Last week, the first trial began in a case that, back in 2016 when I was living in Ohio, exploded into the news headlines, involving a set of horrific murders. In a rural part of the state, eight members of a single family known as the Rhodens that lived in different homes in the region were found murdered, killed while they slept.
The murders were discovered on the morning of 22 April 2016, when Bobby Jo Manley stopped by the Rhodens’ cluster of trailer homes to see her ex-brother-in-law, Chris Rhoden Sr. Entering his trailer, she found the bloody bodies of Chris and his cousin, Gary. Chris’s ex-wife, Dana, was dead nearby, as were their children – Hanna, Chris Jr and Clarence, known as “Frankie” – and Frankie’s fiancee, Hannah Gilley.
The same day, Chris Sr’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, who lived about 15 minutes away, was also found murdered.
The killer or killers had spared Frankie’s three-year-old son; Frankie and Hannah Gilley’s baby, who was found covered in blood, trying to nurse at his mother; and Hanna Rhoden’s newborn. (Hanna and Jake’s two-year-old daughter, the subject of the custody dispute, was staying elsewhere.)
Suspicion focused on Jake Wagner who was involved in a battle with Hanna Rhoden over custody of their two-year old child. But it seemed like more than one person was involved in the murders and Jake Wagner strongly denied that he or anyone else in his family had anything to do with the killings.
But in April 2021 there was a dramatic development.
Then on 22 April 2021, exactly five years after the murders, Jake Wagner stood in a courtroom in Pike county, a hilly corner of Appalachia where everyone knows everyone and families stick tightly together, and told a judge, “I am guilty, your honor.”
Shockingly, he also agreed to testify against his family. His mother, Angela Wagner, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, evidence tampering and other charges, but his father George “Billy” Wagner III and brother George Wagner IV, who are accused of participating in the homicides, maintain their innocence. Due to a gag order, no one involved in the cases can speak to the press.
The investigation even sucked in the family’s matriarchs. Jake Wagner’s grandmother, Rita Newcomb, has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge. Charges against his other grandmother, Fredericka Wagner, have been dropped. Reached by phone at her horse farm and asked if she wished to comment, she said, “No, no,” and hung up.
So what was the motive behind the mass killings?
Jake Wagner allegedly began a relationship with Hanna Rhoden when she was 13, impregnating her when she was 15 and he was 20. In addition to homicide, he has been charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.
After she ended the relationship, prosecutors say, he began threatening her. When she had a second child with a different man, Wagner allegedly pressured her to falsely list him as father on the birth certificate. He and his brother George were also allegedly stalking two other women – their respective ex-wives, both of whom are expected to testify that the Wagners made them fear for their lives.
When Hanna Rhoden refused to relinquish custody of the baby she had had with Jake Wagner, the Wagners were enraged. Jake Wagner allegedly threatened to kill her, but she was determined not to give up her child. In a message on Facebook, she wrote that she would “never sign papers ever. They will have to kill me first.”
That was when the Wagners allegedly decided to eliminate Hanna and her relatives so that custody of the child would fall to them. They allegedly bought ammunition, parts for silencers, “brass catchers” to avoid leaving bullet casings behind, and a truck and shoes specifically to use on the night of the killings.
There are so many things that are disturbing about this case that it is hard to list them all. But what struck me is the charge that an entire extended family, three generations of them, over an extended period, cold-bloodedly discussed carrying out the murders even voting on it.
The Wagners are an insular, close-knit family who homeschooled together and shared their money, according to the Washington Post. Prosecutors say that they planned the massacre for four months and held a vote on going through with it.
They surveilled the Rhodens to study their habits and sleeping locations, according to an indictment, then killed them under cover of darkness and tried to make the murders appear drug-related.
It is unfortunately the case that child custody battles can end up in violence. But it is usually violence by one of the parents. It is strange to read about an entire family that would agree that mass murder was the way to gain custody for the child of one of their own. When we talk of ‘crime families’, that is a metaphor for a close knit band of criminals, usually used with reference to organized crime. This seems like a literal crime family and the mind boggles that they would come to an agreement that murdering eight people in order to gain custody of a child was a reasonable thing to do.