The mother in the Wagner family — all of whom were accused of participating in the murders of eight members of a rival family — took the stand for a second day and underwent cross examination by her son's lawyers.
Prosecutors have alleged that Angela Wagner, 52, her husband George "Billy" Wagner III, 51, their older son, George Wagner IV, 31, and their younger son, Edward "Jake" Wagner, 29, conspired to kill eight people in April 2016 in what became known as the Pike County Murders.
Their alleged victims were Hanna May Rhoden, 19, who had a child with Jake Wagner; her parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Manley-Rhoden, 37; her brothers, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Frankie Rhoden, 20; her uncle, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; her father's cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38; and Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20.
Angela Wagner pleaded guilty in September 2021 to conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, forgery, unauthorized use of property and unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance. Prosecutors have asked that she be sentenced to 30 years without the possibility of parole — pending her testimony against her son and husband.
George Wagner IV is currently on trial for his role in the murders. He, his lawyers and his brother, Jake, all say that he didn't actually pull the trigger at any of the crime scenes.
Angela Wagner testified on Tuesday that the family had spent months plotting the mass murder after Hanna May Rhoden told an acquaintance she would not sign over custody of her daughter Sophia, 3, with Jake Wagner. The Wagners had already gained full custody of George Wagner IV's son, Bulvine, from his ex-wife.
Photo: Delaware County Jail
Jake and Angela Wagner both testified that the family had become convinced that someone in the Rhoden household had molested Sophia. Saying "We didn't believe in the justice system," Angela testified that her husband, Billy Wagner, convinced the rest of the family that the only way for Sophia and the Wagners to be safe was to exterminate all of the Rhodens.
They also both testified that Angela remained at the family home on the night of the murders to watch Sophia and Bulvine. Angela said she used the other family members' phones to send text messages as potential alibis for them, before eventually dozing off.
On Wednesday, she testified more about the aftermath of the murders and how the investigation heightened the family's extensive sense of paranoia, according to Cincinnati ABC affiliate WCPO.
Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa asked her if she ever believed they would get away with the massacre.
"My belief is even if we hadn't ended up in jail or arrested, you never get away with it," she said, according to WCPO and Columbus Dispatch reporter Monroe Trombly. "You live with it."
A year after the murders — well into the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations' (BCI) attempts to speak with the Wagners — she said the family decided to sell their farm and move to Alaska, despite her mother and Billy Wagner's parents' pleas to stay. But, once they got to Alaska, they heard that BCI investigators had descended on their abandoned property, and everyone began to worry.
When they attempted to drive back to Ohio from Alaska, they were detained at the Canadian border and questioned about various aspects of the case in separate interrogation rooms. Angela testified she was worried her sons would be arrested at that point. However, they were all released and drove back to Pike County, where they stayed for a week, and then drove back to Alaska.
That's where they were on June 19, 2017, when then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine asked the public for assistance in tying the family to the murders, according to northeast Ohio pubic radio station WKSU.
"It was devastating," Angela said of the announcement, adding that she scoured social media in the mornings, reading comments about the family and the offered reward.
Billy Wagner, she said, began drinking and Jake Wagner began a relationship with Elizabeth "Beth" Armer, who he married shortly thereafter.
Angela, who previously testified about her contentious relationships with both her sons' exes, didn't like Armer either. She eventually read Armer's journals and became convinced the young woman was or was planning to cooperate with the BCI in their investigation of the Wagners.
Eventually, the Wagners gave up on Alaska and relocated with Armer to Missouri, where everyone stayed in one motel room — Angela, Billy, George, Jake, Bulvine and Sophia Wagner, plus Armer — while the men looked for work.
Angela testified that Jake seemed increasingly distracted after the murders and George had regular nightmares. She told Billy at the time that she thought they shouldn't have involved their boys after all, and said she now regrets having done so.
They returned with Armer to Ohio after Angela's father died and left her his house. She testified that, as the investigation into the family ramped up, George Wagner IV offered to admit to all the murders, but she told him no.
"One, they wouldn't believe him and two, he was not going to do that," she said, according to the Dispatch's Trombly.
They were arrested at her father's former home in November 2018.
Angela testified that Jake Wagner's April 2021 plea agreement in the murders broke her heart — especially since she learned about it from news reports. But she admitted that it, in part, inspired her own plea deal so that, she claimed, Jake wouldn't have to testify against her.
On cross examination, she admitted to creating a GoFundMe after the massacre to offset the family's legal expenses in attempting to gain custody of Sophia.
She also teared up from the first time when discussing her abusive father, Ed Carter, and her sexual assault after she enlisted in the military on her father's orders.