Judge allows brother to testify against brother in Rhoden family murders

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 25, 2022

COLUMBUS (AP) — An Ohio man who has admitted to killing five members from a single family will be allowed to testify at the death penalty trial of his brother, who is charged in the same crime, according to a judge’s ruling Tuesday.

George Wagner IV, his parents and his brother, Jake Wagner, were charged in the 2016 fatal shootings of the Rhoden family near Piketon in southern Ohio. Authorities say the shootings of seven adults and a teenage boy stemmed from a dispute over custody of a child that Jake Wagner had with one of the victims.

Jake Wagner pleaded guilty last year in the shootings, admitting to killing five of the victims as part of a plea deal with prosecutors that spared him from being sentenced to death. Wagner’s mother, Angela Wagner, also pleaded guilty to helping plan the slayings.

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John Parker, a lawyer representing George Wagner, argued Tuesday that the deal Jake Wagner struck with prosecutors limits his ability to conduct a thorough cross examination. Parker has said that Jake Wagner told prosecutors that his brother didn’t shoot anyone.

Jake Wagner isn’t in a position to testify truthfully because he faces the death penalty if he doesn’t strictly obey the terms of his plea deal, Parker said. “Our right to confrontation is more or less meaningless because he’s got a script he has to follow,” he said.

Special prosecutor Andrew Wilson argued that there’s nothing unusual about Jake Wagner’s plea deal, and added that his testimony will be bolstered by other evidence implicating George Wagner.

Pike County Judge Randy Deering, without comment, denied Parker’s request to keep Jake Wagner and his mother from testifying. Deering also denied a request from George Wagner’s attorneys to drop charges that involve crimes committed outside Pike County.

Special prosecutor Angela Canepa argued that the defendants were in and out of Pike and Scioto counties the night of the crimes and the killings were part of a single course of conduct.

Jake and George’s father, George “Billy” Wagner III, has pleaded not guilty.

The Wagners are accused of killing seven members of the Rhoden family, plus the fiancée of one of the Rhoden victims, at four different Pike County homes.

Killed were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden, 37, and their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20. Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20, was also killed, along with the elder Christopher Rhoden’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38.

Most of the victims were killed as they slept at three trailers and a camper near Piketon. Three young children, including a five-day-old baby, at home at the time of the murders were left physically unharmed.