When a family of eight was found murdered in their homes in Pike County, Ohio, an intense investigation began. After the murders, there were rumors of potential motives, as police undertook one of the largest investigations in Ohio’s history.
Many wondered if the suspects responsible would ever be apprehended but years later, there are finally answers.
Pike County, Ohio
On April 22, 2016, a 911 call came in from a home on Union Hill Road, a village in Pike County, Ohio. Just as deputies were traveling to the house, where two male victims were possibly deceased, they were flagged down and given additional information on reports of bodies.
In a recording released after the killings, a woman was heard telling a 911 dispatcher that she found her brother-in-law and cousin inside a trailer without signs of life. “There’s blood all over,” the woman, later identified as Bobby Manley, told the dispatcher, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Asked if she thought they were dead, Manley said “yes,” adding, “it looks like someone has beat the hell out of them.” Manley cried over the phone as she waited for help to arrive. Soon, deputies learned that seven of the victims’ bodies were found among three different trailer homes, all within walking distance of one another.
Many of the bodies were still lying in bed, according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. An eighth body was found at a fourth location that was a short 10-minute drive away. Those who were killed were identified as 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.
Frankie Rhoden’s fiance, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20, as well as Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38, were also fatally shot. At the time of the killings, DeWine said that they appeared to be “pre-planned” and “sophisticated.”
Autopsy reports suggested that the murders were calculated and brutal, with the coroner saying that all but one of the victims were shot more than once. Christopher Rhoden Sr. is the only victim who was believed to have been awake when his entire family was shot. He sustained nine gunshot wounds all over his body.
Gary was shot twice in the head and a third time in the face and his autopsy report says a muzzle stain was left on his head. Dana Rhoden was carefully shot four times around her head and a fifth time from under her chin. She was sharing a trailer with Christopher Jr. and Hanna, who were both shot in the head multiple times.
Hanna Rhoden’s newborn was found alive near her mother’s body and Hannah Gilley’s 6-month-old and another small child were also unharmed, according to the Associated Press. Hannah was shot five times in total, with one shot hitting her left eye, all while her baby sat awake. Investigators scrambled to determine who targeted the Rhoden family and went on a massive search to find out.
They conducted over 130 interviews and processed over 100 pieces of evidence and 500 tips while getting assistance from more than 20 law enforcement agencies. Investigators moved the four trailers the families were murdered in, to a barn at the county sheriff’s impound lot. The 12,000 square foot barn was built by the sheriff’s department for around $100,000 to protect the trailers, which serve as evidence in the case.
DeWine believed that issues over custody of a young child played a role in the crime. “There was an obsession with custody, obsession with control of the children,” DeWine said, according to The Washington Post. “This is the most bizarre story I have ever seen, being involved with law enforcement.”
This is where the Wagner family came in. DeWine announced that he was “laser focused” on members of the Wagner family, who formerly lived near the Rhodens in Ohio. Since the murders, they have moved to Kenai, Alaska.
Edward Jacob “Jake” Wagner, 25, fathered a daughter with Hannah Rhoden, one of the victims, but in 2017, DeWine did not name him, as well as three other family members, as suspects. But in November 2018, DeWine made a crucial announcement regarding the case.
“We promised the day would come when the arrests would be made in the Pike County massacres,” DeWine told a crowd of reporters. “Today is that day.” George “Billy” Wagner III, 47, Angela Wagner, 48, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, were each charged in the murders.
Their charges included with eight counts of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications, among other related charges in connection with planning and carrying out the killings. Rita Newcomb, 65, and Fredericka Wagner, 76, the mothers of Angela and Billy Wagner, were also charged and accused of attempting to cover up the crime to mislead authorities.
All of the suspects were arrested without incident and Dewitt was right about his suspicions of obsessions over child custody. He explained that the eight victims were “brutally and viciously” executed.
Planning The Crimes
Evidence suggested that the Wagners spent months meticulously planning the crimes by studying the Rhoden family’s habits and routines. Dewitt even alleged the four suspects knew the layouts of the victims’ homes and where they slept, and that after killing them, the Wagners tampered with phones, a silencer, shell casings, and surveillance cameras in an attempt to hide evidence.
Each of the Wagners were also charged with conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice, as well as several other charges. DeWine called it one of the “longest and most complex” investigations in the state’s history.
Over two and a half years, ten of thousands of hours went into the investigation, including time spent in Alaska, where the Wagner family moved briefly before returning to Pike County. DeWine described the case as a complex puzzle with hundreds of pieces.
“What solved this case was just hard, tough police work, day after day after day,” DeWine said. “These men and women just never gave up.” He explained that the families of the victims are still coping with the deaths of their loved ones and that suspects’ alleged actions left a strain on the county.
Sheriff Charles S. Reader said the Wagner family acted “quickly, coldly, calmly and very carefully” to cover their tracks. “But not carefully enough. … Pike County is a resilient community,” he said, adding that it should be known for more than being a place where eight people were murdered. “We’re a place that finds justice for victims, and today is a big step on that path.”