Murder

The Pike County Massacre

Members of the Wagner family were arrested for the massacre of eight members of the Rhoden family

Like an over-the-top plot of a horror film or the start of a crime thriller, the Rhoden Family Massacre just seemed unreal. Between the late evening hours of April 21 and early morning hours of April 22, 2016; eight members of the Rhoden family were executed at four separate residences just outside the village of Pebbles, in Pike County, Ohio. I remember it well not only because of my birthday, but how tragic, grisly and bizarre it was. Nearly an entire family is wiped out. Rumors and theories circulated and were relentless, not only who may have been involved, but why. Theories included drug cartels, serial killers, the Swan song of the East Area Rapist, Original Nightstalker(EARONS) and even local law enforcement. Then just like this gruesome crime began, it could only end in the same grandiose fashion— over-the-top and unbelievable. We would learn the conspirators and perpetrators behind the murder of an entire family was another family, in what one could only believe was as a modern retelling of the Hatfields and McCoys, but this wasn’t a story of provocation, escalation and revenge.

There is only one other case that comes to mind that is eerily similar both in circumstance and motive— The 1992 triple homicide of Wendy Camp, Cynthia Britto and Lisa Kregear of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The trio were killed over a child custody dispute involving Wendy Camp and her ex-husband Chad Noe over their son Jonathan. After giving birth to Jonathan, Wendy fell into a coma and was diagnosed with MS. Chad Noe filed for divorce as Wendy was attempting to recover from her ailment which caused her severe physical limitations which ultimately resulted in intensive therapy spanning several years. During this time, Wendy had surrendered custody of Jonathan to her ex-husband Chad until she was able to improve her mobility.

She eventually married a gentlemen Leon Camp and then tried best to just get visitation with her son Jonathan. Despite being ordered by the court, Chad Noe, his mother Beverly Noe and grandmother Ida Prewitt illegally withheld Jonathan from Wendy for years, even relocating under false addresses, using false names and were even held in contempt of court. When the game was up, they resorted to accusing Wendy’s husband Leon Camp of child molestation. When that failed, they resorted to murder. They hatched a plan to lure Wendy out to Shamrock, Oklahoma which is about 115 miles from Oklahoma City. Chad called Wendy, told her that his mother would be picking her up to come see Jonathan. Wendy was overcome with joy, however, Leon was suspicious as this wasn’t in the Noe/Prewitt family nature. To ensure her safety, Leon had his sister Lisa Kregear go with Wendy. Lisa brought her daughter Cynthia Britto along, who was just 6 years-old.

Beverly picked up the trio, took them to see Jonathan for a couple hours and then allegedly was en route back Oklahoma City, when she and Wendy had words. So she dropped the three off at a Walmart and they were never seen alive again. The case was even featured on Unsolved Mysteries and would go unsolved for over 20 years until the remains of the three were found on the property of Grover Prewitt, who had become a cooperating witness. Beverly Noe and Ida Prewitt murdered the three and buried them eight feet down in an unmarked grave dug out on Grover Prewitt’s property for a septic tank in Pawnee County, Oklahoma. Beverly Noe was subsequently arrested and convicted. Ida Prewitt had died back in 2011.

Carnage Redefined

Near the village of Pepples, Ohio, the Rhoden family dominated the few homes along a stretch of Union Hill Road in rural Pike County. Although Dana Rhoden, 37, and forty-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr. were divorced; they were in the process of reconciling. On Union Hill Road, Chris Sr. owned land with two trailers on it, he lived in one and he and Dana’s eldest son, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden and fiancee Hannah Gilley, both 20, lived next-door with their two children. Less than a mile away, Chris Sr. owned property he had recently gave to Dana where she and their son Chris Jr., 16, and daughter Hanna, 19, lived with her two children, Sophia and Kylie— two years old, and five days old, respectively. In a trailer two minutes from Dana was her parents, Leonard and Judy Manley.

Dana’s younger sister Bobby Jo Manley, then 36, also lived on Union Hill Road. For years Bobby helped Dana and her brother-in-law Christopher Rhoden Sr. with chores and their children, her nieces and nephews— giving them rides and such. In an article by Kathleen Hale, Leonard Manley, Dana and Bobby’s father, said she[Bobby] was “naïve” and “people took advantage of her”, especially Dana and Chris Sr.

