PIKE COUNTY, Ohio (Court TV) — The testimony of the most anticipated witness in the most notorious murder trial in southern Ohio ended after four days Friday with a defense lawyer waving admitted killer Jake Wagner out of the courtroom.
“Take him away, judge, no further questions,” said John Parker, attorney for George Wagner IV, Jake Wagner’s brother.
Jake Wagner pleaded guilty in 2021 to the murders of his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, Hanna Rhoden, and seven members of her extended family in 2016.
Now 29, the admitted gunman agreed to testify against any family member of his standing trial in exchange for prosecutors dropping the death penalty against him – “the best plea deal in the history of the state of Ohio,” a lawyer for his brother described it.
READ MORE: OH v. WAGNER: Ohio Family Massacre Trial
In an unusual twist, prosecutors may drop the death penalty against the rest of his family if they are satisfied with his testimony. His first turn on the witness stand began this week in the murder trial of his older brother, George Wagner IV, who is accused of murder and conspiracy charges for allegedly planning and participating in the murders with his brother and their father.
“Do you love him?” prosecutor Angela Canepa asked Jake Wagner of his brother. “Is it true you’d want nothing more than for him to go home?”
Jake Wagner said ‘yes’ to both questions, kicking off nearly three days of questioning by Canepa. His cross-examination began Wednesday and resumes Friday.
Dressed in beige prison garb with restraints on his wrists and ankles, Jake Wagner calmly walked the jury through the nighttime shooting spree in chilling detail. He paused frequently to search for the word he was looking for and repeated questions before answering.
For the first time, he offered an explanation for why so many people were killed if all he wanted was sole custody of his two-year-old daughter.
“He didn’t want me to do it.”
George Wagner IV denies involvement in the plot and claims he was not present for the murders in four different homes in Pike County. But his younger brother says otherwise.
Financial records suggest George Wagner’s credit card was used to buy components of the homemade silencers that Jake Wagner made for the murder weapons. Above all, Jake Wagner testified his brother was with him for nearly every step of the murderous rampage, armed with an SKS semi-automatic rifle.
But George Wagner refused to shoot victims Gary and Chris Rhoden when told to do so and he didn’t kill anyone that night, Jake Wagner testified. When George Wagner’s defense finally got its chance to question his brother, after three days of direct examination, they immediately drew out more details about his alleged reluctance.
“George didn’t like the idea… He didn’t want me to do it… he thought of Hanna like a sister,” Jake Wagner testified.
“He never intended to kill anyone?” defense lawyer John Parker asked of his client. “He went to protect you?”
Yes, the witness responded, explaining that his brother feared their father was trying to set up Jake Wagner and may kill him.
“I had no other choice.”
It was their father, Billy Wagner, who suggested killing Hanna Rhoden in early 2016, according to Jake Wagner.
At first, he said he resisted the idea because he still loved Hanna Rhoden even though she ended the relationship in 2015, accusing him in text messages heard by the jury of physical abuse and controlling behavior.
The two shared custody of their daughter, Sophie, who was two years old when her mother died.
Jake Wagner testified that he disapproved of her parenting and feared that she would let their daughter be sexually abused. A “tipping point” came in early 2016 when he confronted Rhoden with suspicions that she was dating men who may molest their daughter.
“Guess we’ll have to deal with it,” was her response, according to Jake Wagner. The solution was clear, he said. “I decided I had no other choice than to kill Hanna.”
Jake Wagner said his idea was to kill Rhoden and her boyfriend in a staged suicide. Again, it was his father who said the rest of her family had to be killed to eliminate witnesses and avoid retribution from Rhoden family members coming after him “like snipers on a hill.”
Billy Wagner is awaiting trial on the same charges as his son. No one has been charged with a crime in connection with Sophie.
It wasn’t the first time the jury has heard about sexual misconduct allegations concerning Sophie. Jake Wagner’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Armer, testified that Jake Wagner’s mother falsely accused her of inappropriately touching Sophie. Armer testified that the allegation prompted a chilling threat from her husband to string her up in a barn and beat her to death with a bat – a turning point that Armer said made her realize she needed to leave the Wagners’ orbit.
Jake Wagner’s account differed slightly, saying he told Armer that he would beat to death with his own hands anyone who molested her daughter, not just her. He also said he wanted to believe Armer’s claims of innocence but had doubts. He prayed for a sign, he testified, and one day Sophie admitted to making up the allegation, saying “Beth-Ann was stealing Daddy from her and she just wanted her to leave.”
Nevertheless, the two started making plans to separate, backing up Armer’s testimony that George Wagner also wanted her out of the house.
George Wagner’s alleged involvement
To prove George Wagner’s involvement, the prosecutor drew out details concerning George Wagner’s involvement, such as:
• George Wagner was with his brother when he bought a pickup truck to use in the murders and helped retrofit it with a “false bed.”
• George and Jake Wagner dyed their hair days before the murders as a disguise to resemble a character from the “Walking Dead.”
• Jake Wagner bought his brother a mask and Angela Wagner bought a pair of sneakers from Walmart in his size.
• George Wagner hid in the “false bed” of the truck with his brother on their way to the Rhoden property.
• At the first home, where Gary Rhoden and Chris Rhoden. Sr., were killed, Jake Wagner said his brother refused to shoot the men when he and father directed him to.
Jake Wagner also said his brother was in the Rhoden house with him when he killed Hanna, her mother, Dana, and brother Chris.
Jake Wagner said he shot both of them from the hallway between their two bedrooms. On direct, he said Dana Rhoden’s door was open and she was using her phone. Curiously, on cross, he said the door was closed and that he peered under the door and saw her.
Hanna Rhoden was asleep in her bedroom across the hallway with her four-day-old infant, Kylie. He froze in his tracks, he said, until a cry from Kylie jolted him into action and he shot Dana Rhoden, he said. By the time he turned back to Hanna, she was sitting up in the bed and gasped in his direction before he shot her, he said. He then shot each woman one more time “because I wasn’t sure they were dead,” he said.
As Hanna Rhoden started falling off the bed, he went into the room and repositioned her next to Kylie so that the infant could feed while awaiting help, he said.
“It may not make sense,” he said, “but I was concerned Kylie would’ve starved to death.”