Pike County murders: First homicide suspect pleads not guilty

Jake Wagner Full Hearing

WAVERLY — The first of four capital murder defendants accused of killing eight of their Pike County neighbors in 2016 pleaded not guilty Tuesday to nearly two dozen criminal charges.

Edward Jacob “Jake” Wagner, 26, is facing 23 charges, including eight counts of aggravated murder, each with a death penalty specification. One count alleges unlawful sexual conduct with one of the victims, Hanna Rhoden, mother of Wagner’s daughter, Sophia. Prosecutors allege a custody dispute is at the heart of the case.

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First suspect in Pike County murders to appear in court

Also Tuesday, Judge Randy Deering issued a gag order, requested by both the prosecutors and the defense counsel, which prevents them and law enforcement from speaking to the media about the case.

Wagner’s arraignment in Pike County Common Pleas Court marked the first in a string of court appearances this week and next for him, his brother, George Wagner IV; mother, Angela Wagner; and father, George “Billy” Wagner III.

Already, his two grandmothers have pleaded not guilty to charges alleging a cover-up of the killings.

Lawyers on both sides met in the judge’s chamber for about 45 minutes before the hearing’s start. Then, over the course of an hour, Deering read the lengthy indictment to Jake Wagner.

During the hearing, Wagner waived his right to a speedy trial. His attorneys did not contest the state’s request that he be held without bail.

Who are the Wagners?

Killed were: Dana and Christopher Rhoden Sr.; their daughter, Hanna Rhoden; their sons Christopher Rhoden Jr. and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden; Frankie’s girlfriend, Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, Kenny Rhoden; and his cousin Gary Rhoden.

Surviving members of the Rhoden and Gilley families — some wearing T-shirts with the names of the eight victims who died April 22, 2016 — packed six rows of pews in the courtroom.

At front, Geneva Rhoden, the 75-year-old family matriarch, sat in a white sweater and spent most of the time looking away from Wagner, who is being held at the Franklin County Jail and wore the lockup’s gray uniform and flip-flops.

Across the aisle from the surviving family sat Jake Wagner’s paternal aunt — Billy Wagner’s sister — who declined to comment. So, too, did Jake Wagner’s maternal uncle, Angela Wagner’s brother.

In the courtroom, after the adjournment but audible and visible to reporters and others who remained inside, the court-appointed defense attorneys met with Jake Wagner’s relatives.

One attorney, Gregory Meyers, chief counsel of the state public defender office’s trial department, told the relatives “we’ll be pestering you” for background information. He added, “we need to know about family,” reminding them that as defense attorneys, their allegiance is to Jake Wagner alone.

Meyers was joined at the defense table by William Mooney, an assistant public defender, and John Cornely, the office’s deputy director.

Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk has stated an intention to keep the trials in Pike County.

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