Jake Wagner testified Monday that he and his family planned and carried out the murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families in 2016 because they feared his daughter would be molested. The testimony came during the trial of Wagner’s brother George Wagner IV in Pike County, Ohio.
It was the first time the brothers had seen one another since they were arrested in the Rhoden and Gilley murders on Nov. 13, 2018. Wagner IV is standing trial for April 2016 murders of Jake’s former girlfriend, Hanna May Rhoden, her parents, Chris Rhoden Sr. and Dana Manley Rhoden, Hanna May’s younger brother, Chris Jr., her older brother, Frankie Rhoden, his fiancée, Hannah Hazel Gilley, and Hanna May’s uncles, Gary Rhoden and Kenneth Rhoden.
Wagner opted out of being recorded, as allowed under Ohio law, when he took the stand more than six-and-a-half years after the murders. He wore glasses and a tan jail shirt marked “inmate” in bold black letters. Wagner was shackled at the wrists and ankles as he recalled meeting Hanna May Rhoden in the 4H barn of the Pike County fair in 2010. Rhoden was 13 and Wagner was 17. He told the story about how Rhoden asked him to pet her black and white bunny. The two started dating, Wagner said, after he asked her parents for permission.
Rhoden and Wagner’s daughter, Sophia, was born at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 18, 2013. Wagner said Hanna May Rhoden lived with his family more after Sophia’s birth. However, in February 2015, Wagner said their relationship ended against his wishes. Hanna May Rhoden had told a family member that Wagner had choked her.
“I never choked her,” Wagner said defiantly during his testimony.
Instead, Wagner claimed he argued with Rhoden because she didn’t mow the grass as she was supposed to do.
“She was lazy in responsibilities,” Wagner said.
He described Rhoden as being on Facebook and storming off as the two argued. He claimed he put his arm on her collarbone for less than five minutes “until she calmed down.”
Wagner then said Rhoden started dating Charlie Gilley and later Corey Holdren, who testified earlier in the trial. Wagner said he was concerned in 2015 that Sophia would be molested because Rhoden’s choice of man at the time was a drug user. Holdren testified that Hanna May Rhoden had helped him get clean.
Wagner described incidents he claimed Sophia relayed to him, at 2 years old, that Holdren locked her in a room for hours and she screamed for help but no one rescued her. Wagner said he hired a lawyer to draw up a custody agreement but it appeared Hanna May Rhoden was dragging her feet on signing it in late 2015.
Then, in December 2015, Wagner said his mother, Angela Wagner, showed him a Facebook message between Hanna May Rhoden and Tess Ruggles, the mother of George Wagner IV’s ex-wife, Tabitha Claytor. Angela Wagner had been monitoring the Facebook accounts of both Tabitha Claytor and her mother in an effort to gather information that could be damaging in a possible custody fight over the son George Wagner IV and Tabitha Claytor shared. Hanna May Rhoden wrote about the effort by the Wagners to get her to sign the custody documents, “I’ll never sign papers, they’ll have to kill me first.”
Jake Wagner said he wasn’t the first to propose killing Hanna May Rhoden. That idea, he said, was first discussed by his father, George “Billy” Wagner III. Jake Wagner said, “I blowed up and told him that was the mother of my child and stormed off.” Sometime in January 2016, though, Jake Wagner said he came around to the idea that, “I had no other choice but to kill Hanna.”
Wagner said the tipping point came when he discussed his concerns with Hanna May Rhoden about Sophia possibly being molested and she responded, “if it happens we’ll deal with it.” Wagner said he first suggested they kill Hanna May Rhoden and Corey Holdren and make it look like a murder-suicide. But Billy Wagner didn’t feel that was a good plan, the witness said. Instead, Jake Wagner said his father told him, that if he killed Hanna May Rhoden, he would also have to kill her father, Chris Rhoden Sr., her older brother, Frankie Rhoden, and her uncle Kenneth Rhoden, because they would also come after him “like a sniper on a hill.” Billy Wagner, he said, had described himself and Chris Rhoden Sr. as being closer than brothers.
