WAVERLY, Ohio — On the fifth anniversary of the day that eight members of a family were shot to death in Pike County, Ohio, one suspect pleaded guilty to the murders, which included the mother of his child.
Edward “Jake” Wagner, 28, appeared in court Thursday in front of the surviving members of the Rhoden, Gilley and Manley families, and admitted to seven counts of aggravated murder as a judge read through each individual charge.
Then, holding back tears, Wagner admitted to the eighth murder of Hanna Mea Rhoden, the mother of his young daughter. By the end of the day, Wagner had pleaded guilty to all 23 charges for what investigators said was an elaborate and long-planned execution plot to get rid of anyone who might stand in the way of custody and control of his child.
“I am guilty, your honor,” Wagner said.
In exchange for the plea, prosecutors dropped the possibility of the death penalty, . The agreed-upon sentence, which will be handed down later, will be eight consecutive life terms without parole, plus more than 100 years for the sentences on all other charges.
Wagner’s parents, George “Billy” Wagner III and Angela Wagner, and older brother, George Wagner IV, face the same charges, and Wagner agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the cases against them.
All were arrested in a coordinated take-down in various locations in November 2018.
Since the family was taken into custody, investigators and prosecutors have painted a picture of a clannish family, one so insular and loyal to one another they threatened every outsider who infiltrated the circle.
The other Wagners have all pleaded not guilty. Jake Wagner’s plea agreement, however, took the death penalty off the table for the rest of his family as well if they are convicted.
Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa announced that with information Wagner provided, investigators were finally able to recover the guns she said were used in the homicides, as well as the vehicles that the family used to sneak onto the Rhoden properties, break into the homes and pull off what investigators have said were executions.
Wagner has confessed to personally killing five of the eight victims, Canepa said.
What happened to the Rhoden family?
Killed were Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; her ex-husband, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; their sons, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; their daughter, Hanna Rhoden, 19; Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20; Kenneth Rhoden, 44, a brother to Chris Sr; and Gary Rhoden, 38, a cousin to Kenneth and Chris Sr.
Most were shot multiple times at close range while sleeping. Kenneth was shot just once, and evidence at the home showed that Chris Sr. and Gary were awake when attacked.
A frantic family member called with a report of the first slaying at 7:49 a.m. on April 22, 2016, and alerted authorities to what would soon become one the most long-lingering homicide cases in Ohio history.
After the fact: Rhoden relatives vie for custody of child survivors of shooting
Rhoden family faces Wagner in court
Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said the families of the victims agreed to the plea agreement.
“This has been a long time coming,” Junk said. “They’re happy to get some justice, especially on this particular day,” he said..
The surviving members of the Rhoden family filed into the courtroom Thursday with their civil attorneys, Adam Newman and Brian K. Duncan, who are handling the wrongful-death lawsuit the family has filed against the Wagners.
Jake Wagner was at the center of the case from the beginning because he had a child with Hanna Rhoden, and prosecutors have said the killings were all about custody and control of children. Hanna had also just given birth a few days before the killings to a second daughter, and Jake Wagner also thought she might be his.
Wagner faced more charges than the rest of his family, and is the only one of the four defendants who is represented by the state public defender’s office, attorneys William Mooney and Greg Meyers.
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Geneva Rhoden – the family matriarch whose losses on April 22, 2016, included two sons and several grandchildren – has watched the past few hearings on a livestream from downstairs. Thursday, with help from her family, she made it slowly up the courthouse steps with her oxygen tank and sat in the front row and hung her head as she cried.
She told The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA TODAY Network, through tears: “I’m hanging in there.”
Pike County massacre:Charges against matriarch dismissed. ‘Trust in the Lord,’ she says.
Tony Rhoden, who became the family’s public face after the killings, sat beside his mother, and stared at Wagner.
Junk said it was no coincidence they were in court for the guilty pleas on this anniversary.
“It’s been a long five years for all of us,” he said, “most importantly for the surviving family members you see in this court today.”
Near the end of the hearing, given the chance to say something, Wagner looked at the packed courtroom of weeping family members staring back at him.
With a hitch in his voice, he said only this: “I am deeply and very sorry.”
Follow Holly Zachariah on Twitter: @HollyZachariah
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