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Published: Sunday, December 02, 2018 @ 6:00 AM
PORTSMOUTH — When Billy Wagner is arraigned Tuesday in Pike County Common Pleas Court on charges he and his immediate family executed the most complex murders in Ohio history, it won’t be the first time the 47-year-old father has faced a judge.
But the specter of the death penalty, if convicted, makes it the most serious.
Billy Wagner and his wife Angela Wagner, 48, face 22 criminal charges in connection to the 2016 killings of eight people in Pike County, including the mother of their granddaughter. Eight of the counts allege aggravated murder — charges for which, if convicted, both Wagners could be put to death. Angela Wagner has pleaded not guilty.
Their two sons — Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, and George Wagner IV, 27 — also pleaded not guilty to the same charges. Jake Wagner also pleaded not guilty to allegations of unlawful sexual conduct with Hanna Rhoden, one of the murder victims with whom he fathered a child. Both could also face execution.
A Dayton Daily News examination of Billy Wagner’s life in southern Ohio shows repeated run-ins with the law on various criminal allegations. One incident remains seared in the memory of the man who says he experienced it.
Brad Uhl remembers the summer day the man in the white Jeep flashed a handgun at him, his teenage daughter, and his teenage niece during “a bit of road rage” on U.S. 23 near Lucasville, between Piketon and Portsmouth.
“It’s something you don’t forget,” Uhl said.
The incident — the details of which the Dayton Daily News is reporting for the first time — resulted in Billy Wagner pleading no contest to charges he improperly handled a loaded .40-caliber Glock handgun, according to the Portsmouth Municipal Court.
Billy Wagner’s wife, Angela Wagner, was similarly charged in the 2001 case, though records show her case was dismissed.
‘He was flashing it at us’
An Ohio State Highway Patrol investigation report shows troopers understood Uhl’s call to police as him reporting “a male driver was holding a handgun to the head of a woman passenger.”
But Uhl — contacted by the newspaper — disputes the Highway Patrol’s records in the incident. The gun was not pointed at a woman’s head, he told the newspaper, “He was flashing it at us.”
“He wouldn’t let me pass him,” Uhl said, recalling his car and the Jeep both met at a stoplight. “There was never a gun held to anyone’s head, he just held up the gun to say, ‘I mean business.’”
“The light turned green, he stood there for a second, I let him go and then made a call to the state patrol,” Uhl said.
About 15 minutes later, down the road about five miles, Uhl saw troopers pulled the driver over.
Uhl said he does not remember a woman in the car. The patrol’s records show otherwise. Both Wagners, the report indicates, were taken to the patrol post for questioning after troopers observed a black handgun in a purse on the passenger side.
Frank Gerlach — Billy Wagner’s attorney at the time — reviewed his 2001 files at the newspaper’s request. Neither Gerlach’s recollection nor his records indicate a gun was held to anyone’s head.
“I would have remembered something like that,” Gerlach said, though he acknowledged he did not recall representing Billy Wagner at all until the newspaper stopped by his Portsmouth office last week. Coincidentally, Gerlach said, he currently represents Angela Wagner’s mother on allegations she helped cover up the 2016 murders and forged custody documents.
Billy Wagner was sentenced to 30 days jail time in the 2001 case, which was suspended in lieu of one-year probation, the records show. He was also sentenced to a $100 fine and ordered to pay court costs — altogether $223. And while the gun was confiscated and ordered destroyed, Billy Wagner faced no penalty under Ohio law restricting his future use of weapons.
Billy Wagner’s current attorney, Mark Collins, declined to comment, citing existing gag orders in the murder cases.
Receiving stolen property charges
The newspaper’s review has found no convictions for drugs — which Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has said is an “undercurrent” in the case — or violence.
But later in 2001, Billy Wagner was charged with three counts of receiving stolen property, court records show. Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk tried the case and is also trying the current murder case. The judge who signed the search warrant in the stolen property case, Randy Deering, is today the common pleas court judge presiding over the murder case.
Among the items listed for seizure on the 2001 search warrant were a variety of mechanic and carpenter tools, a concrete saw, a portable generator reportedly stolen from a high school, dirt bikes, a compound bow and a cross bow.
Billy Wagner pleaded no contest to two counts of receiving stolen property (another was dismissed). One count involved a stolen dirt bike, the other alleged he received various stolen property from several entities, including Carter Lumber and Eastern High School. A judge found him guilty of the two counts and ordered him to 180 days jail time, which was suspended for a probation period of three years. He was ordered to pay $500.
In a case prosecuted by Junk that was dismissed for a “lack of speedy trial,” both Angela and Billy Wagner were accused of tampering with evidence. Existing records reveal little about the case, though they were both ordered not to contact Rocky Mountain Boot Company.
Three years later, in 2012, Billy and Angela were convicted of receiving stolen property in Ross County.
According to court records there, evidence seized in the case included “various items belonging to Kohl’s, Ollie’s, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Super K-Mart, Hobby Lobby, Sears, and Lowe’s.” The pair were each sentenced to one-year community control and ordered to pay restitution to Sam’s Club and Walmart.
Since the deaths of the seven Rhodens and a fiancee on April 22, 2016, Billy Wagner was involved in one minor incident, according to Alaskan court records. He pleaded no contest in summer 2017 to the minor charge of having only two life jackets on a boat with four people aboard, the records show.
What is now known — and what had long been suspected by those in Pike County — is that investigators in Ohio were on the family’s trail, even when they moved to Alaska’s remote Kenai peninsula. And they stayed on the trail when the family came back to Ohio after Billy Wagner’s father, George W. “Bob” Wagner, died Aug. 21, 2017, and was buried on the family’s Flying W Farm.