Two years after the eight-person massacre in Pike County, investigators are providing fewer details than ever before in the case, marking the second anniversary without the lengthy, emotional press conference and plea for tips that highlighted the first.
The unsolved murders took place April 22, 2016.
This week the three sites where members of the Rhoden and Gilley families were killed appeared unchanged from the early days of the investigation. As if frozen in time, toys, trash, appliances and abandoned vehicles remain spread about the properties and front porches of trailers that are no longer there - having been hauled away and stored as part of the investigation.
Those trailers are now housed in a large pole barn built last year by the county for just shy of $100,000.
About 20 miles south — past the former uranium enrichment plant in Piketon and across the Scioto River from the state prison in Lucasville — rest five members of the Rhoden family. The grass on their plots has grown past the straw first placed over the newly dug earth. New grave stones share their names and poem on the back of the family’s headstone captures a community’s grief.
“You never said, ‘I’m leaving,’ you never said goodbye, you were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why.”
Busy summer, quiet winter
Finding the killers remains the top priority of Attorney General Mike DeWine, a candidate for Ohio governor. This week, DeWine said he remains hopeful the case will be solved. If unsolved by the general Election Day, the case will become a daunting challenge for one of the two men seeking to become his successor.
One year ago, the investigation appeared active. DeWine and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader called reporters to DeWine’s high rise Columbus office in April 2017 for a long interview about the investigation. For a time, it seemed investigators were inching closer to solving the case.
In May, authorities arrested James Manley, the brother of victim Dana Manley Rhoden, on charges of evidence tampering and vandalism after allegedly destroying a GPS tracker placed on his car during the investigation.
Then, in June, “DeWine annouced he was “laser focused” on members of the Wagner family, a family in Kenai, Alaska who formerly lived near the Rhodens in Ohio. The Bureau of Criminal Investigation and other agencies executed search warrants at their former residence.
And then, quiet.
A Pike County judge dismissed the charges against Manley so that evidence could be presented to a grand jury. There have been no announcements since of any grand jury action. Manley’s attorney, James Boulger, and Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk did not respond to requests for comment.
“I have nothing I can say about that,” DeWine said when asked about Manley’s case.
Meanwhile, the Wagners, appeared to still be in Alaska as of December, when, according to Alaska court records, Edward Jacob “Jake” Wagner, 25, pleaded no contest to a speeding ticket issued in Soldotna, about a three hour drive south of Anchorage. Wagner fathered a daughter with Hannah Rhoden, one of the victims, but DeWine has not named him or three other family members — George “Billy” Wagner, his wife, Angela, and their other son, George — as suspects.
The Wagners “continue to be saddened by the loss of the Rhodens,” John Kearson Clark Jr., the family’s attorney, told this newspaper this month. “Especially with each passing year, and yet the case is not resolved.”
Aside from Hannah Rhoden, 19, the dead included her father Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, Dana Rhoden, 37; their sons, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Frankie’s fiancee, Hannah Gilley, 20; and relatives Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and Gary Rhoden, 38.
“Despite what has been said and alleged, the Wagners were on friendly terms with the Rhodens,” Clark said by email. “Therefore, the Wagners had no reason to wish them harm. The Wagners wish the investigative authorities would expend their efforts in finding and holding the true killer(s) accountable. Only then will the Rhodens’ deaths be vindicated.”
In other media interviews Clark implied that DeWine was targeting the Wagner’s in order to make it appear progress was being made in the case. Asked this month if DeWine is still “laser focused” on the family, his spokesman said “the AG’s comments from last year stand.”
But DeWine himself, in an interview, declined to say.
“I’m really not going to talk about who we’re focused on,” DeWine said. “I can just saw we’re moving on the case and we’ve made progress, but I don’t think it would be beneficial to resolving the case to say who we’re focused on and who we’re not focused on.”
DeWine, sheriff still hopeful
Investigators across several agencies have spent an untold number of hours on the case since relatives discovered their slain family members. DeWine, the state’s top law enforcement official, emerged quickly alongside Sheriff Reader as the public faces of the investigation. The pair offered press conferences and interviews in hopes of encouraging someone to come forward with the information that would lead to solving the crimes.
Reader did not agree to a request for an interview this month.
“I have decided that out of respect for the victims, the family, friends, and for the integrity of the ongoing and active criminal investigation, I will not be doing any interviews or taking any questions concerning the multiple homicide that occurred in Pike County, Ohio on April 22, 2016,” Reader emailed the newspaper. “I remain very confident in the investigative staff.”
DeWine last year told this newspaper he hoped to solve the case before leaving the attorney general’s office.
“It’s a hypothetical, I certainly would hope we would have the case solved by then, but we have professionals that are working on this case,” DeWine said. “We have professionals that will remain with the attorney general’s office and that will remain with BCI. We hope we don’t get to that point. We hope we solve it before then.”
AG candidates face major task
Because officials have characterized the case as the largest criminal inquiry in Ohio history, the two candidates to become Ohio’s next attorney general - DeWine leaves office in January - face the decision of whether they would continue to consider solving the Pike County murders as the office’s number one priority.
“Anyone who would predict this nine months before taking office, without seeing the evidence and understanding the posture of the investigation at that time, is a fool, or a poltroon, or both — and not fit for the office of attorney general,” said Dave Yost, the Ohio auditor and Republican candidate for attorney general, in an email.
“Of the publicly available information, the only thing I can say I would have done differently is that I would have released the coroner’s report without litigation,” Yost said, referencing lawsuits that were filed by the news media to obtain the unredacted reports.
Yost’s Democratic opponent, Steve Dettelbach, held his cards even closer.
“I’ve spent two decades as a prosecutor,” Dettelbach, the former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, said by text message. “I don’t and won’t politicize an important murder investigation.”
Taylor: ‘Unconscionable’ case unsolved
Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, DeWine’s Republican primary opponent in Ohio’s governor race, criticized the former Greene County prosecutor’s handling of the case, which she called “a terrible tragedy for an entire family and community.”
Taylor said BCI “is failing on many fronts,” citing a Dayton Daily News investigation last month examining the drug testing backlog at the agency’s lab, an issue unrelated to the Pike County deaths. A spokesman for BCI defended DeWine’s leadership at the agency, calling Taylor’s criticisms “another mistruth.”
“While I’m certain that law enforcement officers on the ground are working hard to solve this case, I’m concerned about the leadership coming out of the Attorney General’s office,” Taylor said in an email. “When this horrific crime was committed in Pike County, there was Mike DeWine in front of the cameras acting like real police, but two years in it is unconscionable that justice has yet to be served.”
DeWine campaign spokesman Ryan Stubenrauch said Taylor “should be ashamed.”
“Attempting to use one of the worst mass murders in Ohio’s history as a political attack while the case remains under investigation is horribly disrespectful to the victims, their families and to the law enforcement officers who are working hard to bring those responsible for this heinous crime to justice,” he said.