The 29-year-old convicted killer spent day three of testimony under cross-examination by lawyers for his brother, George Wagner IV. Jake Wagner’s participation in the prosecution of his brother was part of a 2021 plea deal, in which he admitted to the 2016 slayings of eight people in rural Ohio in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table.
Prosecutors initially also charged the brothers' parents, Angela and George “Billy” Wagner III, with murder. Angela Wagner subsequently pleaded guilty to lesser charges, including conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and burglary, and is also expected to testify against her eldest son.
Jake has already testified this week about how he, George and their father went from dwelling to dwelling in the early morning hours of April 22, 2016, shooting to death seven members of the Rhoden family, plus the fiancée of one of the victims. The overnight ambush was the alleged result of a bitter custody battle over the 3-year-old daughter of Jake Wagner and 19-year-old victim Hanna May Rhoden.
Jake admitted on the stand to killing only five of the eight victims, despite accepting guilt for all eight homicides, as pointed out by Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa.
“I just took it all, I reckon,” said Jake.
On Wednesday, Jake’s testimony continued, with claims that he decided to confess to the murders after he received “an answer from God,” according to NBC Cincinnati affiliate WLWT.
“To me, it felt like it was the answer I was looking for at the time,” Jake said on the stand.
According to Fox Newport, Kentucky affiliate WXIX-TV, Jake requested his testimony be taped in hopes that his jailed relatives could better understand why he decided to cooperate with authorities.
Jake said his confession was inspired by his grandmother, Rita Newcomb, who pleaded guilty to covering up the octuple murder by forging custody documents concerning Hanna and Jake’s daughter, Sophia.
“It’s not a good Christian thing to lie, and I didn’t want to do that anymore,” Newcomb said of her plea in 2019.
Photo: Office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine
Newcomb had told officials that her Angela requested that she forge the documents, and Newcomb said she initially lied about it before the grand jury.
Documents were also forged concerning the custody of the current defendant's young son, Bulvine, in which Angela allegedly also had a hand.
The children, Bulvine and Sophia, were with Angela when the men allegedly shot their eight victims in the middle of the night after unsuccessful attempts to gain custody of Sophia.
George’s ex-wife, Tabitha Claytor, claimed Angela had also interjected herself into first the couple's relationship and then their bitter custody battle.
Before the murders, Claytor’s mother warned Hanna against signing custody over to the Wagners.
“Over my dead body,” Hanna responded via Facebook message.
According to Jake’s recent testimony, the Facebook correspondence prompted the decision to kill the Rhoden clan.
Photo: Pike County Sheriff's Office/Ohio Attorney General's Bureau of Criminal Investigation
The victims were Hanna May Rhoden, 19; her parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37; Hanna’s brothers, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20; Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 19; Hanna’s uncle, Keneth Rhoden; and Christopher Sr.’s cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38.
“I had no choice,” Jake testified on Monday. “If I didn’t do something, Sophie would be harmed.”
On Tuesday, Jake told the court the three accused men hid each of their firearms bycutting them up with a portable grinder, melting the parts and later them in buckets filled with concrete mix. The weights were later used to anchor a goose house on a lake at the Wagners’ Flying W family farm.
George Wagner IV maintains he never pulled the trigger during the massacre, a claim which Jake backed up in his testimony on Wednesday, saying his brother froze when it came time to shoot Christopher Rhoden Sr. — the first person to die on the night of the murders.
The elder Wagner son is currently charged with nearly two dozen crimes, including eight counts of murder. Their father, Billy, also pleaded not guilty to murder charges and has yet to go to trial.
George’s trial will resume on Friday with more testimony by Jake Wagner.