Pike County murder trial: Prosecution rests after playing final wiretap recordings

WAVERLY — Trial began Thursday morning with a forensic expert called by the defense and ended in the afternoon with the prosecution playing the remainder of wiretap recordings of the Wagner family from 2018.

The prosecution intended to conclude their case last week, but a delay in the trial Friday hindered their ability to wrap their case on schedule. Because their witnesses already were scheduled to appear Monday and Thursday, the defense began presenting their case, but the prosecution will still have an opportunity to finish their case this week.

George Wagner IV — along with his mother Angela, father George “Billy” Wagner and brother Edward “Jake” Wagner — is accused of shooting and killing the Rhoden family members “execution-style.” The family’s bodies were found on April 22, 2016. He faces eight charges of aggravated murder, along with other charges associated with tampering with evidence, conspiracy and forgery.

Found dead that day were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr., 37-year-old Dana Rhoden, 20-year-old Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr., 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 37-year-old Gary Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna May Rhoden, and 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden.

The trial is the first time a person has faced a jury for the deaths of the Rhoden family six years ago.

Defense attorneys called Jonathyn Priest, a forensic analyst and instructor from Colorado, to the stand on Thursday morning.

Richard Nash, one of George’s defense attorneys, asked him about his analysis of the crime scenes, with a focus on the blood evidence found in the scenes. Priest’s testimony mainly focused on the blood smears and spatter found at the first scene, where Chris Sr. and Gary were shot to death.

Priest said, through his analysis of the evidence sent to him by defense attorneys, he believed it was possible that the homicides could have been performed all by one person.

He said the bloody drag smears in Chris Sr.’s home made by the two bodies as they were dragged — likely by the feet — from the living room to the back bedroom could have been created by one person dragging both bodies. Gary’s body was dragged first, followed by Chris Sr., he said, and the narrow path down the hall taken by the killer had no disturbances in the form of things knocked over or moved.

In addition, he said he noted a lack of multiple footprints overlaying one another or movement in multiple directions he believed would have indicated more than one person had walked through the scene after the bloody drag marks were made.

“The prints that I saw indicated the direction of travel was from the bedroom out to the living room,” he said.

He said, based on his analysis, that he couldn’t rule out multiple people present, but that the crimes could have been committed by just one person.

Nash also played multiple videos of Priest firing a .40 caliber Glock pistol to show whether a muzzle flash could have been seen by people outside Chris Sr.’s home if the gun was fired indoors; Jake testified earlier in the trial he saw a flash when his father fired shots in the trailer.

Although a flash could be seen after sundown in Priest’s videos, he said one likely wouldn’t have been visible inside the trailer with the other light pollution happening.

Nash also walked Priest through the other crime scenes; he said he’d concluded those murders could have been committed all by the same person as well.

During cross examination, Andrew Wilson, special prosecutor, focused on debunking Priest’s findings, picking apart the draft report he’d put together; Priest had known he would testify Thursday for 10 days, he said, and he prepared his report in June based on the evidence he was sent in January. Wilson asked why, in an eight person homicide case, he’d only presented a draft report; Priest said typically after submitting that draft he has a back-and-forth discussion with defense attorneys, which didn’t happen in this case.

In the report, Priest wrote he believed Chris Sr. was standing on the front porch of his home, not just inside the door as other witnesses testified earlier in the trial, including the coroner.

Wilson pointed out there was no blood evidence on the porch, but Priest said he wouldn’t have expected to see any because wounds take time before they begin bleeding; he said he believed Chris Sr. made it back inside the trailer before the bleeding began.

“The evidence supports that he was outside of the residence when he was struck, yes,” said Priest.

Wilson showed him the ballistic evidence, revisiting photos the jury saw earlier in the trial of the outside of Chris Sr.’s home. In the multiple bullet holes found on the outside of the trailer, Wilson pointed out two were abnormal; Priest agreed and said the shape of the holes indicated the bullets had begun to tumble because they’d been disrupted by something. In his report, Priest said he thought that disruption was Chris Sr. himself; Wilson asked pointed out there was no blood spatter on the outside of the home.

Wilson asked whether something else could have caused that tumbling effect.

“What if the round had to punch through an oil filter?” he asked.

“Oh, absolutely,” said Priest.

Wilson showed Priest a photo of Chris Sr., pointing out wooden shards that were embedded in his forehead after he was killed; in Priest’s report, he’d concluded the wooden pieces came from a pile of flooring stacked on the porch of the home. Priest said he believed bullets that hit the flooring fractured and sprayed Chris Sr. while he stood on the front porch.

