just for the homicides so no one would recognize them if they saw it.

Judge Deering previously ruled in April that a forensic expert could testify about shoeprint evidence investigators say they found at the crime scenes.

Monroe Trombly covers breaking and trending news.

mtrombly@dispatch.com

@monroetrombly

bbruner@dispatch.com

@bethany_bruner

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: George Wagner IV to stand trial in Pike County, judge rules