 “She’s thirty-six—thirty-eight years old? I can’t remember. But she’s got the heart of a kid” 

– Leonard Manley, father of Bobby Jo Manley and Dana Rhoden

Friday, April 22, 2016, started as a typical weekday for Bobby Jo Manley. After waking up and getting her daughter on the school bus, she picked up a friend and his wife then drove over to Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s trailer to feed his dogs and chickens. She left her phone charging in the car and headed to the door, it was then she noticed that something wasn’t right. Chris Sr. always left his door unlocked for her and she noticed that both of his pit bulls who normally stayed inside, were on the porch with one laying on the porch recliner. It took her a moment or two, but she located the key and then proceeded inside.

Bobby had walked into the home of Chris Sr. just like every other day, but little did she know that this time it would upend her life and the horror was just the beginning. In an interview Bobby described the moment she entered Chris Sr.’s only to see a “bunch of blood in the front room,’’ and described what appeared to be bloody drag marks going from the front room towards the back bedroom.

“I yelled Rhoden! Rhoden! Rhoden![what she and others sometimes called Chris Sr.]’’ Bobby Jo Manley recalled in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, and then ran towards his bedroom.

Inside she found her brother-in-law Chris Sr. on the floor, still partially covered with a bed sheet, bloody from the waist-up. His cousin Gary Rhoden, who apparently had been visiting— was motionless just a few feet away. Both men were on the carpeted floor with half-dried pools of blood around them. She couldn’t recall seeing shell casings or firearms, but did notice that the bedroom window was wide open. She panicked— then bolted out of the house to get her phone.

At 7:49a.m. a Pike County 911 dispatcher answered the call. Bobby’s phone call—which contents has since been released, is raw and heartbreaking. Bobby screamed into the phone at times intelligible, that it looked, “like someone had beaten the hell out of them… [there’s]blood all over the house!” 

She couldn’t even remember the street number to the Union Hill Road address that she had been to perhaps hundreds of times, and ran to the mailbox and read, “4-0-7-7” to the dispatcher. 

Bobby Jo Manley then ran over to her nephew Frankie Roden’s trailer to tell him she found his father, but just like Chris Sr.’s, Frankie’s home was locked. Desperate to get his attention, she pounded on the door to wake Frankie or his son— her grandnephew Brentley. She heard the door unlock and then slowly open, a toddler looking up at her. She knelt down to Brentley and asked him, “Where is your daddy?’’ and he just pointed to Frankie Rhoden and Hannah Gilley’s bedroom. She ran back there, hollering for Frankie to wake up. She opened the door and again horrified, the scene was grisly. The carnage was amplified. Lying in their bed was Frankie and Hannah.

Bobby Jo Manley knew without a doubt the couple, both just twenty years-old; were dead. Hannah was motionless, her legs curled up on her right side in a partial fetal position with the left strap of her bloody nightgown let down with her left breast exposed from her nursing bra. On a pillow was her head, typically full of beautiful long blonde hair— now red, caked in blood. Frankie was lying on his back next to Hannah. His left eye was black and swollen. At first glance the patch of bedding between them was just a pool of blood. Then Bobby saw movement. It was six month-old baby Ruger, squashed between his dead parents, covered from head-to-toe in blood.

It’s an image Bobby wants to get out of her head—leaning over Frankie’s body, her six month-old grandnephew covered in his parent’s blood, petting his slain father’s bloody, sticky upper chest— trying desperately to nurse his mother. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Brentley’s mother, Chelsea, had dropped off Brentley the night before so he could spent more time with his father. Soon as she received the phone call the very next morning, she “made the forty-five minute drive in twenty”.

The Pike County Sheriff’s deputies arrived moments later and began to question Bobby. Little did she know, her decent into hell had only just begun. Yet, just as everyone at the scene was trying to get a grasp of the massacre before them, a mile north Bobby’s older brother James Manley and his wife Alice pulled into the driveway of Dana’s trailer. Someone had to break the news to Dana and the kids, but when James walked Dana was dead, he then headed right back out the door after hearing his grandniece crying. It’s unclear to what extent his knowledge was of what Bobby encountered a short time earlier, however, April Manley told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “He[James] didn’t want to find his niece like that”, which one could assume he knew what Bobby encountered with Frankie and Hannah.

