5 Shocking Facts About The Rhoden Family Massacre

In 2016, an Ohio married couple and their two sons allegedly executed eight victims and exposed a web of cannabis, cockfighting, and a lethal custody battle.

March 28, 2019
Mug shots of George “Billy” Wagner III; Angela Wagner; George Wagner IV; Edward "Jake" Wagner [Ohio Attorney General handout]

Photo by: Mug shots of George “Billy” Wagner III; Angela Wagner; George Wagner IV; Edward "Jake" Wagner [Ohio Attorney General handout]

Mug shots of George “Billy” Wagner III; Angela Wagner; George Wagner IV; Edward "Jake" Wagner [Ohio Attorney General handout]

By: Mike McPadden

PIKE COUNTY, OHIO — On the night of April 21, 2016, multiple shooters murdered eight members of the Rhoden family. Seven of the killings were conducted execution-style in three trailers on a single plot of property; the eighth occurred in a mobile home nearby. Each victim, except one, was shot in the head numerous times.

Amid the carnage, the perpetrators left three children alive — a three-year-old, a six-month-old, and a baby who had been born just four days earlier.

The largest homicide investigation in Ohio history followed. Secrets came to light that involved a custody battle, a massive marijuana operation, and, ultimately, the shocking identity of the accused killers. Here are five facts about the Rhoden family massacre.

1. All 8 Victims Were Members Of The Same Family Who Lived — & Died — In Close Quarters

On the morning of April 22, Bobby Jo Manley arrived at her sister’s home to feed the family’s pets and came across the first set of bodies. She immediately called 911 and cried out, “I think my brother-in-law’s dead! There’s blood all over the house!” Responders fanned out among the three adjacent residences and a nearby camper, and ultimately identified eight victims:

  • Kenneth Rhoden, 44: brother of Christopher Sr.
  • Christopher Rhoden, Sr., 40: brother of Kenneth Rhoden; father of Frankie, Hanna, and Christopher Jr.
  • Gary Rhoden: cousin of Kenneth and Christopher Rhoden
  • Dana Rhoden, 27: ex-wife of Christopher Sr.; mother of Frankie, Hanna, and Christopher Jr.
  • Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20: oldest son of Christopher Sr. and Dana; father of the surviving three-year-old and six-month-old
  • Hannah Gilley, 20: fiancée of Frankie Rhoden; mother of the six-month-old
  • Hanna Rhoden, 19: daughter of Christopher Sr. and Dana; mother of the surviving four-day-old baby
  • Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16: son of Christopher St. and Dana.

An autopsy report concluded that the victims had also been beaten prior to being shot, with most of them being executed in their beds. Christopher Rhoden Sr. sustained nine blasts to the head, torso, and limbs, and he may have been awake while he being shot [USA Today]

2. Ohio Launched The Largest Homicide Investigation In State History To Find The Rhodens’ Killers

At a press conference in the wake of the murders, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, “These were pre-planned, pre-meditated execution-type killings. They thought this thing through."

DeWine also noted the possibility of multiple shooters and that a reward of $25,000 was being offered for information that led to cracking the case.

As the investigation expanded and intensified, DeWine said that victims may have known their shooters, and appeared to be intimately familiar with the Rhodens’ residences, three of which were within easy walking distance of each other, and the layout of the rural area where they crimes took place.

When a reporter asked DeWine if the famously close-knit woodland community of which the Rhodens were a part had been keeping silent, the Attorney General responded, “I believe that there's information out there that somebody has in Pike County or people have in Pike County that might be helpful that we do not have yet. That’s not a criticism, it's just my guess." [Cincinnati Enquirer]

3. The Discovery Of The Rhodens’ Cannabis Operation & Possible Cockfighting Ties Raised Organized Crime Theories

On April 25, investigators discovered a massive marijuana grow operation at three of the four killing sites, seizing more than 200 plants believed to have been cultivated indoors for commercial purposes. The haul was large enough for police to consider the possibility that a Mexican drug cartel might have been involved with the murders.

Police also discovered caged roosters, breeding chickens, and other equipment that was consistent with use in cockfighting rings. Detectives then explored the possibility that gambling and cockfighting might have been a factor as well.

After chasing down leads on those directions, investigators later said that while the drug and cockfighting businesses were certainly illegal, it is not believed they directly led to the massacre. [Dayton Daily News]

4. Two Years After The Murders, Police Arrested The Wagner Family For Killing The Rhoden Family

Authorities began seriously looking at one potential suspect in 2017. On June 20, police announced that they were seeking information on Edward “Jake” Wagner, along with his parents and brother. The family had moved from Ohio to Alaska in the weeks after the killings, but had recently returned.

Finally, on November 18, 2018, Attorney General Mike DeWine — who had been elected governor of Ohio just 10 days earlier — announced that arrests had been made in the Rhoden family massacre and that the suspects were:

  • Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26: ex-boyfriend of Hanna Rhoden; the father of the three-year-old who survived the massacre
  • George “Billy” Wagner III, 48: father of Jake Wagner; grandfather of Hanna Rhoden’s toddler
  • Angela Wagner, 47: mother of Jake Wagner; grandmother of Hanna Rhoden’s toddler
  • George Wagner IV, 27: Jake’s older brother

The Wagners were all charged with capital murder, as well as charges related to covering up the crime scenes.

Attorney General DeWine also noted that other members of the Wagners’ extended family had been arrested for obstructing justice and misleading investigators.

In addition, Jake Wagner faced a felony charge of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, as he fathered a child with Hanna Rhoden when she was just 15.

Six weeks later, Mike DeWine was sworn in as governor. [Columbus Dispatch]

5. A Custody Dispute Is Believed To Have Motivated The Brutality

In assessing the Rhoden family massacre and the massive investigation that led to the Wagners being arrested, Governor DeWine said, “This is just the most bizarre story I’ve ever seen in being involved in law enforcement.”

DeWine also acknowledged “an undercurrent of drugs” surrounding the murders, but he said that the marijuana and cockfighting operations did not appear to be what drove the slaughter. While the governor did not overtly name child custody as the motive, though, he did mention that the Wagners exhibited an “obsession” with controlling who was in charge of Sophia, the daughter Jake had with Hanna Rhoden.

However, a Cincinnati Enquirer story suggested extreme tension between Jake Wagner, the father of Hanna’s first child; and Charlie Gilley, the father of Hanna’s second child. In addition, Charlie Gilley was the brother of murder victim Hannah Gilley.

As authorities closed in on the Wagners, Jake said the family moved to Alaska to get away from rumors they were somehow involved in the killings. He also stated via email, “I have not told Sophia her mommy was killed/murdered. That would be too much for her to handle right now. She knows her mommy is visiting with Jesus and lives in her heart whenever she needs her.”

While prosecutors worked to figure out a proper motive, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader plainly told reporters, “Members of one family conspired, planned, carried out, and allegedly covered up their violent act to wipe out members of another family. They did this quickly, coldly, calmly, and very carefully, but not carefully enough.” [Daily Beast]

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