The air was thick with tension, and the quiet cries and sniffles of the surviving members of the Rhoden, Gilley and Manley families were the only sounds to be heard as Edward “Jake” Wagner stood in a Pike County courtroom Thursday and pleaded guilty to killing eight people, including the mother of his daughter.
The stunning admission came on the fifth anniversary of the day that eight members of the Rhoden family were shot to death in four homes in three locations in rural Pike County. Wagner faced Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering as Deering read through each individual charge, he quickly admitted to each of seven counts of aggravated murder.
But when Deering asked Wagner for his plea to the aggravated murder charge for Hanna Mea Rhoden, the mother of Wagner’s young daughter, Wagner paused. He hesitated. His Adam’s apple bobbed, his face grew red. He held back tears.
Everyone waited on edge for the words.
“I am guilty, your honor,” he finally said. By the day’s end, he had pleaded guilty to all 23 charges originally filed against him (his parents and older brother still face the same charges) for what investigators said was an elaborate and long-planned execution plot to get rid of anyone who might stand in the way of custody and control of Jake Wagner’s child.
In exchange for the plea, prosecutors have dropped the possibility of a death penalty, sparing the 28-year-old his life. The agreed-upon sentence, which will be handed down later, is that he will serve eight consecutive life terms without parole, plus more than 100 years for the sentences on all the other charges.
In perhaps the most-stunning development of the surprise plea, which took place Thursday in a hastily scheduled hearing in Pike County Common Pleas Court with nothing listed on a public schedule until the last minute, Wagner agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the cases against his parents and older brother.
Charged along with Jake Wagner, are his father, George “Billy” Wagner III; Angela Wagner; and their other grown son, George Wagner IV. All were arrested in a coordinated take-down in various locations in November 2018. The family had moved to Alaska after the killings, but had returned to this part of the country by then and all were from the nearby Scioto County village of South Webster when arrested.
Since the family taken into custody, investigators and prosecutors have painted a picture of a clannish family, one so insular and loyal to one another that they threatened every outsider who infiltrated the circle.
The other Wagners have all pleaded not guilty. Jake Wagner's plea agreement, however, took the death penalty off the table for the rest of his family as well if they are convicted.
After the fact: Rhoden relatives vie for custody of child survivors of shooting
Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa shocked the courtroom yet again when she announced that Wagner has been cooperating with prosecutors for some time and that, with information he provided, investigators were finally able to recover the guns she said were used in the homicides as well as the vehicles that the family used to sneak onto the Rhoden properties, break into the homes and pull off what investigators have said were executions.
What happened to the Rhoden family?
Killed were Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; her ex-husband, Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; their sons, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; their daughter, Hanna Rhoden, 19; Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah Gilley, 20; Kenneth Rhoden, 44, a brother to Chris Sr; and Gary Rhoden, 38, a cousin to Kenneth and Chris Sr.
Most were shot multiple times at close range while sleeping. Kenneth was shot just once, and evidence at the home showed that Chris Sr. and Gary were awake when attacked.
The case all started five years when a frantic family member called with a report of the first slaying at 7:49 a.m. on April 22, 2016, and alerted authorities to what would soon become one the most long-lingering homicide cases the state of Ohio has ever seen.
Rhoden family faces Wagner in court
Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said the families of the victims agreed to the plea agreement.
“This has been a long time coming," Junk said. "They're happy to get some justice, especially on this particular day," he says of the Rhoden, Gilley and Manley families.
The surviving members of the Rhoden family filed into the courtroom Thursday with their civil attorneys, Adam Nemann and Brian K. Duncan, who are handling the wrongful-death lawsuit the family has filed against the Wagners.
Jake Wagner was at the center of the case from the beginning because he had a child with Hanna Rhoden, and prosecutors have said the killings were all about custody and control of children. Hanna had also just given birth a few days before the killings to a second daughter, and Jake Wagner also thought she might be his.
Wagner faced more charges than the rest of his family, and is the only one of the four defendants who is represented by the state public defender's office, attorneys William Mooney and Greg Meyers.
As the hearing began, Wagner was dressed in the blue jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt that he has been allowed to wear into court after being transferred from the Franklin County jail, where he has been held for security.
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When he first stood to face the judge, he removed his mask, tucked his hair behind his ears and smiled.
As prosecutors and the judge ran through the details of the murders and the extent to which Wagner went to plan and carry out what essentially were executions, he stared directly at whomever was speaking and never flinched.
In the gallery, the Manley, Gilley and Rhoden families stared him down. Some wept. Others just clutched tissues.
Rhoden, Gilley and Manley families 'happy to get some justice'
"This has been a long time coming," Junk said. "They're happy to get some justice, especially on this particular day," he said of the Rhoden, Gilley and Manley families.
The case has been difficult for everyone involved, he said, noting the exhaustive list of investigators and prosecutors it has taken for the case. But he said the plea agreement was in the best interest of justice.
"It's been a long five years for all of us," he said, "most importantly for the surviving family members you see in this court today."
Special Prosecutor Canepa, after reading for the judge a harrowing account of how well-planned the homicides were, noted that the state appreciated Wagner’s admissions and cooperation.
Defense attorney Meyers told the judge that this acceptance of responsibility is what his client wanted all along.
“We believe this serves his wishes,” Meyers said of the deal. “He knows he’s going to die in prison.”
Near the end of the hearing, given the chance to say something, Wagner looked at the packed courtroom of weeping family members staring back at him.
With a hitch in his voice, he said only this: “I am deeply and very sorry.”