Ex-wife of Pike County murder trial defendant’s brother testifies about alleged abuse

PIKE COUNTY — Elizabeth Armer, the woman who married Jake Wagner in Alaska and moved back with the family to Ohio, took the witness stand Friday, describing her time living in the family’s home two years after eight members of the Rhoden family were murdered in Pike County.

George — along with his mother Angela, father George “Billy” Wagner and brother Edward “Jake” Wagner — is accused of shooting and killing the Rhoden family members “execution-style.” The family’s bodies were found on April 22, 2016. He faces eight charges of aggravated murder, along with other charges associated with tampering with evidence, conspiracy and forgery.

Found dead that day were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr., 37-year-old Dana Rhoden, 20-year-old Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr., 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 37-year-old Gary Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna May Rhoden, and 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden.

The trial is the first time a person has faced a jury for the deaths of the Rhoden family six years ago.

Prosecution called Armer to the stand Friday morning where she described her marriage to Jake and time with the Wagner family to the jury.

Armer said she grew up in a Mennonite community in Tennessee before moving to Alaska, where she met and married Jake.

She met Jake through a church she attended in Alaska; the first time she saw Jake, she said he was with Angela and his daughter Sophia and she thought they were a couple with their child. Later, she said she caught Jake noticing her and not long after that he contacted her on Facebook to ask her out.

She told him she wasn’t comfortable going on a date with someone she didn’t know, so Jake made a more concerted effort to speak with her at church; the pair would then spend time together — sometimes with Sophia in tow — getting food, going for walks and getting ice cream.

Armer said she didn’t know anything about what the Wagners had left behind in Ohio, until the church’s pastor addressed it to the congregation. The pastor told everyone he’d known the Wagner family in Ohio and that the family was bothered by news stories circulating about them, so they’d moved to Alaska to get away. Armer said the pastor told the church to ignore the attention the family was getting in the news and welcome them into the community.

Jake told her his ex-girlfriend in Ohio was murdered and that people thought he did it because he’d dated her and that, after being “hounded” by the media, the family moved.

Before the pair were married, Armer said she’d only met the rest of his family once or twice; Jake told her he wasn’t on good terms with them, but that they’d fallen on hard times so he was renting space to them in his home.

Nine months after the two met, Jake proposed, she said. The plan was to remain engaged for two years while they got more comfortable with one another — Armer explained that in the community she grew up in, it was not unusual to meet someone in church, and date for under one year before becoming engaged.

The couple planned to be engaged for two years before marrying, Armer said, but Jake kept changing the terms. He moved their wedding date up multiple times and as she tried to plan, he would move it closer once more. Eventually, Armer said she was walking down the aisle just one month after Jake’s proposal.

The wedding was calm, held in a friend’s cabin, Armer said, though George and Billy spent the reception skulking.

That night, Jake and Armer were taken to a hotel room.

“I hadn’t dated anybody and didn’t have any experience with men, so I had requested in no uncertain terms that we not consummate marriage on that night — which Jake agreed to but did not honor,” Armer said.

After, Jake asked her for her personal information, she said. He synced her phone with his so he could see all her cell activity and then requested her bank account numbers, social security card and phone passcode.

That same night, he also asked her to cut ties with her family. She’d told Jake previously that two of her brothers had sexually abused her as a child on separate occasions — much like Hanna confided her abuse to him and Tabitha had confided her past abuse with George — but Jake demanded she turn her back on her whole family.

The next morning, the Wagner family left Alaska, headed for Missouri, she said. She’d been told she had to go with them if she wanted to be with Jake; he told her the family had a farm in Missouri and he, Armer and Sophia would live together on the property while the rest of the family would have a house on the other end of the land.

Jake, George and Billy drove one vehicle while Angela and the children drove in another; Armer herself was left behind, because there’d been a delay in her passport. She later flew out of Alaska alone to meet the family, she said.

When she arrived, she expected to be taken to the family’s farm and was, instead, shocked to learn the entire family was staying in a single hotel room; Angela and the children slept in one bed, she and Jake in another, George in a recliner and Billy slept in the truck in the parking lot.

The family stayed in the hotel for five to seven days, she said.

During that time, Armer said George left to take Billy back to the Flying W Farm in Ohio before returning to Missouri; she said she didn’t know if that’s actually what happened, but George and Billy left and, days later, George returned alone. While they were gone, the rest of the family drove around the area visiting farms for sale and looking for jobs, she said.

Ultimately, after Angela rejected several properties, the Wagner family decided to return to Ohio.

“I was unhappy about it because Jake had basically promised me we were never going back to Ohio because of the news story, but after being in a hotel for days on end I thought anything might be better, so I said ‘ok,’” Armer said.

They moved into Angela’s father’s home in South Webster, next door to her mother, Rita Newcomb. Almost immediately, the family began painting the house, Armer said; red in the kitchen, brown in the living room and, specifically, one bedroom pink and other blue. The Wagners told her that was so they could say the pink room was Sophia’s while the blue was Bulvine’s, in case anyone questioned the children’s wellbeing, she said.

Typically, Angela and Bulvine slept in one bedroom while George slept in the blue room; Jake and Armer, along with Sophie, were assigned the pink room. Billy had gone back to living at the Flying W Farm full time, she said.

George and Jake went back to driving long-haul trucks and were often gone five days a week, returning on weekends. When they were gone, Armer said she was left with Angela and the children and it wasn’t long before her relationship with her mother-in-law soured.

The family coached her in the early days of their return to Ohio, impressing on her that George and Jake would never wear tennis shoes because they always preferred boots and noting to her that Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations could always be listening.

At one point, Armer said she found herself in the kitchen of the Flying W Farm with George, Jake, Angela and Fredericka — Billy’s mother. They showed her a photo of a person holding a gun and asked her what she saw; she replied the hand looked like Jake’s and was quickly reprimanded and made to loudly proclaim she didn’t know anything about the photo, in case BCI was listening.

Armer wasn’t allowed to leave the home alone, she said; the Wagners cautioned her that media or BCI agents could follow or corner her. Inside the home, the family often fought — loudly.

“I hadn’t really heard people shout that loudly before in my life,” she said, describing the Wagners as “stressed.”

George and Jake also often talked about things they would do to various members of law enforcement if given the chance, she said. On one instance, the brothers discussed creating “some kind of electric weapon” they would use to harm then-Attorney General Mike DeWine and BCI lead agent Ryan Scheiderer. The family also extensively discussed what would be done if any of them were arrested, including who would care for Sophia and Bulvine and who would handle the family’s finances.

WCPO is a content partner of Cox First Media.

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