Authorities: Prosecuting Ohio massacre case could last years

 

WAVERLY, Ohio (AP) — Prosecuting an Ohio family of four arrested in the gruesome slayings of eight people from another family could take years to conclude, a county prosecutor said as the first break in the more than two-year-old case was announced.

Tuesday's announcement marked the culmination of a massive investigative effort that began after seven adults and a teenage boy were found shot in the head at four separate homes in April 2016. The killings terrified local residents and spawned rumors that it was a drug hit, but prosecutors suggested the attack had stemmed from a custody dispute.

The investigation is one of the most complicated and extensive in state history, with enormous numbers of witnesses and a huge amount of evidence, said Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk.

"There is a lot of hard work ahead of us. I cannot emphasize that enough. An indictment is only the beginning of the case," Junk said Tuesday, adding that the case may have to be moved from Pike County because of the pre-trial publicity.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said a grand jury indicted the four members of the Wagner family on aggravated murder charges. Police arrested George "Billy" Wagner III, 47; his wife, 48-year-old Angela Wagner; and his sons George Wagner, 27, and Edward "Jake" Wagner, 26. They could be sentenced to death if convicted, DeWine said.

DeWine gave scant detail about why the victims were killed, but said the custody of a young child played a role. Edward Wagner was the long-time former boyfriend of 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, one of the eight victims, and shared custody of their daughter at the time of the massacre.

Edward Wagner was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Rhoden when she was 15 years old and he was 20 years old, DeWine's office said.

Tony Rhoden, who lost two brothers in the killings, said the family was still processing the news.

"We just don't know what to think," Rhoden told the Columbus Dispatch. "It's a lot to take in."

