The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for just over seven hours on Wednesday after hearing from 60 witnesses and viewing nearly 5,000 pieces of evidence including crime scene and autopsy photos in a trial that took is spread over 13 weeks.
Wagner IV, who showed no emotion on Wednesday, faces life in prison for his involvement in the murder of Christopher “Chris” Rhoden Sr., 40; Chris Rhoden’s ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; their children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, and Christopher “Chris” Rhoden Jr., 16; Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Hazel Gilley, 20; Christopher Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; and their cousin Gary Rhoden, 38. He will be sentenced in mid-December.
Several members of the Rhoden and Manley families, who sat stoically each day of the trial, gasped and wept as Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering read the guilty verdict for each charge, including eight counts. of aggravated murder.
Tony Rhoden, brother, uncle and cousin of the victims, thanked prosecutors, jurors and “the citizens of the State of Ohio for carrying this burden that should never have happened to this family.”
He said that Wagner IV is a human who lost his humanity on April 22, 2016.
“I feel sorry for him,” Rhoden said outside the courthouse just after the verdicts were read.
Rhoden, who gripped the hand of her mother, Geneva Rhoden, said the strength of the family sustained them through the grueling years of the investigation and trial. He will be again during the trial of the father of Wagner IV, George “Billy” Wagner, 52, who faces the same charges. His trial is expected to begin next year.
Tony Rhoden said the verdict brought him “some peace. We still have a long way to go. We will get there because we are a family.
“No choice but to kill Hanna”
The trial pitted brother against brother – and mother against eldest son – in a part of the country where loyalty to family has long proven the best path to survival. The case also brought jurors into the Wagner family’s criminal enterprises, including drug trafficking, small-scale and large-scale theft, arson for profit, metal scrapping and firearms exchange.
Prosecutors say the family’s last criminal act was murder to gain sole custody of a daughter shared by Hanna Rhoden and Edward “Jake” Wagner. The Washington Post does not name the child, who Tony Rhoden said is being well cared for without giving details.
Jake Wagner, 30, and his mother, Angela Wagner, 52, testified that the family had killed to protect the child, who they believed had been molested by a member of the Rhoden family. That allegation was never substantiated, special prosecutor Andrew Wilson told jurors on Tuesday, because it was not true.
In chilling and pragmatic testimony, Jake Wagner said: ‘I had no choice but to kill Hanna’, the mother of his child. Hanna Rhoden’s father, older brother and uncle were targeted, Jake Wagner testified, because her father, Billy Wagner, feared they would take revenge for her death “like snipers on a hill”.
The other victims were killed simply because they were at home and would witness the crimes, he testified.
Jake Wagner said that after assembling silencers, buying a phone jammer and a bug detector and hacking into social media accounts, he, his brother and his father went to the home of Chris Rhoden Sr., where the murder has begun.
He said the plan was for his brother, armed with an SKS rifle, to shoot Rhoden Sr. But when his brother didn’t shoot, Jake Wagner said, he grabbed the gun and fired instead , shooting Rhoden Sr. in the midsection.
Jake Wagner, who pleaded guilty in April 2021, testified that he killed five of the victims with a .22 caliber Walther Colt 1911 handgun and his father killed three with a .22 caliber Glock handgun. 40. He said his brother did not kill any of the victims.
As part of his plea bargain, his testimony removed the death penalty from his case and those of his brother and father. He was sentenced to eight consecutive terms of life in prison without parole, plus 160 years. Her mother also pleaded guilty in 2021 and prosecutors dropped murder charges against her. She will serve 30 years in prison as part of a plea deal that required her to testify against her son and husband.
Wilson, the prosecutor, told jurors that although Wagner IV did not fire a gun, he was complicit in planning, carrying out and covering up the murders. And, he argued, Ohio law says aiding and abetting makes him guilty of the murders.
In the final days of the trial, Wagner IV stunned prosecutors and onlookers alike when he took the witness stand and repeatedly denied knowledge before, during, or after the murders of his family’s plot.
His lawyer John Parker asked him, “If one of them had come to you and asked you to participate in something like this, what do you think you would have done?”
Wagner IV replied, “Well, first thing: I wouldn’t have believed my family would be able to do something of this magnitude.”
He added: “Theft is one thing; murder is an entirely different thing.
A comprehensive investigation
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R), who was the state’s attorney general at the time of the murders, and prosecutors in the case praised Bureau of Criminal of Investigation agents, analysts and medical examiners of the state for their tenacious work in the case. Without them, they all agreed, the case would not have been solved.
“They set up this business. They understood what sometimes seemed like such an implausible motive: custody of a child. The murder of eight innocent people. But they did it,” DeWine said Wednesday at a news conference in Columbus.
Pike County District Attorney Rob Junk choked up repeatedly Wednesday night, saying, “Good won today and bad lost.”
He expressed his gratitude for the tremendous assistance his county has received in this matter.
“We are a poor country. We are still a poor country. … But we have a lot of good people here,” he said, adding that state and local authorities have provided funds and resources to the county over the years. “There’s no way we could have done this alone.”
During the trial, analysts and scientists testified about how they were able to piece together key evidence in the case, including:
- Guns and silencers: Jake Wagner led investigators to the three guns he said he tried to saw into pieces and burn after the murders before burying them in cement in five-gallon buckets the family hid in his grandparents’ pond. BCI firearms examiner Matthew White pulled the parts and parts from the buckets, rebuilt them, and tested them. These casings matched casings that investigators recovered from the Wagner family home.
- Bloody shoes and shoe prints: Investigators compared bloody shoe prints at a crime scene to two pairs of shoes Angela Wagner bought for her sons at Walmart before the murders.
- A Wagner laptop: Criminal intelligence analyst Julia Eveslage said she combed through hundreds of thousands of social media posts and found a Facebook post from Hanna Rhoden saying the Wagners should kill her first that she would relinquish custody of her daughter, which prosecutors said was the impetus for the crime.
- Wiretaps: Eveslage walked jurors through taped conversations between Jake and George Wagner that gave jurors insight into controlling family dynamics, special prosecutor Angela Canepa said.
Wilson and Canepa applauded the work of the officers, adding that they were impressed with the resilience, patience and strength of the Rhoden, Manley and Gilley families.
Speaking to the family at the press conference on Wednesday evening, Wilson said: ‘You behaved gracefully. You behaved with dignity and you behaved in moderation. And I will forever be amazed at your ability to do so. And, really, what you’ve done is you’ve represented your family well. I’m sure they would be so proud that you stayed vigilant for them.
Chris Graves is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.