Six months later, skepticism, rumors abound in Pike County

Gravesite of Frankie Rhoden who was killed along with seven other family members in rural Pike County The three locations where the murders took place remain uninhabited six months after the execution style killings on April 22, 2016. Investigators have released scant information and no clear motive has been revealed. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Caption
Gravesite of Frankie Rhoden who was killed along with seven other family members in rural Pike County The three locations where the murders took place remain uninhabited six months after the execution style killings on April 22, 2016. Investigators have released scant information and no clear motive has been revealed. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Six months later, these wooded hills are holding tight to their secrets.

Neighbors say it’s much quieter on Union Hill Road than it was when Chris Rhoden Sr. and his family raised fighting roosters, bred dogs and salvaged cars for sale. Chris Jr. would tear up and down the road on a four-wheeler.

The mobile homes where the father and son and six members of their family were found shot to death April 22 are warehoused, along with dozens of vehicles, at a chemical plant outside of nearby Waverly.

Caption
Gravesite of six of eight Rhoden Family members killed in rural Pike County The three locations where the murders took place remain uninhabited six months after the execution style killings on April 22, 2016. Investigators have released scant information and no clear motive has been revealed. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Gravesite of six of eight Rhoden Family members killed in rural Pike County The three locations where the murders took place remain uninhabited six months after the execution style killings on April 22, 2016. Investigators have released scant information and no clear motive has been revealed. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Caption
Gravesite of six of eight Rhoden Family members killed in rural Pike County The three locations where the murders took place remain uninhabited six months after the execution style killings on April 22, 2016. Investigators have released scant information and no clear motive has been revealed. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Free-standing porches mark the spots where the homes were towed from three properties deep in the hills, now shaded by scarlet and burgundy leaves. Barbed wire and “no trespassing” signs block the driveways. A playground, rusted boat, boarded-up barns and car parts spot the yards. Someone planted small American flags and solar-powered lights, one for each victim.

Six months later, no one has been arrested for what Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine called a “cold-blooded, calculated massacre.”

RELATED: Sheriffs seek financial help after Pike County mass murders

Rumors far outnumber official information coming from an ongoing investigation.

Family members and their neighbors pray for justice, but many are losing hope. Residents of Piketon and Waverly quietly shake their heads when asked if they think the crime will be solved.

Leonard Manley, whose daughter and three grandchildren were among those killed, said he thinks they’ll find the killers “one of these days.”

“It may not be in my lifetime,” said Manley, 65. “I got five, 10 years maybe to live.”

Manley keeps a photo collage of the victims: Chris Sr. and his ex-wife Dana Rhoden; their three children, Hanna, Chris Jr., and Frankie; Frankie’s girlfriend Hannah Gilley; and Chris Sr.’s brother Kenneth and cousin Gary.

They were shot a total of 32 times, mostly in the head. Manley said his daughter Dana was shot in the head five times.

“It’s more like a hate crime than anything,” he said of the barbaric nature of the murders.

But three children were left alive — ages 3, 6 months and 4 days. Manley said one was found covered in blood because he was nursing when his mother was murdered.

A fourth surviving child was staying elsewhere that night. Some of the children remain in protective custody.

Plenty of rumors

Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader’s confirmation last week that he believes someone from Pike County is behind the murders came as little surprise to those who knew the family.

“Whoever done it had to know the dogs,” said Manley, who lives half a mile from the nearest crime scene. He said Chris Sr. had a vicious pit bull named Chance that even he wouldn’t go near without Dana or Chris around.

“I guarantee if anyone pulled up to his garage and took a step on the concrete where the wire (invisible fence) wasn’t, I’ll tell you he’d been bit,” Manley said.

Manley said he has received more information from the media than from the sheriff’s office or the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. And the hills are full of rumors: that this was about a road rage incident, a child custody battle, a dispute over a demolition derby car, a drug deal gone bad, and on and on.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: 8 dead in Piketon; One week later

Manley doesn’t know what to believe. Authorities have refused to dispel even the most far-fetched claims.

Manley said even his son and daughter — Dana’s brother and sister — were suspects, which Manley said was offensive because his children were close and Dana and her big brother had a “special relationship.”

“If they asked me what they asked my daughter and my son I’d come across the desk and I’d beat the hell out of one of them,” he said. “They asked them how much someone paid them to kill that family.”

