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Ohio man found guilty in trial over family massacre of 8

George Wagner IV was charged in what prosecutors say was a 2016 plot against eight members of the Rhoden family over a bitter custody dispute.
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An Ohio man accused of helping his family plan, carry out and cover up the killing of eight members of another family was found guilty of murder Wednesday.

A jury convicted George Wagner IV on Wednesday afternoon on multiple counts of aggravated murder and other charges related to conspiracy and attempts to cover up evidence in the 2016 massacre of the Rhoden family.

Wagner, who was not accused of shooting anyone, testified during the trial that he was unaware of his family's deadly plans. Earlier in the trial, a judge decided Wagner would not face the death penalty upon a conviction as part of an agreement between the prosecution and two other members of Wagner’s family who agreed to testify truthfully against him.

Prosecutors said Wagner and his family plotted to kill the Rhodens over a custody dispute involving Wagner’s brother Edward “Jake” Wagner and one of the victims, Hanna Rhoden, who shared a toddler daughter.

In addition to Hanna Rhoden, 19, the victims were her parents, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, and Dana Rhoden, 37; her brothers: 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden and 16-year-old Christopher Jr.; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; and a cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38.

His attorney, John P. Parker, started the questioning with Wagner’s upbringing. Judge Randy Deering presides.
George Wagner IV takes the stand Nov. 16 during his trial in Waverly, Ohio.Liz Dufour / USA Today Network

After the verdict, members of the Rhoden family gathered outside the courthouse and wept, thanking the jury for giving them “a little bit of peace” years after their loved ones were killed.

“It should have never happened,” family member Tony Rhoden said of the killings. 

Many members of the Rhoden family sat through the emotional trial, including its matriarch, Geneva Rhoden.

Tony Rhoden said they have been able to get through the tragedy with “family support.”

He called Geneva Rhoden “the rock” of the family and said, “She’s the one that got us this far.”

Both Wagner brothers as well as their parents, Angela Wagner and George “Billy” Wagner III, were charged in the killings. George “Billy” Wagner III has pleaded not guilty.

Angela Wagner pleaded guilty to a role in helping to plan the killings in exchange for a 30-year sentence. Jake Wagner last year confessed to shooting five of the Rhoden family victims and has been spared the death penalty as a result of his plea.

​​"These murders should never have happened," special prosecutor Angela Canepa said during closing arguments. "We are here because eight innocent victims were slaughtered, most of them in their sleep, all of them unarmed."

Canepa said Wagner should be found guilty, even if he didn’t kill any of the Rhodens himself.

"He doesn’t have to be the person that actually pulled the trigger," she said. 

"You were complicit, because you knew what was going to happen, you knew what they were going to do, and you aided and abetted them," she said of Wagner.

During closing arguments, Wagner's defense attorney told jurors that Wagner had no reason to participate in the killing of Hanna Rhoden and her family. Instead, he said, the blame lay with Wagner’s brother Jake and their mother, Angela.

"Jake and Angela have destroyed this man’s life," John Parker said of his client.

"Why would he agree to kill Hanna and her family? You heard him testify, Hanna was like a little sister to him," he said.

"He wouldn’t kill anybody. He didn’t kill anybody, and he didn’t go along because it makes no sense," Parker said.

Earlier in the trial, George Wagner IV testified that he had no knowledge that his family planned to kill the Rhodens. While he detailed his family’s history of crimes, including burning their properties for insurance money, he said he would have tried to stop the killing plot had he known about it.

“I never would have believed my family would be capable of doing something of this magnitude,” he testified. “Theft is one thing. Murder is an entirely different thing.”

Wagner said if he had known about the plan, “one way or another, I would have never let it happen.”

Both Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner testified against George Wagner IV at trial as part of plea agreements.

Edward "Jake" Wagner
Edward "Jake" Wagner speaks to an attorney at the Pike County Courthouse in Waverly, Ohio, on Nov. 27, 2018.Brooke LaValley / The Columbus Dispatch via AP file

Jake Wagner testified that he was increasingly concerned his child with Hanna Rhoden might suffer abuse and ultimately decided he “had no other choice than to kill Hanna,” according to NBC affiliate WLWT of Cincinnati.

Clockwise from top left, Dana Manley Rhoden and Christopher Rhoden Sr., Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden and Hannah "Hazel" Gilley, Hanna May Rhoden, Gary Rhoden, Kenneth Rhoden, Christopher Rhoden Jr.
Clockwise from top left, Dana Manley Rhoden and Christopher Rhoden Sr.; Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden and Hannah "Hazel" Gilley; Hanna May Rhoden; Gary Rhoden; Kenneth Rhoden; Christopher Rhoden Jr.Ohio Attorney General via Getty Images

Jake Wagner opted to have his testimony confined to the courtroom, and not broadcast on audio or video, which the judge allowed.

He also testified that George Wagner IV helped execute the plot and was supposed to kill Chris Rhoden Sr., the first member of the Rhoden family who was killed that night in April 2016, according to the station.

Jake Wagner said his brother froze and did not fire, leading Jake to kill the man himself, according to WLWT.

Angela Wagner also testified in court against her son, saying that he was willing to confess to the killings himself, but she was opposed, according to NBC affiliate WCMH of Columbus, Ohio.

The prosecution asked Angela Wagner whether she regretted her actions, according to the station. She said yes and became visibly emotional, WCMH reported.

“Because they’re my sons,” she said. “I should’ve protected them from that situation.”