Pike County murder trial Week 6: Wiretaps played for jury

George Wagner IV is charged with killing 8 members of the Rhoden family in April 2016.

WAVERLY — The trial of a man accused of killing eight people in Pike County in 2016 continued into its sixth week of testimony on Monday as prosecution played several audio clips for the jury taken from wire taps throughout the investigation.

George Wagner IV — 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.

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

On Monday morning, Judge Randy Deering held a hearing during which prosecution and defense argued whether a witness should be allowed to testify remotely; defense attorneys requested the ability to call a witness who lives in Alaska, where the Wagner family lived for one year after the murders.

Deering announced he would rule on the issue at a later date and instructed the parties to work on determining how to technologically ensure the witness could be heard reliably in the meantime.

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After more arguments between prosecution and defense attorneys about the wording on a PowerPoint presentation, whether transcripts for audio recordings would be used as evidence and whether recordings should have to be played by the prosecution in full — even if the majority of the recording is empty noise, the jury was brought in and Julia Eveslage, Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations intelligence analyst, returned to the witness stand.

Eveslage began by explaining how wiretaps are acquired and the differences between the bug placed on the Wagner family’s vehicle at the Montana border as they returned from Alaska, and the cell phone taps they were able to acquire. The vehicle bug required an agent to call a phone number that would dial them in to listen to what the bug was picking up — it wasn’t inherently recording at all times, Eveslage said.

Phone intercepts alerted an agent when a call was being made or received, allowing the agent to listen in. Agents were coached on what is and is not allowed to be listened to — for example, attorney, client privilege cannot be violated through a phone intercept. Anyone listening to the calls would have determined the pertinence of what they were hearing and then would decide whether or not to begin recording of the call, Eveslage said.

Prosecution then played several audio recordings made while BCI were working to gather evidence. The first recording played was taken from the bug placed in the Wagner’s vehicle when they were stopped by Border Patrol agents at the border of Canada and Montana.

In that recording, George is heard speaking to his son, Bulvine, Eveslage said.

“You know what they want? The people at the border who talked to you and Sudsy, they want to kill your Uncle Jake, they want to kill your (inaudible), they want to kill your papaw and me for no reason,” George can be heard telling his toddler-aged son. “Because they are bad people. They are bad people. They want us all to die, and they will take you away and give you to bad people. They want to take Sudsy away and give her to bad people. They are bad people. Don’t listen to what they tell you. They’re liars. That’s what they are. They are liars.”

Much of the recording is difficult to hear, with ambient noise and engine sounds punctuating it for awhile. Later in the recording, George can be heard talking to someone else; Eveslage said agents were notified that, while the bug was being listened to, George called Jake. It also sounded as if he spoke to Angela.

“I’m bringing all hell with me,” he said, telling Angela to take care of his son.

George can be heard angrily speaking about Tabby, his ex-wife, explaining he believed she was at the border and tried to see Bulvine without his permission. He said he showed his son pictures, asking which people and agents spoke to him and indicated Bulvine reacted to one of the photos. He can be heard shouting that his ex-wife will be going to jail, because she broke their custody agreement by seeing Bulvine without supervision or permission.

In a second recording, George called his father, Billy, because he found something in his vehicle. When Billy answered, he asks if his mother can Google “HX plus” for him.

“I found it in my truck and I don’t know what it is,” he said to Billy, describing the item as oblong, with three wires coming out of the back of it.

He said he found it in the top lining of his truck, with wires going to the dash. Billy searched for information on “HX plus” and told his son it seemed to be a part for a GPS. George said he thought maybe it was for his stereo, and the two hang up.

Eveslage next showed the jury text messages between Jake and the man who purchased the Wagners’ Peterson Road property from them before they left for Alaska. The man told Jake BCI agents were on the property again, digging with Bobcats and other machinery, and that they’d been on the property several times since he bought it.

Jake texts him back, advising that he insist BCI get warrants and, if they don’t, to sue them. BCI agents repeatedly testified previously that they had voluntary permission from the property’s new owners to perform those searches, negating the need for a warrant.

George then calls Billy’s phone and speaks to Angela to tell her about the texts and the search happening back in Ohio.

“What barn are they digging behind?” Angela asked multiple times throughout the conversation.

Neither Jake nor George knew. Angela and George discuss the need for search warrants and George instructs Jake, who can’t be heard, to text the new owner back about the warrants.

Prosecution played a second recording between George and Angela, after Jake got more information in texts from the property’s owner. The brothers tell Angela the new owner receives a courtesy call from agents before they show up, but that they didn’t need a warrant for the searches. Angela again asked if they knew which barn agents were digging behind, but the brothers still didn’t know.

A third recording of a phone call between Billy and George also discussed the searches performed by BCI on the Wagners’ former home. George said the new owner of the home wouldn’t tell BCI to “take a hike” and Billy said there was enough scrap metal on the property to keep investigators busy.

In two separate phone calls played for the jury, one between Angela and George and another between Angela and Jake, Angela described a home in Alaska she’d secured for the family and planned to put in George’s name. She told both of her sons the home was nice, sat on four acres and had no neighbors except for a welding business across the street. She told George the family would rent the property until the end of the year and then they would be able to buy it, if they liked it and didn’t want to leave.

“Which, we won’t, because it’s perfect for us,” she said.

In another call played, Jake spoke to Angela about seeing who he believed was a BCI agent following him in a car with an Ohio license plate. He said he took off in his truck, going 70 mph, and the woman he thought was an agent followed at a similar speed. Jake told his mother he believed BCI probably had an agent tailing the family in case the ongoing searches on Peterson Road yielded anything — that way, “she’s right here to nail us,” he said.

