Here we are at Part 2 of The Pike County Murders. With no suspects named after over 2 years into the investigation, the public thought that the killers would never be found, and that no one would be arrested. When suspects were actually named at a public news conference, complete shock went through the county of Piketon as well as the general public. Those individuals allegedly responsible for the Rhoden and Gilley murders were not in fact members of a drug cartel, but were well known to the residents of Piketon County - and had a reputation that preceded them.
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Transcribed EP08: The Pike County Murders (Part 2)
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Hey everyone and welcome to The Crime Shack - we are diving in to Episode 8, Part 2 of The Pike County Murders. If you haven’t listened to Part 1, you might want to go back and take a listen as I continue to follow the investigation of the brutal murders of the eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families on April 21 and 22nd of 2016.
If any of you have been through a divorce where a child was involved or even known someone who’s gone through a child custody battle, you know how emotions can quickly escalate, how anger can creep in and rational thinking can go right out the window. Custody battles can turn small disagreements into arguments that try to prove how unfit the other person is to parent the child. Some people begin to look at children as possessions and sometimes trying to gain custody can become an obsession. The parent may feel that the child is something that is rightfully theirs, and they are willing to fight for that at any cost.
In Part 1, we followed the Wagner Family, which includes father George - also known by Billy, Angela, the mother, and their two sons Jake and George, when they shocked the residents of Piketon County and decided to sell their farm and make the 4100 mile trek to Alaska. Some people head to Alaska to drop off the grid, or get lost amongst its mountain ranges and rugged terrain. In the Spring of 2017, tucked in amongst the evergreen trees, away from the glaring eyes of the law and from the public’s scrutiny of their every move, the Wagner family had chosen to settle into Alaska’s dense landscape and began to make a new, more private life for themselves.
The Wagners tried their best to assimilate and fit into the Kenai community of Alaska and their daily routines were not going unnoticed by authorities. They attended church on Sunday, spent their spare time visiting thrift shops and making Friday night trips to the local Walmart. They enjoyed fishing together and taking their quad bikes to go off-roading.
Jake Wagner’s daughter Sophia, was with them in Alaska as well, as Jake now had full custody of his daughter since her mother’s death. His brother George Jr. also had a young son with him from a previous relationship where he had obtained sole custody. It was clear that the children were adored by the family. A Little Tikes playhouse and slide could be seen in the family’s backyard, not far from their four-wheelers parked near the side of a gravel driveway.
But the Wagner’s move to Alaska wasn’t necessarily because they wanted more anonymity. The Wagners had been receiving death threats in Ohio - threats that claimed they knew more about the Rhoden and Gilley murders than what they were letting on.
The Rhoden and Wagner families had known each other and were close friends for years. George “Billy” Wagner was known to refer to Christopher Rhoden Sr as a “brother,” but something had soured that close relationship over time. In fact, members of the Rhoden family claimed that George and Chris Sr. had even gotten into a physical fight.
It seems the main connection between the Wagners and Rhoden families was due to the relationship between Jake Wagner and Hanna May Rhoden. Jake and Hanna had been in a committed relationship beginning when Hannah was just 15 years old and Jake was 20. When Hannah was 17, she gave birth to Jake’s child, Sophia. But their relationship eventually deteriorated as, according to Jake, Hanna didn’t like the fact that he spent so much time working and not enough time with her. Hanna on the other hand, complained to her family members that Jake had been violent with her. Hanna and Jake ultimately came to a verbal-only arrangement on how and when they would share custody of Sophia.
While the Wagners were planting roots in Alaska, the murder investigation in Piketon County continued.
On October 16, 2016, the Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader announced for the first time that the perpetrators they were looking for were not part of the Mexican cartel as originally assumed, and that drugs likely had nothing to do with the murders:
Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader made a public statement on November 14th, urging members of the public to come forward with ANY information they may have concerning the killings.
As 2017 approached, it seemed that police began to focus on some of the property previously owned by the Wagners. In May of 2017 they searched an Adams County residential property once owned by Jake Wagner. Jake, aware of this search and obviously annoyed that authorities were focused on him and his family, decided to write to the Cincinnati Enquirer where he pleaded “Please let’s concentrate on finding the real monsters who did this.”
Just a month later, on June 20, 2017, Ohio police publicly announced that they were seeking additional information on Jake - as well as information on his father, mother and brother. The police knew that they had moved to Alaska and wanted to know if anyone had any significant interactions with them.