Upon entering the trailer deputies found the body of Dana Manley Rhoden. Then they headed towards the sound of the crying infant. They found nineteen year-old Hanna Rhoden shot to death in bed with her unharmed five day-old daughter, Kylie wiggling next to her. Moments later they found the youngest of the victims, sixteen year-old Chris Rhoden, Jr., a high school freshman who was just issued his driver’s license. Initially there was concern about where Hanna’s two year-old daughter Sophia was, but deputies quickly learned she was staying at a relative’s home. 

Sheriff Charles Reader, his deputies, the remaining Rhodens and Manley families and both families of Hanna Gilley— the Gilleys and Carvers had only started to grasp the extent of the casualties, yet were beyond overwhelmed—only certain that their lives are forever changed.

Then at 1:26 p.m. a  dispatcher received a call that was being patched in from an operator.

“There’s Pike County, sir. Go ahead”, the operator said.

The Pike County dispatcher asks, “This is 911. Can I help you?”

“I need a deputy to come out to close to 799 Left Fork”.

“OK???”, the dispatcher asks as if why did he need a deputy.

“It’s all that stuff that’s on the news. Um, I just found, I just found my cousin with a gunshot wound”

“OK, sir. Is he alive?” the dispatcher asked the caller.

” No. No”

The caller was Donald Stone, Chris Sr.’s cousin on his mother’s side. He had learned about his family members being murdered on TV. Stunned, he went over to the home of Chris Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden’s to see if there was anything he could do. Kenneth Rhoden lived in a small camper about three miles from his brother Christopher Rhoden Sr.

Donald Stone would enter the camper, only to discover that his other cousin, Kenneth had been murdered; shot once through his right eye.

A Culture of Corruption

The violent crime rate in Ohio was and still is significantly lower than the national average. The day after the massacre, an article by WCPO Channel 9 Cincinnati titled, Is Pike County a dangerous place? sought to explore whether violence was being overlooked. Was Pike County so dangerous, perhaps the rural community was in denial or even desensitized? Obviously, just a few murders in an isolated incident could skew crime statistics in a rural area. Pike County wasn’t just another rural community. Pike County was just in national headlines for a recent murder involving corruption at the sheriff’s office and the county prosecutor. Innocence was not just lost, corruption had become it’s identity. With that said, still Pike County’s violent crime rate was not only 66 percent lower than the state average, but nearly 98% lower than the national average.

Friday, April 22, 2016 was supposed to be Sheriff Reader’s day off. Then the call went out over the radio about the quadruple homicide that occurred at two neighboring homes on Union Hill Road. Just as he heard it, his phone rang confirming what he heard. Despite recent headlines both residents and deputies were unfamiliar with violent crime, let alone the extermination of an entire family. While en route to the crime scene, the report of another three victims simply just overwhelmed him. Hours later there was another. It was unreal.

That afternoon, Sheriff Charles Reader, welcomed the media and appeared to be the one taking the reins of the investigation. Many Pike County residents were stunned. He told them that Pike County Sheriff’s Office in conjunction with child services and county coroner were working on the case. 

The details were scarce. According to investigators up until that point— all but one of the victims were shot in the head “execution style” as they slept. The elder Christopher Rhoden was shot in the chest according to the coroner. They indicated that a total of 31 shots had been fired, yet failed to elaborate who and where. Sadly, it was one of the many inaccurate narratives the PCSO told the media and residents of Pike County. Perhaps inexperience or pride, maybe both?

There was no doubt that the investigation into Rhoden Family massacre was and remains beyond the Pike County Sheriff’s Office capabilities and expertise. They had no clue what they were getting themselves into. It’s not necessarily a bad reflection of a law enforcement agency and it’s staff. There is a reason why street gangs and criminal operations have opted to base their operations & thrive nearly with impunity in small communities. Many counties in the United States covers vast areas, some well over 10,000 square miles with dozens of small towns dotted throughout it, with only the sheriff’s department serving as the sole law enforcement agency, which response times can take close to an hour or even longer. Operating on a razor thin budget, many sheriff’s departments/offices can barely afford part-time deputies let alone specialized task forces, experienced & knowledgeable officers, materials and equipment needed to tackle emergencies and combat sophisticated criminal organizations. These same departments often have another problem— corruption. This is largely due to very low pay, some often relying on auxiliary/volunteers which hiring standards are almost non-existent and qualified and experienced supervision is almost impossible. 

