Authorities: Prosecuting Ohio massacre case could take years
WAVERLY, Ohio — Prosecuting an Ohio family of four arrested in the gruesome slayings of eight people from another family could take years to conclude, a county prosecutor said as the first break in the more than 2-year-old case was announced.
Tuesday’s announcement marked the culmination of a massive investigative effort that began after seven adults and a teenage boy were found shot in the head at four separate homes in April 2016. The killings terrified local residents and spawned rumors that it was a drug hit, but prosecutors suggested the attack had stemmed from a custody dispute.
Complex: The investigation is one of the most complicated and extensive in state history, with enormous numbers of witnesses and a huge amount of evidence, said Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk.
“There is a lot of hard work ahead of us. I cannot emphasize that enough. An indictment is only the beginning of the case,” Junk said Tuesday, adding that the case may have to be moved from Pike County because of the pre-trial publicity.
Other Pike County officials are concerned about the costs and other issues they will face in housing the suspects, such as added security and other needs. County Commissioner Blaine Beekman said Wednesday the county of 28,000 is already in a budget crunch and officials plan to meet with Junk and then reach out of state officials for help.
“Obviously, we are pleased that the arrests have been made and that if the evidence is there, the people will be brought to justice,” Beekman said. “But it’s a double-edged sword. … Now comes the reality of how are we going to pay for this? We have no book to refer to. There are just so many unknowns.”
Death penalty case: Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said a grand jury indicted the four members of the Wagner family on aggravated murder charges. Police arrested George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; his wife, 48-year-old Angela Wagner; and his sons George Wagner, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26. They could be sentenced to death if convicted, DeWine said.
DeWine gave scant detail about why the victims were killed but said the custody of a young child played a role. Edward Wagner was the longtime former boyfriend of 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, one of the eight victims, and shared custody of their daughter at the time of the massacre.
Edward Wagner was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Rhoden when she was 15 years old and he was 20 years old, DeWine’s office said.
Tony Rhoden, who lost two brothers in the killings, said the family was still processing the news.
“We just don’t know what to think,” Rhoden told the Columbus Dispatch. “It’s a lot to take in.”
The Wagner family lived near the scenes of the killings about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Columbus. They moved to Kenai, Alaska, in June 2017, then returned to Ohio this past spring.
Shocked: Kelly Cinereski, an Alaskan pastor and friend of the family, told the Dayton Daily News he was shocked by their arrests.
“These people wept over dogs, I can’t imagine them taking people’s lives,” he said.
The mothers of Angela Wagner and George Wagner also were arrested in Ohio and charged with misleading investigators.
Both Edward Wagner and Angela Wagner previously told the Cincinnati Enquirer that they were not involved in the killings.
Angela Wagner said in an email to the newspaper that what happened was devastating and Hanna Rhoden was like a daughter to her. Wagner also told The Enquirer that her husband, George, and Christopher Rhoden Sr. were more like brothers than friends.
John Clark, a lawyer who has been representing the Wagners, has said previously that four of the Wagner family members provided laptops, phones and DNA samples to investigators, and agreed to be interviewed about the slayings.
“We look forward to the day when the true culprits will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy,” Clark said in a statement Tuesday.
The victims were identified as 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancée, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden. Hanna Rhoden’s days-old baby girl, another baby and a young child were unharmed.
Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus. Associated Press Writers John Seewer in Toledo, Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, Dylan T. Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, and AP Researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.