Prosecutor: Ohio suspects talked revenge vs. investigators
CINCINNATI (AP) — Two women who are the mothers of two suspects in the massacre of a family, and the grandmothers of the other two, pleaded not guilty Thursday to misleading investigators of the crime, which went without any arrests for more than two years.
During the court hearing, a special prosecutor said the four suspects in the 2016 killings that left eight dead met before they were arrested and talked about getting revenge against investigators, including the state’s top law official.
Fredericka Wagner, 76, and Rita Newcomb, 65, face felony charges of obstructing justice and perjury for impeding an investigation; Newcomb is also charged with forgery. A county judge set bond at $100,000 for Wagner and $50,000 for Rita Newcomb. If released, both would be placed on house arrest and monitored by electronic anklets.
On Tuesday, police arrested a family of four in the slayings of eight members of the Rhoden family. George “Billy” Wagner III, 47; his wife, 48-year-old Angela Wagner; and their sons, 27-year-old George Wagner and 26-year-old Edward Wagner, face aggravated murder charges and other counts that carry the possibility of a death sentence if they’re convicted.
An attorney for the family has said they will be vindicated.
Fredericka Wagner is the mother of Billy Wagner. Rita Newcomb is the mother of Angela Wagner.
Prosecutors said the two mothers are accused of lying to a grand jury but did not offer any specifics.
Newcomb’s attorney, Franklin Gerlach, portrayed his client as a grandmother living on Social Security. Wagner’s attorney, James Owen, said Thursday that his client “lived as close to the cross as anyone can” and taught Sunday school for decades.
A special prosecutor said during the hearing that a confidential informant told investigators that the four Wagners met at Fredericka Wagner’s home and talked about what they would do if anyone was arrested.
The discussion included escaping and getting revenge against investigators, including the county sheriff and Attorney General Mike Dewine, the prosecutor said.
Fredericka Wagner’s attorney did not directly respond to the prosecutor’s statement.
DeWine has given scant detail about why eight members of the Rhoden family — seven adults and a teenage boy — were found shot in the head in April 2016, other than saying the custody of a young child played a role.
One of the suspects, Edward “Jake” Wagner, was the longtime former boyfriend of 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, one of the victims, and shared custody of their daughter. Family members say the girl, now 4, is in state custody.
Pike County Commissioner Tony Montgomery told the Columbus Dispatch the Rhoden case has cost the county some $600,000 to date, including about $200,000 for a secure building that housed the trailers and camper where the killings occurred. Montgomery said almost $140,000 was reimbursed by the state.
A death penalty case this size could be “extraordinarily complicated and difficult,” said Michael Benza, a Case Western Reserve University law professor who has also represented death penalty defendants.
Ohio law requires defendants in capital cases to have two lawyers, both certified in handling death penalty charges. Each side must also hire numerous investigators and expert witnesses, who could cover everything from blood patterns to ballistics in each killing.
While prosecutors might favor a single trial, it’s likely defense attorneys will push for separate trials for each defendant, Benza said, adding to the burden on the county. And many trials could swamp a small court like the one in Pike County, where the two common pleas judges already handle numerous other cases. The cost over the years, including appeals, could run into the millions, Benza said.
“Capital cases are already a tremendous use of resources, but now you’ve added four, with eight victims,” Benza said Thursday. “It’s not just times four, it’s an exponential increase in cost, in time, in personnel.”
State Supreme Court rules allow judges to ask that an extra judge be appointed temporarily in situations when courts are “overburdened,” though no request has been made yet in Pike County.
The victims of the 2016 killings were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna; 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.
Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus. Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed.