The defense rested its case Friday in the trial of George Wagner IV after 10 weeks of testimony in what has been described as the largest criminal investigation in Ohio history. Wagner IV, 31, was the last witness the jury heard from. He denied any involvement in the conspiracy to murder eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families.
Wagner IV’s younger brother, Jake Wagner, and mother, Angela Wagner, testified against him and implicated him in every step of the crimes from the planning to the cover-up. Jake Wagner, 30, pleaded guilty in April 2021 to 23 counts including aggravated murder, burglary and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for the April 2016 murders of his ex-girlfriend, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, and her family. Angela Wagner pleaded guilty months later for her role in the murder conspiracy.
Jake Wagner and his mother testified their family planned the murders of Hanna May Rhoden and her family because they feared the daughter Jake shared with Hanna May could be molested. Evidence presented during the trial showed the Jake Wagner and his mother wanted custody of the little girl named Sophia and tried to get Hanna May to sign over custody of the child.
Wagner appeared calm as he answered questions from his lead attorney, John Patrick Parker, and denied knowledge of the conspiracy over a day and a half of direct-examination:
John Patrick Parker: Did you know your family was going to kill these people?
George Wagner IV: No.
Parker: Before it happened did you know?
Wagner IV: No.
Parker: After it happened, did you know?
Wagner IV: No.
Wagner IV testified he would have tried to stop the murder spree had he known about it, although he didn’t know how he would have done so. He also said after his family was interrogated at the U.S.-Canada border in May 2017 while returning from a trip to Alaska, BCI agents told him he would either be a suspect or a witness, so he agreed to spy on his younger brother for the agents. Wagner IV said he asked his brother, Jake, whether he was involved in the murders and he “swore up and down” no.
On cross-examination by special prosecutor Angie Canepa, Wagner IV was asked about differences in some of the statements that he made during the May 2017 interrogation and his testimony. For instance, Wagner IV acknowledged on the stand that his father George “Billy” Wagner III was involved in the drug trade with Hanna May Rhoden’s father, Chris Rhoden Sr., when it came to selling marijuana. But during the May 2017 interrogation, Wagner IV said his father was against drugs.
Canepa pointed to recorded conversations in 2018, when Wagner IV told his mother — while the family was under investigation — that they needed to “cut off the head of the snake” so the body dies. Wagner IV was also heard telling Angela Wagner that the only reason she and Billy Wagner ever got into trouble was because they caved to police. Billy and Angela Wagner had been arrested for theft and receiving stolen property in the past. Wagner IV is heard on a recording stating “I ain’t caving and I ain’t crumbling.”
Wagner IV, when Canepa asked, said that anyone who killed eight people should be put to death. He also said he didn’t believe a person should confess to something they didn’t do.
Prosecutors called dozens of witnesses, including Rhoden family members, friends of the victims, crime lab analysts and members of law enforcement, over the course of the trial. The defense called people who knew Wagner IV. One man, Alex Staley, said Wagner IV teared up about a month after the homicides. He said they were fishing and the subject of the murders was discussed.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have spent hours over the last week arguing over which exhibits will be admitted. More than 2,000 photos and pieces of physical evidence were presented to the jury. Defense attorneys Parker and Rick Nash argued they believed some of the exhibits were irrelevant. Special prosecutor Canepa became angry at times over some of the defense objections. Pike Co. Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering, who has presided over the case since the arrests in 2018, appeared frustrated at how long the process was taking at times.
Friday ended with more arguments over exhibits. In a somewhat unusual move, defense witnesses were called before the state rested its case-in-chief due to scheduling matters. After Wagner IV testified on Thursday, Ohio BCI agent Ryan Scheiderer was recalled to the stand to testify about guns the George and Jake Wagner had purchased on the same date in January 2015 at a gun show at the Westland Mall in Columbus, Ohio.
The state had indicated last Friday that they had no more witnesses to call. However, Scheiderer’s testimony was meant to rebut testimony from Wagner IV about the Colt 1911 .22 gun that his brother said was one of the murder weapons. Wagner IV said he hadn’t seen his brother with the gun. Scheiderer had sent a text message to Wagner IV in 2018 with a photo of Jake Wagner’s hand holding the gun. Wagner IV reacted to the text by sending a text to his brother, Jake. The brothers left work because of a “family emergency.”
ATF paperwork showed George and Jake Wagner both purchased guns on the same date in January 2015 at the Westland Mall.
Court will resume Monday morning at 9 a.m., when attorneys will continue the process of arguing over exhibits. Defense attorneys will argue a Rule 29 motion in which they will outline why they believe prosecutors didn’t prove their case against Wagner IV.
The jury of nine women and three men were sent home Friday without hearing testimony. They will have next week off. Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday, Nov. 28.
On April 22, 2016, Chris Rhoden Sr. and his cousin, Gary Rhoden, were found shot to death in Chris Sr.’s trailer on Union Hill Rd. In a trailer next door, Chris’s son, Frankie Rhoden, and Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Hazel Gilley, were found shot to death in their bed. Their 6-month-old son was in between them covered in blood and wearing a diaper. Down the road, Chris Sr.’s ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, and their children, Hanna May, and Chris Rhoden Jr. were also found shot to death in their homes. Kenneth Rhoden, Chris Sr.’s older brother, was found shot in the eye in his camper several miles away on Left Fork Rd.
The trial for Billy Wagner could begin sometime in 2023.
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