For Pike County, however, there was something else far worse in play. There were early rumors among residents who feared that the PCSO may even somehow be connected to the murders. Recent scandals plagued the agency and many questioned why Sheriff Reader would even give a press conference in the first place— for many, it was unfathomable that Sheriff Reader could even lead an investigation into a crime of this magnitude when most residents had zero confidence in the agency. Sheriff Reader wasn’t exactly at fault for this, he was new at the job, and even if he was going to restore the reputation of the PCSO, this simply wasn’t the event, time or place.

It was just eleven months earlier that Sheriff Charles Reader had taken over the reins of the scandal plagued Pike County Sheriff’s Office. With a population of just over 20,000 people, four out of Pike County’s thirteen Sheriff’s deputies had been either been forced to resign or indicted for crimes up-to-and-including murder.

Former Pike County Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Jenkins had just been indicted on five charges related to two separate fatal shootings, the last occurring several months before the Rhoden family massacre. Jenkins was charged with murder in December, 2015, after killing his neighbor and best friend Jason Brady, while he was intoxicated. Jenkins claimed that he had been drinking and was instructing Brady on how to disarm someone when the gun “accidentally” fired and killed him. The other charges stemmed from an on duty shooting nine months earlier in March, 2015. After a lengthy night-time pursuit of an unarmed Robert Rooker, Deputy Jenkins fired nine rounds, hitting him seven times; ultimately killing him.

The case gained national attention putting the spotlight on the ‘culture of corruption’ within Pike County, Ohio. Instead of being charged for shooting an unarmed Robert Rooker, then Sheriff Richard Henderson(who resigned less than two months later) and the Pike County prosecutor felt the shooting was justified and reinstated Jenkins as Deputy. Shortly after Sheriff Reader was sworn in, he placed Deputy Jenkins on administrative leave for a “drinking problem” and other “behavioral issues” said to be related to the drinking. This resulted in Jenkins’ being stripped of not only his service weapon, but surrendering his personal firearms as it is against the law for someone with a substance abuse problem to possess them. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the start of behavioral issues for Deputy Jenkins. A few years earlier he was terminated from Fayette County before the end of his probationary period according to Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth who stated, “his[Jenkins] performance in 2011 and 2012 was mediocre, and he was reprimanded for running his cruiser into an elderly man in a crosswalk”. 

While on administrative leave with PCSO, the Pike County prosecutor loaned Jenkins firearms for “personal protection” with knowledge of his addiction and behavioral issues, which is against federal law. It wasn’t long after, that Jenkins’ in a drunken stupor shot and killed his neighbor and “best friend” Jason Brady while supposedly teaching him how to disarm someone. A condition of Jenkins’ “administrative leave” was for him to get treatment before reinstatement, something he failed to complete at that point, which is why he was stripped of his duty weapon and personal firearms in the first place.

In 2014, Pike County Sheriff deputies Phil Hopper and Paul Wheeler were drunk and then jumped and stomped Hopper’s sixteen year-old stepson. An independent investigation conducted by Ross County investigators found that both deputies could & should have been charged. They weren’t, but ended up resigning from the Pike County Sheriff’s Office.

Then back in 2013, Chief Deputy Clyde Franklin Sanders Jr. plead no contest to gross sexual imposition. In a gross miscarriage of justice seldom spoke of, Sanders was subsequently sentenced to five years of “community control sanctions” and ordered to register as a Tier 2 sex offender. Between October 2008 and January 2009 Sanders engaged in sexual relations with a child under the age of ten. He was indicted by a grand jury in 2011.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that Bobby Jo Manley and five other individuals closely related to the Rhodens were yanked from their beds the following Sunday morning at 3:45a.m. on November 24, not even 48 hours after Bobby first discovered the bodies of her family members. Deputies felt it was awfully suspicious that Bobby had access to all these homes, including her sister’s ex-husbands and demanded to know “what time she was really at the home of the elder Chris Rhoden”. From then on they began accusing her of not getting her facts straight. Calling her a liar and taking local rumors as fact, using gossip to formulate theories. It was obvious that Bobby Jo Manley was Public Enemy Numero Uno and she needed to do something about it.

