The first 3 weeks of the Pike County murder trial of George Wagner IV

WAVERLY — The weeks-long trial of George Wagner IV, who is charged with killing eight members of one family in Pike County in 2016, was abruptly paused Thursday due to an illness, but resumed Friday.

The juror who has an illness was dismissed and an alternate took their place. Other jurors were offered facial coverings and asked by Judge Randy Deering if anyone else was experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms. No one said they were, the courtroom was cleaned and the trial resumed.

The trial really got underway Sept. 12, 2022 after it was delayed one week due to another illness. The first week, jurors were taken to the crime scenes in preparation for testimonies.

THE STORY

George Wagner IV is one of four members of his family accused of killing eight members of the Rhoden family in their Pike County homes April 22, 2016. The Rhodens were killed execution-style in their beds in multiple homes located near one another. While some of the members of both families were friends, it is believed the killings occurred because of ongoing custody concerns between parents Jake Wagner, George’s brother, and Hannah Rhoden, the 19-year-old mother of their daughter, Sophia.

Hannah Rhoden is one of the eight who were killed.

ExploreARCHIVES: 2017's most compelling images following the Pike County murders

Prosecutors said the Wagners were obsessed with getting control of the girl, who was unharmed in the killings. They said the Wagners, including George and Jake’s parents, Billy and Angela, spent months planning the murders and purchased masks, ammunition and even phone-jamming devices. The brothers dyed their hair a week prior to the massacre.

In this trial, the defense says George had nothing to do with the planning and execution of the murders. They say he is simply a suspect because he is a Wagner.

THE CHARGES

George Wagner IV is the first of four indicted in the case to go to trial. Each is charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder. Others charged include George “Billy” Wagner, III (George’s father); Angela Wagner (George’s mother) and Edward “Jake” Wagner (George’s brother). Charged with obstructing justice and perjury are Fredericka Wagner — Billy’s mother, and Rita Newcomb, Angela’s mother. Charges against Fredericka Wagner were eventually dropped and Newcomb took a plea deal. Angela and Jake also agreed to plea deals.

THE DECEASED

Killed on April 22, 2016 include Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Dana Rhoden, 37; Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Gary Rhoden, 37; Hanna May Rhoden, 19 and Kenneth Rhoden, 44.

THE TRIAL SO FAR

Speaking to the jury during her opening statements, special prosecutor Angela Canepa laid out groundwork for George Wagner IV’s involvement in the massacre. She said there are wiretap recordings catching him speaking to Jake about them being in trouble, and telling Jake he should have smashed his laptop and thrown away his phone.

Prosecutors said investigators did not locate or process any evidence from the scenes containing the DNA of Angela, Jake, Billy or George Wagner. This means DNA from the Wagner family has not been found at any of the four crime scenes at which the Rhodens were killed. Investigators who testified said that doesn’t mean they are innocent ,as they could have been wearing gloves or other protective gear.

Canepa said when George and Jake both dyed their hair darker the week prior to the homicides, they were inspired by a scene from the movie “Boondock Saints 2.” Jake, she said, wore his hair like the actor Norman Reedus, who appears in the Boondock Saints movies as well as the TV show “The Walking Dead.” Jake fancied himself like Reedus, Canepa told the jury.

Defense Attorney Richard Nash pointed out to the jury that while other Wagner family members were talked to by investigators on several occasions, George was only talked to once — when they needed them out of a vehicle so it could be bugged.

Most recently, the trial has focused on bloody shoeprints and surveillance footage. Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents testified they went door-to-door to neighboring homes asking for any surveillance footage available. Footprints in blood were found at the first scene, where Christopher Rhoden Sr. and Gary Rhoden were killed. BCI agent Shane Hanshaw collected the shoeprints, found in blood amid drag marks in the kitchen, but said matches could not be made between the prints found and any shoe patterns in the BCI database. A shoeprint expert told the courtroom she was able to locate the type of shoes from the prints by visiting stores and doing matchups. She found the print pattern at a Walmart, on a pair of shoes with Velcro fasteners and determined they were sizes 10.5 and 11, both prints being from a left shoe.

Canepa said investigators tracked down surveillance footage that shows Angela, George’s mother, purchasing two pairs of those shoes at a Walmart in April 2016, not long before the murders were committed.

BCI criminal intelligence analyst Julia Eveslage testified that she was assigned to analyze the victims’ cell phones and records after the homicides happened. She said only three phones were physically recovered by investigators: Frankie, Hannah Hazel and Kenneth’s.

For each of the other victims, she had to rely only on their phone records held by cell service providers, she said. Having the physical phone is always better, because investigators can see the content of messages sent, any photos taken and other glimpses into a victim’s life before they were murdered, she said.

Eveslage talked about phone records from each of the victims’ phones, detailing the communications that came and went from their cells the night they were murdered. She said she had no data for Gary Rhoden, who had no active cell phone account at the time.

