The trial is the first time a person has faced a jury for the deaths of the Rhoden family six years ago.
On Tuesday, court began early with the defense’s closing arguments. John Parker, George’s defense attorney, spoke to the jury and began by casting aspersions on the government and its agencies, like the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations; It was stated several times throughout the trial that many people in Pike County and surrounding counties don’t always fully trust law enforcement.
The government, in this case, overreached when it came to George, Parker told the jury, listing the things BCI did to gather evidence — including planting devices intended to listen in on the Wagner family. In addition, the prosecution spoke of the Wagner family as if it was one single unit, he said.
“The state, in this case, as you’ve heard, with respect to George paints a very broad brush,” said Parker.
In fact, he said, while investigators were scrutinizing Jake, Angela and Billy, they never even considered George a suspect and neglected to interview him at all until the interrogations at the Canadian and Montana border.
“He wasn’t a suspect because he didn’t have a motive in this case,” said Parker.
In fact, the prosecution had the motive all wrong, he said: The murders were never about custody.
Parker accused investigators and the prosecution of confirmation bias, stacking up evidence to support their theory the motive behind the murders was custody related. Instead, Parker said, the motive was to protect Sophia.
“When Jake and Angela testified, it was about the sexual abuse, that’s what they said,” said Parker.
George’s ex-wife, Tabitha, and Jake’s ex-wife, Beth, were also accused by the Wagners of untoward and abusive behavior toward children in the family, but George hadn’t wanted to kill them, Parker said. He went through the courts to handle custody of his son with Tabitha and advocated for Beth to move out of the family home — he didn’t murder them or come up with a plot to murder them, Parker said.
“Why would he want to kill Hanna on similar reasons?” said Parker. “He didn’t kill anybody and he didn’t go along because it makes no sense.”
He pointed to evidence repeatedly mentioned by the prosecution that some witnesses — including Jake and George themselves — testified wasn’t relevant to the homicides: the hair dye, the tattoos and the Boondock Saints clip viewed on Jake’s phone the night of the murders.
“Reason and experience teaches us that people don’t kill each other over custody,” said Parker, adding that reason and experience also teaches that people do kill one another over drug deals or large amounts of money.
Holding up the document, Parker said that, in a 77-page request for wiretap clearance on the Wagners filed in 2018, investigators wrote they didn’t have enough evidence to convict the family. He suggested the jury, while in deliberation, go through that document to read where the investigation stood before the wiretaps and before Jake and Angela traded their testimony in their plea deals.
Pivoting to Angela and Jake’s testimony, Parker began working to break down the credibility of their statements while on the stand; Jake hadn’t confessed because he felt guilty or had some kind of religious awakening, but because his attorneys had told him he stood no other chance.
“He was going to be convicted at trial and he was going to be facing the death penalty,” said Parker.
But why did the state make a generous deal with a confessed killer, or his mother, who confessed to helping plan the murders, Parker asked before answering himself: Because their case against George wasn’t strong enough and the state needed their testimonies.
While on the stand, Jake had flubbed the timeline of the night of the murders in a way that didn’t match hard evidence, like the Rhoden’s phone records that night. Dana’s phone sent text messages at 3:30 a.m. while Hannah Hazel was texting at around 1 a.m. that night, which didn’t match Jake’s recollection of when they arrived at each home.
Jake testified the Wagners left their home on Peterson Road at around 9 p.m. on April 21, 2022 and drove roughly 20 to 30 minutes to Chris Sr.’s home on Union Hill Road. At 11 p.m., Chris Sr. called Billy’s cell phone.
“He wants you to believe the shooting started right around 11 p.m. when Chris made that call,” said Parker.
But Jake also said after Chris Sr. and Gary were left dead in the trailer, Jake, Billy and George walked over to the home where Frankie and Hannah Hazel lived. Parker said Jake described Billy jiggling the handle of the front door to see if it was locked, but by Jake’s timeline that would have happened around midnight — before Hannah Hazel stopped texting for the night.
In fact, Parker said, based on those phone records, Kenneth was likely the first person murdered that night — not Chris Sr. and Gary, as the prosecution and their witnesses said. The route the prosecution — and Jake — claimed the Wagners took that night, driving back and forth between different properties, made no sense, Parker said, and didn’t seem logical for a murder that was so meticulously planned otherwise.
