Three months after eight members of a Pike County family were found shot to death in their homes, officials are refusing to release autopsy reports from the killings that could publicly shed new light on the case.
Several Ohio media outlets — including this one — have requested the autopsy reports and have been denied.
“I do not want to release any information that might impede the criminal investigation or the families’ grieving process,” wrote Pike County Coroner David Kessler, denying the request on the grounds that the report is part of the ongoing investigation.
The problem with that stance is that Ohio public records law clearly states that final autopsy reports are public, according to Ohio Newspaper Association Director Dennis Hetzel. And while there are situations under which a coroner can deny disclosure, he doesn’t believe Kessler’s denial goes far enough to explain how the report would compromise the investigation.
“You have to let journalists do their jobs, and by denying them access to records there’s no way we can perform the role we’re supposed to be performing as watchdogs on the process,” he said.
Officials have released death certificates and a preliminary autopsy overview of the case, which revealed among other things that most victims were shot multiple times and some had suffered soft tissue bruising. Full autopsies include additional information including toxicology screenings and crime scene descriptions.
The Cincinnati Enquirer last week filed a lawsuit against Pike County for refusing to release the autopsy.
The Columbus Dispatch reported Tuesday that it sent a reporter to Waverly, the Pike County seat, but the reporter was not allowed to inspect the records in person as stipulated in Ohio public records law.
This media outlet has also requested a copy of the autopsy report from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which is overseeing the Pike County investigation.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office, which conducts audits of how well state offices comply with public records law, responded to questions from this newspaper Tuesday with a statement: “While not the case universally, there are instances in which an autopsy report can be withheld as confidential law enforcement investigatory work product.’’
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has referred to the April 22 killings as “execution style,” and says he has a team of investigators working on the case. But he has released few details in the investigation, which this newspaper reported months ago had already stretched longer than most high-profile mass shootings.
The victims were Hannah Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Dana Rhoden, 37; Gary Rhoden, 38; Hanna Rhoden, 19; Kenneth Rhoden, 44.
Southern Ohio Crime Stoppers recently announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.