She turned to the media.

For those reasons and to the relief of many in the community, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine stepped in & took over the case with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation who had 90 agents assigned to the case, a quarter of the agency’s manpower.

Innocence Lost— A Tale of Two Communities

Barely 48 hours into what would eventually become Ohio’s largest criminal investigation, Attorney General Mike DeWine said investigators found “commercial marijuana grow operations” on three of the victim’s properties. Not only were news outlets perpetuating that this was tied up with Mexican Drug Cartels, but so were locals and law enforcement.

The next two years would be the best of a community and the worst of a community.

Rumors were circulating that the Rhodens were ruthless redneck drug addicts and hardened criminals. Tales of animal torture from their cockfighting operation were rampant. Several different versions of the same story about the Rhodens engaging in drunken brawl at a demolition derby. Worst of all, stories of them humiliating and bullying locals if they didn’t pay Christopher Sr. gambling & drug debts owed.

Pictures told another tale. A community that gathered together, raised money and memorials for members of their community taken so violently and too soon. It appeared no one could separate fact from fiction, including Ohio’s top cop, Attorney General Mike DeWine. He continually hinted at a possible history of Mexican organized crime in the area and had “not ruled out such a connection, though other leads are being pursued as well”.

Other theories involved a cockfighting ring and a hit carried out over dispute regarding a demolition derby car.

When pressed on it a few days later, Attorney General DeWine still refused to relent on the Cartel angle, “We will not be telegraphing or telling the bad guys everything that we know,” DeWine said. Which still gave credibility the rumor, if not fueling it.

Eventually the Drug Enforcement Administration had to step in and quell the rumors perpetuated by DeWine and the Pike County Sheriff’s Office. DEA Agent-in-Charge Chris Melink out of the DEA’s Dayton field office told several media outlets, “Historically those types of domestic grows[operations found on the victims’ properties] are separate from the Mexican cartel supply chain”, and that he’s, “not aware of any grow operations discovered in southwest Ohio that have been linked to Mexican drug organizations”.

Contrary to popular belief, while it is true that criminal organizations have been penetrating rural communities since the late nineties and early aughts, this is often locals or folks from bigger communities nearby. Virtually all the marijuana produced by drug cartels is grown in South America and smuggled across the United States border. Cartel operations in rural Ohio would be obvious. Mexicans and/or South Americans with lots of cash and firepower are not going to blend into rural white communities, driving around in Cadillacs and mowing down families— it’s just that simple folks. I’m sure it would make the DEA’s  job a hell of a lot easier if this was standard practice. Just like a bunch of white men aren’t going to buy a bunch on guns and show up in Bolivia, Columbia and/or Peru and just take over cocaine grow operations. That only happens in movies and on popular sleuther boards— that’s not real life.

For over two years the rumors persisted, intense victim blaming became the norm in the community. While no one should take internet message boards or chats between anonymous internet entities as valid sources of information or even great insight, some of these very rumors and narratives was recognized by reporters, journalists, both professional and amateur on the ground. To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t surprise me one bit, this has been going on since the beginning of time.

As time wore on and the case showed little progress, the name Rhoden became synonymous with “white trash”. Some even suggesting that the Rhoden’s had it coming for all the “wrongs” they’re guilty of. It’s easy to follow and document updates from the media. From time to time I like to read the views of those close to cases I research. When you don’t have unlimited resources you have to reach out to those close to the case in good faith, hoping perhaps one person will speak with you. I learned a long time ago, it’s next to impossible to get anyone close to the crime to talk to you and the very few that might are extremely cautious and refuse to go on the record. I have not problem honoring a person’s wish to remain confidential, however, if they won’t even tell me who they are, means I’m expected to trust them, but I’m not afforded the same courtesy. Which means reliability & quality is the price paid in exchange.

