By Anand Vasu
On April 22, five years to the day since eight members of the Rhoden family were shot and killed in four different locations in Pike County, Edward “Jake” Wagner pleaded guilty to the murders as emotional scenes engulfed the Pike County Courtroom.
Among those killed on that fateful day was the mother of Wagner’s child. It was only when Wagner was asked how he pleaded, in this murder, that he paused. After pleading guilty to the previous seven in routine fashion, when asked about the murder of Hanna Mea Rhoden, Wagner hesitated, his Adam’s apple bobbed, his face grew red, and he held back tears, The Columbus Dispatch reported.
In all, Wagner faced 23 charges and he pled guilty to all of them. The charges included eight counts of aggravated murder, conspiracy, aggravated burglary and tampering with evidence among others.
To each charge, Wagner looked at the judge and said: “I am guilty, your honor.”
Wagner’s elder brother and his parents are still accused of the same charges, and he has agreed to testify against them.
Law enforcement stated, during the course of the hearing, that the killings were pre-planned and carefully executed in order to eliminate anyone who may get in the way of Wagner securing custody of his child.
In exchange for his guilty plea, Wagner will not face the death penalty. However, it was pre-agreed that he would be sentenced to eight consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole, plus more than 100 years for the sentences on all the other charges.
Wagner, who is now 28, will die in prison, something that his lawyers said their client understood.
The dramatic events took place on a day when this hearing was not even publicly listed on the court’s docket until the last moment.
While Wagner reportedly began the hearing with a smile, and had a fixed gaze at those who were addressing the court, when he was given a chance to speak, he looked at the Rhoden family and said: “I am deeply and very sorry.”
While members of the Rhoden family did not immediately react, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said, “This has been a long time coming. They’re happy to get some justice, especially on this particular day.”
George Wagner III and Angela Wagner, Jake’s parents, and also George Wagner IV, are the others charged in the case. The four were arrested in 2018 in the Scioto County village of South Webster to where they had returned, after time spent away in Alaska in the aftermath of the murders.
At the time of the arrests, which happened without incident, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, said “we promised the victims’ families that the day would come when this case would be solved, and today is that day. Their alleged plan was sophisticated, but not sophisticated enough for our team of investigators and prosecutors.”
While Jake Wagner is the only one of the four to have pleaded guilty, in doing so, he ensured that none of the others would face the death penalty, should they be convicted.
Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa revealed that Wagner had been cooperating with law enforcement for a time and information he provided led to the recovery of the guns used in the executions and also the vehicles the suspects used in the crimes.
Canepa also stated that Wagner had confessed to personally committing five of the eight murders.
The reason Edward was the primary suspect from the time that ominous 911 call was made on April 22, 2016, marking the first of a series of killings that would shock Ohio and the rest of the nation, was because he had a child with Hanna Rhoden.
Prosecutors have maintained that custody of this child was at the centre everything that happened that fateful day. Just a few days before she, and seven other members of her family were killed, Hanna had given birth to her second child, which also Wagner believed to be his.
The victims in the slayings were Christopher Rhoden Sr., his cousin Gary Rhoden, and Christopher’s ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden. Christopher and Dana’s children, Frankie Rhoden, Christopher Rhoden Jr. and Hanna Rhoden, Frankie’s fiancée Hannah Gilley was also killed and Kenneth Rhoden was found shot in his camper miles away from the original location of the killings where three campers were located.
In November 2018, the Wagners were indicted for their role in the killings, said Attorney General DeWine.
The investigation of the killings, one of the most exhaustive and comprehensive in Ohio history, involved more than 1,000 tips, hundreds of people interviewed and dozens of search warrants.
In the course of this, Canepa, who was hired to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office in 2013, quit in May 2020, but was reinstated to the case just months after.