Solved: The Pike County Massacre (2016)

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This case occurred just 5 years ago in a small village in Ohio. This is the case of the Pike County Massacre.

The Pike County Shootings occurred on the night of April 21-22 of 2016 when 8 people all belonging to the Rhoden family were brutally murdered and killing four homes in Pike County Ohio. Their bodies were found on April 22. 7 of the bodies, 6 adults and 1 juvenile were discovered to have been shot execution style in 3 homes while the 8th victim was found shot to death in a camper in nearby Piketon.

3 young children including babies were left alive during the killings police believed in early stages that there was at least 2 shooters to have been responsible to have murdered this family.

We will learn later on that investigators believed that the murders were premediated, and that the suspects were known or very close to the Rhoden family. On April 25, Ohio Attorney General’s office confirmed the presence of marijuana growth and cockfighting operations at some of the crime scenes but they didn’t confirm a direct connection to the killings. This case became the largest in Ohio history.

We will also learn later in the case that 4 members of the Wagner family would be arrested in Ohio and Kentucky and charged with murders in November of 2018. This also included an ex boyfriend of one of the victims and the father of one of the infants that was left alive.

Bobby Jo Manely, a sister of the one of the victims was the one who discovered the body when she came to feed the pets at the homes. Police responded after receiving a 9-1-1 call about 2 bodies inside a home on Union Hill Road at 7:51 AM. And before police arrived, Bobby Jo also discovered 2 more bodies in the second home that was located on the property. Bobby Jo’s brother, James, went to check their sister and discovered the 3rd crime scene where the police found 3 more victims when they finally arrived. At 1:26 pm there was another 9-1-1 call that reported an 8th body of an adult male at another residence in the nearby village of Piketon.

3 young children ages, 3, 6 months and 4 days were unharmed during the shooting and the 4 day old being found in the bed with her mother’s body. 7 adults and a 16 year old were the victims. The 4 day old and the 6 month old were place under protective services and the 3 year old was put under the guardianship of his mother who was not involved in the shootings.

 

Let’s take a look at the 8 victims and how they were identified, who was related to who and what the cause of death was.

  • Christopher Rhoden JR, 16 years old, He was the youngest son of Dana and Christopher Rhoden SR. Cause of Death was Gunshot wound to the head.
  • Christopher Rhoden SR, 40, Ex Husband of Dana Rhoden. Cause of Death was Gunshot wound to the head, torso, and limbs.
  • Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Oldest Son of Dana and Christopher Rhoden SR. Father of the surviving 6-month-old and 3 year old. Cause of Death was Gunshot wound to the head.
  • Dana Lynn Rhoden, 37, Ex Wife of Christopher Rhoden SR. Cause of Death was Gunshot wounds to the head and neck.
  • Gary Rhoden, 38, Cousin of Christopher SR and Kenneth Rhoden. Cause of Death was Gunshot wounds to the head.
  • Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Daughter of Dana and Christopher Rhoden SR. Mother of the surviving 4-day old child. Cause of Death was gunshot wounds to the head.
  • Hannah Hazel Gilley, 20, Fiancée of Clarence Rhoden, mother of the surviving 6-month-old child. Cause of death was Gunshot wound to the head.
  • Kenneth Rhoden, 44, Brother of Christopher Rhoden Sr. Cause of death was Single gunshot wound to the head.

The bodies of the victims were taken to the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office in Cincinnati where autopsies found that all but one of the victims were shot multiple times. 4 of the victims were shot once, twice or 3 times. One was shot 4 times, 2 were shot 5 times and the 8th suffered a total of nine gunshot wounds.

Death certificates for all 8 victims were released on May 28 and clarified that 6 of the 8 victims were shot in the head only. Christopher suffered gunshot wounds to the head, stomach and arms and legs and Dana was shot in the head and neck.

Bruising was also found on some of the bodies indicated that some of the victims had been beaten as well. Some of the victims were found shot in their beds. From the number of gunshot wounds on the victims’ bodies there was an estimated 32 shots that were fired during the killings.

