The first trial for one of the suspects accused of a massacre that left eight people dead is underway.
Jury selection has begun for the case of George Wagner IV, 30. He is the first of four family members accused of brutally murdering another family in 2016, according to Fox Cincinnati affiliate WXIX.
Wagner IV is charged with nearly two dozen crimes — including eight counts of murder — in connection with what’s become known as the “Pike County Murders.” It's widely considered the largest homicide investigation in all of Ohio.
Seven members of the Rhoden family, plus the fiancée of one of the victims, were found shot to death in April 2016, in an execution-style ambush among several dwellings on their rural property in southern Ohio, including a camper and multiple mobile homes. The eighth victim was killed several miles away.
In one trailer were two victims, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and his cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38. In a separate trailer were Rhoden Sr.’s ex-wife, Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37, and their children, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Hanna Rhoden, 19. Hanna was killed with her days-old infant at her side, though the baby was unharmed in the ambush.
Christopher Rhoden Sr. and Dana Manley-Rhoden’s son, Frankie Rhoden, and his fiancée, Hannah Gilley, both 20, were killed in a separate dwelling. Their 6-month-old child and Frankie’s 3-year-old son from a previous relationship were present for the killings but physically unharmed.
Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden, was also found shot to death some three miles away from the massacre.
Photo: Pike County Sheriff's Office/Ohio Attorney General's Bureau of Criminal Investigation
Police believe that most of the victims were sleeping when the shooting began. All but one were shot multiple times.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine called the murders “a sophisticated operation.”
The murders gained widespread media coverage — including Oxygen’s series, “The Piketon Family Murders” — but remained unsolved for two years, until authorities announced the arrests of four people in the Wagner family.
Married couple George Wagner III and Angela Wagner, as well as their sons, George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner, were arrested in 2018 in Ohio and Kentucky and charged with the Rhoden family murders.
Photo: Office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine
Jake Wagner, now 28, was the father of Hanna Rhoden’s then-3-year-old child, Sophia, and prosecutors suspect the massacre stemmed from a bitter custody dispute. Prosecutors say Jake and his family forged documents to ensure they kept custody of the girl.
Sophia was in the Wagners’ custody on the night of the murder.
The four Wagners sold their 71-acre farm and moved with Sophia to a spot near Kenai, Alaska — southwest of Anchorage — about one year after the murders, though they had been named persons of interest in the case.
The family was arrested in 2018, months after they moved back to Ohio.
State Prosecutor Angela Canepa recently described the Wagner family to the New York Times as an “insular” family who kept to themselves. Although Canepa contends the murders were a custody battle gone horribly wrong, she says Wagner IV’s upcoming trial “will be the first time anybody will be able to hear all the facts.”
Jake Wagner — often referred to as the “baby” of the Wagner family — pleaded guilty to a total of 23 criminal charges, including eight counts of murder in April 2021. His plea deal allowed him to avoid the death penalty, and he agreed to serve eight life sentences in prison.
Angela Wagner also pleaded guilty in September 2021. In return for her cooperation, murder charges were dropped, though she admitted to conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, several burglary charges and other crimes.
She is currently serving a 30-year sentence, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Jake Wagner is expected to testify against his older brother, George Wagner IV, in the latter's trial, according to WXIX. Jury selection in the case was slated for completion by Monday.
On top of murder charges, Wagner IV is also charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, four counts of aggravated burglary, three counts of tampering with evidence and one count each of forgery, unauthorized use of property, wire interception, obstruction of justice and corruption.
Wagner IV previously moved to have the death penalty taken off the table on the grounds that he allegedly hadn’t pulled the trigger when helping carry out the executions, according to WXIX. A judge denied that motion in December.
George Wagner III also pleaded not guilty and is also expected to face trial at a later date.
The prosecution and defense are expected to deliver their opening statements at the Pike County Common Pleas Court on Sept. 6, according to WXIX.
Both Wagner III and Wagner IV face the death penalty if convicted.