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Pike County investigation: 8 deaths and multiple arrests were tied to one key factor — child custody

Documents obtained by DDN show accused killer and one of the victims fought over custody of 5-year-old.

Sophia Wagner is spending her fifth birthday today in the custody of Children Services. Her mother, Hanna Rhoden, and her mother’s immediate family were all murdered in their homes in 2016. Her father, Edward “Jake” Wagner, and his immediate family are in jail and charged with killing them.

Investigators have revealed little about the relationship between the Wagner family and the Rhodens, the Pike County family murdered in the middle of the night on April 22, 2016. But using custody documents and other records, a Dayton Daily News investigation found a fight over Sophia was at the heart of a fierce dispute that prosecutors believe escalated to murder.

Six days after the eight murders, Jake Wagner – who is in the Franklin County Jail facing aggravated murder charges — filed for custody of Sophia. Those documents obtained by the Dayton Daily News reveal new details about the relationship between the families.

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Sophia, Jake and Hanna lived together — from their daughter’s birth in November 2013 until the relationship stalled in March 2015.

When Sophia was born, Jake worked on his family farm and drove a truck he co-owned with his brother George Wagner IV, custody records say.

Jake and George are charged with eight counts of murder along with their father George “Billy” Wagner III and mother Angela Wagner. Billy’s mother, Fredericka Wagner, and Angela’s mother, Rita Newcomb, are charged with trying to cover up the crime. Both grandmothers have pleaded not guilty. The others are awaiting arraignment.

These undated images released by the Ohio Attorney General's office, show from left, George "Billy" Wagner III, Angela Wagner, George Wagner IV and Edward "Jake" Wagner. Authorities announced Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, that the family of four has been arrested in the slayings of eight members of one family in rural Ohio two years ago. (AP)

In addition to Hanna, the victims were her father Chris Rhoden Sr.; mother Dana Manley Rhoden; brothers Chris Rhoden Jr. and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden; her uncle Kenneth Rhoden; cousin Gary Rhoden; and Frankie’s girlfriend Hannah “Hazel” Gilley.

Prosecutors and court filings paint a picture of the Wagners as a cold-blooded, calculated clan capable of pulling off the sophisticated murder in one night of eight people in four homes and leaving so little evidence years went by without an arrest.

But they projected a different image in the community. Fredericka said in an interview with the Daily News last year that the Wagners are a “good Christian family.”

They were known in the community for vast property holdings. This includes the 2,000-acre Flying W Farm atop a hill outside Lucasville that is the headquarters of a key family business: exotic animals. On the farm, Fredericka has spent a lifetime breeding prize miniature horses, some of which became among the most renowned in the country. In 1986, a fire killed 20 of the horses valued at nearly $1 million, archival news coverage shows.

The Wagners' Flying W Farm, Inc. in Pike County. Six members of the Wagner family were arrested in connection with the 2016 murder of Rhoden family members in Pike County. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

A few years later, the family entered another business: breeding miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, reportedly worth between $1,000 and $20,000 apiece. In 1991, Fredericka was accused in three federal lawsuits of racketeering. According to the lawsuits, the pigs were advertised as “the very best in Vietnamese Pot Bellied pigs” when “in fact, the pigs did not meet the standard of fitness represented,” the plaintiffs alleged. The cases did not go to trial.

Currently, the farm sells a trademark breed of dog developed by Fredericka Wagner, according to the farm’s web site. The prices ranges from $1,800 to $2,100, the web site says.

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‘I was happy’

A search of court records in Pike County and surrounding counties shows none of the accused have been charged with anything approaching murder before. Angela and Billy Wagner were convicted in 2012 in Ross County of receiving stolen property. Billy Wagner was convicted of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle in Portsmouth in 2001 and another case of receiving stolen property in Pike County in 2002.

There were no convictions for drugs — which Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has said is an “undercurrent” in the case — or violence. A marijuana grow operation was found on the Rhoden property, but drugs are not mentioned in the indictments of the Wagners.

Phil Fulton, family pastor for the victims’ families, said the Wagners and Rhodens were friends until a dispute arose over child custody. 

“Jake was very good friends and was really close to this family until the custody battle came up,” Fulton said. “Why this set them off is the mystery to me.”

Hanna Rhoden, 19, daughter of Chris and Dana Rhoden. FAMILY PHOTO

Jake wrote in the custody filing why he and Hanna broke up.

“In late March 2015, Hanna decided I worked too much and that I did not have enough time for her,” Jake wrote. The document says they separated, but Sophia took turns living with both families for a month at a time.

