A man charged in the 2016 slayings of eight members of a family in southern Ohio will not face the death penalty if convicted.
Closing arguments are scheduled next week in the Pike County trial of 31-year-old George Wagner IV. He was arrested along with three of his relatives more than two years after seven members of the Rhoden family and the fiancee of one of them were shot to death in several different locations in August 2016.
Prosecutors agreed in September not to seek the death penalty against Wagner and his father, who will be tried later, in a deal with the other two family members who agreed to testify. Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa moved Tuesday for dismissal of the capital punishment specifications, saying the action was “not a merit-based decision.”
Jurors will be told about the decision before closing arguments begin Monday and Tuesday. The prosecution and the defense rested their cases Friday. Wagner is not accused of having shot anyone but is alleged to have planned, carried out and covered up the slayings, which authorities say stemmed from a custody dispute.
Canepa has alleged that Wagner was with his brother and his father when they drove to locations where the victims were killed, went inside with the pair and helped his brother move two of the bodies.
Wagner, however, testified that he was at home sleeping on the night of the murders. He said he learned that the Rhodens were dead from TV reports, calling the news “heartbreaking.” On cross-examination, Canepa attacked his credibility, citing inconsistencies between his testimony and his 2017 statements to authorities.
His younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, testified as part of a deal that spared him the death penalty. He said he killed five of the eight victims and implicated their father in the other three slayings. He said he felt he had no choice but to kill the mother of his toddler daughter because he feared for the girl’s safety.
Angela Wagner, the mother of Jake and George, earlier pleaded guilty to helping plan the slayings but blamed the massacre on her husband, George “Billy” Wagner III. She said he believed the other family would seek revenge for the woman’s death and would kill Jake “if not all of us,” so the rest of her family “had to be murdered.”
George Wagner III has pleaded not guilty and likely won’t go on trial until next year.
Those killed were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Dana Rhoden, 37, his ex-wife; their three children, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Christopher Roden Jr., 16, and Hanna Rhoden, 19, the mother of Jake Wagner’s daughter; Hannah Gilley, 20, Clarence Rhoden’s fiancee; Kenneth Rhoden, 44, Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother; and Gary Rhoden, 38, a cousin.