Chris Sr. — who had two cell phones he used — appeared to speak to Billy Wagner, George’s father, for 27 seconds at 8:51 p.m. the night of the murders. He then sent and received texts and calls with Dana, his ex-wife, and Chris Jr., his son. He called Hanna May, his daughter, at 10:47 p.m. that night. Then, at around 10:52 p.m., Chris Sr. called Billy Wagner. The call lasted just three seconds. Chris Sr. then called Dana again at 10:53 p.m.

The last calls communication from Chris Sr.’s cell phone was at 10:54 p.m. and 10:55 p.m. Both were unanswered phone calls to Billy Wagner.

Ryan Scheiderer, a special agent with BCI who became lead over the investigation, noted that, despite Eveslage’s testimony about phone records, investigators learned many members of the Rhoden family relied on Facebook Messenger to communicate, because it ran on WiFi and cell service was unreliable in the area.

Though investigators did obtain records from Facebook of messaged conversations, Scheiderer said they came in large quantities with no chronological order.

He also spoke to the shoeprint evidence Elliott testified to earlier; investigators searched purchase records and surveillance footage at every Walmart within a 50 mile radius of the crime scenes, Scheiderer said. That revealed that Leonard Manley, Dana’s father, purchased the same shoes that matched the bloody prints in the first crime scene in February, just before the homicides.

Manley had purchased size 10 shoes, however; Elliott said the shoe prints in the first scene were sized 11 and 10.5. When asked where the shoes were, Manley told investigators he’d thrown them away, Scheiderer said. BCI agents retrieved them from the garbage, but Elliott said his shoes were too worn from use to match the shoe prints, which showed new, unworn tread patterns.

THE SURVEILLANCE FOOTAGE

During the trial, the prosecution played several videos from homes near the crime scenes, where private surveillance cameras on neighbors’ properties picked up the movement of two different vehicles along Union Hill Road and Left Fork Road the night of the murders. One neighbor told Scheiderer he owned a surveillance camera that would have been working at the time of the murders, but he was in Michigan when they happened, and when he returned home the camera was missing.

Investigators successfully collected camera footage from two neighbors elsewhere in the area, Scheiderer said. The cameras were dark and difficult to see, but vehicles could be spotted traveling those roads between 1 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. that night. Scheiderer said he could not say that they were the same vehicles passing by the home each time, though he said these were not heavily-traveled roads and, in the case of Left Fork Road, not an obvious road at all.

While surveillance cameras had been on Rhoden family property, investigators said none were connected to recording devices or had any useable evidence. The cameras were in place due to marijuana grow operations that had been on site, they said.

THE LATEST TESTIMONY

On Friday, Dana Rhoden’s sister-in-law, April Manley, testified in George Wagner IV’s trial. She was at home when her husband James Manley came in and told her Dana Rhoden was dead. She and James had to flag down police officers at the driveway of her home.

When police found a baby named Kylie in the arms of Hanna May Rhoden inside the home, an EMT brought the baby to an ambulance, and April rode with the baby to the hospital. Rhoden was one of the shooting victims, and Kylie is her daughter.

She testified Jake Wagner showed up at the hospital, said he was emotionless and only stayed about 10-15 minutes. She also said Jake’s hair was much darker than usual.

He was there in an attempt to take Kylie with him, Manley testified. Kylie is not Jake Wagner’s daughter and he was refused.

Following April Manley on the stand Friday was her son, Cody Manley. He attended school with Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, one of the shooting victims, and said they were “close.”

Cody was with Frankie the evening prior to the shootings, testifying he had been at Frankie’s home to help him fix a birdcage and stayed a couple of hours. The next morning, Frankie was late to work, and Cody thought he had overslept, so he repeatedly called his phone. When he didn’t answer, Cody went to Frankie’s and saw Bobby Jo Manley’s car and a police officer, thinking she had been pulled over. Bobby Jo is a sister to Dana Rhoden.

She testified earlier in the trial.

Cody said he went into Frankie’s home and saw the massacre scene there just before the police officer entered and told him to step back outside.

Also taking the stand on Friday was Kendra Rhoden, Hanna May Rhoden’s best friend and cousin. She said they grew up together and had sleepovers. Kendra told the court she witnessed times when Jake Wagner, who had a daughter Sophia with Hanna May, was “demeaning” to Hanna May, and that he didn’t like her so he tried to keep the two best friends apart.

She also told the court that after Hanna May gave birth to Sophia, she moved in with Jake and his family and lived with them in both their Peterson Road and Bethel Hill Road homes for a time.

Kendra Rhoden told the court that after the couple split, Hanna recorded some of her phone calls and in-person conversations with Jake Wagner, some of which revealed he physically harmed her. Kendra said Hanna shared the recordings with her.

Kendra said in one phone call, Jake was saying Hanna May’s other child, Kylie, was his daughter, though Hanna May pointed out she could not be his baby and he could not be part of her life.

George Wagner IV’s trial is set to resume Monday.

WCPO journalists Evan Millward and Felicia Jordan contributed to this report.


FOLLOW THE TRIAL

The Journal-News, Springfield News-Sun and Dayton Daily News are providing daily coverage of George Wagner IV’s trial in partnership with WCPO. Visit journal-news.com, springfieldnewssun.com or daytondailynews.com to get updates and watch the trial’s live stream.

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