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Second Wagner Family Member, a Grandmother, Pleads Guilty in Pike County Massacre That Left 8 Dead

Angela Wagner in court

Angela Wagner

A grandmother admitted Friday to her role in the 2016 murders of eight members of another family over the custody of her granddaughter.

Angela Wagner, 50, pleaded guilty to several lesser charges, including conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, in the April 22, 2016 massacre of the Rhoden and Gilley families. Other charges included aggravated burglary with firearms specifications, unlawful possession of a dangerous ordnance, tampering with evidence, forgery, and unauthorized use of property.

Prosecutors have said Angela Wagner and her husband, George “Billy” Wagner and her two sons, Edward “Jake” Wagner and George Wagner IV, committed the crimes so the family could have sole custody of a little girl Jake Wagner had with Hanna Rhoden. Jake Wagner pleaded guilty on the fifth anniversary of the murders earlier this year.

Under a plea agreement, Angela Wagner would serve 30 years in prison in full and have to cooperate against other family members, including her husband and son.

Jake Wagner admitted during a hearing that he and his family devised a plan to kill Hanna Rhoden and any member of her family that could stand in the way of Jake gaining full custody of the child who is now 7 years old. Jake Wagner sought full custody of the child days after the murders and was granted full custody in June 2016. The Wagners had denied involvement in the murders. But during the hearing, Jake Wagner apologized to the Rhoden family, and prosecutors said he led them to guns and a vehicle used to commit the murders. His guilty plea resulted in the death penalty being taken off the table for him and his family members. He also agreed to testify against his parents and brother.

Prosecutors said the plot to commit mass murder began in late 2015 when Angela Wagner hacked into Hanna Rhoden’s Facebook account and read a message from Hanna Rhoden to another person in which she discussed the Wagners wanting full custody of her daughter. Special prosecutor Angie Canepa said Hanna Rhoden wrote “they’ll have to kill me.” Canepa said Angela Wagner showed the message to Jake and the murder plot unfolded from there.

On April 22, 2016, the Rhodens were found shot to death at four locations on Union Hill Rd. and Left Fork Rd. in Pike County, Ohio. The victims are Christopher Rhoden Sr., his cousin Gary Rhoden, and Christopher’s ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden. Christopher and Dana’s children, Frankie Rhoden, Christopher Rhoden Jr. and Hanna Rhoden, were also shot to death along with Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley. Kenneth Rhoden was found shot once in his camper several miles away.

Investigators turned their attention to the Wagner family in the Spring of 2017. They descended upon a farm Jake and George had recently sold and searched the property along with the Flying W farm owned by Fredericka Wagner, Jake and George’s grandmother.

Angela Wagner told Law&Crime’s Angenette Levy in a Facebook message in May 2017 that her family was being slandered and that they were innocent. The Wagners moved to Alaska in 2017. When the family moved to Alaska, they took Jake’s daughter and George’s young son with them. George also had sole custody of his son that he had with his ex-wife. Prosecutors have said the Wagners were “obsessed” with custody and control of children.

Court documents filed by prosecutors state Jake Wagner married a woman named Elizabeth while the family was living in Alaska and that he and other family members controlled her every move and threatened to kill her. Prosecutors wrote that the family became upset when Jake’s daughter referred to Elizabeth as “mom” because the child was supposed to call Angela Wagner “mom.”

The same documents, which outline prosecutors’ intent to use “other acts” evidence, state the Wagners got George’s first wife to sign away most of her custody rights to their son under false pretenses, controlled her movements and spied on her.

State agents traveled to Alaska and Montana to interview the family as the investigation continued. The Wagners moved back to Ohio in 2018. In November 2018, then Attorney General Mike DeWine announced a grand jury indicted the four Wagner family members for the murders.

The investigation has been called one of the largest in state history. On the morning of April 22, 2016, Bobbi Jo Manley, Dana Rhoden’s sister, went to Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s trailer to feed his dogs that morning and found Christopher and Gary’s bodies covered in blood in the trailer and called 911. Christopher had defensive wounds on his body, according to an autopsy report.

“There’s blood everywhere,” Manley said on the 911 call. Manley and her brother, James Manley, found five other members of their family shot. Frankie Rhoden and his fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, were shot in the head in their bed. Their 6-month-old child was in the bed with them covered in blood. Frankie’s toddler son was covered in blood as well and answered the door when Bobbi Jo approached.

James Manley found his sister, Dana Rhoden, shot in her trailer. He also found his niece, Hanna Rhoden, shot in the head in her bed. Her 4-day-old baby lay in the bed next to her. Christopher Rhoden Jr. was 16 years old and was also found shot to death in the trailer.

Then-Pike Co. Sheriff Charlie Reader called the Ohio Attorney General’s Office immediately to request assistance; the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation took over as the lead investigative agency.

Kenneth Rhoden’s cousin found him hours later shot in his camper on Left Fork Rd.

Ohio BCI investigated Bobbi Jo and James Manley for the murders. James was arrested and charged with tampering with evidence in 2017 after he smashed a GPS tracking device state agents had placed on his truck. At the time, their father, Leonard Manley, said the agents had claimed James failed a polygraph exam. The tampering with evidence charge was dropped days after it was filed.

Fredericka Wagner, the family matriarch, was charged with lying to the grand jury and obstruction but the charges against her was later dropped. Prosecutors have indicated they plan to refile charges against Fredericka Wagner at a later date. Rita Newcomb, Angela Wagner’s mother, was charged with forgery and obstruction of justice.

Newcomb denied forging custody documents signed days before the murders that would grant sole custody of Jake and George’s children to their mother should they or Hanna Rhoden die. Newcomb later admitted during a plea hearing in December 2019 that she lied about signing the documents at her daughter’s request. Newcomb was a notary at the time the documents were signed.

[Screenshot via Law&Crime Network]

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Angenette Levy is a correspondent and host for the Law&Crime Network. Angenette has worked in newsrooms in Green Bay, Wisconsin and Cincinnati, Ohio. She has covered a number of high-profile criminal cases in both state and federal courts throughout her career including the trials of Steven Avery, Brooke “Skylar” Richardson and most recently the trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. She was nominated for an Emmy in 2015 for a story she covered in which she found a missing toddler who was the subject of an Amber Alert. Angenette is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati.