Ohio police have finally nabbed four people in the shocking 2016 murders of a family that was running a massive marijuana operation when they died.
The state’s attorney general, Mike DeWine, announced the busts on Tuesday, in connection to a crime that appears to stem from a custody battle between two families.
“This is just the most bizarre story I’ve ever seen in being involved in law enforcement,” DeWine said at a press conference on Tuesday, adding that the defendants had an “obsession” with custody and controlling children connected to the victims.
In April 2016, eight members of the Rhoden family—ranging in age from 16 to 44—were found shot and killed in their beds in four different homes. Three of those houses had large marijuana farms, authorities said.
Police cuffed four members of the Wagner family: George “Billy Wagner III, 47; his wife, Angela Wagner, 48; and their sons George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26.
The Wagners, who were indicted on Monday, are each charged with eight counts of aggravated murder for which they face the death penalty.
The victims were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden, 37, and the couple’s three children: Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; Hanna May Rhoden, 19; and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20.
Frankie Rhoden’s fiancee, Hannah Gilley, 20, Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and a cousin Gary Rhoden, 38, were also murdered.
At the time of the murders, police said all but one of the victims were shot in the head “execution style” while they slept in their beds.
The elder Christopher Rhoden was shot in the chest, the coroner said.
Cops said the killers spared the lives of three children, including the 5-day-old daughter of Hanna Rhoden. The baby, Kylie, was in bed next to Hanna when she was executed, police said. (The other children were 6 months and 3 years old.)
Jake Wagner was an ex-boyfriend of Hanna Rhoden, and the two shared a daughter, then 3 years old.
On Tuesday, DeWine said the Wagners had planned their “heartless ruthless coldblooded” executions for months. The alleged killers studied their victims' habits and routines and made note of the layout of their homes and where they slept. The Wagners had been friends with the Rhodens for years, DeWine said.
The Wagners face additional charges including conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, aggravated burglary and tampering with evidence, along with forgery—for allegedly falsifying child-custody documents.
Two grandmothers—Rita Newcomb, Angela Wagner's mother, and Fredericka Wagner, Billy Wagner's mother—were also arrested Tuesday for allegedly helping to cover up the crimes.
Last summer, investigators announced the Wagner clan was wanted for questioning and had recently moved to Alaska.
The attorney general stopped short of disclosing a motive, citing the pending prosecution, but said that custody of a young child plays a role in the heinous case.
Still, one Cincinatti.com story published weeks after the slayings seemed to foretell strife between Jake Wagner and Charlie Gilley, the father of victim Hanna Rhoden’s newborn baby, Kylie. Both men were apparently awaiting paternity testing.
In June 2016, Jake Wagner told Cincinnati.com that there was a 50/50 chance he was Kylie’s father, and that he dated Hanna Rhoden for about three years before they welcomed their daughter, Sophia.
Jake said that even if he wasn’t Kylie’s dad, he’d “want mandatory visitation in order to see her regularly” so that Sophia could spend time with her little sister.
His mother, alleged murder accomplice Angela Wagner, also spoke to the Ohio news outlet back then.
“They need each other,” Angela Wagner said of little Sophia and Kylie. “When they get old enough to understand, they will really need each other.”
For his part, Charlie Gilley—who is also the brother of murder victim Hannah Gilley—told the publication that he hired a lawyer and believed Kylie was his daughter.
“It kills me every day that I can’t see her. That she’s with complete strangers. I can’t stand the thought of it,” said Gilley, who in October 2015 made Hanna’s sonogram his Facebook cover photo.
“I just can't wait to hold her. I know she's mine.”
Meanwhile, even as police zeroed in on the Wagner family, Jake Wagner didn’t stop speaking to the media.
In an interview with Cincinnati.com last year, Jake Wagner said his family moved to escape suggestions they were involved in the Rhoden massacre—and to shield his then-3-year-old daughter.
Jake later told the outlet via email: “No, I have not told Sophia her mommy was killed/murdered. That would be too much for her to handle right now. She knows her mommy is visiting with Jesus and lives in her heart whenever she needs her.”
