Pike County murder trial: Prosecution details George Wagner IV’s alleged involvement

Defense says suspect did not participate, is a family ‘outsider.’

WAVERLY, Pike Co. — In Monday’s opening arguments in the murder trial of George Wagner IV, special prosecutor Angela Canepa started with an apology to the jury for the long process.

It was delayed a week because someone crucial to the case was ill. The trial is expected to last 6 to 8 weeks.

Canepa wrapped up her opening statements after many hours of speaking to the jury; she stopped just after 2:30 p.m.

Defense Attorney Richard Nash began his opening statements after a 15 minute break. He says George Wagner IV is much different than the rest of his family and wasn’t involved in the murders, and he had no motive.

Wagner is one of multiple people in his family accused of killing eight members of the Rhoden family of Pike County. The Rhodens were murdered in their beds as they slept on April 22, 2016.

Those who were killed include Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Dana Rhoden, 37; Hannah Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Gary Rhoden, 37; Hanna Rhoden, 19 and Kenneth Rhoden, 44. There was a 2-year investigation into the killings, which ultimately resulted in the arrests of six Wagner family members.

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Hanna Rhoden was the mother of a child named Sophia, whose father is Jake Wagner — George’s brother. Those close to the case said custody of Sophia was contentious and was the possible motive for the Rhoden family killings. The prosecution zeroed in on this Monday.

George Wagner IV is the first of four indicted in the case to go to trial. Each is charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder; George faces 22 counts.

Others charged include George “Billy” Wagner, III (George’s father); Angela Wagner (George’s mother) and Edward “Jake” Wagner (George’s brother). Charged with obstructing justice and perjury are Fredericka Wagner — Billy’s mother, and Rita Newcomb, Angela’s mother.

Billy Wagner was also a friend and business partner of Christopher Rhoden, Sr. He has maintained a plea of not guilty, though a trial date has not yet been set for him.

Charges against Fredericka Wagner were eventually dropped and Newcomb took a plea deal. Angela and Jake also agreed to plea deals.

During the investigation of the murders, authorities allege the Wagners bought ammunition, a magazine clip, brass catchers and a bug detector to prepare for the crimes.

The Wagner family also allegedly studied “counter-surveillance devices” on the properties, including pets, and tampered with phones, cameras and parts of a home security system, investigators said. The family also allegedly constructed a homemade silencer that was used in the shootings, officials said.

Speaking to the jury during her opening statements Monday, Canepa laid out groundwork for George Wagner IV’s involvement in the massacre. She said there are wiretap recordings catching him speaking to Jake about them being in trouble, and that Jake should have smashed his laptop and thrown away his phone.

Canepa said George and Jake both dyed their hair darker the week prior to the homicides, and that they were inspired by a scene from the movie “Boondock Saints 2.” Jake, she said, wore his hair like the actor Norman Reedus, who appears in the Boondock Saints movies as well as the TV show “The Walking Dead.” Jake fancied himself like Reedus, Canepa told the jury.

Investigators said family financial records show purchases of masks, ammunition and a phone jammer. The records really show the Wagner family operated as one unit, the prosecution said.

Nash pointed out to the jury that while other Wagner family members were talked to by investigators on several occasions, George was only talked to once — when they needed them out of a vehicle so it could be bugged.

He called George a family “outsider.”

What to expect throughout the trial:

  • Angela and Jake are expected to take the stand as it was part of their plea deals that they must testify in the trials of any family members. In exchange, the death penalty is removed from the table. Without their testimony, George and Billy still face the death penalty if convicted of murder charges.
  • The trial could be dramatic because of the motive rooted in a vicious custody battle over a child to a household vote deciding to kill the Rhoden family. Prosecutors have spent the last several years painting the feud between the two families as bitter, coloring the Wagners as cold, heartless assassins. George’s defense attorneys have argued much of the evidence has little to do with their client. They argue that George did not shoot or kill anyone.

New details about the evidence against George Wagner IV

Prosecutors have, in several motions hearings over the years, discussed evidence they have against George Wagner IV and other members of the family.

In May, prosecutors said Angela confessed to officials that the family took a vote to decide whether they would commit the murders.

“She speaks vividly of recalling speaking to Jake and George and asking if they were sure they wanted to go through with this, to which they both said ‘yes,’” Canepa said in May.

Prosecutors also allege Jake was violent with Hanna Rhoden on multiple occasions before she and her family were found murdered.

Canepa has also claimed Billy lured Christopher Rhoden Sr. to his death by setting up a fake “lucrative” drug deal at the Union Hill Road property in which he was ultimately found shot to death.

“Chris Sr. expected to see Billy Wagner that night,” Canepa said. “He did not know Jake and George were present, because they were hidden in the car.”

Defense attorneys have repeatedly requested certain evidence be disallowed during his trial, including audio recordings created from days of surveillance on the Wagner family.

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