WAVERLY, Ohio – Jurors convicted a man Wednesday in the killings of eight people from another Ohio family after weighing his denials and other testimony against the word of witnesses, including his brother and mother, who previously pleaded guilty for their roles.
George Wagner IV was found guilty on all 22 counts he faced in the killings of eight members of Pike County’s Rhoden family in 2016. The jury of six women and three men found beyond a reasonable doubt that Wagner IV was guilty of all charges, including eight for aggravated murder, plus conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and obstructing justice.
Wagner IV, 31, showed no visible emotion as Judge Randy Deering read the jury’s verdict from the bench, looking down with nearly closed eyes as he did through much of the trial. Defense lawyer John P. Parker patted his shoulder after the verdict, with a slight smile for his client.
Jurors, all Pike County residents, listened to hours of testimony from 60 witnesses during the trial, the first tied to the largest homicide investigation in Ohio history. They began deliberations Wednesday morning and returned to the courtroom in the afternoon.
Wagner IV’s younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and other charges and agreed to testify against George and their parents in a deal to help the family avoid potential death sentences.
Their mother, Angela Wagner, pleaded guilty to helping to plan the slayings. Their father, George “Billy” Wagner III, pleaded not guilty to the killings and awaits trial.
The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, and 16-year-old Christopher Jr.; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancee, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden.
Most were shot repeatedly in the head.
Rhoden, Manley, and Gilley family members, who all lost loved ones in the homicides, filled the courtroom to hear Judge Randy Deering read each guilty verdict. Many erupted in tears and sobs as Deering began to read the jury’s decisions.
Moments later, Tony Rhoden and other family members said the verdict brought some measure of peace.
“I would like to thank the citizens of Pike County,” said Tony Rhoden, whose brothers Kenneth and Chris Rhoden Sr. were among the victims. “I would like to thank the citizens of the state of Ohio for bearing this burden that should have never happened to this family in southern Ohio.”
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Rhoden said he felt sorry for Wagner IV, saying he is a human being who lost his humanity the night of the murders. Of his own lost family members, he said: “They’re gone. Nothing we can do on this earth will ever bring them back.”
The verdict comes after what’s considered the largest homicide investigation in Ohio history, which involved multiple law enforcement agencies and was led by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Prosecutors say the slayings, which initially spurred speculation about drug cartel involvement, stemmed from a dispute over custody of Wagner’s niece.
The fatal shootings at three mobile homes and a camper near Piketon in April 2016 terrified residents and launched one of the state’s most extensive criminal investigations.
“This case was a test of BCI’s abilities, and BCI passed it with flying colors,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said. “Today’s jury verdict puts the stamp of approval on the bureau’s work.
“I am grateful for the untold hours, days and weeks that our investigators and forensic scientists dedicated to this case. It reinforces the team’s dogged determination to secure justice for the victims and their families.”
Prosecutors say the Wagner family planned the killings for months, motivated by a dispute over custody of the daughter Jake Wagner had with Hanna Rhoden. Authorities said that child was staying with the Wagners when the killings happened.
Three other young children from the Rhoden family who were at the scenes were not hurt.
Jake Wagner pleaded guilty on the fifth anniversary of the killings and apologized in court. He has not been sentenced, but his lawyer said he understood that he would spend his life in prison.
Prosecutors recommended a 30-year prison sentence for Angela Wagner.
Sentencing will follow in mid-December. The death penalty is not an option.
Contributing: The Associated Press