Ohio prosecutor: Family spent months planning 8’s murder

WAVERLY, OH – A custody dispute between two families that erupted into the massacre of eight people in rural southern Ohio began with a plan to kill just one of them, a young mother who refused to give up her daughter, a prosecutor said Monday. .

But just months before the 2016 murders, the family behind the plot decided to kill anyone who could point the finger at them, the prosecutor said during opening statements in the first trial for the murders.

Now, six years later, George Wagner IV faces the death penalty if convicted of murdering the Roden family near Piketon.

His younger brother, Jake Wagner, pleaded guilty last year to shooting five of the victims and is expected to testify against his brother as part of a deal with prosecutors that spared him the death penalty.

Their mother, Angela Wagner, also pleaded guilty to helping plan the murders and is also expected to testify. Jake and George’s father, George “Billy” Wagner III, has pleaded not guilty. He likely won’t be tried until next year.

Special prosecutor Angela Canepa did not charge George Wagner, 30, with shooting anyone in April 2016, but said he was involved in the planning, execution and cover-up of “one of the most heinous crimes in Ohio history.”

He was with his brother and father when they drove to three different locations where all eight were killed, went inside with the two of them and helped his brother move two of the bodies, Canepa said.

Some of the victims were treated as “collateral damage” by Wagner, Canepa said.

“They knew there might be other people there and they agreed they should be killed too,” she said. “People they didn’t have a problem with were willing to kill them indiscriminately.”

Defense attorney Richard Nash said George Wagner was not like the rest of his family and had nothing to do with the murders.

“There are certain things in this life that we cannot control. One of them is your last name,” Nash said. “George can’t help it, he’s Wagner. That does not make him a murderer.”

He said Jake Wagner will testify that his brother did not participate in the planning, did not destroy evidence and did not shoot anyone. “Everybody had a motive in this case except George,” Nash said.

Authorities say the shootings of seven adults and one teenager stemmed from a dispute over a young girl that Jake Wagner had with one of the victims, 19-year-old Hannah Rhoden.

The two families had been close for years, but Canepa described the Wagners as obsessed with controlling the girl.

The family pressed Hannah Roden to sign over the guardianship, but she vowed in a Facebook message sent four months before the massacre that “they’re going to have to kill me first,” Canepa said.

Jake Wagner told investigators he initially pushed his parents away when they talked about Hannah Roden’s murder, but later relented, the special prosecutor said. Ultimately, they settled on killing four of the family members because they believed the girl was raised among people who were dangerous, Canepa said.

Wagner spent three months planning the massacre, buying masks, ammunition and a phone-jamming device, Canepa said. The two brothers even dyed their hair in the week leading up to the murders, she said.

Several discoveries, Canepa said, led investigators to the Wagner family, including a shell casing found outside the Wagner home that matched the one from the gun that killed five of the victims.

Also killed were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, Dana Roden, 37; their three children, Clarence “Frankie” Roden, 20, Christopher Jr., 16, and Hannah; Clarence Roden’s fiancee, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Roden Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Roden, 44; and a cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38.

Jake Wagner told investigators he fired the first shot the night of the murders, but it was his father who killed the first of the eight, Chris Rhoden Sr., according to Canepa.

The special prosecutor said Jake Wagner told investigators that his father then yelled, “I just shot my best friend.”

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