Manley said if he knew who did it, “the sheriff wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

‘Bigger than that’

Initial reports that investigators found a large marijuana grow operation at the crime scene fueled speculation that Mexican drug cartels could be involved, considering the apparent sophistication of the crime and prior reports that Mexican organized crime was previously active in the area.

But Reader put that to rest for the first time in an interview with Cincinnati television station WCPO.

“With the nature of the investigation, and the things that’s been revealed while conducting the investigation, there would be no indication to me as to any type of Mexican drug cartel being involved,” he said. “It wasn’t because they had a couple little indoor grows, wasn’t because there was just a couple of cars on the property that may have been stolen. It’s much bigger than that.”

DeWine’s office would only say that there were at least two killers and at least one of them was familiar with the property.

The attorney general’s office also provided statistics on what has become one of the largest criminal investigation in state history. It has included more than 150 interviews, more than 100 pieces of evidence submitted for testing, roughly 90 office staffers working on the case at some point, and more than 700 tips to chase down.

‘Locked and loaded’

Meanwhile, Manley and others say they sleep with firearms within reach, ready to defend their homes if someone kicks in a door or breaks a window.

“I’m locked and loaded in there about seven times,” said Brian Distel, who lives next door to Bobby Jo Manley in a cluster of trailers known as Camp Creek. Bobby Jo first found the bodies and called 911.

“I try to keep an eye out for her too,” he said.

Luke Rhoden, whose father was Kenneth, was stoic about whether his family was still in danger. He doubts the killers will come back.

As for whether the killers will be brought to justice: “I think eventually, yeah. But soon? Probably not. If someone knows anything, they’re too scared to come forward.”

Pessimism, politics

At the edge of nearby Piketon, diners at the Riverside Restaurant enjoyed fried eggs and burgers on Texas toast on Wednesday. Waitress Amanda Kinsley said the murder “was the big talk for a good while,” but now it rarely comes up in conversation.

Whoever did it, “I think they’re long gone,” she said.

Likewise at Ritchie’s BBQ, bar patrons could all describe in detail exactly where they were when they heard of the horrific crime. But that late April day gradually has faded from conversation.

“I don’t think it’s gonna get solved,” said bartender Heather Colesinger, noting the revelation that the killer may be someone local follows numerous other claims that turned out to be false.

“Next week, it’l be the mafia or something,” she said.

The yards and fields of Piketon, Waverly and the rest of Pike County are peppered with political signs, many supporting Reader, but also for his Republican challenger Delbert Slusher.

Amid this campaign, a former Waverly police officer and sheriff’s deputy has printed a tabloid that circulates across the county. It accuses Reader of criminal acts. Reader denies the accusations.

DeWine also faces pressure to end the investigation with an arrest, as he plans a run for the Ohio governor’s mansion in 2018.

And costs are growing. Pike County officials are trying to get help from the state to cover the tab for moving and storing the evidence: $135,000 and growing.

Help stalled

The ongoing investigation also has frozen assistance usually available to families and survivors of violent crime.

Some of the victims had life insurance, but Manley said investigators are holding up autopsies and other reports needed to apply. Similar problems are stalling applications for victim’s compensation from the state.

The inheritance process is stalled in probate court because the family’s property is being held as evidence. Some speculate it will all be kept by the county as drug forfeiture, though one family member said they were told it won’t. It’s unclear when the property will be released; the storage lease is good through mid-May 2017.

Manley said he hopes to auction off his daughter’s belongings, including 15 cars in her name.

“Whenever it’s all said and done, the four grandchildren are going to get all of it,” he said.

Manley said a woman came to him claiming she was a friend of his daughter and raised money selling balloons and other things, but he said he found out a week ago that she pocketed the cash.

A dispute among family members forced GoFundMe to refund $8,220 raised to pay for the funeral for Dana and her children, he said.

‘Somebody knows’

Manley credits the congregation of the Union Hill Church, about a mile from the Union Hill crime scene, for support, including paying off the expenses of burying his daughter and grandchildren.

Dana, Chris and their three kids share a grave site on a rolling hill overlooking the Scioto River Valley. A hand-painted rock on Dana’s grave is the only tombstone. But the ground is covered with solar-powered angel and cross lights, silk flowers, photos, a Keystone Light beer can, deer antler and other remembrances.

Pastor Phil Fulton of Union Hill Church said the community is concerned that the murders may never be solved. Faith in law enforcement is low, he said, but they try to help each other.

“We’re hoping for somebody to just come up and say, ‘We have some evidence,’ ” he said. “That’s been my prayer. Somebody knows. We know that.”

About the Author

ajc.com