Cases of Wagner family accused in Ohio murders take years to prosecute, cost taxpayers thousands of dollars
WAVERLY, Ohio — The prosecution of six members of one extended family in connection with the methodical massacre of eight members of another Pike County family will take years, much like the investigation into the deaths.
Four members of the Wagner family — Angela Wagner, 48; her husband, George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; and their two sons, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, whose various addresses put them in Lucasville, Peebles and South Webster, Ohio, — face the death penalty in their aggravated murder charges. Their arrests were the result of largest homicide investigation in Ohio history, state Attorney General Mike DeWine said.
The costs already have started mounting: The investigation followed up on about 1,100 tips; conducted 550 interviews; served more than 200 subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders; and tested more than 700 items.
If the Wagners are found indigent, they’re entitled by law to have a competent defense by an lawyer qualified to handle death-penalty cases. Angela Wagner’s mother, Rita Newcomb, 65, of South Webster; and Billy Wagner’s mother, Fredericka Wagner, 76 of Lucasville, also have been accused of perjury and obstructing justice for allegedly misleading investigators; Newcomb additionally is charged with forging custody documents to cover up the crimes.
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While the state public defender’s office would take on the costs for one capital-murder defendant, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said the other three could fall to the county. The costs would involve more than a lawyer and likely would include a mitigation expert, a defense investigator and a forensic scientist, all adding up to tens of thousands of dollars.
The prosecutor’s costs would include travel fees for witnesses — the case took investigator to 10 states — as well as prosecution teams that will include special prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office.
Mike DeWine, Ohio attorney general and newly elected governor, acknowledged the expenses will be a burden for the county as the investigation has been.
“Pike County is a small county, and we clearly have to do something in Ohio to make sure these counties have the ability to carry out justice. I’ll let it go at that,” DeWine said. “It’s certainly been a concern of mine before the Pike County case, but it’s been really driven home during the last 2½ years.”
The sheriff’s office already had to make budget cuts earlier this year because revenue wasn’t coming into county coffers as expected.
The Wagners are accused of methodically planning the violent shooting deaths of Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his brother, Kenneth Rhoden, 44; his ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 37; their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Chris Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; and a cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38. Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20, was also killed April 22, 2016.
► July 2: Amid budget woes, Pike County sheriff begins cost-cutting measures
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The bodies were found in four homes.
Jake Wagner is the father of Hanna Rhoden’s eldest child and had said he also might have fathered her younger child, one of three who were left unharmed amid the carnage. DeWine alleged Tuesday that the Wagners were obsessed over custody and control of the children.
The next step in the case will be arraignments of the Wagner family.
Junk intends to request the Wagners be held without bond as Ohio law allows in death penalty cases. If granted, the family could spend years behind bars before going to trial.
Pike County Judge Randy Deering will make the final ruling on that request as well as dozens of motions that are anticipated to be filed.
Among the first likely defense motions could be a request to move the trials out of Pike County because of extensive pre-trial publicity and concerns about the Wagners receiving a fair trial.
“This case has received more publicity than anything we’ve ever had,” Junk said.
In Ohio, co-defendants in death penalty cases are required to have their own trials, so the four cases could be tried in four different counties because of the media attention and need to find an jury pool that has not developed opinions in the cases.
Those decisions will be up to Deering who also will be sifting through and deciding on what could be at least 200 motions total. Once trial dates are set, each case could take more than a month to complete.
► June 2017: Family named in Ohio massacre investigation moves to Alaska
► May 2017: Relative of mass-murder victims charged with evidence tampering
While typical jury selection involves a single round of questions looking for potential conflicts and prejudices, those in death penalty cases also have a second round focused on their views on capital punishment.
“We all have a lot of hard work ahead of us,” Junk said.
Follow Jona Ison on Twitter: @jonaison