WAVERLY — A forensic pathologist from the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office took the stand as the trial of a man accused of murdering eight people in Pike County in 2016 continued Tuesday.
Dr. Karen Looman, chief deputy coroner and forensic pathologist with the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office, has previously testified in the trial of former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing and the resentencing hearing of convicted serial killer Anthony Kirkland.
Looman also did the autopsies for all eight members of the Rhoden family when they were killed in 2016.
George — 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.
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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.
During Tuesday’s proceedings, Looman began by explaining autopsies, states of decomposition and the way burning can occur on a person when shot with a gun, all to bring the jury up to speed on what would be discussed.
Looman’s testimony specifically centered on victims found in the first crime scene — Chris Sr. and Gary. Before the lunch break, Looman detailed the various injuries that were apparent on Chris Sr.’s body when he was examined in the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office.
Chris Sr. was in a state of decomposition and rigor mortis had already disappeared, she said, which indicated he’d been dead for more than 24 hours at the time he was brought to the coroner. The bodies arrived around 5:50 a.m. on April 23, 2016. They’d been discovered the morning and afternoon of April 22, 2016.
Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent Shane Hanshaw testified on Monday that Chris Sr. and Gary were not removed from the crime scene until agents had collected and secured all evidence in the home.
The bodies were sent to Hamilton County for autopsies because the Pike County coroner does not conduct them and, at the time of the murders, Hamilton County routinely helped with cases in Pike County.
Despite being the first found, Chris Sr. was the final victim to be autopsied, because of the extent of the injuries he’d received, Looman said.
When Looman opened the body bag containing the Rhoden patriarch, he was in the same position Hanshaw described finding him in: His arms were above his head, his brown sweatshirt rolled up over his head, indicating he’d been dragged. As Looman worked to remove his clothes for the autopsy, she said three intact bullets fell out of his rolled-up sweatshirt.
“He had a large number of wounds to his face that turned out to be gunshot wounds, and he had two in his abdomen, and based on the evidence I knew there were several bullets that I needed to recover,” she said.
In addition to that, Chris Sr. had another wound to his right forearm, where he’d been shot with a high-powered weapon, Looman said.
“His forearm was so destroyed and so lacerated that the skin was peeled back,” she said. “You could see the muscles, you could see the fractured pieces of bones in there. There was so much trauma you couldn’t see the entrance and exit wound. His arm was barely hanging on to the end of his elbow.”
If he’d lived, Looman said the arm may not have been reparable. When she X-rayed his arm, bullet fragments still present in the arm lit up, showing a pattern she said coroners called a “snowstorm effect.”
Looman described the process of determining the path the bullets took as they traveled through Chris Sr.’s body; one of those bullets severed his spine, detaching his neck from his head in a process called “internal decapitation,” she said.
Tiny pieces of wood were also embedded across Chris Sr.’s face.
In all, Chris Sr. was shot a total of nine times — six times in the head and face, once in the chest, once in the abdomen and once in the forearm.
Looman was given evidence bags, sealed in 2016 after she completed the autopsies, to open, pulling out the evidence inside to show to the jury. Among those items were the bullets and bullet fragments pulled from Chris Sr.’s body and the clothing he was wearing at the time of his murder.
Forensic evidence has taken center stage in recent days of the trial; on Friday and Monday the jury heard from agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations. Agents Shane Hanshaw and Todd Fortner testified about the first crime scene, the home of Chris Sr. and Gary, revisiting evidence they collected in April 2016 during the course of their investigation.
Fortner was expected to return to the witness stand Tuesday to testify about the crime scene he was responsible for processing, where Frankie and Hannah Hazel were found killed in their bed next to their unharmed baby.