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‘Not a Crime of Passion’: Prosecutors Lay Out Case in Long-Awaited 2016 Pike County Massacre Opening Statements

Pike County massacre victims

Top row, from left: Dana Manley Rhoden, Christopher Rhoden Sr., Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, and Hanna May Rhoden. Bottom row: Christopher Rhoden Jr., Kenneth Rhoden, and Gary Rhoden

After more than six years, jurors will finally get to hear evidence in the Pike County massacre.

The proceeding began Monday with opening statements in the case of co-defendant George Wagner IV, the only case to go to trial so far. The defendant, his brother Edward “Jake” Wagner, and their father George “Billy” Wagner III attacked and killed eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families across three trailers and a camper from the night of April 21, 2016 into the early morning of April 22, prosecutor Angie Canepa told jurors. George III’s wife Angela Wagner helped plan, authorities said.

Their primary target was Hanna May Rhoden, 19. She had had a daughter with Jake, but they broke up, and Jake demanded custody, even during the pregnancy.

Canepa construed the Wagner family as being controlling of any woman who came into their circle. For example, there was a woman named Tabitha, who had a child with George IV, according to the prosecutor. Her mother Tess warned Hanna May in a private Facebook message to never sign custody papers with the Wagners.

“I won’t sign papers ever,” Hanna May wrote back. “They’ll have to kill me first.”

She was shot twice in the head with .22 caliber rounds at 3122 Union Hill Road.

“Her crime was not returning the love of Jake Wagner,” Canepa said. “Not submitting to the control of the Wagners.”

The Wagners targeted several other members of her family and intended to kill any witnesses, the prosecution said. In short, they were going to kill anyone who could would know they killed Hanna May. First and foremost was her father Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40. The Wagners feared that the Rhoden family patriarch would know who did it and either get them arrested or retaliate. He was shot with .40 caliber rounds at 4077 Union Hill Road. He sustained six rounds to the face, one in the chest, and one in the stomach. He had defensive wounds.

After the killings, the prosecution continued, George Wagner III falsely claimed he had tried to get in touch with his “good friend” Christopher Rhoden Sr.

Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, would also know who killed Hanna May, the prosecutor said. He was shot four times in the head with .22 caliber rounds at 3122 Union Hill Road. He had just got his driver’s license and was a high school freshman. Christopher Jr. usually had friends over, but happened to be grounded on the night of the April 21 because he arrived home late the day before. In the other words, the massacre allegedly could have been worse — the Wagners intended on killing any bystanders. Hanna May’s then-boyfriend could have also been there.

“They all agreed those people would have to be killed too, regardless of the fact that they literally had no issue with any of those other individuals,” Canepa said of any bystanders.

Other victims were said to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, Christopher Sr.’s cousin Gary Rhoden, 38, happened to be at 4077 Union Hill Road. The Wagners likely knew he was going to be there that night, Canepa said. He was killed with the .40 caliber gun, shot four times in the face, the prosecutor said.

Sr.’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, was an “add on,” Canepa said. He was close to Christopher, and he would have known who the killers were, and he knew the Wagners were going to be visiting Christopher Sr. that night. He was shot in the right eye at 1084 Left Fork Road.

Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, knew that his sister Hanna May complained about Jake physically abusing her, the prosecutors said. He had spoken about this with their mother Dana Manley Rhoden, 38, the week of the homicides. He would know it was the Wagners who carried out the killings, Canepa said. Frankie was shot twice in the head with .22 caliber rounds at 4199 Union Hill Road. The death of his fiancée Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20, was collateral damage, the prosecutor said. She was shot five times in the head and face with .22 caliber rounds at 4199 Union Hill Road.

Dana Manley Rhoden may have been possible collateral damage, but the killers waited for her to get off of work before shooting four times in the head with .22 caliber rounds at 3122 Union Hill Road, Canepa said. She knew about the problems between Hanna and Jake and had confronted Jake about it.

Except for Christopher Sr. and Gary, all of the victims were shot in their sleep or in bed. All eight victims did nothing to deserve this, Canepa siad.

Jake Wagner got sole custody of Hanna May’s daughter. Though they obtained a 2014 document ostensibly signed by Hanna May, that was backdated, the prosecutor said.

“This was not a crime of passion,” Canepa said. “This was not in a fit of rage. This was not in self-defense. These murders happened after a period of three months of planning and plotting and purchasing and preparing and executing eight individuals of a family.”

George Wagner IV (center, wearing a vest) in court on Sept. 12, 2022.

George Wagner IV (center, wearing a vest) in court on Sept. 12, 2022.

Jake and Angela Wagner each separately pleaded guilty to their respective roles in the killings.

The case against George Wagner III is ongoing.

[Images via Photos via the Ohio Attorney General’s Office]

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