Wilson showed a photo of the flooring, struck by bullets, and zoomed in on the damage, revealing the flooring was a composite material with a faux wood finish, not actual wood pieces. He then showed images of the inside of the trailer, where the wooden frame was splintered and broken from the bullet holes and asked whether that damage was consistent with projectiles coming through it; Priest agreed.

An average-sized man, standing just inside that doorway, would likely be hit by the bullets that traveled through those holes — particularly in the midsection and the arm, Wilson said; Priest said he supposed it could align that way.

The two debated the blood spatter inside the home, with Wilson pointing out it indicated a bleeding person was inside the home when the spatter was created, but Priest maintained that he thought it happened after Chris Sr. would have re-entered the home after being shot.

Wilson then began questioning Priest at length about the shoeprints found inside the home, pointing out that Priest didn’t reference the prints much in his report — particularly that there were multiple left shoeprints found of two different-sized left shoes, which would indicate there were at least two different people in the home.

Priest said he didn’t have the shoes to cross compare; Wilson argued that wasn’t necessary to determine there were two different left shoe prints. He also pointed out that, prior to his own analysis of the blood evidence, Priest had access to Bill Bodziak’s findings, whom the prosecution called to the stand earlier in the trial.

Priest had simply ignored that evidence, Wilson said; Priest argued he hadn’t but the shoeprints weren’t what he’d been asked to look at in the scene.

The number of weapons fired in a crime could also indicate whether there was more than one person committing the crimes, Wilson asked and Priest agreed.

Wilson finished his cross examination by pointing out to the jury that Priest had never visited the crime scenes or examined the evidence in person.

After Priest stepped down from the witness stand, the prosecution returned to their case, calling their final witness, Julia Eveslage, back to the stand to finish playing the remainder of the wiretap recordings for the jury.

Eleven recordings and one text message were presented. The first was a recording made from a listening device planted in the R&L truck Jake and George drove together. The conversation, which took place on July 5, 2018, was difficult to hear and polluted with road noise, but the brothers argued about Beth, Jake’s then-wife.

George accused Jake of putting both his son, Bulvine and Jake’s daughter, Sophia, in danger by allowing Beth to continue living in the family’s home after Angela alleged Beth touched Sophia inappropriately.

The second recording was a phone conversation between Angela and her mother, Rita Newcomb. Both had already been subpoenaed for handwriting samples and Angela said before they arrived, they needed to both have attorneys with them, in case investigators wanted to ask further questions. Angela offered to call an attorney for her mother and said she already had one lined up for herself.

On July 15, 2018, George and Angela spoke on the phone, speculating what might happen if any of them were arrested. Angela said investigators didn’t have any evidence tying the Wagners to the murders, but they needed witnesses. The two speculated about family members, surmising none of them would be likely to testify against the Wagner family in court.

“I don’t know why they think mom’s going to be a witness,” said Angela.

Ultimately, Rita was the first facing charges connected to the homicides to confess and she did take the stand against George during trial.

On July 20, George and Angela spoke on the phone about attorneys; George implied his paternal grandmother, Fredericka Wagner, had indicated she would choose attorneys for family members. George said no matter what the best attorney they could hire should represent Angela, so she could have a higher chance at getting to take care of the children.

“The rest of us can screw ourselves,” said George. “I don’t care what my grandmother says, it’s gonna be yours. I’ll go in and do it without one, I don’t care.”

Later that same day, Angela spoke with Jake on the phone and told him the advice of his attorney was not to talk to anyone or answer any more questions from investigators. He was also advised against getting angry or losing control and should tell his brother the same, Angela said.

“We’ve probably got bedbugs, so watch what you say,” she said.

On July 24, George and Angela spoke, with George trying to convince his mother to consider a move out west. During opening statements, George’s attorneys argued George didn’t get along with his family and had repeatedly tried to get out of the Wagner home; the prosecution carefully selected wiretap recordings to combat this idea.

George also suggested someone he was interested in having a relationship with move in with the family if they were to move west, but Angela wasn’t keen on the idea; she pointed out that Beth had claimed to understand the family too and things hadn’t worked well at all.

On July 28, George texted a woman he’d met in Alaska.

“Are you ok with the fact that I’m really close with my family?” he asked. “I know it’s weird for most people but family is all we really have in life.”

On August 11, 2018, Angela and George spoke about the murder investigation, and a bug detector George ordered to try to locate listening devices the family believed could have been planted in their home; Eveslage testified that no homes were bugged by BCI, only phones and vehicles.

On August 24, George called Angela to talk with her about a farm he found online for sale that the family might like moving into; by the end of 2018, however, all four members of the family would be arrested.

The prosecution rested its case Thursday afternoon and court broke for the day; defense attorneys will now call their witnesses each day.

About the Author