Custody battle played starring role in 2016 slaying of 8 family members in Ohio, prosecutors say; 6 arrested

USA Today

WAVERLY, Ohio — Six members of a family who have close business and family ties with the eight members of an Ohio family slain in April 2016 in Pike County have been arrested in connection with those deaths, Ohio’s attorney general said Tuesday.

Child custody — not drugs as widely believed in an area methamphetamine and opioids remain problems — was the primary motive for the killings, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, dismissing the theory that slain Rhoden family members had a soured marijuana business relationship.  

“There was an obsession with custody of the children,” DeWine said. “There was an obsession of control of the children.”

At the center of the case is Sophia Wagner, 5, the daughter of Jake Wagner and victim Hanna Rhoden. Among Jake Wagner’s charges is unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Hanna Rhoden when she was 15 years old and he was 20.

► Sept. 19: Rhoden family autopsy reports show 8 killings were methodical, vicious
► June 2017: Family named in Ohio massacre investigation moves to Alaska

Angela Wagner, 48; her husband, George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; and their two sons, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, whose various addresses put them in Lucasville, Peebles and South Webster, Ohio, each have been indicted on eight counts of aggravated murder in connection with the gruesome deaths of the Rhoden family and Hannah “Hazel” Gilley. Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster, and Fredericka Wagner, 76 of Lucasville, mothers of Angela Wagner and Billy Wagner, are accused of perjury and obstructing justice for allegedly misleading investigators; Newcomb also is charged with forging custody documents to cover up the crimes.

“They did this quickly, coldly, calmly and very carefully, but not carefully enough,” Pike County Sheriff Charles S. Reader said.

Killed in the April 22, 2016, attacks at four homes near the village of Peebles, Ohio, about 90 miles east of Cincinnati were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his older brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; Christopher Rhoden’s former wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 38; their three children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Hanna Rhoden, 19, and Chris Rhoden Jr., 16; and a cousin Gary Rhoden, 38.

Frankie Rhoden’s fiancee, Gilley, 20, also was a victim. Most were asleep while the Wagners allegedly executed a meticulously planned attack to wipe out the family, DeWine said.

The killers spared three young children, who were unharmed.

“The Wagners were friends with the Rhodens and had been for years,” DeWine said. “They knew the layouts of the Rhodens’ homes, and they knew the victims’ routines.”

DeWine, who last week was elected the next governor of Ohio, previously had said the investigation was laser focused on the Wagner family, but he had declined to call them suspects or persons of interest. Neither he nor Reader has provided details about why investigators spent two days searching the Wagners’ Ohio property in 2017, nor did they say at the time what prompted a news release asking the public for information on the Wagners.

Prosecutors allege that Angela Wagner purchased several items in the months before the eight deaths.

“…specific shoes from Walmart, ‘brass catcher(s),’ items with which to build ‘brass catchers,’ ammunition, a magazine clip, a ‘bug’ detector, and or items with which to build a ‘silencer(s),’ and/or various other items in preparation for these crimes,” the indictment states.

► April 2017: 3-year-old found his murdered father
► March 2017: Rhodens hope poster sparks information about Ohio family massacre

Brass catchers are used to collect discharged bullet casings.

Members of the family also forged documents in their efforts to keep custody of Sophia Wagner, prosecutors said.

The Wagners’ lawyer, John Kearson Clark of Jackson, Ohio, in a statement said his clients were innocent and looked forward to their trials. The family hopes the true culprits will be brought to justice.

“They are hopeful for a thorough vetting of the facts,” Clark said.

  • Billy Wagner was arrested Tuesday afternoon in Fayette County, Kentucky.
  • Angela Wagner was arrested at her home in Ohio’s Scioto County.
  • Jake and George Wagner were arrested in Ross County, Ohio.
  • Fredricka Wagner was arrested at the family’s Flying W farm in Pike County, Ohio, which had been previously raided.

When reached by telephone Tuesday afternoon, Leonard Manley, the father of Dana Manley Rhoden, declined to comment.

Authorities repeatedly have said the killers worked to cover their tracks, adding complexity to what is the largest homicide investigation in Ohio history. As of April this year, investigators had received nearly 1,000 tips in the case, conducted nearly 500 interviews and processed more than 100 pieces of evidence, DeWine said.

DeWine and Reader don’t believe anyone but those indicted is involved, they said.

In June 2017, the Wagners moved to Kanai, Alaska, from Adams County, Ohio, telling The Cincinnati Enquirer that the speculation of their involvement in the Rhoden deaths drove them to move more than 4,000 miles.

“Really the point to moving up here was to basically get into a better environment so they wouldn’t talk about us. Sophia is getting older, so she wouldn’t hear it,” Jake Wagner said 17 months ago, standing on the family’s front porch in Kanai. “And then it followed us here.”

The family moved back to southern Ohio in spring of this year, DeWine said.

Trials for those arrested are planned to be in Pike County Common Pleas Court here, but the Wagner family’s defense team may request a move elsewhere because of publicity the case has received, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said. No arraignment dates have been set, and each defendant is in various jails in Kentucky and Ohio.

The Wagners also are facing a series of additional charges including conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity; tampering with evidence; unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance; forgery; unauthorized use of property; interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications; obstructing justice; and aggravated burglary.

Clark has said authorities were harassing his clients, who had nothing to do with the slayings and who had cooperated fully in the investigation.

“The authorities (using the media) want the public to believe that the Wagners are responsible and have absconded,” he told The Enquirer last year.

2 thoughts on “Custody battle played starring role in 2016 slaying of 8 family members in Ohio, prosecutors say; 6 arrested

  1. Ohio does have the Death Penalty

    everyone of these POS need to fry ..if they dont ..i hope they dont spend 2 days in captivity wasting our money and air

    doesn’t sound like there is any family that they murdered, left to extract restitution , so the dam state better step the F up

    Just put in a dam express lane already

    This is the threat my Family faced , and still does
    and the very reason I will never disarm …because shit like this does go down and here is living proof

    I was told by the prosecutor in my case to stay ever vigilant until they are all dead. ( hell of a thing to hear when you are the protectorate of your only daughter) far only one has died over a drug abuse

    they had 4 -6 coming at them number is now reduced to 5
    so if they make their move, i wont have to empty my 44 mag

  2. I have to sympathize with child custody issues.

    But I have a solution.

    I’ve been digging holes for my x and her boyfriend for about five years.

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