WAVERLY, Ohio (WSYX/WTTE) — They were considered long time friends and were even connected by a child, but on Tuesday one southern Ohio family was arrested and charged for a cold-blooded, "meticulously planned" murders of eight members of another family. The execution-style killings were committed in part because of a custody dispute over that young child, according to authorities.
Four members of the Wagner family - a mother, father, and their two adult sons - are accused in the Rhoden family killings that stunned the small Piketon community in 2016. The Wagners were arrested Tuesday after being indicted on multiple charges, including aggravated murder charges with death penalty specifications. Two other members of the family were arrested on charges they helped cover up the crime.
On April 22, 2016, eight members of the Rhoden family were murdered in four separate homes, many of them ambushed while they were sleeping.
"All eight victims were killed in cold blood. They were shot in their own homes, they were brutally and viciously executed," Attorney General DeWine said, announcing charges in the case. Three young children - just three years, six months, and five days old - were also in the homes at the time of the murders but their lives were spared in what DeWine called the killers' only show of mercy.
George "Billy" Wagner III, 47, Angela Wagner, 48, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward "Jake" Wagner, 26 are all accused of planning and carrying out the murders. Two other family members, Rita Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner, Billy and Angela Wagner's mothers, were also charged in connection with the case, accused of helping cover up the murders.
The victims of the murders were: Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden, 37, and their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 20. Frankie Rhoden's fiancée, Hannah "Hazel" Gilley, 20, was also killed, along with the elder Christopher Rhoden's brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38.
Jake Wagner has a young daughter with Hanna Rhoden, and the little girl was reportedly at the center of a custody dispute between the two families. That child was staying with the Wagners the night of the murders. Hanna Rhoden was found shot to death in bed with her five-day-old newborn next to her.
Investigators say the Wagners spent months planning the crime, using their relationship to study the victims' habits and routines and knew the layouts of their homes along with where they slept.
"It was meticulously planned, they thought about it. A lot," DeWine said.
DeWine says authorities spent two and a half years thoroughly investigating the case, beginning the day of the murders - April 22, 2016 - and discovered the last piece of significant physical evidence, a homemade firearm suppressor believed to have been built by the suspects, on October 30, 2018.
"They were careful when they committed these horrendous murders, they were clearly planned, and were executed very carefully," DeWine said.
"Members of one family conspired, planned, carried out, and then allegedly covered up their violent act to wipe out members of another family," Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said. "They did this quickly, coldly, calmly, and very carefully. But not carefully enough."
Investigators say the Wagners left a trail of clues including parts to build a silencer, forged documents, cell phones and cameras that were tampered with, and a number of lies they told. Saying April 22, 2016 forever changed his life, an emotional Reader said they spent the last two and a half years obsessively focused on this case, being "patient when it was painful" to make sure they were able to get what they needed and find answers.
“I made a promise to the victims’ families and to the people of Pike County that we would solve this, no matter how long it took,” said Sheriff Reader
The Wagners were prime suspects for a long time, according to DeWine. The Wagner family was wanted for questioning in June 2017 after they left Ohio for Alaska. The family claimed they moved to Alaska to operate heavy equipment or drive trucks, per a KTUU report.
Addressing the evidence of drug sales and marijuana grow operation found at the Rhoden property after the murders, DeWine said there was "an undercurrent of drugs" in the case. But DeWine only discussed custody as a motive, saying there was "an obsession with custody, an obsession with control." He also called it the "most bizarre" case he's seen in his career.
The suspects were indicted this week by a Pike County Grand Jury. Authorities said Billy Wagner was arrested near Lexington, Kentucky Tuesday in a horse trailer that was pulled over. Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said his deputies had followed Wagner there and contacted local authorities to initiate the arrest. Angela Wagner was arrested at their home in Scioto County, and the two sons, George Wagner and Jake Wagner were both arrested during a traffic stop in Ross County.
The young child at the center of the custody battle is now in the care of Children's Services.
The Wagners are facing eight counts of aggravated murder, along with a series of additional charges including conspiracy, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with evidence, unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance, forgery, aggravated burglary, and others. Jake Wagner is also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Hanna Rhoden when she was 15 and he was 20. Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk says it will likely be several years before all six defendants are brought to trial.
"We have never stopped working to find the people responsible for these savage crimes, and our sympathies continue to be with the victims' families," said Prosecutor Junk. "There is still a lot of hard work ahead of us, but we will continue to fight to hold these alleged killers accountable."
The Wagners' attorney, John K. Clark, Jr. released a statement saying "The Wagners eagerly look forward to their trial and to have their day in Court so they can vindicate their names. The Wagners are also ever hopeful that in the ensuing months there will be thorough vetting of all the facts."
The full autopsies for the Rhoden deaths were released just a few months ago after a lawsuit from newspapers. The autopsies revealed each victim, except Kenneth Rhoden, had multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
Authorities estimated they spent tens of thousands of hours on investigative work in the case, followed more than 1,100 tips, conducted 550 interviews, tested more than 700 pieces of evidence, and served more than 200 subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders during the investigation. Several dozen state, local, and federal agencies also helped in the more than two year investigation.
You can read the full indictments online here.
ABC 6/FOX 28 will continue to follow this story.