Wagner said he and his father also decided that Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah Hazel Gilley, and Chris Rhoden Sr.’s cousin, Gary Rhoden, would also have to die so there wouldn’t be any witnesses.
Wagner said his father told him to get a vehicle and silencers for guns they would use; Billy would take care of the timing and events surrounding the homicides. Jake Wagner said he worked on making suppressors for his Ruger 10/22 and George Wagner’s SKS. The two flashlight suppressors failed and he broke his Ruger 10/22 when he tried to remove the barrel, however. Wagner claimed some of the items were thrown in a dumpster, while the Maglite was thrown in a burn barrel. Prior testimony indicated, though, the Maglite silencer was found in a cistern at the Wagners’ Peterson Rd. property.
Wagner detailed how he purchased drill bits, taps and dies, and freeze plugs to make suppressors. He finally decided that using oil filters as suppressors would be the better option. He described how he bought a Chevy truck from his great Uncle Todd for $1,500 or $2,000 to use the night of the murders. Photos displayed in court showed a black GMC truck. The sale, Wagner said, was completed in the driveway of the Wagner family home on Peterson Rd. three weeks before the murders. Jake Wagner said his great Uncle Todd, his Uncle Gus and his brother, George Wagner IV were present.
Wagner described how he and his brother modified the truck to create a fake bed where they could hide using a 2×4 and a piece of plywood. Straw or hay was piled on top of the plywood. The brothers planned to hide underneath the plywood, Wagner said.
Jake Wagner also described going with his mother, Angela, to Walmart and instructing her to buy “ugly shoes.” Angela Wagner bought two pairs of velcro, Athletic Works gym shoes in sizes 10.5 and 11 as the two brothers and their children waited in the car in the parking lot. Wagner said the shoes were purchased for him and his brother to wear. Wagner said he ordered a Captain America Winter Soldier mask for his brother, George. A signal jammer had also been purchased, Wagner said, to keep the victims from placing outgoing calls to 911.
Jake Wagner detailed how his mother forged Hanna May Rhoden’s signature on custody document in April 2016, that would give custody of Sophia to Jake in the event Hanna died. Jake Wagner said he and his brother also signed the documents that would give their mother custody of their children if they were killed the night of the murders. The brothers also dyed their hair dark brown. Wagner said he wanted to look like Norman Reedus‘ character in The Walking Dead.
Wagner said on the afternoon of April 21, 2016, his father told him they would carry out their plan that night. Billy Wagner, he said, wanted it to be overcast so a satellite couldn’t record their movements. The family, Wagner said, had planned to carry out the murders after Hanna May had given birth. She had given birth to Kylie’s four days earlier. Wagner said he knew Kylie wasn’t his but he wanted her to be his.
That evening, Jake Wagner smiled as he was asked about a clip from the movie The Boondock Saints 2 in which “a Mexican” holds two Colt 1911 .22 handguns and two brothers hold firearms. The clip played and is entitled “Ding Dong Motherfucker.” Wagner said he watched it “to psych myself up” or get “the gumption to do what I was going to do.”
Wagner then answered questions about how he and his brother climbed into the false bed of the truck as their father drove 15 miles to Union Hill Rd., where most of the Rhoden family members lived. Wagner said his father opened the bed of the truck and the brother got into position. Jake Wagner said his older brother was supposed to shoot Chris Rhoden Sr. with his SKS rifle as Billy Wagner, Chris Sr. and Gary Rhoden walked back to the trailer from the marijuana grow site. But Wagner said his brother didn’t fire. Jake Wagner said he grabbed the SKS from his brother and rolled into his position as his father asked Chris Rhoden Sr. to call his cell phone as a ruse. Wagner said he fired one shot and missed, panicked, closed his eyes and fired a second shot at Chris Sr.’s mid-section.
