Jake Wagner testified that he confessed to planning and carrying out the murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families after he felt he’d received “an answer from God” in December 2019 when his grandmother admitted lying to prosecutors about forging custody documents related to the case and agreed to cooperate.
Wagner testified for a third day Wednesday in the trial of his older brother, George Wagner IV, in Pike County, Ohio. He admitted when he pleaded guilty in April 2021 that he and his family planned the murders of Hanna May Rhoden and her family because they wanted sole custody of the daughter Wagner and Rhoden shared, who was 2 1/2 years old at the time. Wagner testified earlier this week that he and his family feared the little girl, Sophia, would be molested by men Hanna May Rhoden was dating and he felt she was being “careless” by allowing the child to be around people he didn’t approve of.
Wagner was asked a series of questions to begin the day about Sophia admitting to him in 2018 that she made up claims that her father’s new wife, Elizabeth, had touched her inappropriately. Wagner said his daughter was jealous of the attention he was giving his new wife.
Wagner also admitted that he believed BCI was listening in to conversations he and his brother had as they drove a truck cross country for R&L Carriers in Wilmington, Ohio after the family had moved back to Ohio from Alaska. He said he remembered saying on one trip “I know you’re listening, Ryan.” Ryan is a reference to BCI agent Ryan Scheiderer, who is the lead agent on the Rhoden and Gilley murder case.
Wagner also admitted that his older brother made threats against Mike DeWine, formerly Ohio’s Attorney General and currently the governor. Wagner said, “I cannot say per se threats but what I called vented frustrations.” When asked, Jake Wagner said the discussion involved physical violence and he said he tried to calm George and told him not to say things in the truck.
Special Prosecutor Angie Canepa asked Jake Wagner about his upbringing and whether his family had taught him certain things about committing crimes and evading law enforcement. Wagner had testified earlier in the week that he and his family had stolen a number of items and had set fire to structures on their Bethel Hill Rd. property so they could collect insurance money.
Wagner said, “I was taught to always be respectful and compliant. To always act as if one is being investigated and be aware of surroundings.” He added that he was told, “Always act like you belonged where you was and if you were to hide something, hide it in plain sight.”
Wagner said his father, Billy Wagner, was upset with him for buying parts to build silencers online which left a digital trail. He said his father was also upset that he and his brother had dyed their hair in the week before the murders.
Wagner further testified that he and his family didn’t discuss the murders after they were carried out. However, he said his father asked him once whether he had any regrets because he was feeling “frustrated with me,” with what he had been made to do. Wagner said he told his father, “I did not” have any regrets. But he said that wasn’t true and he only said it to make his father feel better.
“I felt if I told him I believed it could have gone differently, he would feel like it wasn’t worth it and he would commit suicide,” Wagner recalled.
Canepa asked Wagner whether his grandmother, Rita Jo Newcomb, was asked to lie about forging custody documents and he said he did not ask her to do so but he believed he was told that she planned to tell investigators that she signed the documents. Those guardianship documents were printed 19 days before the homicides and gave custody of Wagner and Rhoden’s daughter to his mother, Angela Wagner, if either of them died. George Wagner IV signed a similar document giving custody of his son to his mother as well, in the event of his death.
Newcomb was charged with forgery and obstruction of justice in November 2018. In December 2019, she admitted that she lied during her grand jury testimony. Newcomb said when pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing official business that she couldn’t lie any longer because it wasn’t the Christian thing to do.
Wagner said he took his grandmother’s words to heart and viewed them as “an answer from God.” He testified that he had been praying about what to do and had lied to his lawyers about committing the murders. A short time later, he said that he confessed to his lawyers and detailed his mother, father and brother’s involvement in the conspiracy but did not plan to cooperate and wanted to go to trial. He didn’t plan to testify at his trial because he would have to lie.