He told the jury to recall Jake, when he was on the stand and consider his demeanor in whether he was truthful.
“What about Jake when he was up here?” said Parker. “Laughing and smiling and smirking when he’s talking about these murders. He’s cold-blooded. I think he’s psychotic. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world, it’s like sitting around talking about a football game on Monday morning is how he talked about these murders. It’s disgusting. He’s a sick man. You can’t believe what that guy says and Angela’s not a lot better.”
Angela testified that Hanna May was like a daughter to her, yet she helped in the plot to murder the 19-year-old.
“You don’t think she’d throw George under the bus if she’s plotting to kill Hanna?” said Parker.
He pointed out the Wagners never alerted children’s services or took the girl to a doctor when they claimed to suspect Sophia, Jake’s daughter, was being sexually abused. That claim could never be verified, nor could others made by Jake or Angela on the stand, specifically in the case of George’s involvement, he said.
He called Jake and Angela’s testimonies “unreliable evidence” and pointed to the years full of lies told by them both, preceded by lies and thefts committed by the family when they burned homes for arson or faked the lineage of a dog to sell it as a pure-breed in Angela’s breeding business.
Angela said George had nightmares after the murders, told her he almost smudged out the bloody footprints at Chris Sr.’s house and offered to take the fall for the rest of the family — but none of that can be truly verified, Parker said.
During his presentation, Parker was animated, gesturing broadly to the jury and pounding on the podium as he made his points.
If the jury chooses to believe Jake, Parker said, they should believe him when he said George tried to talk the family out of the murders and only went along at the last minute to protect Jake from their father, who George worried would turn on Jake. George claims he didn’t go at all, Parker conceded, but if the jury believes Jake they have to believe his statement that George never intended to kill anyone.
He also pointed out that, despite the prosecution’s claims that George went along with Billy and Jake that night, Angela only bought two pairs of shoes, which was at Billy’s behest — Billy, who came up with the murder plot and was involved in Chris Sr.’s drug business if Jake and Angela were to be believed, Parker said.
The defense attorney spent time laying out all the ways George was different from his brother in demeanor and interests. He reiterated that George had tried on multiple occasions to run away from a family with which he never got along. But the Wagner family was “a quagmire, he couldn’t get out of it,” said Parker.
Moving on to the murders themselves, Parker again repeated that all the victims were shot in the head, many near their eyes, which indicated a pattern he said showed Jake could have committed all the murders himself. Some victims were covered with blankets, which he said was another pattern. Jake claimed he sat in the truck at Kenneth’s home while Billy went inside and he saw a muzzle flash inside the camper before his father emerged; Parker scoffed at the claim and said it was only possible for Jake to see a muzzle flash at that scene if he was the one pulling the trigger.
“Jake testified — and this is strange — that he moved Hanna May’s body after he killed her but he denies moving the bodies of Gary and Chris at scene 1 where they were obviously dragged,” said Parker.
Parker showed the jury a photo of the crime scene at Chris Sr.’s home, where a bloody drag trail snakes between a wall and a chair topped with a garbage bag at the entrance to a hallway. He’d asked the BCI agent who’d performed 3D scans of the scenes how wide that opening was and it came to around 27 inches, he said. The defense repeatedly stressed that, at the time of the murders, George was a much larger man.
Parker suggested to the jury that, because Billy had a bad back and was also a large man, the only way the bodies could have been dragged through such a tight space without disturbing anything was if Jake dragged them both himself, despite his own claims. Parker pointed to Gary’s blood found transferred onto the door of the marijuana grow building, where Jake said he’d run to collect the DVR from a surveillance system on the property and said Jake likely transferred that blood himself because he’d been the one to drag Gary’s body.
The recordings made of the Wagner family — particularly the recordings from the R&L truck Jake and George drove together — should be re-heard as the jury thinks from George’s point of view that BCI was trying to frame his family for the murders, Parker urged. With that perspective, the recordings take on a different meaning, said Parker.
“Look at the evidence, take time to understand it, look at it from George’s point of view,” he said.
He pointed out the jury never heard George’s interview with BCI at the Montana border, despite the prosecution citing it regularly during their cross examination of George. Prosecutors also never asked Jake about whether he bought the 1911 Colt pistol from a gun show in Columbus with George or how exactly he built the false bed in the pick-up truck.
