WAVERLY, Ohio — Monday marked the first official day with opening statements in the trial of George W. Wagner IV, who faces eight counts of murder in Waverly, Ohio.
Wagner, 30, faces the death penalty after he was charged in Pike County in the 2016 slayings of the Rhoden family near Piketon in southern Ohio. A 12-person jury with six alternates was selected last week in county court, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Columbus.
Authorities say the shootings of seven adults and a teenage boy stemmed from a dispute over custody of a child that George Wagner’s brother, Jake Wagner, had with Hanna Rhoden, one of the victims. George Wagner’s parents and brother were also charged. The Wagners spent months planning the killings motivated by the custody dispute, prosecutors say.
On Monday, the public and jury heard opening statements from the state, who went for five hours, and from the defense, who went for less than 45 minutes. Below are the highlights:
OPENING HIGHLIGHTS FROM STATE:
DAD WAS TARGET: Prosecutors said that the intended target was Chris Rhoden, Sr., who was involved in drug deals with Billy Wagner. Gary Rhoden was killed simply because he was present, and the rest of the family was murdered because they “knew” things. All of the victims, except for three — Dana, Gary, and Chris Sr. — were killed in their sleep, according to the state. The state said that the idea to kill Hanna came from Billy Wagner and that Jake initially said “no” but was encouraged by his parents. Originally, they were going to kill Hanna and make it look like her boyfriend, named Corey did it, the state said.
KILLINGS HAPPENED IN ONE NIGHT: The state claimed that Billy Wagner left his phone at Angela Wagner’s house the night of the murders and had a meeting planned with Chris Sr. to “talk about a big drug deal out west” that was upwards of $30,000 in marijuana; the two grew pot together and sold it. When Billy arrived the night of the killings to talk to Chris Sr., Billy had a plan to kill Chris and to cover his own tracks. Billy asked Chris to call Billy’s cell phone, claiming he had lost it. Angela allegedly answered the phone when it rang because Billy left it at home. The purpose of this was so cell phone towers would place Billy’s phone at Angela’s house and not the murder scene, giving him an alibi during the time of the killings.
HANNA WAS PREGNANT AT 15: Lead prosecutor Angela Canepa said that murder victim Hanna Rhoden was pregnant at age 15 with Jake Wagner’s baby, while Jake was 20 years old. Before the child was even born, the two named the fetus “Sophia.” It would be this child that would become the center of the murder plot, the state alleged. Before Sophia was born, Jake told Hanna he would take the baby “by force” and that he wanted sole custody. For some odd reason, the state said that Angela and Jake Wagner both wanted Sophia to call Angela “mom” when she actually her grandmother. After several fights, including ones that were physical, Hanna broke up with Jake in 2015. Hanna told a family member in a social media message that the Wagners would “have to kill me first” before handing over custody. The state said Angela Wagner hacked into Hanna’s social media and saw this message.
THE SCENES: There were four murder scenes. At the first one, Chris Sr. and Gary were found by a family member, who went next door to Frankie’s house to summon help. Once she got next door, she was met by a three-year-old boy who was locked inside the house. The boy unlocked the door for the relative and told them “Daddy has a lot of blood.” Inside, the state said was Frankie and Hanna Gilley, who were killed in bed while they slept; between them was a newborn baby unharmed, and also left to live was the three-year-old toddler. At another scene, Dana Rhoden was found by her brother with a pillow over her head. The state said Jake Wagner shot Dana, who was playing with her on her cell phone in bed after a double shift at work. After Jake shot her, he went and killed Hanna and Chris Jr. in their beds. Hanna woke up and saw Jake standing in the doorway, but the state said she did not realize it was him; that’s when Jake opened fire and killed her. She was nursing a newborn baby by another man; the man was not there, but the baby was in the bed with its mother. Jake allegedly repositioned Hanna’s dead body in bed so the infant could continue to nurse even after the killings; the baby was not harmed. Jake then went back into Dana’s room and shot her several more times and placed a pillow over her head. He then killed Chris Jr. Later, the Wagners traveled to Kenneth Rhoden’s camper and killed him because he “would know” it was the Wagners who carried out the acts. He was shot in the eye while he slept.
THE SHELL CASINGS: Shell casings were found at the scene of the crimes where the bodies were found, which matched shell casings that were found in the driveway of the Wagners. According to the state, the casings at the Wagners had been used for target practice, and just like fingerprints, gun barrels and firing pins will leave one-of-a-kind traces on the shells. The gun in question was used to kill Chris Jr., Hanna, and Dana, the state said.
THE MURDER WEAPONS: The guns used to kill the Rhodens were placed in buckets of concrete and gifted to a family member of the Wagner’s on Father’s Day as boat anchors, unbeknownst to the family member that the anchors contained murder weapons. The anchors would later be cut from a rope on the boat and dropped in a pond. Jake Wager would later confess to the state that the concrete anchors were at the bottom of the pond and using a search warrant, the state found the blocks in the water, chipped away the material, and found the murder weapons inside; the weapons matched the shell casing markings.
WALMART SHOES: The Wagners planned the murders so much in advance that they bought “murder shoes” from Walmart to wear for the purpose of the crimes and would dispose of them later. Found at the scene of one of the crimes was a bloody shoe print. That print was traced back to a shoe that was only sold at Walmart. Later, a search warrant on a storage trailer owned by the Wagners would uncover a Walmart receipt. The receipt showed the purchase of shoes and when detectives went to Walmart and looked at the security camera footage from the time stamp on the receipt, they saw Angela Wagner buying the shoes; the very shoes that matched the bloody prints at the murder scenes.
LISTENING DEVICES: The state said they placed listening devices using warrants inside the vehicles driven by the Wagners, including their personal cars and a semi-truck driven by Jake and George. The state said they picked up some conversation, but very minimal because the family was always on high alert that they were being “listened to.”
NORMAN REEDUS: Angela Canepa said that Jake Wagner idolized Hollywood actor Norma Reedus and that Jake cut and dyed his hair to look like the actor. Jake also carried out the murders like scenes from Reedus’ movie “Boondock Saints” and the television show “The Walking Dead.” So much so, that the state said evidence on Jake Wagner’s cell phone shows he watched a murder scene from the Saints movie before going to commit the homicides, in which two brothers kill others; a sign that George Wagner and Jake Wagner worked together as brothers to emulate the movie.
NIGHTMARES: Billy and Angela Wagner were talking one night after the murders, when Billy told Angela that their son, George was having nightmares about the murders. Angela replied, “I don’t know why he’s having nightmares. He didn’t kill anybody,” the state said. This allegedly came from Angela during a confession.
DEFENSE OPENING STATEMENTS:
JAKE WILL SAY: The defense told jurors that Jake will testify that his brother, George did not shoot and kill anyone and that the murders were not George’s idea, and that George did not help plan them, either.
WHAT TO CONSIDER: The defense said they are asking the jury to consider several things: Jake’s testimony that says his brother did not kill anyone, that Jake and Angela received plea deals and will say anything to save themselves, that George was the only member of the family who did not have a motive to kill anyone, and how different George is from his family.
WHY IT HAPPENED: Defense attorney Richard Nash said that Angela’s motive was that she believed Sophia was being molested by the Rhoden family; Jake’s motive was jealousy, control, and custody of his daughter, and Billy’s motive was drugs. This means, George had no motive and that’s why he did not kill anyone, the defense said.
JAKE DID IT ALL: Nash closed out his 45-minute opening statement by saying that evidence will show Jake Wagner killed all eight people and that George Wagner should not be charged with murder or face the death penalty or life in prison.
The trial will resume on Tuesday at 9 a.m. with the state calling its first witness.