By the Spring of 2021, Wagner said his feelings had changed and he decided to resolve his case. He sat down with Canepa, Pike Co. Prosecutor Rob Junk and special prosecutor Andy Wilson and told them “everything that had happened” over a period of two to three days. Wagner said his plea agreement required him to testify accurately and fully. Wagner said in exchange, “There was a lot that I wanted,” but ultimately it was agreed that the death specifications would be dismissed against each Wagner family member in exchange for his truthful testimony.
Photographs of the Walther Colt 1911 .22, Glock 40 and SKS that were recovered from buckets of concrete at the Flying W Farm’s lake were displayed to the jury. Pieces of the weapons were severed and appeared damaged in other ways. But in some respects, the weapons looked preserved. A flashlight was included in the contents of the bucket. Wagner had testified his father had a flashlight with him that night. The bucket also contained an oil filter that had been used a firearm suppressor.
Wagner also led prosecutors to the so-called “murder truck.” He said he became aware of where it was located after overhearing his Uncle Bobby discussing how nice it was that Billy Wagner had given his niece, Katy, a truck.
Canepa went through the plea agreement Wagner signed. When asked why he pleaded guilty to all eight murders despite admitting to only killing five of the victims, Wagner said, “Well, I just took it all, I reckon.”
George Wagner IV’s attorney, John Patrick Parker, began his cross-examination of Jake Wagner by asking him about medications he was taking which included a multi-vitamin, an anti-depressant and a thyroid medication. Wagner said he is “self-diagnosed” as having Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD.
The lawyer pointed out that Jake Wagner didn’t receive the death penalty but his brother, who he claims didn’t shoot anyone, faces the death penalty.
Parker asked, “You realize you just got the best plea bargain in the history of plea bargains?” which drew strong objections from prosecutors.
Parker then asked Wagner about his actions that night and for the first time, he said Billy Wagner pulled over on the way to the Rhoden homes on April 21, 2016 and pulled down the tailgate and asked his son whether he was sure he wanted to go through with the plan. Wagner said he told his father he did.
Parker asked Wagner whether he recalled telling prosecutors “none of us wanted to do it but I felt I had to… I had to talk my mom and bother into it.” Parker also asked Wagner whether he told prosecutors that his brother told him it wasn’t a good idea and “don’t trust Dad.” Wagner recalled making the statements and agreed that he told prosecutors that his brother decided to go because he thought everyone was going to die including himself.
Wagner said he never thought that his father was going to kill him at the end of the murder spree. Parker asked, “you and your dad planned this?” Wagner responded, “not entirely.” Wagner said his father wanted him to kill Hanna because he wanted to protect Sophia as he did.
Parker attempted to paint Wagner as a liar by asking him about why he requested a paternity test for Hanna May Rhoden’s newborn daughter. Parker referred to it as “a fraud.” Parker also asked Wagner whether he told prosecutors that his mother lied to protect him and he agreed.
Parker then moved to the timing and location of the actual shootings and grilled Wagner about his movements at the home of Chris Rhoden Sr., the first victim shot that night.
Wagner denied he moved Chris Sr.’s body and Gary Rhoden’s body to the back bedroom. Wagner testified that after his father shot Chris and Gary, he went inside the trailer home and pulled Chris’s keys out of his pocket so he could retrieve a hard drive from a security system at the marijuana grow house.
At that time, Wagner said Gary’s body was in a recliner and Chris Sr.’s body was on the floor. But he said the bodies had been moved to the back bedroom when went to the home after his stop at the marijuana grow house. Wagner denied dragging the bodies to that room but said he covered them with a blanket when taking their cell phones. He claimed his father and brother were standing next to a truck outside.
Wagner also added information about shooting Frankie Rhoden and his fiancee, Hannah Hazel Gilley. Wagner admitted he shot Frankie once in the head and Gilley once in the eye. During his direct testimony, he said that he shot both of them.
On cross-examination, however, Wagner said that he handed his gun to his father after shooting both victims so he could look for their cell phones and shell casings. At that time, he said Billy Wagner used his Colt 1911 .22 to shoot Frankie Rhoden in the head a couple of more times even though he was dead. Parker seized on the new detail. Wagner said he told prosecutors about this in “July-ish” of this year after meeting with them at the jail but did not include the information in his proffer.