In late October 2017, investigators did yet another search of one of the Wagner’s properties… the Wagner’s family farm in Ohio that they sold prior to moving to Alaska. They recovered a piece of evidence from a well on the property, although what exactly they found in the well hasn’t been publicly disclosed.
Since the murders, investigators had interviewed the Wagner’s several times, and the family was even detained for several hours - and in one case for 12 hours - as they were crossing state boundaries and at the US and Canadian borders. They were questioned extensively about their current journey, their background and their future plans.
In the meantime, as the Wagners were settling into their secluded lives, Angela Wagner was hanging out and posting on social media. Her bio on Facebook reads:
“I love to cook, the kitchen is my favorite place to be except my garden. I like to be thrifty when I go shopping. Taking care of my family and giving them the very best at the lowest and thriftiest price available. My sons are my next favorite project. With them it is all about hunting. And of course fishing. So yea we are outdoor people. Now I have my grandchildren, they bring all the happiness I could imagine to my world…”
On her Facebook page (which is currently semi-private) she posted selfies, photos of a girl’s Little Tikes Cozy Cottage toddler bed and responded to friends when asked about the winter in Alaska by saying that it’s “awesome”, but that she “missed her friends and family” in Ohio. She even brazenly followed a Rhoden Family Massacre community page.
It seems that the Wagner’s thought that they were safe at last in Alaska - that they had nothing to worry about and could just go on with their lives, they even would make occasional visits back to Ohio. The idea that they were in the clear was actually the furthest thing from the truth. Though it had been over 2 years since the murders and didn’t appear as if anyone at this point was going to be charged with the murders, authorities were actually narrowing in on the suspects.
On November 13th 2018, police went to a home in Scioto (Sye-ōttō) County Ohio and arrested Angela Wagner. At around 2:04pm that same day, brothers George and Jake Wagner were pulled over for a traffic stop in Ross County Ohio and they were also arrested. After following his movements, George “Billy” Wagner, the patriarch of the family, was apprehended while traveling in a horse trailer near Lexington Kentucky - his dramatic, but cooperative, arrest was captured on body-cam footage by Lexington police:
The Wagner family, who was once considered long-time friends of the Rhodens, connected to each other permanently by a young little girl, was now being charged with the meticulously planned, cold-blooded murder of all eight Rhoden and Gilley family members.
The possible motive for the brutal slayings of eight people? The custody of Sophia Wagner, Jake and Hanna Rhoden’s young daughter. Additional details of the motive haven’t been made public, but what we do know is that Jake and Hannah were not together at the time of the murders - Hannah was actually dating someone else, and if you recall had just had a newborn child from that relationship. Jake and Hannah had never come to a court appointed custody arrangement but Jake had immediately filed for full custody of Sophia only 6 days following the murders.
Evidence shows that the two families, the Wagners and the Rhodens had sent each other numerous emails and correspondence pertaining to the custody issue of Sophia. What was said in those emails or correspondence won’t be made public until the trials. Perhaps Jake felt that Hannah could not provide properly for her daughter, particularly with a newborn coming into the picture. Or maybe the Wagner’s felt somehow entitled that they should be the ones raising the child and wanted to remove anything - or anyone- that could get in their way of doing just that. It really doesn’t matter the reason….if the allegations prove to be true in court against the Wagner’s there is zero justification for the murder of Sophia’s mother or her seven relatives.
Investigators state that the Wagners spent months planning the crime, using their knowledge of the victim’s routines, sleep patterns, layouts of their homes and behaviors of their pet dogs to help them plan the murders.
Not only were the four Wagner’s arrested, but on November 13th, the mother’s of Billy and Angela Wagner were also charged. Fredericka Wagner, 77 years old, Billy’s mother, was charged with obstruction of justice and perjury. Fredericka had purchased bullet proof vests because she was in fear for her son’s and his family’s lives thinking that someone could be after them as well (her charges were eventually dropped in June of 2019).
Fredericka Wagner, the matriarch of the Wagner family, has her own story. She is a devout Christian who prominently displays framed images of Jesus Christ in her home with visible Bibles scattered throughout. She had taught Sunday School in the Appalachian foothills for over 40 years.
She resides in a large two-story farmhouse on more than 1600 acres and runs a horse, cattle and pig business called Flying W Farms. It’s my guess that Fredericka's business has taken quite a financial hit since the arrests of her family members.
