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Pike County murders: Court docs reveal custody battle at heart of killings

Sophia Wagner was just 2 when prosecutors say her father was part of the group who killed her mother and seven more family members.

Little Sophia was not at any of the crime scenes when the execution-style murders happened.

>> Ohio AG DeWine lays out charges in 2016 Rhoden family killings

Comparing her father’s indictment and custody documents he filed a week after the killings provide new insight into the charges against Edward “Jake” Wagner and how the custody battle unfolded that prosecutors said was central to the deaths of eight people.

>> Death penalty possible for 4 of 6 arrested in Rhoden slayings

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New court documents obtained by this news organization show Wagner applied for custody of his daughter, Sophia May, on April 28, 2016, just six days after investigators say he, his brother and parents killed eight members of the Rhoden family.

Hanna Rhoden was one of the victims, and Sophia’s mother.

Custody over their daughter played a role in the killings, Ohio Attorney General and Gov.-elect Mike DeWine said. “There certainly was obsession with custody. Obsession with control of children.”

The dispute was not a secret to those who knew the Rhodens.

“Jake was really good friends with and was really close with the family until the custody battle came up,” said the Rev. Phil Fulton, pastor of Union Hill Church.

These custody documents also provide insight into the timeline of the case.

Sophia was born in November 2013. This means she was conceived in the middle of the time frame prosecutors say Wagner had “unlawful sexual conduct with a minor” involving Hanna Rhoden between January and March of 2013.

At the time, Wagner was 20, and Rhoden was 15.

In the custody documents, Wagner said he and Rhoden dated exclusively before Sophia was conceived and after she was born. But in March 2015, he said “Hanna decided that I worked too much and that I did not have enough time for her.” Wagner stated in the documents they stopped living together but stayed involved in a “non-exclusive romantic relationship” and shared parenting of Sophia.

In September 2015, Wagner said Rhoden broke off the relationship, but said they decided to share custody and parenting of Sophia.

Prosecutors say Wagner and his family started planning the killings just four months later.

Rhoden was pregnant at the time with her second daughter, who was 4 days old when her mother was slain. Wagner is not that child’s father. Two other children were present at that death scene, a 3-year-old and 6-month-old. All the young children were left unharmed.

Also slain were Hanna’s parents Dana and Christopher Rhoden Sr.; her brothers, Christopher Rhoden Jr. and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden; Frankie’s girlfriend, Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenny Rhoden, and cousin Gary Rhoden. Christopher Rhoden Jr. was 16 and the only juvenile killed.

A judge granted Wagner temporary custody of Sophia the month after the killings, in May 2016. She lived with her father as the family moved to Alaska following the homicides, and she moved back to Pike County with him this spring and lived with him until her father’s arrest Tuesday. Wagner is now held in the Franklin County Correction Center in Columbus.

“My understanding is that children services is involved, and that’s really all I can say,” DeWine said earlier this week of Sophia.

>> Pike County murders: 1 of 6 suspects makes first court appearance

In the Rhoden family killings, George “Billy” Wagner III, his wife, Angela Wagner, and their sons, George Wagner IV and Jake Wagner are charged with eight counts of aggravated murder, plus gun and death penalty specifications on each; one count conspiracy; four counts aggravated burglary; one count unlawful possession of a dangerous ordnance; three counts evidence tampering, and one count each of forgery, unauthorized use of property, interception of wire, oral or electronic communication, obstructing justice and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.

>> Pike County murders: Grandmother in talks about revenge against DeWine, state says

Wagner grandmothers, Fredericka Wagner, Billy’s mother, and Rita Newcomb, Angela’s mother, are charged with obstructing justice and perjury in the case.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: 

>> Death penalty possible for 4 of 6 arrested in Rhoden slayings

>> Ohio AG DeWine lays out charges in 2016 Rhoden family killings

>> Who are the Wagners? Pike County murder investigators want to know

>> Attorney General: A ‘picture emerged’ as Pike County murder investigation progressed

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