By MARK GILLISPIE and KANTELE FRANKO Associated Press
A man pleaded guilty Thursday in the murders of his child’s mother and seven members of her family in 2016 — a grisly crime that spread terror across their rural Ohio community and stirred rumors of drug dealers and hit men before authorities concluded it stemmed from a custody dispute.
On the fifth anniversary of the slayings, Edward “Jake” Wagner pleaded guilty to 23 counts in southern Ohio’s Pike County in a deal with prosecutors that spares him from being sentenced to death. He agreed to cooperate in the cases against his parents and brother, who are also charged in the Rhoden family slayings of seven adults and a teenage boy.
“I am guilty, your honor,” Wagner calmly told the judge again and again, as Judge Randy Deering read each count aloud. The charges included eight counts of aggravated murder, as well as charges of conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and other counts.
Wagner admitted he was personally responsible for five of the deaths, special prosecutor Angela Canepa said. He gave prosecutors a full account of what happened that morning, along with information that led to them to additional evidence. She did not say what that evidence was.
Wagner, 28, said in court that he is “deeply and very sorry.” He wasn’t immediately sentenced, but his lawyers said he understands he faces a lifetime behind bars.
“He knows he’s going to die in prison without any judicial release. As horrifying as this is for all, he is as sorry as he could be,” defense attorney Gregory Meyers told the judge.
The killings in April 2016 — at three trailers and a camper near Piketon — terrified residents in the surrounding rural community and prompted one of the most extensive criminal investigations in state history. It took authorities more than two years to announce the arrests.
George Billy Wagner III, Angela Wagner and their son George Billy Wagner IV have pleaded not guilty.
The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna, the mother of Jake Wagner’s child; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancée, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden.
Prosecutors alleged the Wagner family planned the killings for months, motivated by a custody dispute. According to Canepa, Jake Wagner tried to convince Hanna Rhoden to agree to shared custody of their daughter and she refused. Wagner was able to gain access to two Facebook accounts and found a post from Hanna saying she would never agree to those terms.
Jake Wagner began dating Hanna Rhoden when she was 13. She became pregnant when she was 15, Canepa said.
The family after the slayings were questioned by authorities at the U.S.-Canadian border, where a laptop was seized. Forged documents were found on the computer purporting that Hanna Rhoden had agreed to shared custody.
The Wagners took phones from six of the victims, as well as a recording device and trail cameras, Canepa said.
The Wagners used guns with two homemade silencers, allowing them to kill their victims as they slept, Canepa said. Parts from a failed effort to build a silencer were found on the Wagners’ property, she said.
Most of the victims were repeatedly shot in the head, and some showed signs of bruising. Three young children at the scenes, including Jake Wagner’s child, were unharmed.
According to Canepa, shell casings found at the Wagners’ home matched those found at the murder scenes. Investigators also found a shoe of the same size and tread that matched a shoe print found a the scene.
A relative, Tony Rhoden Sr., has sued the suspects, saying he wanted to be sure none of them benefitted financially from the slayings.
One of his lawyers, Brian K. Duncan, said by email that the family “is grateful for today‘s outcome, as it provides at least some semblance of justice on this day which coincides with the fifth anniversary of these tragic events.”
Associated Press Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus contributed to this report.