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5 Years Later, a Guilty Plea in Family Massacre

Prosecutors say custody dispute was behind the Ohio slayings
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 22, 2021 4:35 PM CDT

(Newser) – A man pleaded guilty in the murders of his child's mother and seven other members of her family on Thursday, the fifth anniversary of when the shootings were discovered in southern Ohio. Edward "Jake" Wagner pleaded guilty to 23 counts in Pike County court in a deal with prosecutors that spares him from a potential death penalty. He agreed to cooperate in the cases against his parents and brother, who also are charged in the Rhoden family slayings of seven adults and a teenage boy, the AP reports. "I am guilty, your honor," Wagner calmly told the judge again and again, as each count was read. The charges included eight counts of aggravated murder, as well as charges of conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and other charges. Wagner, 28, said he was deeply sorry. He wasn't immediately sentenced, but his lawyers acknowledged in court that the plea means he will die in prison, and they said he understood that.

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The killings in April 2016—at three trailers and a camper near Piketon—terrified residents in the rural community and prompted one of the most extensive criminal investigations in state history. It took authorities more than two years to announce the arrests. George Billy Wagner III, Angela Wagner, and their son George Billy Wagner IV have pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors alleged the Wagner family planned the killings for months, motivated by a custody dispute. Most of the victims were repeatedly shot in the head, and some showed signs of bruising, as if they had been beaten. Three young children at the scenes, including Jake Wagner's child, were unharmed. The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna, the mother of Jake Wagner's child; 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.

(Read more mass killing stories.)

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