The next recording was between Angela and her mother, Rita Newcomb, after Newcomb had been questioned by BCI agents. She told Angela investigators were asking about the notarized custody paperwork declaring that, in the event of Hanna May’s death, her daughter, Sophia, would go to Jake.

Angela insisted to her mother that Hanna May signed it; Newcomb said investigators told her they had Hanna May’s signature on other things, and the signature on the custody paperwork didn’t match. Newcomb also told Angela agents pointed out that the form was printed just before the murders.

“What did you tell them?” said Angela.

Newcomb said she told investigators she didn’t know when it was printed, but that she’d notarized it and that Hanna May had been there and signed it. Newcomb was initially charged with perjury, obstructing justice and forgery because of the documents, but after the state’s handwriting expert determined Newcomb’s handwriting on the paper was also forged, the perjury and forgery charges against her were dropped.

On June 19, 2017, then-Pike County Sheriff Reader and then-Attorney General Mike DeWine released a press release requesting information on the four members of the Wagner family, including any gun sales or exchanges and vehicle sales made with the family.

After that happened, Angela once again called her mother. She asked Newcomb to call the tip line set up by law enforcement and tell them the Wagner family didn’t commit the murders. She also, sounding frustrated, told Newcomb she should ask other family and friends to do the same. She mentioned that it could be a tip worthy of the line that Leonard Manley, Dana Rhoden’s father, just wanted the money he received after the murders, because Chris Sr. used to pay his bills.

“They’re white trash, mom,” said Angela, going on to say that the family lived in trailers, were dirty and poor and only looking to collect inheritance the children of the victims would receive.

If they were able to get custody of Sophia away from them, they’d get her inheritance too, Angela told Newcomb.

Eveslage said a member of the Newcomb family did call the tip line, but she wasn’t sure who exactly.

The next call prosecution played was between George and Angela; Angela explained to George that she’d spoken to her mother and would tell him all about it when she got home. She didn’t want to discuss it on the phone, she said.

The jury then heard a brief conversation between Jake and Randa Hughes, the partner of Chris Newcomb, who is Angela’s brother. Chris and Randa both testified previously in the trial. During the call, Jake told Randa to relay to Chris that he is not required to talk to law enforcement unless they produce a warrant; without that, Chris could tell them to leave his property, Jake advised.

Prosecution played two conversations between George and Chris, in which George asked Chris not to talk about he and his family with others back in Ohio — specifically about any guns or belongings George sold before moving to Alaska. George said he heard there were people asking about guns he’d owned and told Chris he suspected people were trying to get the reward BCI was offering for information in the case.

In addition to the audio recordings, Eveslage said she went through a laptop and iPad seized from the Wagner family’s vehicle and discovered over 1,300 screenshots of Facebook communications, pertinent internet browsing activity, hundreds of thousands of images and backups of previous phones belonging to Jake.

Earlier in the trial, prosecution has repeatedly asked witnesses about private Facebook messages tracked and saved by the Wagner family. On Monday, they showed a screenshot of a conversation between Hanna May and Tabitha Claytor’s mother, in which Hanna wrote she’d never sign custody papers, they’d have to kill her first. The message was sent just months before the murders; it was screenshot on the Wagners’ ipad less than a half hour after Hanna May sent it.

Eveslage said she also found Bing searches for sample guardianship paperwork in the event a child’s parent died on April 3 and 4 — weeks before the murders.

In backup data from Jake’s old iPhones, Eveslage discovered Jake had searched several times for “colt rail gun 22″ and “colt 2911 22 and gun clips.” BCI agents and other officials have testified that a Walther Colt 1011 .22 caliber long rifle pistol was the weapon that killed five of the eight Rhoden family members.

A week to two weeks before the murders, Jake also searched several things about Alaska, including real estate, internet service, lumber availability, Xbox usability and parades.

The night of the murders, at 11:06 p.m., Jake searched a video clip from Boondock Saints II; in opening statements, prosecution said Jake admitted he watched the video with George that night. After the murders, search records on Jake’s phone showed several searches for “Pike Co murders,” “Pike Co news,” his own name, Hanna May and her boyfriend’s names and other terms related to the murders.

Finally, prosecution presented two photos of what they said was a Colt 1911 .22 caliber gun taken with Jake’s phone.

During cross-examination, George’s attorney, John Parker, argued that it could be possible the two Colt photos were not of the same gun; Eveslage said she believed they were the same.

Parker requested to play the entirety of audio clips already played for the jury — the prosecution had only played portions they viewed as pertinent, Parker said, and the jury should hear the full context. Prosecution objected, arguing that the rest of the clips were far too irrelevant to be worth playing.

Judge Randy Deering relented and Parker re-played the conversation between George and Billy about BCI digging up the Peterson Road property. The portion of the recording the jury didn’t hear contained ramblings from George about buying guns, finally seeing a wild grizzly bear for the first time and how the Wagners could have transported more of their belongings across the border if they’d used a commercial truck instead of a personal one.

George also ranted for a bit about how, during a trucking outing, Jake’s truck was stopped and searched at the Canadian border while George’s was not. Jake was strip-searched, he said and told Billy he suspected BCI was at the root of it, since he wasn’t targeted.

Parker requested to play a second recording, but prosecution objected and attorneys entered a sidebar. After a lengthy discussion, Deering opted to dismiss the jury for the day.

Once the jury left, a hearing was held to discuss whether the defense could continue playing clips from the wiretaps in their entirety; the clips in question were played for Deering, who, after hearing them, decided he would go home and consider the arguments made by both sides. Court will reconvene Tuesday morning with a meeting to hear Deering’s decision before the jury is brought back in for trial.

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