The office of the coroner and the Ohio Attorney General announced that the full final autopsy reports will not be released to the public, citing security concerns for the families. On July 22, 2016, The Cincinnati Enquirer filed a lawsuit against the Pike County Coroner’s office asking for the full autopsy records of the victims. On august 12, 2016, a similar lawsuit was filed by The Columbus Dispatch. In both cases, DeWine called for mediation, which attracted criticism and accusations that it was a mere delay tactic. A lawyer representing both newspapers said there was no legal basis for law enforcements withholding of information from the public.

In a filing on September 6, 2016, DeWine responded to The Columbus Dispatch’s lawsuit against the coroner’s office saying:

Public release of information known only to law enforcement and the killer(s) directly threatens the success of the investigation. Among other consequences, releasing this type of information impedes investigators’ ability to separate genuine leads from fake, which wastes resources; makes it difficult to analyze confessions, which are fact-checked against information known only by investigators; and devalues information provided by witnesses who come forward after public release.

Amidst lawsuits by media outlets, the coroner’s office released heavily redacted versions of the final reports on September 23, 2016. The Fourth District Court of Appeals denied the Enquirer’s request for an unredacted copy of the autopsy report on March 17, 2017. On September 19, 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s refusal to release the autopsy reports and the full autopsy reports were then officially released.

Police believed that more than one shooter may have been responsible for the killings, since 2 of the crime scenes were within walking distance, a 3rd was located about a mile away and the 4th about 8 mile away. Investigators also briefly considered the possibility of a murder-suicide, but it was discredited as none of the victims’ deaths appeared to be suicides. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine stated that the killings were planned, premeditated and “a sophisticated operation”, citing the efforts taken by the shooter or shooters to cover up their tracks and remove any incriminating forensic evidence.

All of the victims were members of the Rhoden family and surviving family members were urged by police to take precautions, and all residents of Peebles were advised to stay inside their homes the following night. An investigative task force of at least 100 members that was led by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, was assembled. More than 251 law enforcement officials were involved in the overall investigations, and sheriff’s from 25 offices across Ohio offered to provide resources to Pike County. The FBI and the DEA provided technical expertise to DeWine’s office.

At least 5 search warrants were executed, and more than 50 people were interviewed in connection with the killings. 79 pieces of evidence were examined, including a Facebook threat aimed at Christopher Rhoden JR which was posted just before the shootings.

On April 25, a spokesperson for DeWine’s offices also confirmed that cannabis had been discovered at the 3 crimes scenes on Union Hill Road and it also included an indoor grow room in which hundreds of cannabis plants were being grown, as well as chicken and equipment consistent with breeding chickens for cockfighting. A estimated total of 200 cannabis plants were recovered from the crime scenes and are believed to have been grown for sale and not for personal use. It is still currently unknown if the cannabis was connected to the shootings the investigators also confirmed there might have been a possibility of involvement of the Mexican drug cartel.

On April 26, Dana Rhoden’s father, Leonard Manely, stated that the victims knew their killer(s), citing the presence of Dana’s two very protective dogs. There was never any indication that the dogs tried to attack anyone during the shootings, and there were no signs of forced entry at any of the crime scenes. Leonard Manely, who was not involved in the shootings, it was also said that his daughter was not involved in the exposed cannabis operations, saying that “they are trying to drag my daughter through the mud, and I don’t appreciate that.”

Some family members have confirmed that Kenneth and Christopher Rhoden Sr, was growing cannabis but added they were unaware of any high-volume growth occurring.

On May 12, De Wine and the Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader announced that the state’s intention to relocate the mobile homes where the killings occurred to a secure location, to preserve evidence and protect the mementos of the Rhoden Family. Three of the homes were taken to a property of Waverly, where the investigative task force setup their command center, while the fourth would arrive later due to complications in removing it.

As of October 6, the homes were being stored in a warehouse that was once part of a chemical process company. On November 24, dozens of family vehicles and farming equipment where were seized and investigated earlier in May were returned to the victim’s relatives.

 

 

 

On August 4th, during a court hearing relating to the custody of the 6 month old and 4 day old children that were left alive, Sheriff Charles Reader confirmed investigators’ early suspicions that more than one shooter was involved in the shootings. He said that the two children remained alive were in grave danger because of the investigation, and the investigation was possibly the largest in the BCI history.

