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By EWU Bob
Do you enjoy solved or unsolved true stories?
By EWU Emma
What is up, EWU Crew!
Today, we’re going to talk about a super convoluted story that’s been dubbed the “Pike County Massacre”. It happened a few years ago back in April of 2016, in a tiny town in Ohio.
Watch this in video format here: https://youtu.be/10wvSgh4uf4
When Bobby Jo Manley arrived at her former brother-in-law Christopher Rhoden, Sr.’s home on the morning of April 22nd, she found it odd that his two pit bulls were outside his trailer. Normally, they were kept inside. Things got even weirder when she turned the handle of the front door and found that it had been locked. It was rare for Chris to lock the door. But when she used a spare key to enter his home, she walked into something horrific.
As she began to search for her loved ones, she found a gruesome scene. That’s when she discovered her 40-year-old brother-in-law, Chris, and his 38-year-old cousin, Gary Rhoden, lying dead on Chris’s bedroom floor. Bobby Jo ran outside to grab her cell phone from her vehicle and called 9-1-1. The call was spine-chilling.
After making the report, Bobby Jo ran over to her nephew’s home, which sat on the same property.
Frankie Rhoden was the son of her sister, Dana, and Chris, Sr. However, Frankie’s door was also locked. She pounded on his door, begging to be let in. Within moments, the lock clicked and the door was opened by Frankie's three-year-old son. Bobby Jo rushed back to the bedroom, only to find Frankie and his fiancée, Hannah Gilley, lying dead. They were both just twenty years old and each had sustained multiple gunshot wounds to the head. Lying between the two was their six-month-old infant, Ruger Rhoden.
Yes, what I’m telling you is that a person came into this house while the parents were asleep and murdered them, leaving their tiny baby orphaned and left between his two deceased parents.
In tears, Bobby Jo reached over her nephew’s body to pick up baby Ruger. She wrapped him in a blanket, and put her hoodie on his toddler half-brother, Brentley, before rushing them out of the trailer. Her brother, James Manley, then hurried over to the home of Dana Rhoden, their sister, and the mother of Frankie Rhoden. Also living there was Dana and Chris’s sixteen-year-old son, Chris, Jr., their nineteenyear-old daughter, Hanna Rhoden, and Hanna’s newborn baby, Kylie Mae. When James opened the door, he reportedly heard the baby crying and instantly knew what had happened. More on James in a moment. When police arrived, Hanna’s four-day-old baby was found alive lying on the bed with her— but Hanna was dead.
As the scene unfolded on Union Hill Road that morning, seven family members were confirmed dead – all of them shot. Early that afternoon, in a fourth trailer located only a few miles away, an eighth body was discovered – that of 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden, Chris, Sr.’s brother. As the news broke, the small village of Piketown was shaken. Police advised everyone to stay indoors with their doors locked until more information came to light. It was one of the most horrendous murders to have ever hit Ohio.
All but one of the victims had been shot multiple times. Some 32 shots were fired throughout the whole ordeal. To protect the investigation, the court sealed the coroner’s reports for all eight people. However, media outlets filed a lawsuit that would lead to the release of heavily redacted versions of the autopsy reports.
Law enforcement initially thought it could’ve been a case of a domestic dispute gone awry with the perpetrator taking their own life, but this idea was thrown out when it was evident that none of the deaths appeared to have been caused by anything of the sort. It also became clear to the police that the incident must have involved more than one perpetrator. Bobby Jo and James Manley, as well as two friends who had ridden to Chris, Sr.’s residence with Bobby Jo that morning, were all brought in for questioning, and were soon released.
The searches conducted at three of the four crime scenes revealed several large, illegal marijuana grows. Attorney General Mike DeWine called it a “commercial operation”. Additionally, reports emerged regarding the discovery of evidence that suggested the family may have been running an unlawful cockfighting ring. These tidbits of information ignited speculation that suggested the Rhodens’ murders may have been linked to gang activity, drug turf wars, or even the Mexican cartel.
Authorities towed away more than 100 cars from the Rhoden’s property as part of their investigation.
Additionally, they transported the four trailers in which the crimes were committed to a fenced yard at a Hadsell Chemical Processing property in Waverly, Ohio, to more thoroughly search them for evidence. A command center had already been set up at this location before the arrival of the trailers.
This decision became highly controversial, as some suggested the site was not secure enough to protect the trailers from anyone who may want to tamper with evidence. Soon enough, due to a foreclosure on the warehouse, the trailers had to be relocated. The Pike County Board of Commissioners approved an expensive emergency motion to erect a pole barn on a nearby site, to house the trailers as they continued to be investigated.
So, a whole year goes by and, although investigators seemed to be hard at work on the case, no arrests had been made.
Remember how I mentioned I would say more on Dana’s brother, James Manley, in a moment? Well, one year after the Pike County Massacre, investigators wanted to keep an eye on James. They secretly placed a GPS tracking unit on his vehicle. He had allegedly failed a lie-detector test before this, although he was never named as a suspect or person of interest. Within seven days, James discovered the device and destroyed it, for which he later faced vandalism and tampering with evidence charges, which have since been dismissed.
Then, state and local law enforcement begin a search at a 71-acre farm formerly owned by Jake Wagner, Hanna Rhoden’s ex-boyfriend, and the father of her then three-year-old daughter, Sophia. The same day, they also searched for another farm owned by the Wagner family. Although no information has been released regarding these searches, this is when things start to take shape for the public. It’s worth noting that Jake filed for sole custody of Sophia within days of the homicides – and he was awarded it only a few months later. Reports state that the little girl was in the care of Jake and his family on the night of the murders.