Then, Wagner said he heard one or two gunshots coming from inside the trailer. He described Billy Wagner exiting the house in a “nervous breakdown.” Jake Wagner said he recalled telling his father, “calm down. It’s too late to break down now.” He described going through Chris Rhoden Sr.’s pockets to find his keys so he could take a hard drive for a security system out of the marijuana grow house. When he returned to the trailer, Wagner said Chris Sr. and Gary Rhoden’s bodies had been moved to the back bedroom. He threw a blanket on top of them but doesn’t know why.
From there, Wagner described how he, his father and brother walked to Frankie Rhoden’s house but the doors were locked. He said they then drove Chris Sr.’s truck past Dana Rhoden’s home where she was living with Hanna May Rhoden and her younger brother, Chris Jr. But Dana Rhoden wasn’t home yet, so they drove to Kenneth Rhoden’s home to see if he was home.
Wagner then described driving back to Frankie Rhoden’s trailer and trying to open the back door with a hunting knife. The knife broke. Wagner said he climbed into the trailer through an open window and let his brother and father inside. Jake Wagner said he saw 3-year-old Brentley Rhoden asleep on the couch, so he walked into the bedroom and shot Frankie Rhoden in the head. Wagner said Hannah Hazel Gilley was in bed next to Rhoden at the time. He shot her in the head when she started to stir. As he leaned over to do so, he saw the couple’s 6-month-old son in between them, asleep in the bed.
Wagner said he locked the door and he and his brother and father drove to Dana Rhoden’s home and walked in through he unlocked door. He described in a somewhat flat affect seeing Dana Rhoden on her phone on Facebook as she lay in her bed, still awake. Wagner, said he froze upon seeing her and then heard Kylie, Hanna May’s newborn daughter, cry. The cry, Wagner said, caused Dana Rhoden to look up and she gasped upon seeing him. Wagner said he shot Dana Rhoden in the head from the hallway, stepped into Hanna May’s bedroom and shot her in the head, too, and then went back to Dana Rhoden’s bedroom to shoot her again since she was making a noise.
Wagner said Hanna May saw him before he shot her. He then shot her in the head again and moved to the bedroom of her younger brother, Chris Jr., the witness continued. Wagner said he shot Chris Jr. in the head and took his cell phone. Chris Jr. also made a noise so he shot him again.
Wagner said he collected the cell phones of Chris Rhoden Sr., Gary Rhoden, Dana Rhoden and Chris Rhoden Jr. that night. He also said he tried to collect all of his shell casings. Finally, he rearranged Hanna May’s body “for Kylie.”
“It may not make sense but I did that because if the discovery of the bodies took a long time, I was concerned Kylie would starve to death,” Wagner recalled. Hanna May Rhoden was found in her bed with Kylie next to her.
Wagner then recalled how he, his father and brother drove in their truck and Chris Rhoden Sr.’s truck to the home of Kenneth Rhoden. At that time, Wagner said Billy Wagner banged on the door several times before entering the camper. A short time later, Wagner said he saw a muzzle flash and Billy Wagner left the camper. Wagner said they returned to Chris Rhoden Sr.’s trailer on Union Hill Rd. and parked the victim’s truck in his driveway. The two brothers and their father then drove back to their home on Peterson Rd.
Testimony left off at that point Monday and will resume Tuesday morning. Jake Wagner pleaded guilty in April 2021 to 23 counts including conspiracy, aggravated murder, burglary and other counts related to the murders in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table for him and his family members. Wagner must testify “to the satisfaction of the state” for the deal to be fulfilled, however.
Angela Wagner pleaded guilty to several charges in September 2021 in exchange for agreeing to testify against her husband and son. If Angela Wagner follows through on her plea agreement, she will be released after serving 30 years in prison.
[Image via Liz Dufour/Cincinnati Enquirer/Pool]
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