According to the indictment unveiled on Tuesday, Jake Wagner faces one felony charge of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Hanna Rhoden when she was 15 and he was 20 years old. Their daughter, Sophia, was staying with the Wagners on the night of the murders, the attorney general’s office said.
The Wagners made several purchases, including “brass catchers” to catch spent shell casings, a bug detector, ammunition, and a magazine clip, in the months leading up to the killings. They also shared information on the victims’ properties and counter surveillance devices at the locations, including pets, the indictment states.
Prosecutors say the family also destroyed or tampered with evidence, including a video-recording device Jake Wagner purchased in March 2016, parts of a home-security system, and trail cameras and phones belonging to some of the victims. The Wagners also are accused of “illegal monitoring of various social media accounts.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, this southern swath of Ohio was rife with drugs and locals who were initially eager to raise money for a reward in the slayings took a step back once the Rhodens’ drug trade was revealed by police.
Two of the Rhoden brothers, as the Beast revealed, weren’t shy about making enemies. Frankie Rhoden served probation for knocking out a rival’s teeth.
DeWine said investigators across several state agencies fielded more than 1,100 tips, conducted 550 interviews and served 200 subpoenas, search warrants and court orders, and tested 700 items of evidence during the 2.5-year investigation.
Detectives traveled to 10 states and spent significant time in Alaska, DeWine told reporters.
Meanwhile, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said he was in office for less than a year when the murders took place. “The images of the houses, the bodies, the scenes, I can never erase them,” Reader said, adding that even 20 years of law-enforcement experience couldn't prepare him for the horrific crime scenes.
“We have obsessively focused on solving this case,” Reader said. He added, “Today we have the answer. Members of one family conspired, planned, carried out and allegedly covered up their violent act to wipe out members of another family.
“They did this quickly, coldly, calmly and very carefully, but not carefully enough,” the sheriff continued.
The Wagners left behind a trail of their alleged crimes, including the parts to build a silencer and the forged documents and the cameras and cellphones they tampered with, Reader said.
When a reporter asked about allegations that the Rhodens participated in dog fighting and a marijuana-growing ring, DeWine said the case involved “an undercurrent of drugs” but there was no evidence that the murders were drug-related as far as motive.
Reader said that regardless of those reports, “No one deserved in the dark of the night for cowards to come in while sleeping and execute them in a way that would be unbelievable to anyone, including law enforcement.”
Authorities declined to comment on whether the Wagners knew the arrests were coming.
The family patriarch, Billy Wagner, was arrested Tuesday afternoon outside of a Lexington, Kentucky equine hospital.
He was inside a horse trailer that cops pulled over, while the rest of his family was arrested in Ohio.
John Kearson Clark, an attorney for the Wagner family, declined to comment in detail but said they look forward to their day in court, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
“They are hopeful for a thorough vetting of the facts,” Clark said.
Meanwhile, the remaining relatives of the victims are grappling with news of the arrests. Kenny Shoemaker, the grandfather of Hannah Gilley, told The Daily Beast that Hannah was a good mom to her then-6-month-old child, Ruger, and never got to see her first Mother’s Day because of the massacre.
“Yesterday was my birthday,” Shoemaker said on Tuesday. “I got a gift today," he said, referring to the arrests.
Shoemaker said he raised Hannah and her brother, Charlie Gilley. “She was at the wrong place at the wrong time and in love with the wrong man,” Shoemaker told The Daily Beast. “She didn’t deserve this.”
Hannah was a good kid who had nothing to do with the Rhodens’ alleged marijuana operation, Shoemaker emphasizes.“I wish to god they would say something about Hannah, that she didn’t have nothing to do with the marijuana,” Shoemaker said. “Hannah was better than what happened to her.”
Shoemaker said the Wagners’ alleged murder plot upended his life.
“I lost my parents. Lost my wife. Losing Hannah was the worst goddamn thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” Shoemaker said. “I’ll live to be 110, and I’ll never get over it.”