It’s no different when it came to case discussions online about the murder of the Rhodens and the corruption going on in Pike County. Boards like topix.com and a handful of others places where those interested in local happenings congregate gives you an idea of what the “rumor mill” is saying, of course without accountability. Free to say whatever you want about whomever, zero accountability.

If any of the “rumors” were true, nobody was speaking out loud.
“Rhoden Strong” signs and shirts appeared all over the community, including ones listing the names of the victims.

This is common in small communities, especially those in the bible belt, the same rural areas facing an opioid crisis slowly rotting these communities from within— most that were just ravaged by crystal meth which seemed like yesterday and barely, just barely survived it. To endure such hardships only for the finest & purist FDA approved pills and cheap black tar heroin to sweep through to try and finish the job. Today in these communities, an entire generation has been orphaned and the population that remains is on some form of government assistance. The political climate of the last two years has only helped to further isolate them into believing their fellow Americans are the enemy, that big cities are full of communists, illegals and militant liberals are out to squander their way of life. Yet, local law enforcement peddled away that three grow operations were uncovered at three of the homes, and likely the catalyst. They were criminals who were killed in the line of duty. It did absolutely nothing positive for Pike County, but lend some credibility to the worst of rumors perpetuated by trolls and instigators. Just add an ounce of superstition and mix in the the fact that Ohio’s top cop eluding to Mexican drug cartels are in the area, you have all the necessary ingredients for paranoia, false convictions and violence tearing  innocent and decent people apart. We’ve seen this all too often.

For Pike County, it was the perfect storm. It was toxic, but in the end—they prevailed.

Revelations

In June 2017, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and authorities from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation announced during a press conference that they were seeking information about members of the Wagner family who had left Pike County for Alaska not long after the murders. The Wagner and Rhoden families were known to be close by locals, as Hanna Rhoden had been in a prior relationship Jake Wagner, who also was the biological father of Sophia. While the authorities didn’t specify exactly why, but were looking for anyone who may have knowledge about “the state of the relationship” between the two families at the time of the murders, which was previously described as “close and on good terms”. No one was named a suspect at the time, however, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation searched property the Wagner’s had sold.

Just as quick as Mike DeWine announced he was seeking additional information into the Wagner family, another year would pass with no further developments. Mike DeWine, did however throw his hat into 2018 Ohio Governor’s race and later secured the Republican nomination. As the midterm election drew, so did the rhetoric, misconceptions and long dispelled rumors. Illegal immigration and violence had been a major GOP talking point for the last three or four years. With rural Pike county in the middle of Trump country, along with the recent murder of Molly Tibbetts in Iowa, allegedly by an illegal immigrant— it only helped fuel the fear and paranoia that Mexican drug cartels were operating in the area and likely was the force behind the Pike County Massacre.

During those two years the Pike County coroner and prosecutor fought relentlessly to keep the autopsy reports away from the public. Dating back to May 2016, the Cincinnati Enquirer had fought make the reports public through the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous media outlets followed suit soon after. Unfortunately, the circuit courts ruled to keep the reports sealed, a decision later upheld by the appeals court. Then just this past September the decision was somewhat overturned by the Supreme Court of Ohio, who ordered that the media could review the autopsies, photos and coroner notes, but while doing so they cannot take notes. 

The revelations were a game changer, in my opinion. First, if the murders and non-precise details released weren’t horrific enough, this demonstrated that the killings were much more personal than previously thought. This quickly eroded DeWine’s theory in which he perpetuated that the murders may have been related to “a large scale marijuana grow operation” on Chris Sr.’s property. He had access to this information since day one, but in reviewing the information released, it had not fit well with that narrative from the very beginning.

It’s quite obvious that whomever entered these homes had a great deal familiarity, especially at the “alleged grow house” which had two pit bulls present.

According to those who read the Hamilton County Medical Examiners report Christopher Rhoden Sr. was shot nine times and his body had begun to show signs of decomposition. It didn’t specify why they thought he had begun to decompose, as it was believed they were shot only hours before discovery. Gary Rhoden found in the same room as Chris. Sr., was shot three time in the head. 