According to sources, KVIA-TV incorrectly reported that 2 men were arrested in Hatch, New Mexico on August 13, for the shooting death of a police officer that were also involved in the Rhoden familicide. The men were wanted for another shooting death in Ross County, Ohio. DeWine and Pike County Sherriff issued a statement saying that they were unaware of a link between the case and the New Mexico Arrest, and there was no evidence confirming it and the New Mexico police had never contacted them about them about a possible connection. KVIA-TV retracted the error.

On August 20, DeWine announced new information regarding the investigation. He confirmed family and community members that the perpetrators were familiar with the victims, the homes and the area. He also announced that the US Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies had become involved with the investigation. DeWine also speculated that the residents in the area have more knowledge about the killings than what they were sharing with the investigators.

Officials in Kenton County, Kentucky, located about 100 miles from Pike County, reported similarities between the Ohio shootings and a double homicide in Kenton County on August 23. The shootings in Kentucky occurred 2 weeks before. The victims, a well known drug dealer and his girlfriend were found fatally shot execution style in their bed. The uncaught killer of Kenton County who were believed to be familiar with the victims’ homes also let the children in the house unharmed. As of September 23, there was a total of 770 tips that had been submitted to the investigators and the court documents were released on October 7.

WXIX-TV reported on September 28, that the family houses that were all seized by the state as [art of the investigation were not being guarded properly. A news team spent 6 weeks, starting in August and ending in late September watching the warehouse. Their surveillance reportedly turned up an absence of uniformed officers guarding the building, as well as a lack of security cameras and a unlocked, open main gate. DeWine responded to the claims and called them “ludicrous” and asserting that the evidence was preserved and not compromised. Reacting to the report, former prosecutor from Hamilton County criticized the inadequate security measures and said “Any evidence that they would pull out of the homes would be virtually useless.”

On October 1, DeWine said that investigators were getting leads in the case and that the state had enough physical evidence for prosecution. He also appealed to the public and explained that there are people who know more about the shootings.

On May 12, 2017, a SWAT team from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office raided a Pike County home approximately 10 miles from the site of the murders. Police stated that they were searching for suspects in the murders, however, it was later clarified they were looking for evidence in the case and not suspects. Police also searched an Adam’s County property once owned and recently sold by Edward “Jake” Wagner, an ex-boyfriend of the victim, Hanna Rhoden and the father of her 3-year-old daughter but was not the father of the 4 day old baby who was unharmed during the killings.

On June 20, 2017, Ohio police announced that they were seeking additional information on Jake Wagner, as well as his parents, Billy and Angela and brother George. The family was living in Alaska at the time and police wanted to learn of interactions that members of the public had with the family.

On November 13, 2018, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced that George “Billy” Wagner, George Wagner IV, and Edward “Jake” Wagner had been arrested and Charged with planning and carrying out the murders. The suspects are all members of the Wagner family from South Webster.

  1. George “Billy” Wagner III, 47, arrested in Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky.
  2. Angela Wagner, 48, was arrested at her home in Scioto County.
  3. George Wagner IV, 27, was arrested during a traffic stop in Ross County.
  4. Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, was arrested with his brother during a traffic stop in Ross County.

Rita Newcomb, 65 of South Webster, the mother of Angela Wagner, and Fredericka Wagner, 76, the mother of Billy Wagner are accused of perjury and obstructing justice for allegedly misleading investigators, they also charged Rita Newcomb with forging custody documents to cover up the crimes.

In December 2019, she pled guilty to a lesser charge of obstructing official business in connection with the investigation of the April homicides. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the forgery, obstruction of justice and perjury charges against her.

On April 21, 2021, five years to the day of the murders, Edward “Jake” Wagner pled guilty to eight counts of aggravated murder, felony conspiracy, four counts of aggravated burglary, unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance, multiple counts of tampering with evidence, forgery, unauthorized use of property, interception of wire, oral communications, obstruction of justice, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. The State of Ohio agreed, as part of the guilty plea not to seek the death penalty for him or his father, older brother, and his father’s wife. He faces life imprisonment. As part of this deal, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against his family members.

 

Sources:

5 Shocking Facts About The Rhoden Family Massacre | Crime History | Investigation Discovery

Pike County shootings – Wikipedia

Jake Wagner Admits Family’s Role in Pike County Massacre (lawandcrime.com)

Rhoden family murders in Pike County: A look back five years later (dispatch.com)

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