Related: Rhoden family murders in Pike County, Ohio

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Rhoden family murders in Pike County, Ohio
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Rhoden family murders in Pike County, Ohio
These undated images released by the Ohio Attorney General's office, show from left, George "Billy" Wagner III, Angela Wagner, George Wagner IV and Edward "Jake" Wagner. Authorities announced Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, that the family of four has been arrested in the slayings of eight members of one family in rural Ohio two years ago. (Ohio Attorney General's office via AP)
FILE - In this April 13, 2017, file photo, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader, left, discusses the ongoing investigation into the unsolved killings of eight family members in southern Ohio, during a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, attended by Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is leading the investigation. The Ohio Supreme Court has received the unredacted autopsy reports from eight slayings in one family as it considers media lawsuits seeking access to those full reports from the unsolved case. Court filings Wednesday, May 3, indicated the reports from the Pike County coroner have been submitted under seal following the justices’ April 19 request for the documents. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins, File)
FILE - In this Friday, April 22, 2016 file photo, authorities set up road blocks at the intersection of Union Hill Road and Route 32 at the perimeter of a crime scene, in Pike County, Ohio. As the investigation into the killings of eight family members in rural Ohio enters its fifth day, more details are being released. Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk told The Columbus Dispatch Monday, April 25, 2016, that the marijuana operations discovered at three of the four crime scenes included a grow-house sheltering hundreds of plants. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
FILE – In this May 3, 2016, file photo, mourners gather around caskets for six of the eight members of the Rhoden family found shot April 22, 2016, at four properties near Piketon, Ohio, during funeral services at Scioto Burial Park in McDermott, Ohio. Ohio State Attorney General Mike DeWine and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader planned a news conference Thursday, April 13, 2017, about the unsolved killings, as the anniversary of the massacre approaches. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
This undated photo provided by the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County, Ohio, Sheriff's Office shows George Wagner IV. Authorities on Monday, June 19, 2017, asked for information about four former Ohio residents, including George Wagner IV, who may have moved to Alaska as part of their investigation into the unsolved slayings of eight family members last year. (Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County Sheriff's Office via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County, Ohio, Sheriff's Office shows Angela Wagner. Authorities on Monday, June 19, 2017, asked for information about four former Ohio residents, including Angela Wagner, who may have moved to Alaska as part of their investigation into the unsolved slayings of eight family members last year. (Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County Sheriff's Office via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County, Ohio, Sheriff's Office shows Edward "Jake" Wagner. Authorities on Monday, June 19, 2017, asked for information about four former Ohio residents, including Edward "Jake" Wagner, who may have moved to Alaska as part of their investigation into the unsolved slayings of eight family members last year. (Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County Sheriff's Office via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County, Ohio, Sheriff's Office shows George "Billy" Wagner III, who investigators say is a former Peebles, Ohio, resident believed to be living in Alaska. Authorities on Monday, June 19, 2017, asked for information about four former Ohio residents, including Wagner, who may have moved to Alaska as part of their investigation into the unsolved slayings of eight family members last year. (Ohio Attorney General's Office and the Pike County Sheriff's Office via AP)
FILE - In this April 27, 2016, file photo, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, left, and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader, right, discuss the slayings of eight members of the Rhoden family found shot April 22, 2016, at four properties near Piketon, Ohio, during a news conference in Waverly, Ohio. The office of DeWine released redacted autopsy reports Friday, Sept. 23 in the unsolved slayings of the seven adults and a teenage boy, confirming all but one victim was shot multiple times in the head. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
In this Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016 photo, a truck passes a sign for the election of Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader in Waverly, Ohio. The still-unsolved killing of eight members of the Rhoden family, an investigation overseen by Reader and the Ohio Attorney General's Office, has become an election issue for many voters in the rural southern Ohio county. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)
FILE – In this May 3, 2016, file photo, hearses for six of the eight members of the Rhoden family found shot April 22, 2016, at four properties near Piketon, Ohio, depart during funeral services from Dry Run Church of Christ in West Portsmouth, Ohio. A spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine confirmed Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, that investigators are working under the theory it wasn't a single attacker, and The Columbus Dispatch reports Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader referenced the suspicion of multiple "killers" during a Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, court hearing related to custody of two of the three children who weren't harmed in the attack. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Police tape is deployed across from the Union Hill Road exit off Route 32 at a crime scene perimeter, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Pike County, Ohio. Shootings with multiple fatalities were reported along a road in rural Ohio on Friday morning, but details on the number of deaths and the whereabouts of the suspect or suspects weren't immediately clear. The attorney general's office said a dozen Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents had been called to Pike County, an economically struggling area in the Appalachian region some 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader, left, discusses the ongoing investigation into the unsolved killings of eight family members in southern Ohio on April 22, 2016, at a news conference attended by Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is leading the investigation, on Thursday, April 13, 2017, in Columbus, Ohio. Reader and DeWine both said they believe individuals may be holding back information out of fear of self-incrimination over their own, unrelated drug crimes. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)
Mourners gather around caskets at Scioto Burial Park during funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in McDermott, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year-old boy from the Rhoden family were found dead April 22 at four properties scattered across a few miles of countryside near Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Caskets are loaded into hearses as mourners gather outside Dry Run Church of Christ during funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in West Portsmouth, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year-old boy from the Rhoden family were found dead April 22 at four properties scattered across a few miles of countryside near Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. All eight were shot in the head, some had other gunshot wounds and bruising, and none of the deaths appeared self-inflicted, authorities said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners leave Dry Run Church of Christ during funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in West Portsmouth, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year-old boy from the Rhoden family were found dead April 22 at four properties scattered across a few miles of countryside near Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. All eight were shot in the head, some had other gunshot wounds and bruising, and none of the deaths appeared