Edward ‘Jake’ Wagner pleads not guilty to 23 counts in Rhoden family homicides

By Holly Zachariah - The Columbus Dispatch

WAVERLY, Ohio — Edward “Jake” Wagner, accused in the brutal killings of eight members of one southern Ohio family, was escorted in shackles and under high security into the Pike County Courthouse Tuesday, the morning winds whipping his long hair across his face.

In court, the 26-year-old pleaded not guilty and Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy D. Deering ordered him held without bond. It took almost an hour for the judge to read the 23 charges against him, including eight counts of aggravated murder.

Four members of the Wagner family have been charged with conspiracy and aggravated murder for the killings and each could face the death penalty. They are: George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; Angela Wagner, 48; and their two sons, George Wagner IV, 27, and Jake Wagner. Their arraignments are scheduled for later this week and into next.

Also charged with helping to cover up the crimes are Rita Newcomb, 65, the mother of Angela Wagner; and Fredericka Wagner, 76, the mother of Billy Wagner. Newcomb is also charged with forging custody documents.

Jake Wagner said nothing during the hearing — he was not required to — except to answer the judge’s yes or no questions. He showed no emotion, even as the killings he is accused of were detailed. His attorneys had earlier filed a claim for indigency, so he is being represented by experienced death-penalty attorneys William Mooney and Gregory Meyers from the Ohio Public Defenders office.

Inside the courtroom, the Rhoden family — with matriarch 74-year-old Geneva Rhoden front and center — filled five rows. The Manley family filled two and the Gilley family filled the rest of the space.

It appeared at least three people were there to support the Wagners, including Billy’s sister. No one from any of the families would comment after the arraignment.

Security was high both in the courtroom and outside the courthouse with deputies seemingly everywhere. Before the start of the hearing, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader greeted the Rhodens, and embraced them.

Little happened other than routine procedural matters. Deering did issue a blanket order forbidding anyone involved — including prosecutors and defense attorneys — from publicly discussing the case.

Killed in four separate homes in rural Pike County on April 22 were: Christopher Rhoden; Dana Manley Rhoden; their daughter, Hanna May Rhoden; their sons, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden and Christopher Rhoden Jr.; Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley; Kenneth Rhoden, Chris Sr.’s brother; and Gary Rhoden, a cousin.

Hanna Rhoden and Jake Wagner had a child together — the only young child belonging to the victims who was not in the homes when the killings occurred — and investigators have said “obsession” and “fixation” with custody and control of that now 5-year-old was at the center of the case. After Jake’s arrest, Children Services took over her care.

The Wagners were arrested on Nov. 13. Authorities said as careful as the family was to clear their tracks while conspiring and planning the murders and carrying them out, they made mistakes. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Reader said investigators have been piecing together he forensic evidence for 2 1/2 years.

There had been a reward of more than $10,000 offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in this case, but DeWine has said it’s too early to say if anyone would receive it.


By Holly Zachariah

The Columbus Dispatch

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