A few weeks after the searches, the Wagner family moved to Kenai, Alaska. They claimed the move was prompted by a need to protect Sophia from the swirling rumors that accused the Wagners of being involved in the Rhoden murders. It had become public knowledge that the Rhodens and the Wagners had been duking it out for custody of Jake and Hanna’s young daughter. Then, two years passed since the murders, and still, no one had been apprehended. However, investigators continued to keep their focus on the Wagner family. In early November of 2018, they completed an examination of all evidence that had been collected up until that point. Within days, four of the Wagners were arrested, including 26-year-old Jake, his 48-year-old mother Angela, his 47-year-old father Billy, and his 27-year-old brother, George.
They were charged with conspiring and executing the murders of the seven Rhoden family members and Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley. A press conference held by law enforcement followed soon after, in which Sheriff Charles Reader claimed that, although the Wagners had been very careful, they had not been careful enough. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for all four of the suspects.
Jake’s father, Billy Wagner, was arrested in Lexington, Kentucky, about 100 miles from the site of the murders. It’s not clear what he was doing there. Interestingly, two weeks before the brutal killings of the Rhoden family, a similar-style murder was carried out on a couple living in Kenton County, Kentucky (about 75 miles away from Peebles, Ohio). It involved a well-known drug dealer and his girlfriend, who were both murdered while sleeping in their bed, much like what happened to the Rhodens and Miss Gilley. Officials have not confirmed if the two cases are related.
As of now, all four of the Wagners await their trials. They’ve all pleaded not guilty to their charges. Angela Wagner has lost her phone call and mail privileges, as she continued to discuss the case with family members, even after the court ordered her not to do so.
Both of Jake Wagner’s grandmothers were charged in connection with the case, too. Seventy-six-year old Fredericka Wagner was accused of covering up the homicides by lying about two bulletproof vests she had purchased online. She claimed she bought them after the murders for protection. Fredericka was charged with obstruction of justice and perjury, ultimately being released on a $100,000 bond. In June 2019, these charges were dismissed. Web sleuths allege that she is a powerful woman in her community and could’ve been the mastermind behind the murders.
Jake’s other grandmother, 66-year-old Rita Jo Newcomb, was also charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, as well as forgery. Newcomb is a certified notary and is accused of forging custody papers. Yes, those custody papers – the ones involving Jake Wagner’s and the late Hanna Rhoden’s daughter, Sophia. The very custody battle that is believed by investigators to have been the motive for the slayings of the Rhoden family and Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley. The documents in question were signed just nineteen days before the murders.
In a shocking turn of events, and what may ultimately lead to a huge break in the case, Rita Jo accepted a plea deal and pleaded guilty to her misdemeanor charges, in exchange for a dismissal of her felony charges. She admitted to lying to investigators to protect her daughter, Angela Wagner, and agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors. According to prosecutor Angela Canepa, a handwriting expert confirmed that it was not Newcomb who forged the custody documents. It isn’t clear if she will be forced to testify against her daughter, son-in-law, or grandsons, as a part of her plea deal. However, she is not permitted to contact any of them, nor may she communicate with Fredericka Wagner. For now, she is off house arrest and is awaiting her trial.
Since these arrests, several weird things have gone down with the case, which left some to wonder if there is more to the story.
Several months after the arrests, a member of the prosecution team was removed by Prosecutor Rob Junk for reasons still unknown to the public. Coincidentally, it was Brian Reader–the brother of Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader. He had served in several of the Wagners’ pre-trial hearings before his removal.
Then, nearly a year after the Wagner arrests, Sheriff Charles Reader was indicted on sixteen charges. According to reports, he was charged with:
• Two felony counts of tampering with evidence
• Four felony counts of theft in office
• Seven misdemeanor counts of conflict of interest
• One felony count of securing writing by deception
• And two counts of theft (one being a felony and the other, a misdemeanor)
Reader claims the charges are part of a witch hunt intended to take him down as sheriff. He was ultimately suspended from his position, and, later, an additional two charges were tacked on to his indictment, including one felony count of engaging in corrupt activity and a second charge of theft in office. He had stolen money seized as evidence in unrelated drug cases. Rumors say he had a gambling problem. In May of 2020, Reader pleaded not guilty to all 18 of the charges and is awaiting trial.
Seven months after the sheriff’s arrest, a Bureau of Criminal Investigations Supervisor, who was tasked with overseeing the Pike County Murders case, was suspended and demoted. Michael Trout was accused of misconduct, acting in a manner unbecoming of an agent, retaliation against another employee, and lack of professionalism. He categorically denies these allegations. His work as an investigator was not immediately called into question, but Trout did later admit that there was “dysfunction” in his unit that was handling the Rhoden murders investigation. And an employee working under him said that Michael cannot be trusted. All these “good guys” dropping like flies in this case. It’s more than a little weird.
Weeks later, in June 2020, a lead prosecutor on the case, Angela Canepa, suddenly and unexpectedly resigned, stating that she was leaving to pursue other opportunities. However, she soon rejoined the prosecution team, appointed by the court as special prosecutor.
What is going on here?!
Some people claim that state and local law enforcement may be somehow involved in the slayings of these eight people, claiming that all of these weird occurrences are indicative of something deeper. Anything is possible; we’ve seen authorities involved in, covering up, and skewing murder cases many times in the past. After all, corruption is rife in some police departments and government branches.
What do you think?
Is some kind of police cover-up going on?
Could it be related to drug activity and turf wars?
Or do you agree with the authorities in that the heated custody battle is what led to the murders?
Maybe someone within the Rhoden family had something to do with this?