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Pike County murders: Death penalty possible for 4 of 6 arrested in Rhoden killings 

Four people arrested Tuesday on aggravated murder charges for the 2016 slayings of eight members of the Rhoden family in Pike County include a man who shared a 2-year-old daughter with one of the victims.

A dispute over custody played a role in the homicides, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, and two other family members are accused of trying to “cover up” the crimes.

Arrested Tuesday were George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; his wife, Angela Wagner, 48; and their sons, George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 27 and 26. 

Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster and Fredericka Wagner, 76, grandmothers in the Wagner family, are charged with trying to “cover-up” the crime, DeWine said.

TIMELINE: The shocking events of the 2016 Pike County shootings

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RELATED: Who are the Wagners? Pike County murders investigators want to know

Mike DeWine announces in a press conference that four members of the Wagner family will face the death penalty for the eight murders of the Rhodens.

Investigators combed through 1,100 tips, but the final piece of evidence that led to the indictments of the Wagner family and their arrests Tuesday came two weeks ago on Oct. 30, when, DeWine said, authorities confirmed the existence of a homemade silencer the suspects are accused of building.

He described a sophisticated scheme, saying the suspects bought ammunition, a device to catch spent shell casings, a “bug” detector, and specific shoes from Walmart as they prepared to commit the crimes.

DeWine said, “The Wagners were friends with the Rhodens and had been for years. They knew the layouts of the Rhodens’ homes, and they knew the victims’ routines.”

Photo from the Ohio Attorney General's Office\

The suspects also are accused of installing “counter-surveillance devices” on the properties of the victims, illegally monitoring various social media accounts and forging custody documents.

“It is our belief that the suspects used this knowledge to meticulously plan these horrendous, cold-blooded murders,” he said.

DeWine, at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, was asked whether the family was killed to prevent survivors from claiming custody of then-2-year-old Sophia, the daughter of arrested Edward “Jake” Wagner and victim Hanna Rhoden.

“Draw your own conclusions,” DeWine said.

Edward “Jake” Wagner also is charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. He’s accused of engaging in sexual contact with Hanna Rhoden when she was 15 and he was 20.

Sophia is in the care of children services, DeWine said.

George "Billy" Wagner III (Contributed Photo/Lexington Fayette County Jail

Sophia wasn’t there when her mother was killed. There were three children – ages 3, 6 months and 4 days – found alive in two of the three mobile homes where the eight bodies were found in rural Pike County. 

Also slain were Hanna’s parents Dana and Christopher Rhoden Sr.; her brothers, Christopher Rhoden Jr. and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden; Frankie’s girlfriend, Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenny Rhoden, and cousin Gary Rhoden. 

Dana Rhoden’s father, Leonard Manley, previously has said Jake Wagner and his granddaughter were in a custody dispute over Sophia.

Lexington, Kentucky, police arrest George "Billy" Wagner III, who is wanted in connection to the slayings of eight members of the Rhoden family in 2016 in Pike County.

George Washington “Billy” Wagner III, arrested in Lexington, Ky., remains in the Lexington Fayette County Jail as a “fugitive from another state” according to jail records. An extradition hearing will be scheduled for him.

The rest of the family members were arrested in Ohio and are being detained in four county jails -- Pickaway, Franklin, Ross, and Delaware counties.

INDICTMENTS

George Washington Wagner III, Angela Jo Wagner, George Washington Wagner IV and Edward Jacob Wagner are each indicted on the following charges:

  • 8 counts aggravated murder, (plus gun specifications on each)
  • 1 count conspiracy
  • 4 counts aggravated burglary
  • 1 count unlawful possession of dangerous ordnance
  • 3 counts evidence tampering
  • 1 count forgery
  • 1 count unauthorized use of property
  • 1 count interception of wire, oral or electronic communication
  • 1 count obstructing justice
  • 1 count engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity

Jake Wagner also faces one count of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor involving the relationship he had with Hannah Rhoden.

Rita Jo Newcomb is indicted on:

  • 3 counts forgery
  • 1 count obstructing justice
  • 1 count perjury

Fredericka Carol Wagner is indicted on:

  • 1 count obstructing justice
  • 1 count perjury

John Kearson Clark, the Wagner family attorney, issued the following statement: “The Wagners eagerly look forward to their trials and to have their day in court so they can vindicate their names. The Wagners are also ever so hopeful that in the ensuing months there will be a thorough vetting of all the facts. 

“We look forward to the day when the true culprits will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy.”  

The Wagner family moved to Alaska in 2017, but didn’t stay long, said Kelly Cinereski, a pastor and friend of the family who lives in Seward, Alaska.

“They were trying to run from the story so they could live a normal life, but everywhere they went it wasn’t normal,” he said. 

Cinereski, who knew the Wagners in Ohio before he moved to Alaska, said they were “just a down-to-Earth, good wholesome family. 

“These people wept over dogs, I can’t imagine them taking people’s lives,” he said when told of the charges. 

“If they did it, I hope they get tried to the max. If they didn’t, I hope they get pleaded,” Cinereski said. 

Pike County Prosecutor Robert Junk cautioned that Tuesday’s arrests are just the beginning of a very long process that could take years. 

“There is a lot of hard work ahead of us,” he said, “I cannot emphasize that enough.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: 

Pike County murders:  ‘Active and ongoing’ continues 

Pike County murders: 3 big questions, 2 years later

Rhoden family member’s Pike County death came from gunshot to chest

Pike County murders: Alaska, Ohio police ‘inundated’ with tips

 
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