By ANGENETTE LEVY, ZACHARY ROGERS and KATHERINE BARRIER, WKRC
CINCINNATI (CIRCA via WKRC) — Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on Tuesday said four members of the Wagner family, of South Webster, Ohio, have been arrested for the murders of eight people in Pike County on April 22, 2016.
Billy and Angela are George and Jake's parents. All four suspects are facing eight charges of aggravated murder, each with death penalty specifications. The Wagner family had been on law enforcement’s radar for more than a year. The four became known publicly as potential suspects in May 2017 when agents with the bureau of criminal investigation and Pike County sheriff’s deputies descended upon a property they had recently sold in Adams County. That property was several miles away from the Rhoden family property in Pike County. The Wagners had moved to Alaska at the time and moved back to Ohio in the summer of 2018.
Eight members of the Rhoden family were found shot at four homes near Piketon in 2016:
Most of the victims were killed while they were asleep. There were also three children in the homes at the time of the murders, but they were not hurt.
Investigators said information has been presented to the grand jury since July, but the final piece of physical evidence tying the Wagners to the massacre came Oct. 30, when investigators found a homemade gun silencer they had reportedly built. The Wagners also reportedly purchased ammunition, a magazine clip, brass catchers and a bug detector in preparation for the murders. The indictments also say they tampered with cellphones, shell casings, cameras and parts of a home security system.
"They left traces. They left a trail. The parts to build a silencer, the forged documents, the cameras, cellphones, all that they tampered with and the lies," Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said.
DeWine said the Wagners conspired for months to commit the elaborate crime, studying the victims' habits and routines, and that they knew the layout of the homes and where the victims slept.
"We believe that the Wagners conspired together to develop an elaborate plan to kill the eight victims under the cover of darkness and then carefully cover up their tracks. We believe the evidence will show they spent months planning the crimes," DeWine said during a news conference.
A grand jury indicted the four suspects Monday, and all four were arrested Tuesday. Billy was arrested in Fayette County, Kentucky. He was pulling a horse trailer and was arrested just outside an equine hospital. Angela was arrested at her home in Scioto County, Ohio, and George and Jake were arrested during a traffic stop in Ross County, Ohio.
"I've never seen anything like this at all, and frankly, the underpinning story is even more bizarre than anything you could imagine. When all of the evidence comes out in court, as it will, people will just shake their heads. They won't believe it," DeWine said. "It’s a story of control; it’s a story of child custody."
Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden had a daughter, who was about 2 years old at the time of the murders, together. It’s been suspected custody over the daughter may have been part of the motive, and DeWine confirmed that it played a role.
Jake had his daughter in his care the night of the murders, and there was talk that there was a fight between Christopher Rhoden Sr. and Billy in the weeks before the murders. The Wagners reportedly tried to get Hanna to sign over custody of the girl, leading to the argument.
DeWine said the Wagners had an obsession with custody. They're all accused of forging custody documents.
Jake is also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Hanna when she was 15 years old and he was 20.
DeWine also said two other women were arrested and accused of helping cover up the murders. Billy's mother, Fredericka Wagner, and Angela's mother, Rita Newcomb, were charged with obstructing justice and perjury. Newcomb also is charged with forgery.
The Wagners face numerous other crimes, including conspiracy, aggravated burglary and tampering with evidence.
DeWine said they have no evidence that anyone else is involved in the Rhodens' murders.
Attorneys for Fredericka declined to comment Wednesday evening. An attorney representing other Wagner family members, John Kearson Clark Jr., issued the following statement:
"Given that fact that the Wagners have been indicted with capital murder with death penalty specifications, we respectfully decline making any statements at this time. However, the Wagners eagerly look forward to their trial and to have their day in Court so they can vindicate their names. The Wagners are also ever hopeful that in the ensuing months there will be a thorough vetting of all the facts. Moreover, we look forward to the day when the true culprit(s) will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy.
Court dates for the Wagners in Pike County have not been set yet. Billy has a court appearance scheduled for Wednesday morning in Lexington.