self-inflicted, authorities said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners leave Scioto Burial Park after funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in McDermott, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year-old boy from the Rhoden family were found dead April 22 at four properties scattered across a few miles of countryside near Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Brittany Barker, a neighbor of the Rhoden family, speaks to the media outside her home near a police roadblock on Union Hill Road at the outer perimeter of a crime scene, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Pike County, Ohio. Seven adults and 16-year-old boy were found dead Friday, April 22 at four properties near Piketon. Investigators have interviewed more than 50 people in the case but have made no arrests. "It doesn't feel like home anymore," Barker said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners arrive at Dry Run Church of Christ for funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in West Portsmouth, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year-old boy from the Rhoden family were found dead April 22 at four properties scattered across a few miles of countryside near Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Police cruisers are parked outside Dry Run Church of Christ before funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in West Portsmouth, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year-old boy from the Rhoden family were found dead April 22 at four properties scattered across a few miles of countryside near Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners arrive at Dry Run Church of Christ for funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in West Portsmouth, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year-old boy from the Rhoden family were found dead April 22 at four homes scattered across a few miles of countryside near Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Ohio State Attorney General Mike DeWine, left, and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader cross under police tape before holding a news conference, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Waverly, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Ohio State Attorney General Mike DeWine, left, and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader approach the site of a news conference, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Waverly, Ohio. A coroner's report released Tuesday showed new details of vicious violence in the shooting deaths of eight members of a rural southern Ohio family, finding most victims were shot three to nine times each and some of them were bruised. Meanwhile, the hunt for whoever is responsible continued to expand, with more than 200 law enforcement officials involved. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
A media videographer films an empty Union Hill Road whose access is blocked due to a crime scene investigation, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Pike County, Ohio. Shootings with multiple fatalities were reported along a road in rural Ohio on Friday morning, but details on the number of deaths and the whereabouts of the suspect or suspects weren't immediately clear. The attorney general's office said a dozen Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents had been called to Pike County, an economically struggling area in the Appalachian region some 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Authorities allow crime scene investigation vehicles to pass a perimeter checkpoint near a crime scene, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Pike County, Ohio. Shootings with multiple fatalities were reported along a road in rural Ohio on Friday morning, but details on the number of deaths and the whereabouts of the suspect or suspects weren't immediately clear. The attorney general's office said a dozen Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents had been called to Pike County, an economically struggling area in the Appalachian region some 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Authorities create a perimeter near a crime scene on Union Hill Rd, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Pike County, Ohio. Shootings with multiple fatalities were reported along a road in rural Ohio on Friday morning, but details on the number of deaths and the whereabouts of the suspect or suspects weren't immediately clear. The attorney general's office said a dozen Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents had been called to Pike County, an economically struggling area in the Appalachian region some 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Media and emergency personnel stand at the perimeter of a crime scene as investigation vehicles drive up Union Hill Road, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Pike County, Ohio. Shootings with multiple fatalities were reported along a road in rural Ohio on Friday morning, but details on the number of deaths and the whereabouts of the suspect or suspects weren't immediately clear. The attorney general's office said a dozen Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents had been called to Pike County, an economically struggling area in the Appalachian region some 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Lt. Michael Preston, of the Ross County Sheriff's Department speaks to the media on Union Hill Road that approaches a crime scene, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Pike County, Ohio. Shootings with multiple fatalities were reported along the road in rural Ohio on Friday morning, but details on the number of deaths and the whereabouts of the suspect or suspects weren't immediately clear. The attorney general's office said a dozen Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents had been called to Pike County, an economically struggling area in the Appalachian region some 80 miles east of Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners arrive to attend a funeral for six members of the Rhoden family, who were shot to death in rural Pike County on April 22, at Dry Run Church of Christ in West Portsmouth, Ohio, U.S. May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot
Mourners hug after the funeral service for six members of the Rhoden family, who were shot to death in rural Pike County on April 22, at Dry Run Church of Christ in West Portsmouth, Ohio, U.S. May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot
Mourners depart the Rhoden burial site at Scioto Burial Park after the funeral for six members of the Rhoden family, who were shot to death in rural Pike County on April 22, at Dry Run Church of Christ in West Portsmouth, Ohio, U.S. May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot
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The Wagner family lived near the scenes of the killings about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Columbus. They moved to Kenai, Alaska, in June 2017, then returned to Ohio this past spring.

Kelly Cinereski, an Alaskan pastor and friend of the family, told the Dayton Daily News he was shocked by their arrests.

"These people wept over dogs, I can't imagine them taking people's lives," he said.

The mothers of Angela Wagner and George Wagner also were arrested in Ohio and charged with misleading investigators.

Both Edward Wagner and Angela Wagner previously told the Cincinnati Enquirer that they were not involved in the killings.

Angela Wagner said in an email to the newspaper that what happened was devastating and Hanna Rhoden was like a daughter to her. Wagner also told The Enquirer that her husband, George, and Christopher Rhoden Sr. were more like brothers than friends.

John Clark, a lawyer who has been representing the Wagners, has said previously that four of the Wagner family members provided laptops, phones and DNA samples to investigators, and agreed to be interviewed about the slayings.

"We look forward to the day when the true culprits will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy," Clark said in a statement Tuesday.

The victims were identified as 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna; Clarence Rhoden's fiancée, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.'s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden. Hanna Rhoden's days-old baby girl, another baby and a young child were unharmed.

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Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus. Associated Press Writers John Seewer in Toledo and Dylan T. Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, and AP Researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.

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