Physical and circumstantial evidence didn’t put George at any of the crime scenes; the prosecution relied on the testimony of two people who had already confessed to their participation in the murders, he said.
“Nothing on George other than the word of his lying — watch my language — brother,” said Parker, his tone angry. “And his mother, who dragged her own mother into this case.”
The jury also can’t forget, while determining credibility of Jake and Angela’s testimony, the GoFundMe page created by Angela and edited by Jake. The page sought to raise funds for Jake after he’d been responsible in murdering the Rhoden family.
“Can you imagine that?” said Parker. “They go kill these people and they have the audacity to set up a GoFundMe account?”
Parker urged the jury to hold the state to their burden of proof and return a verdict of ‘not guilty’ to all charges, because there’s nothing credible to say George was involved in the homicides.
“George didn’t do this, he wasn’t there,” said Parker, punctuating each word with a pound to the podium.
The prosecution’s rebuttal
Andrew Wilson stepped up to the podium to perform the state’s rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments.
He began by declaring to the jury that Parker said something during his argument that “absolutely destroyed” the credibility of the defense’s case: Parker’s statement that, although they claim George wasn’t there, if the jury believes Jake they should believe George never intended to kill anyone.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Wilson, his voice loud and his actions animated. “The truth is either one or the other — you can’t argue both.”
The defense was attempting to put forward two defenses, which meant there was no credible defense at all, Wilson said. The reason Parker did this is because his client is guilty, Wilson added.
“He’s up to his eyeballs in it with his family,” said Wilson.
Wilson went so far as to insinuate that it wasn’t impossible George was actually the one to pull the trigger of the SKS rifle at Chris Sr.’s home, pointing to testimony from both brothers that Jake’s vision at night was terrible, yet the rifle shots formed a tight grouping. Despite that possibility, Jake hadn’t made that claim, Wilson said, though he could have if he’d really wanted to throw his brother under the bus in his testimony.
Still, George doesn’t have to have fired any shots to be found guilty in the state of Ohio, Wilson pointed out, explaining how complicity works in state law.
Wilson listed all the moments throughout the trial where, although he claimed he never killed anyone, the evidence showed George was complicit in his family’s plot, ranging from the purchase of a phone jammer on George’s credit card to signing forged custody documents.
Wilson dismissed Parker’s claims that viewing the evidence from George’s perspective would change anything, because George wasn’t innocent; if he had been, he wouldn’t have remained silent at the Montana border while the family waited for Jake and Sophia to come outside but would instead have asked questions. He also wouldn’t have suggested to George the photo of Jake holding a .22 caliber Colt pistol was altered by BCI from a photo taken in Alaska of Jake holding a fish.
While George was on the stand, special prosecutor Angela Canepa, caught him in a lie, Wilson said. She’d asked him why he hadn’t spoken with his family after the border interrogations and he’d told her he was preoccupied with worry about his son, whom the family thought was poisoned by agents because he was acting off. Wilson pointed out that suspicion didn’t arise until Sophia told them the children were given juice — and Sophia and Jake weren’t released for an hour after George.
The family couldn’t speak yet, Wilson said, because they knew the truck was bugged and they hadn’t gotten their stories straight yet after Angela stumbled on questions about the Walmart shoes.
Wilson also dismissed Parker’s claims that the murders were never about custody — proof that the Wagner family was determined to raise both George’s son, Bulvine, and Sophia solely as Wagners was evident in how Tabitha was removed from her son’s life.
“They basically stole Bulvine,” said Wilson.
It would never have mattered if Tabitha had gotten a good job, a new place to live that was clean and safe or if she’d moved away from her family, she was never going to be able to have the kind of custody arrangement she’d have wanted, Wilson said. Later, the same would be true of Sophia.
“They wiped out an entire family to get to Sophie,” said Wilson.
The defense was mistaking “motive” with “justification,” said Wilson, because the way the Wagner family justified the murders in their own mind was to tell themselves they were protecting Sophia from abuse — but the motive was always having control over how the girl was raised.
The Wagner family never opted to take Sophia to a doctor or alert children’s services or law enforcement to their worries about Sophia and there was a direct reason for this, said Wilson.
“Because it wasn’t true,” he said. “They made terrible allegations about this family amongst themselves. They couldn’t do it out in public because it wasn’t true.”