Next-door to Chris Sr, were the bodies of Frankie Rhoden and Hannah Gilley. Frankie was shot three times, however, Hannah was shot five times in the face and head. Their infant son Ruger, was found alive in between his dead parents by Bobby Jo Manley. Their toddler son Brentley was unharmed, left wondering around the house.

About a mile away was the trailer of Dana Rhoden, where she lived with both she and Chris Sr.’s two children, Christopher Jr, 16, and Hanna, 19. Dana had been shot fives and Christopher Jr. had been shot four times, including twice in the top of his head. Hanna was shot twice in the head. Her two year-old daughter Sophia Wagner was staying with a relative the evening of the murders, but her five day-old child Kylie was in bed with her.

When the Smoke Clears

The arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, believed to be all-in-one— Visalia Ransacker, East Area Rapists & the Original Nightstalker or simply EARONS, Golden State Killer, almost two years to the day of the Rhoden massacre, was a victory celebrated by virtually all who took interest in the case. The victims, their families and communities that lived in terror for decades now had a name and face of the monster that altered the course of their lives forever. The method used was the first in many that revolutionized crime fighting like DNA itself three decades earlier and fingerprints over a century ago. Using viable DNA to be uploaded onto open source genealogy websites which not only shows one’s ancestry & genetic profile, but connects users to possible relatives, even some you’re connected to from dozens of generations ago.

Departments across the nation scrambled to get into their evidence rooms, digging through boxes & boxes of cold cases looking for viable DNA and almost overnight, decades old cases were solved that had once captivated the nation such as the Colorado Hammer Murders and slaying of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg— a young couple from British Columbia who traveled to Seattle and were brutally murdered by William Earl Talbot, II.

Despite this advancement in solving decades old violent crimes, it offered little in solving the Pike County Massacre and recent cases grabbing headlines in recent months.

Jayme Closs, 13, went missing from her home in Barron, Wisconsin, on October 15th of this year. A Barron County dispatcher received a call from Jayme’s mother’s cellphone. Although the dispatcher didn’t speak to anyone directly, she heard lots of yelling in the background. Deputies arrived within four minutes only to discover the front door kicked in and Jayme’s mother and father, Denise and James Closs gunned down.

Jayme Closs has not been seen since.

Three weeks later on Monday, November 5th, Hania Noelia Aguilar, also thirteen year-old, was abducted right outside of her home this time in Lumberton, North Carolina. According to witnesses, she went outside to start the family SUV and was last seen kicking and screaming as a male wearing hoodie and bandanna to cover his face pulled her into the vehicle and took off. The family SUV was found a couple days later in a field just outside the city off a rural road.

On Tuesday, November 6, 2018 Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was elected as the next governor of Ohio in what was one of the most intense and vile political climates in decades.

“We have followed more than 1,100 tips from the public. We conducted 550 interviews.  Served more than 200 subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders and tested more than 700 items of evidence.  The team also traveled thousands of miles to ten separate states as a direct result of this investigation,”

—Mike DeWine, Ohio Attorney General and Governor-elect

Less than a week later, Monday, November 12, 2018 a Pike County grand jury indicted four members of the Wagner family, a mother, father and their two sons— who had close “business and family relations” with the Rhodens.

The Wagners were charged with aggravated murder with death penalty specifications, in addition, each were charged with aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and conspiracy. Those charged were Angela Wagner, 48, her husband George “Billy” Wagner, 47, and both of their sons, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26.

Jake Wagner was also charged with a single count of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, resulting from information gleaned from a court petitions filed, testimony during a custody hearing and interviews Wagner gave the media following the murders. Hanna Rhoden was fifteen years-old and Wagner, 20, when she became pregnant with Sophia. 

The Wagner family had recently returned to Pike County from Alaska. One strange development was that the FBI had tracked Billy Wagner, down in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s unclear if he had been tipped off about an imminent arrest, but was captured hiding in a horse trailer that was pulled over by the Lexington Police Department and the FBI closed in and made the arrest. As of this writing, Lexington PD wasn’t sure if he had been living in the area or fled after having been tipped off. 