In this interview with the Ohio newspaper, The Plain Dealer...Fredericka, sitting at her kitchen table, dressed in black with her blonde and grey hair pulled back into a black hairnet, talks emphatically in a southern Ohio drawl about her initial thoughts when she first found out that the Rhoden and Gilley families had been murdered. She tells the newspaper that “no one wants anything to do with her anymore” and explains why she was fearful and why she purchased the vests for her son and his family:
In the same interview, Fredericka, adamant of her family’s innocence, states what she would do if she found out that her son George and his family were in fact involved in the murders:
Rita Newcomb 67, Angela’s mother, was charged with lying to the grand jury about signing and notarizing custody documents for Sophia Wagner in the event her father Jake or her mother Hanna died. Rita didn’t actually sign the documents herself, but said she did at the request of her daughter Angela. After pleading guilty in December 2019 to a second-degree misdemeanor in exchange for the felony charges being dismissed, Rita is quoted as telling the judge that she pled guilty because "It's not a good Christian thing to lie and I couldn't live with it anymore." As of July 2020 she has not been sentenced.
Billy, Angela, George and Jake pleaded NOT GUILTY on all charges and have since been held in separate jails without bail - awaiting their trials.
Whether or not these arrests were a complete surprise to the residents of Piketon County isn’t known, but when this family was arrested after 2 ½ years of investigations, is when the flood gates opened and the public then got a glimpse into the staggering amount of evidence that was obtained by investigators.
Prosecutors have turned over dozens of interviews, hundreds of photos, a 3D scan from each crime scene, diagrams showing ballistic, biological and other evidence; over 100 aerial photos; autopsy reports of the victims, X-rays of all eight victims; cell tower records, a photo of George Wagner's tattoo (which is allegedly a white supremacy tattoo), a homemade firearm suppressor believed to be built by the Wagners, and a gun list.
What about home surveillance cameras at the crime scenes? Well apparently those CCTV cameras were disabled before the murders took place - most likely by the killers.
Investigators had found a receipt for athletic work shoes with velcro straps from a Walmart in Waverly Ohio dated April 7, 2016, exactly two weeks before the murders while doing a search on the Wagner’s property. They were also able to pull video which captured Angela Wagner purchasing those exact same shoes from Walmart.
The work shoes that she allegedly purchased matched a size 10.5 and 11 sized prints found imprinted in dried blood at the crime scenes. Also in evidence is an excel spreadsheet that lists over 500 entries of messages between the Rhodens and Wagners about child custody, indicating a growing discord among the two families.
A movie clip from the movie The Boondock Saints is also part of the gathered evidence. You may be thinking, come on, a movie clip? How could a movie be issued into evidence? What’s interesting about this particular movie, and I’m sure just as interesting to prosecutors, is that this 1999 vigilante action thriller film is about two twin brothers who become vigilantes after killing two members of the Russian Mafia in self defense. After an epiphany, the brothers along with a friend decided to rid their home city of Boston of crime and evil, all the while being pursued by the FBI. Could be coincidence or it could be life imitating art.
And the evidence most recently disclosed during a hearing for Jake Wanger in June 2020 was that shell casings from Remington rimfire .22 caliber ammunition were found at the crime scenes that matched shell casings found on the Wagners property during a search warrant. Both sets of shell casings had matching “firing pin impressions.”
It’s now been four years since the murders and there have been dozens of hearings for all four Wagners. Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, their trial dates have been postponed even further out than they were, and the hope and goal was to get the trials started in the Fall of 2020, possibly now even pushed to 2021.
The Wagners' attorney, John K. Clark, Jr. released the following statement: "The Wagners eagerly look forward to their trial and to have their day in Court so they can vindicate their names. The Wagners are also ever hopeful that in the ensuing months there will be thorough vetting of all the facts.” Their attorney has said of the Wagners that they are “good God-fearing people who want justice more than anyone.” The Wagners are insisting that they are innocent of the charges, and claim they are being turned into “scapegoats” and that authorities are focusing on them instead of searching for the real killers.
Until the Wagner’s go to trial, we can only speculate about the true motive in this case -- as explained earlier, child custody battles CAN escalate into irrational and obsessive thinking - possibly even resulting in violent behavior. Sophia Wagner, now 6 years old, was last reported to be in custody of Children Services.
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