An Ohio family carefully studied the habits of members of another family – their routines, the layouts of their homes and where they slept – as they planned a deadly massacre that stunned a rural town, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
The eight victims – who ranged in age from 16 to 44 – were found shot to death at four crime scenes in and around the small town of Piketon on April 22, 2016. At one scene, police found a 4-day-old baby next to his slain mother. That child, along with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old, survived.
The suspects “spent months planning the crime,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said. But they made mistakes, DeWine said.
More than two years later, authorities arrested four members of the Wagner family Tuesday in connection with killing the members of the Rhoden family. Two grandmothers of the Wagner family were also charged in an alleged cover-up of the crime, DeWine said.
He declined to identify a motive but said custody of a child “plays a role in this case.”
“We believe that the Wagners conspired together to develop an elaborate plan to kill the eight victims under the cover of darkness and then carefully cover up their tracks,” DeWine said. “The killers knew the territory and meticulously planned these murders.”
George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; his wife Angela Wagner, 48; and their sons, George Wagner IV, 27; and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, were indicted Monday by a Pike County grand jury on several offenses, including eight counts each of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications.
Authorities: One suspect had fathered child with victim
Edward “Jake” Wagner was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor over sexual contact with one victim, Hanna May Rhoden, when she was 15 and he was 20, prosecutors said.
He is the father of her older daughter, who was staying with the Wagners on the night of the killings, prosecutors said.
The Wagners are also accused of forging custody documents, prosecutors said.
“There certainly was obsession with custody, obsession with control of children,” DeWine said.
The Wagners are from South Webster, about a 30-mile drive southeast of Piketon, the community in and around where the killings happened. It’s a town of about 2,000 residents, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati.
Angela Wagner’s mother, Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster, Ohio, and Wagner’s mother-in-law, Fredericka Wagner, 76, of Lucasville, also face felony charges of obstructing justice and perjury for allegedly misleading investigators, prosecutors said.
The six are in custody in Ohio and Kentucky, authorities said.
In addition to Hanna May Rhoden, 19, those who died included Kenneth Rhoden, 44; his brother Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; and Christopher’s ex-wife, Dana Rhoden, 37. Also killed were two of the Rhodens’ other children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, and Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16. Other victims were Hannah Gilley, 20, who was engaged to Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, and Gary Rhoden, 38, a cousin.
Suspects ‘left a trail,’ sheriff says
There were no witnesses to the shooting, but the suspects left traces, authorities said.
“They left a trail: The parts to build a silencer, the forged documents, the cameras, cell phones – all that they tampered with, and the lies,” Pike County Sheriff Charles S. Reader told reporters.
At the request of prosecutors, a judge formed an investigative grand jury in July to meet regularly to examine evidence collected and gather additional evidence, according to DeWine. Investigators discovered a key piece of evidence October 30, the attorney general said.
Since 2016, investigators conducted more than 500 interviews and followed more than 1,100 leads during the investigation, which took them to 10 states, including Alaska. The Wagners lived in Alaska before recently moving back to Pike County, the attorney general said.
The Wagners had been “the prime suspects for some time,” DeWine said, though he declined to say when they were identified as such.
“We promised that the day would come when arrests would be made in the Pike County massacres,” said DeWine, who won the Ohio governor’s race last week. “Today is that day.”
CNN’s Janet DiGiacomo contributed to this report.