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Opening statements begin in murder trial in slaying of 8 members of Ohio family

George Wagner IV is accused of assisting his family in a murder plot against the Rhoden family in 2016.
George Wagner IV
George Wagner IV is escorted out of court after his arraignment in Waverly, Ohio, on Nov. 28, 2018.Robert McGraw / The Chillicothe Gazette via AP file

An Ohio man helped his family plan, execute and cover up the murders of eight members of another family over a bitter custody battle, prosecutors said Monday in the first trial connected to the 2016 killings.

George Wagner IV, 30, is accused of assisting his family in a murder plot against the Rhoden family. Seven adults and a teenage boy were shot to death in Pike County. Wagner is charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder and other charges related to conspiracy and attempts to cover up evidence.

Prosecutors say the custody dispute involved Wagner’s brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, and one of the victims, Hanna Rhoden, 19, over their toddler daughter.

The victims were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, Dana Rhoden, 37; their three children: Hanna, 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.

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; and Christopher Rhoden Jr. Ohio Attorney General via Getty Images

The daughter at the center of the custody dispute was with the Wagners at the time of the killings and not at the scene. Two babies and a toddler were found unharmed next to their dead mothers.

George Wagner IV participated “in one of the most heinous crimes that has ever been committed in the state of Ohio,” Angela Canepa, a special prosecutor in the case, said during opening arguments on Monday. 

“He participated in planning, preparing, purchasing, executing and covering up these crimes,” she said.

He has pleaded not guilty and could face the death penalty if convicted. 

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

Last year, Jake and Angela Wagner pleaded guilty to their roles in the killings. Jake Wagner confessed to killing five of the eight victims, in a plea agreement that would spare him a death sentence. Prosecutors said Jake Wagner agreed to testify in trials for his other family members in exchange that they also not seek the death penalty in those cases. Angela Wagner pleaded guilty in exchange for a 30-year-sentence.

Edward "Jake" Wagner is escorted by police into the courtroom for arraignment at the Pike County Courthouse in Waverly, Ohio, on Nov. 27, 2018.
Edward "Jake" Wagner is escorted by police into the courtroom for arraignment at the Pike County Courthouse in Waverly, Ohio, on Nov. 27, 2018. Brooke LaValley / The Columbus Dispatch via AP

Canepa said during opening statements Monday that Jake Wagner said he was in love with Hanna Rhoden and “very upset when they parted ways” and Rhoden began dating people and exposing their daughter to people he and his family “didn’t approve of.”

She said Jake Wagner went into detail how his brother and parents together took part in a monthslong scheme in preparation to kill the members of the Rhoden family.

Canepa described the Wagner family as very “insular” and said they did everything together, including voting to kill the Rhodens and buying and preparing everything necessary to enact their deadly plan.

The defense has sought to distance George Wagner IV from his family and the plan to kill the Rhodens.

Defense attorney Richard Nash Jr. said during opening statements that Jake Wagner’s confession says his brother “shot no one” and does not say George Wagner IV was greatly involved in planning the murders.

“George cannot help that he is a Wagner, that doesn’t make him a murderer,” Nash said.