The Ohio Man Serving 8 Life Sentences And 121 Additional Years For Killing A Family Of 8

A visitor to Pike County, Ohio probably couldn't imagine the gory crime scene that was discovered on April 22, 2016. The discovery of eight members of the Rhoden family shook the rural southern Ohio county to its core, with many demanding answers. What kind of monster would execute the adult and teenage members of an entire family in cold blood?

Pike County has a storied history and boasts many attractions, local eateries, and scenery that would make a visit worthwhile. The local Chamber of Commerce claims that in the 200+ years since its incorporation, Pike County has been graced by major infrastructure like the Ohio-Erie Canal and was deeply impacted by the U.S. Civil War (per Visit Pike). The area was also home to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where enriched uranium was created to help provide fuel for the nation's nuclear power plants and national defense. 

The senseless slaughter of eight of its residents on that spring night nearly seven years ago cast a dark cloud over the hamlets within the county's borders, perhaps making some of its denizens wonder who might be next. As the investigation into the mass murder unfolded, police were able to slowly piece together clues that would eventually lead them to conclude that the Rhoden family had been executed as the result of a custody dispute between murder victim Hannah Rhoden and her ex-boyfriend Jake Wagner. But it would be revealed that Wagner did not act alone. His accomplices included his mother, father, and older brother (WLWT5 News).

It would take years to build the case against the Wagner family

Those murdered in the spree, according to CNN, were "Hannah Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; Clarence 'Frankie' Rhoden, 20; Dana Rhoden, 37; Gary Rhoden, 38; Hanna Rhoden, 19; and Kenneth Rhoden, 44." Present at the murder scenes were three children who were not harmed. They included a newborn infant, a six-month-old baby, and a three-year-old. The murders occurred in four separate residences, and investigators concluded that there had to be more than one shooter. Determining the motive for such a heinous crime would take a considerable amount of time. The Rhodens had an indoor marijuana operation, leading police to initially believe that the massacre was drug related. 

A year after the murders, police obtained a search warrant for property owned by the Wagner family (via The Cincinnati Enquirer). Shortly afterward, the Wagners moved to Alaska, perhaps to wait for the heat to die down (via The Daily Mail). They returned to Ohio about a year later and were arrested in the fall of 2018. Officials stated that the Wagners had been suspects for some time, and they finally had the evidence to bring them to trial. One critical tool the prosecutors would soon get in their case against the accused would be using one of them to turn on the others in court.

Jake Wagner turns state's evidence

The state charged Jake Wagner, his brother George Wagner IV, and their parents George "Billy" Wagner III and Angela Wagner, with multiple counts of murder and various other felony charges. It would be Jake Wagner that sealed the fate of his other family members, though. Five years after the murders, Jake Wagner reached an agreement with the prosecuting attorney's office. WLWT5 News reports that he would enter a plea of guilty in exchange for avoiding the death penalty for himself and other family members. This meant that the young man, who was involved in a heated custody battle with one of the murder victims, would have to testify against his family members (WCPO9 News).

In September 2022, the trial of Jake's older brother began. It was a lengthy proceeding. The jury heard from witnesses for nearly two-and-a-half months, including six hours of testimony from Jake (per WLWT5 News). During his trial, the younger Wagner admitted that the scheme to murder the Rhoden family was first put into his mind by his father. The family planned the murders for months beforehand, after they were unable to convince Hannah to relinquish custody of their child to Jake. In court, Jake made two revelations to the jury that are worth noting. The first was that he was convinced that his young child was being sexually victimized and that is what motivated the slayings. The second was that his brother George never pulled the trigger once during the slaughter of the Rhoden family.

The trial of George Wagner IV

By the time George Wagner IV was brought to trial in September 2022, his brother and mother had already entered guilty pleas. Jake would receive a sentence that would put him behind bars for the rest of his life, while their mother Angela Wagner would also be given a hefty sentence, Following her plea, she was sent to serve a prison sentence of 30 years (via Fox 19 News).

Like his brother, George's mother would also be required to testify against him at his trial. WLWT5 News reports that when Angela entered the courtroom, it was the first time that mother and son had seen one another in the four years since they were both arrested. The media outlet tells of how the defendant kept his head down during his mother's testimony, with her only giving her son a brief look when she was called into the courtroom to approach the witness stand.

After closing arguments were made, the jury was led out of the courtroom to begin their deliberations. They weren't gone very long, considering the mountain of testimony and evidence they had to process. Less than eight hours after the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned to the courtroom and issued their verdict: guilty on all charges.

This would certainly mean a hefty sentence for the defendant. And had it not been for his brother's arrangement with prosecutors, he might well have faced the death penalty for the crimes. Now that the trial was over, the sentencing phase would begin.

The sentence given George Wagner IV fit the crimes

After the defendant was found guilty on all counts, his sentence would be determined by Judge Randy Deering, who presided over the trial. But before the bench handed down sentencing, he allowed for victim impact statements to be given to the court. During this phase of the trial, multiple loved ones of the Rhoden family impressed upon the court how devastating the defendant's actions were, and how their lives had been forever changed. In one particularly heart-wrenching moment, Chelsea Robinson read a letter to the court that was written by her nine-year-old son, whose father had been senselessly murdered by the Wagners (per Local 12 News). "Why did you kill my daddy?" she read to the courtroom.

Wagner's defense team asked for some leniency in the sentencing. Their client had maintained his innocence throughout, despite the testimony against him by his younger brother and mother. His attorneys had hoped for the possibility of parole. But Deering was hearing none of that.

Deering sentenced Wagner to eight life sentences, one for each murder. Furthermore, these sentences were to be served consecutively. Deering also tacked on an additional 121 years, mostly stemming from various charges related to firearms violations. Wagner might have been spared the death penalty from his brother's plea arrangement, but he won't have a life outside of prison walls ever again.

One more trial is forthcoming in the Pike County Massacre

After sentencing, Deering had this to say "No sentence that the court may impose in this case would right the wrong that was inflicted upon the victims and the families. Murder is an irreversible act. And although time may alleviate the pain of loss, it has not, obviously, at this point — and may never" (via CNN). As these words and the subsequent sentences were given to him, the defendant reacted without emotion. WLWT5 News described Wagner's demeanor as "stoic" during the guilty verdict. The media outlet reported that when Deering read his sentence, Wagner closed his eyes throughout a good portion, and offered no detectable reaction.

The investigation into the Rhoden murders and the subsequent trials would prove to be one of the most expensive in Ohio history (via Local 12). And it's not quite over. The patriarch of the Wagner family, George Wagner III has entered a plea of not guilty and will be tried at some point in 2023, according to Fox 19. He is currently being held in the Butler County jail, two hours from where the murders occurred. Jail officials have told the media that they have had no issues with the prisoner.