Wagner also appeared to add another detail about the shootings of Dana Manley Rhoden and Hanna May Rhoden. When asked about those events, he said that he looked under Dana Rhoden’s door because it was closed and could see her in bed on her cell phone so he “stood up” and went to a “pivot point.” His earlier testimony appeared to say he could see both Dana and Hanna May as he stood in the same spot in the hallway of the home.
Wagner reiterated that he froze after seeing Dana Rhoden on her phone but snapped out of it when Hanna May’s newborn baby, Kylie, began to cry. He said he saw Hanna May resting on her elbow to tend to the baby and in a now-or-never moment, he took a stride and shot Dana before shooting Hanna May. He said she gasped upon seeing him. Wagner said the light was on “as bright as it is in here” in Hanna May’s bedroom which drew more questions from Parker as it was after midnight.
Crime scene photos showed Dana Rhoden with a pillow covering her face and her brother testified that it was “stuck” to her face. Wagner said he didn’t remember placing the pillow on her or covering her up.
Parker asked Wagner about smiling when he was asked about moving Hanna May’s body so Kylie wouldn’t starve to death, he said he wasn’t smiling. “That’s not what it is. Ask anyone that knows me. I smile at the worst time.”
Wagner said he shot Chris Rhoden Jr. “a lot” from the left side of his bed and before he exited, he looked for cell phones and shell casings.
Parker asked Wagner about the murder of Kenneth Rhoden. When asked about his wounds and seeing crime scene photos that showed Rhoden shot in the eye once, Wagner said, “I tried not to focus on the wounds. I have no memory of the gruesome parts of the crime. And I don’t want to.”
“Isn’t that convenient?” Parker, his brother’s attorney, asked rhetorically.
Cross-examination of Jake Wagner is set to continue. George and Jake Wagner’s mother, Angela Wagner, will also testify during the trial.
Earlier in the day Thursday, a hearing was held after a member of the media requested a writ of prohibition that would keep Judge Randy Deering from allowing Jake and Angela Wagner to “opt-out” of having their testimony recorded and broadcast. Jake Wagner opted out and his attorney, Greg Meyers, said during the hearing that he knew for more than a week that his client would opt-out over fears for his safety in prison.
First Amendment attorney Jack Greiner argued on behalf of several media outlets that Wagner’s testimony should be broadcast because the concern over public access to his testimony outweighed any concerns for Wagner’s safety behind bars.
Canepa invoked the image of a fatal, days-long riot at the Lucasville prison to bolster their claim that Wagner or his family could be harmed behind bars. Canepa also voiced concerns about Wagner’s testimony being available on the internet “in perpetuity.” However, Wagner’s guilty plea was broadcast live on the internet and is available for viewing at any time. And,in a last-minute move, Wilson asked a member of a special operations team with the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that is guarding George Wagner IV to testify about security concerns in prisons.
Wilson asked special response team member Robert Horton about threats to inmates who cooperate with prosecutors. Horton said they are trained to look for threats to inmates and have seen inmates attacked. Horton said some attacks are retaliation for testifying against another person. Special prosecutor Andy Wilson referenced, “snitches get stitches,” and Horton said he had heard that term.
Greiner questioned Horton about whether he was aware that Jake Wagner entered a plea in the case and whether it was well-known that Wagner would be testifying. Horton said he was aware of both the plea and Wagner’s cooperation.
Greiner followed up by asking, “Are the DRC’s efforts typically effective in dealing with enhanced security risks? I mean, you guys know what you’re doing, don’t you?” Horton responded, “yes.”
Wilson then asked whether inmates still get killed or injured as a result of retaliation. Horton said, “They can.”
Judge Deering ruled the concern over Wagner’s safety outweighed the public’s interest in his testimony.
The taxpayers of the state of Ohio have paid millions to fund the investigation. The state legislature also passed a bill to pay for the trials.
[Images via Brooke LaValley/Columbus Dispatch/pool]
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