Hanna became pregnant again in August 2015, though it was not clear at the time if Jake or another man was the father (paternity tests would later reveal Jake was not).

“I was happy even though Hanna explained to me that she could not be sure that the baby was mine,” Jake wrote. Their relationship ended in September, he wrote, though shared parenting of Sophia continued until Hanna’s death.

Juvenile Court Judge Robert Rosenberger gave temporary custody of Sophia to Jake in May 2016.

Robert Oberdier is a retired corrections officer who lives a few miles from the Rhoden murder scenes

Moving to Alaska

The arrest of the Wagners last week wasn’t the first time DeWine had thrust the southern Ohio family into the spotlight.

In June 2017, DeWine’s office asked the public to report any personal or business interactions with the Wagner family, specifically information “regarding vehicles, firearms, and ammunition.”

“I would say that we are focused on them at this point like a laser,” DeWine said then.

At the time, the Wagners had left Ohio for Alaska’s remote Kenai peninsula. It was then that locals felt their suspicions — that a family once friendly with the Rhodens could be suspects in their cold-blooded murders — could be true.

“We’re not shocked” the Wagners were arrested, said Saundra Ford, a nurse who worked with Dana Rhoden, one of the eight victims. “The minute they left town everyone started speculating.”

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But the four Wagners didn’t stay in Alaska. For reasons not yet clear, they returned to southern Ohio.

Country Store Foods and gas station owner Parul Patel pointed out Wagner family members George Wagner IV and Angela Wagner whom she said were regular customers in South Webster. Six members of the Wagner family were arrested in connection with the 2016 murder of Rhoden family members in Pike County. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

“We were talking about it at work last night, like, did they think it would blow over?” Ford said. Four Wagners face multiple charges, including eight counts of aggravated murder. Each aggravated murder count — one for each of the victims — carries a death penalty specification.

 The Wagners settled in South Webster, population 860, about six months ago, said Pirul Patel, the owner of the local Sunoco station. For all appearances, their life was normal. Regularly, Patel said, they came to her store for gasoline, Subway sandwiches, and cigarettes.

When she learned about the arrests from Wednesday morning’s local newspaper, Patel said she was shocked.

“That scared me because I see them all the time,” she said. “I can’t believe that would happen.”

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Court records

Since at least July, court records show, a grand jury had been seated in Pike County to hear evidence and testimony in the case.

The indictments allege a sophisticated plot.

The four started conspiring in January 2016, court records allege. In the following months they bought “specific shoes from Walmart,” as well as the materials to build one or more “brass catchers” and silencers, ammunition, a magazine clip, and a “bug” detector.

“They obviously went to great lengths in this case,” said Dan Baker, a retired homicide detective from the Dayton police department, after reviewing the indictments.

He said a brass catcher is commonly a mesh bag that hooks onto the side of a rifle such as an AR-15 and catches spent cartridges.

“These killers, if used, wanted to not leave any spent cartridges,” Baker said. “Even though the bullets are recovered, prints and DNA are more likely found on the cartridges due to hand loading. So, they did not want to leave the cartridges.”

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He said an off-the-shelf bug detector helps someone find listening devices and sometimes create white noise to muffle sounds or discussion.

Home of George "Billy" Wagner III and his wife Angela Wagner in South Webster. Six members of the Wagner family were arrested in connection with the 2016 murder of Rhoden family members in Pike County. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

The shoes are more of a mystery, he said. They could have been a pair of cheap shoes used once and thrown away after the crime.

The indictments also say the killers closely monitored the victims, their habits and sleeping routines, sleeping locations, social media accounts, layout of their homes and surveillance devices, and pets on the property.

“It has always been suspicious to me and other investigators about the ability of the killers to enter without disruptive detection by the occupants, thus eliminating a confrontation,” Baker said. “It smacked of significant familiarity with the locations, habits and coordination needed to get in and out.”

If the Wagners were frequent visitors to the Rhoden homes, that would also diminish the significance of trace fingerprints or DNA evidence at the scene, Baker said.

In addition to capital murder, the four members of the Wagner family are each accused of forging a set of custody documents 19 days before the murders. The documents are not on record in Pike County Juvenile Court and prosecutors have revealed little else about them.

Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said the accused were meticulous in their planning, but made mistakes.

“They did this quickly, coldly, calmly and very carefully. But not carefully enough,” he said. “They left traces, they left a trail. The parts to build a silencer, the forged documents, the cameras, cellphones, all that they tampered with.

“And the lies, all the lies they told us.”

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