COLUMBUS — The first trial in the case of eight members of a single Ohio family shot to death more than six years ago is about to begin after several delays related to the coronavirus pandemic and negotiations with other defendants.
Defendant George Wagner IV was charged in Pike County Court in the 2016 slayings of the Rhoden family near Piketon in southern Ohio. Wagner, 30, faces the death penalty if convicted. Jury selection was expected to start Monday in county court in Waverly, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Columbus, with opening statements next week.
Authorities say the shootings of seven adults and a teenage boy stemmed from a dispute over custody of a child that Jake Wagner had with one of the victims. Wagner’s parents and his brother, Jake Wagner, were also charged.
Jake Wagner pleaded guilty last year in the shootings, admitting to killing five of the victims. His plea was part of a deal with prosecutors that spared him from being sentenced to death. Wagner's mother, Angela Wagner, also pleaded guilty to helping plan the slayings.
John Parker, a lawyer representing George Wagner, has argued that the deal Jake Wagner struck with prosecutors limits his ability to conduct a thorough cross examination. Parker has said that Jake Wagner told prosecutors that his brother didn't shoot anyone.
Jake Wagner isn't in a position to testify truthfully because he faces the death penalty if he doesn't strictly obey the terms of his plea deal, Parker said.
Special prosecutor Andrew Wilson has said there's nothing unusual about Jake Wagner's plea deal, and added that his testimony will be bolstered by other evidence implicating George Wagner.
Jake and George’s father, George “Billy” Wagner III, has pleaded not guilty.
The fatal shootings at three trailers and a camper near Piketon in April 2016 stunned residents in a stretch of rural Ohio and launched one of the state’s most extensive criminal investigations, which led to the Wagners’ arrest more than two years later.
The Wagners spent months planning the killings motivated by a dispute over custody of the daughter Jake Wagner had with Hanna Rhoden, prosecutors say. They targeted some of the victims, but “some sadly were killed because they happened to be there,” special prosecutor Angela Canepa has said.
Most of the victims were repeatedly shot in the head, and some showed signs of bruising. Three young children at the scenes were unharmed.
The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancee, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden.
The Wagners used guns with homemade silencers, allowing them to kill their victims as they slept, according to prosecutors.