Mother of defendant in Pike County murder trial testifies for 3 days

George Wagner IV accused of killing 8 Rhoden family members.

As part of her plea deal, the mother of Pike County murder trial defendant George Wagner IV has testified for three days against her son. That deal includes keeping Angela Wagner’s four-member family from getting the death penalty for their alleged roles in the deaths of eight members of the Rhoden family in 2016.

George Wagner IV’s trial began in in early September and is in its seventh week. Angela is the second of the four accused to take the stand -- his brother, Jake, testified earlier in the trial. Father Billy Wagner has not taken the stand; he will be on trial at a later date.

Jake Wagner also took a plea deal and was required to testify.

As Richard Nash, George’s defense attorney, resumed cross examination of Angela on Thursday, he attempted to paint the mother as having a clear preference for her younger son, over George. Angela denied she had a favorite son and told the jury she loved both equally.

Nash then walked his questioning back to Angela’s testimony about Jake’s daughter, Sophia, and the Wagner family’s worries she was being sexually abused; Angela said she worried the abuse was true because Sophia’s vaginal area appeared infected.

At first, Angela said she thought the redness of the child’s genitalia was because of diaper cleanliness — but then she said Sophia told her one of the Rhodens put things in her for bubblegum and she became concerned one of Hanna May’s family members had been abusing the girl.

Nash noted neither Angela nor any other member of the Wagner family took the child to a doctor to be examined.

“I don’t know why I didn’t,” said Angela.

Nash asked whether Angela alerted law enforcement to her concerns.

“Because we didn’t believe in the justice system,” she said, repeating what she’d told the prosecution Tuesday. “We didn’t believe in children services.”

The Wagners could have gathered evidence for a court proceeding — instead of resorting to mass murder, Nash pointed out to Angela. In fact, he continued, Angela had thought the justice system was good enough for George’s son, Bulvine, when George was seeking custody of the boy.

Nash questioned Angela on the dynamics within the family. Angela conceded that, in the Wagner household, there was a lot of yelling and loud disagreements and said Billy was sometimes physically abusive; on Wednesday, she testified that Billy, on more than one occasion, choked George.

Billy also threatened to force Angela to accompany him during the murder spree, she said.

Billy doled out instructions on what to do leading up to the homicides, she said, including telling her to send texts from George and Jake’s phones to make it look like they were home during the homicides. Nash accused her of only sending the alibi messages for Jake, not George, but she denied that.

“I am pretty sure I did both phones,” she said.

The night her sons and husband headed out to murder the Rhodens, Nash pointed out Angela had never noticed the sound of the pick-up truck leaving their property and can’t testify to who fired shots and who did not, or the weapons used.

He used that to segue into a history of dishonesty displayed by Angela; she’d admitted Wednesday that she had called law enforcement on Tabitha on one occasion and lied, telling them she had drugs in her vehicle in order to sway the custody battle between her and George.

Then, Nash said, Angela lied and dragged her own mother into the murders.

He referenced her Wednesday testimony, when she said she’d taken her plea deal out of the hopes it would provide her an avenue to someday see her children and grandchildren again, suggesting she would lie during George’s trial to be able to accomplish this goal. Nash said this showed she was interested in protecting herself and her own interests and had no regard for her mother or sons.

“Would you agree with me that four years for every life you took was a great deal?” Nash asked.

“That’s not how I understand it,” replied Angela.

In the gallery, members of the Rhoden family dabbed their eyes with tissues.

Angela said she is more than sorry, but conceded she knew that wasn’t enough.

It all came down to Sophia, she said; the girl was just a baby, and Angela’s family, so she felt she had to kill to protect her.

Angela said the murders were not about custody — as then-Attorney General Mike DeWine announced when the Wagners were arrested — but about protecting Sophia. The Wagners believed Hanna May wouldn’t do anything to prevent Sophia from being abused.

She reiterated that, while Hanna May was the main target for the homicides, the Wagners believed only killing her would lead to retaliation from the Rhoden family.

She said it was true that George helped the family in planning the murders and covering it up afterward, though she said to this day she doesn’t know who shot whom the night of April 21, 2016.

Canepa and Nash finished questioning Angela and she stepped down from the witness stand Thursday afternoon. Next, the prosecution called Katy Wagner to the stand.

Both Angela and Katy had opted out of being recorded in the courtroom.

Katy is Billy’s niece and George and Jake’s cousin; several other witnesses have testified Billy gifted Katy the pick-up truck used as transportation in the murders.

On the morning of April 22, 2016, before the sun began to rise, Katy said Billy showed up at her home in Athens County and told her he had a surprise for her.

She told the jury she’d told her uncle previously to be on the lookout for a truck for her, because she’d wanted one; when he showed up that morning, he told her he’d gotten the black pick-up from her great uncle, Todd.

She had the title transferred into her name later that day, she said. Eventually, when they tracked it down, agents with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations seized it, though it was no longer in working condition by that time.

Katy said both Jake and George tried calling her family from jail, but no one answered their calls.

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