It was, Wilson said, the same allegation the Wagners leveled against George’s ex-wife, Tabitha, and Jake’s ex-wife, Beth, when they needed to exert control over the women or their children.
“It worked with Tabby. It worked with Beth,” said Wilson. “But they weren’t as strong as Hanna.”
Where Tabitha and Beth had not, Hanna had family and a support system, Wilson said, gesturing to the area of the gallery where family of the victims sat each day of trial. That family would have never allowed Sophia to be taken from Hanna the way the Wagners had successfully wrested Bulvine from Tabitha, Wilson argued.
“Make no mistake about it, their desire to have Sophie and raise her 100% Wagner is why they did this,” he said.
That need to control ran deep within the family, Wilson said, and though it was strongest in Angela, he pointed out George exhibited signs of it too.
“The Wagners need to control how these children are going to be raised — that’s a group trait, that’s a group characteristic,” said Wilson. “They all subscribe to that.”
He referenced recordings made of the family. In one, George threatened to take Sophia from Jake if he didn’t kick his then-wife from the home following allegations she’d touched Sophia inappropriately. In another, George told Bulvine the agents at the Montana border were bad people who wanted to kill the boy’s father, uncle and grandparents.
Someone that manipulative and in need of control wouldn’t have taken a seat while his family plotted to murder eight people, Wilson said.
“He was coming and he was bringing hell with him,” said Wilson, using words George said in a recorded conversation. “This isn’t the guy that sits on the sidelines.”
As for the deals made with Jake and Angela, Wilson said dealing with them was “distasteful” but necessary. Without Jake’s confession that led investigators to the murder weapons in the concrete buckets, the marijuana and drug operations Chris Sr. and Kenneth were involved in lingered as a possible motive they believed the defense could use.
“But when Jake led us to the guns ... no longer could they use that defense,” said Wilson. “It destroyed that defense and it destroyed all the rumors you heard in the community.”
From there, no longer were there suspicions surrounding cartel involvement, a fight Chris Sr. had shortly before the murders with someone who’d threatened his whole family or “the dirty sheriff who’s now in prison,” said Wilson.
Angela’s deal was crafted so investigators could determine whether Jake’s statement was credible and, ultimately, her confession independently corroborated his, Wilson said.
“They only way that happens without her knowing what he said is if they’re telling the truth about what they observed, what they knew” said Wilson. “That’s the only way that happens.”
He continued arguing points made by Parker. Dana’s phone wasn’t texting at 3 a.m. that morning but had instead been powered up by Jake as he tried to check the time and fired off texts she’d intended to send hours earlier — her phone records showed no activity after midnight, until seven texts were suddenly sent within 30 seconds of one another at 3 a.m.
Angela had only bought two pairs of shoes from Walmart because Billy’s plan involved him interacting with Chris Sr. and he couldn’t have been seen wearing those shoes that night when he nearly exclusively wore boots.
Wilson also dismissed the idea George was too large to fit down the hallway Chris Sr. and Gary were dragged, because Todd Fortner, a BCI agent, had carried 3D scanning technology through that same hallway with ease and he was also a man of larger stature.
As for why the jury never heard the recording of George’s interview at the border, Wilson said that was a strategic choice made by the prosecution in order to nudge George into taking the stand.
“If we play that interview, he doesn’t take the stand and we never get a shot at asking him questions,” said Wilson. “We don’t play that and the only way he can get what he’s trying to say in front of you is by taking that stand and subjecting him to cross examination.”
George did, ultimately, take the witness stand and endured cross examination; Wilson said he was curious to know if the jury had noticed the telltale signs the defendant had been coached.
“Why do you do that unless your answer is something other than the truth?” said Wilson.
The first indication, Wilson said, was that George often answered Parker’s questions before the defense attorney was done asking them, even framing the context of his answers before Parker had finished contextualizing the question. The second was that George often gave very specific and detail-oriented answers to Parker’s vague questions, as if he’d known the answers Parker had wanted him to recite, said Wilson.
Last, Wilson said that George’s body language betrayed him, because he’d made direct eye contact every time he was answering a question he was comfortable with but looked down before answering a question of which he was uncertain.
Wilson concluded by reminding the jury that the state does not have to prove its case beyond “all possible doubt,” only beyond reasonable doubt.
Following a short lunch break Tuesday, the jury returned to the court room, where Judge Randy Deering read them their instructions ahead of deliberation.