Brother of Pike County murder trial defendant testifies about family’s other crimes

WAVERLY — The murder trial of George Wagner IV in Pike County has lasted more than a month, and jurors are finally hearing from one of the key witnesses, his brother, Jake.

The duo plus their parents, Billy and Angela Wagner, are accused of killing eight members of the Rhoden family in their homes in April 2016. Jake and Angela took plea deals that will require them to testify against George during this trial. Billy Wagner will be on trial at a later time.

One of the key points the prosecution is trying to make is that Jake’s ongoing custody issues with Hanna May Rhoden is what led to the killings. Hanna May and Jake share a daughter, Sophia, who was unharmed in the execution-style killings of the family.


The defense says George is not guilty of the crimes and he is only a suspect because he is related to those who did commit the murders.

On Monday, Jake Wagner took the stand but opted out of being recorded. Those who testify have that option, per the Ohio State Supreme Court’s rules of superintendence. Victims and witnesses may object to being photographed or filmed.

In this trial, most of those who have taken the stand have allowed it.

Jake Wagner taking the stand is the first time the brothers have seen each other in person since their arrests in 2018. Jake told the courtroom he loved his brother and would like for him to be able to go home.

The prosecution questioned Jake regarding the different homes owned by the Wagner family. He said they intentionally burned down a house on Bethel Road to collect insurance money and the Peterson Road farm they owned was intentionally put in his and George’s names because they had clean insurance histories.

Jake also testified the Wagner family burned a semi-tractor trailer in 2016 and that he intentionally wrecked George’s truck in order to collect insurance money.

These weren’t the only crimes: Jake said he and George poached deer, and with their father Billy they stole fuel, lumber, appliances, tools, fencing and building materials from businesses in the area. They also stole livestock, he said.

Jake said the Wagners made sure to only steal from businesses with insurance so they would not harm working-class families in their area.

The Wagner family’s finances were very entangled, which Jake told the jury, but they heard that same testimony from other witnesses throughout the trial. Some of the family members shared accounts with each other, and he and George were always able to access other family members’ accounts for purchases if he needed to do so.

The prosecution asked Jake how decisions got made among the family. They would conduct meetings, he said, and they would talk about chores, farm work and anything else affecting the family.

At the end of the meetings, people would voice opinions and they would vote.

Jake and Hanna May’s connection

Jake Wagner testified Monday he met Hanna May Rhoden when she was 13 years old and he was 17. They met in the 4-H building at the Pike County Fair.

They began dating with her parents’ permission and she gave birth to their daughter Sophia at age 16. Sophia was born Nov. 18, 2013.

Jake told the jury there was a fight in which he hurt Hanna physically. Her cousin, Kendra, told the jury about this when she testified earlier in the trial.

Hanna had played recordings for Kendra that involved Jake admitting he hit, choked and pushed her.

Jake said he did not choke her, but he held her against a wall when she tried to storm off.

“She was lazy in her responsibilities she voluntarily chose to do,” Jake said was the reason for the fight.

Their relationship ended in 2015, about one year before the Rhoden family was killed. Jake told the courtroom he was concerned Hanna May would let Sophia be molested, and he wasn’t a fan of the men she was dating after their breakup.

Hanna May was dismissive of that concern, Jake said.

At the end of 2015, Hanna still had not signed shared custody paperwork. He said his mother, Angela, was monitoring conversations between Hanna and George Wagner’s ex-wife, Tabitha, and Tabitha’s mother over Facebook Messenger, Jake said. That is how they became aware she did not plan to sign the paperwork.

Screenshots of conversations with this information, collected by investigators with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, were shown in the courtroom earlier in the trial.

The Facebook conversation is what led the family to decide to do something, he said.

“To be frank, I had decided I felt I had no other choice than to kill Hanna,” Jake told the courtroom.

He said his dad, Billy, was the first to propose murder, and at first he was against it. He changed his mind, and told Billy they could kill Hanna and her boyfriend, Corey Holdren, framing him for a murder-suicide.

Billy didn’t like that idea, Jake told the court, and the family together decided to instead kill more of the Rhodens.

Tuesday’s testimony

Jake Wagner testified again Tuesday, detailing what happened when the family returned from the Rhoden family homes after the killings. He told the courtroom they got back to their property at 4:30 a.m. April 23 and immediately began burning everything they were wearing in an old feed trough. Cell phones Jake collected from the victims’ homes and a recording device for a surveillance system stolen from Chris Sr.’s house were also burned.

A portable grinder was used to cut up the three guns used in the homicides, he said. They used an acetylene torch to melt them and ensure serial numbers were gone.

Wagner said the family watched news reports of the murders and ask people called him to tell him the Rhodens were killed, he acted shocked and grieved.

WCPO’s Felicia Jordan, Evan Millward and Courtney Francisco contributed to this report. WCPO is a content partner of Cox First Media.

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