Contrary to all the rumors, bashing and victim blaming, the murder of Rhoden family wasn’t the byproduct of drugs or other criminal activity, but five year-old Sophia, daughter of Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden whom both had shared custody over. A case about control, jealousy, domestic violence, pure hatred and mental illness, just simmering in a toxic atmosphere. It wasn’t illegals. It wasn’t Mexican drug gangs. MS-13. Antifa. Islamic terrorists. It was from within, homegrown. They identified so much with Pike County, Ohio, that even after they sold the farm and knew the Ohio BCI, Pike County Sheriff’s Office and Mike DeWine were looking for them, they came back. 

There was an obsession with control of the children,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said at at news conference following the arrests.

The very next day Billy Wagner’s mother, Fredericka Wagner, 76 and Angela Wagner’s mother Rita Newcomb, 67, both great-grandmothers of Sophia, were arrested for obstructing justice and perjury. Rita was also charged with a single count of forgery. A short time after Fredericka’s arraignment on Thursday, November 15, she posted ten percent of her $100,000 bond and was placed on electronic monitoring & house arrest. Rita posted ten-percent of her $50,000 bond this past Tuesday.

According to court records, Edward “Jake” Wagner filed for temporary custody of Sophia six days after the homicides. He was granted temporary custody that May and the following month was awarded full custody in June 2016. In the initial petition for custody, both Jake and Angela Wagner said Hanna and Sophia had “lived with them at their former farm off and on in Peeples”. 

“She said she wanted a life of her own and still had a lot to accomplish”

– Jake Wagner said of Hanna Rhoden in a May 2016 interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer

In rather strange interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer in May 2016, Jake claimed that he and Hanna began dating when she was just 13 years-old and he was 17. He also stated that he and Hanna “planned the pregnancy of Sophia” and also, “planned to marry on August 27, 2015”. They even had matching ring bands tattooed on their left ring fingers. He also had purchased a “traditional” engagement ring. According to Wagner the relationship fell apart because their views & plans for the future varied significantly. While he was an over-the-road truck driver, he wanted Hanna to be a stay-at-home wife and a full-time mother to their daughter Sophia. 

“Then up and out of the blue she told me she was moving out and moving on with her life,’’ Wagner said in the interview, “She said she wanted a life of her own and still had a lot to accomplish.”

They separated around March 2015, but thought Hanna leaving him, “was just a phase”. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer in the very same court petition for temporary custody filed by Jake and Angela Wagner just six days after the massacre, both he and Hanna two continued a “non-exclusive romantic relationship” until late September 2015. 

Aside from the senseless violence, the most tear-jerking part of this story at least for me, is little Sophia was supposed to be celebrating her birthday with her father, paternal grandparents and uncle the other weekend. She was excited to have a birthday cake, presents, balloons, silly cone hats and all these people she trusted and loved cheering & celebrating her day, magic that you could only experience as a child just once.

That day she was with strangers, a home designated by child protective services, in the stepping stone of the system… a temporary foster home. Sophia, scared and all alone on her special day, as the Wagners sit in jail facing death for the calculated, coldblooded murders of her mother, grandma & grandpa, both uncles, great uncle, cousin and future aunt on April 22, 2016. She’ll never experience the magic of a birthday again. 

Sophia is paying the ultimate price. How dare the Wagners say they killed for her, and put that on this child. Perhaps they’ve reconciled it within their own sick minds, but she never will. 

Every now and then someone says there are far worse things than murder. Yes, there really is.

Further Reading and Resources

https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/crime–law/dea-agent-cartel-presence-rural-ohio-would-unusual/RaofjS4bTyy9Jft1unKZwJ/

https://www.chillicothegazette.com/story/news/2016/04/23/transcripts-911-calls-pike-county-slayings/83445300/

https://hazlitt.net/murder-union-hill-road

https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2016/05/11/pike-county-not-leaving-those-babies-there/84194756/

https://www.wcpo.com/news/crime/is-pike-county-a-dangerous-place

https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/crime/crime-and-courts/2018/11/16/rhoden-family-massacre-wagner-matriarch-posts-bond-rhoden-case/2030141002/

https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/crime/2018/11/13/pike-county-massacre-wagner-family-arrested-rhoden-family-homicides/1990620002/

Categories: Murder

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