Pike County murder trial delayed until next week due to illness

8 members of same family killed in four homes as they slept on April 22, 2016.

The high-profile murder trial of George Wagner IV has been delayed due to “the illness of a person involved with the trial,” the Pike County Common Pleas Court said early Monday afternoon.

Opening arguments had been scheduled to start Tuesday after a jury was seated last week.

Eight members of the Rhoden family were found shot to death execution-style on April 22, 2016, in multiple homes throughout Pike County. They were killed in a coordinated attack over one night while they slept.

Found dead were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr., his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their children 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden and his fiancée 20-year-old Hannah “Hazel” Gilley; 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden; 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr.; Christopher Sr.’s brother 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and 37-year-old Gary Rhoden; the cousin of Christopher Sr. and Kenneth Rhoden.

Credit: WBNS-TV

Credit: WBNS-TV

A two-year investigation led to the arrests of six members of the Wagner family.

Indictments show four members of the Wagner family — George “Billy” Wagner III and Angela Wagner and their sons George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner — were charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder. Rita Newcomb, who is Angela Wagner’s mother, and Fredericka Wagner, who is Billy Wagner’s mother, were charged with obstructing justice and perjury.

Then-Attorney General Mike DeWine said the massacre of the Rhoden family came down to a custody battle over a toddler: Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden’s daughter, Sophia, who was 2 at the time of the slayings.

Authorities allege the Wagners bought ammunition, a magazine clip, brass catchers and a bug detector to prepare for the crimes. The family also allegedly studied “counter-surveillance devices” on the properties, including pets, and tampered with phones, cameras and parts of a home security system, investigators said. The family also allegedly constructed a homemade silencer that was used in the shootings, officials said.

Charges against Fredericka Wagner eventually were dropped and Newcomb took a plea deal. Angela and Jake Wagner also agreed to plea deals.

Opening arguments are now scheduled to begin Sept. 12 in George’s trial — the first of his family to face a jury. Billy has maintained a plea of not guilty, though a trial date has not yet been set for him.

What we expect from the first Pike County massacre trial:

Mother, brother will take the stand

As part of their plea deals, George’s mother and younger brother must testify in the trials of any family members. In exchange, the death penalty is removed from the table. Without their testimony, George and Billy still face the death penalty if convicted of murder charges.

A dramatic trial

From a motive rooted in a vicious custody battle over a child to a household vote deciding to kill the Rhodens, prosecutors have spent the last several years painting the feud between the families as bitter, coloring the Wagners as cold, heartless assassins.

George’s defense attorneys have argued much of the evidence has little to do with their client. They argue that George did not shoot or kill anyone.

New details about the evidence against George

Prosecutors have, in several motions hearings over the years, discussed evidence they have against George and other family members.

In May, prosecutors said Angela confessed the family took a vote to decide whether they would commit the homicides.

“She speaks vividly of recalling speaking to Jake and George and asking if they were sure they wanted to go through with this, to which they both said ‘yes,’” said Angela Canepa, special prosecutor, in May.

Prosecutors also allege Jake was violent with Hanna Rhoden on multiple occasions before she and her family were found dead.

Canepa also said Billy lured Christopher Rhoden Sr. to his death by setting up a fake “lucrative” drug deal at the Union Hill Road property where he was found shot to death.

“Chris Sr. expected to see Billy Wagner that night,” Canepa said. “He did not know Jake and George were present, because they were hidden in the car.”

The defense attorneys have repeatedly requested certain evidence be disallowed during his trial, including audio recordings created from days of surveillance on the Wagner family.

George Wagner IV’s trial is expected to last several weeks.

WCPO will livestream the entire trial from beginning to end. You can bookmark our live page here or download our WCPO app on your streaming connected TV (Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV and Android TV).

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