Piketon was the sort of place where everyone knew each other—or at least they thought they did.
The village in rural Pike County, Ohio, continues to reel from the events of April 22, 2016, when eight members of one family were killed, picked off in four separate residences in an area that according to the 2010 census only had 820 households.
"Suddenly you're talking about a location where a statistically significant number of the population is wiped out in one night," forensics expert and Jacksonville State University Professor Joseph Scott Morgan told E! News in an interview ahead of the Nov. 24 premiere of the Oxygen docuseries The Pike County Murders: A Family Massacre. "This is one of those events where, 100 years from now, there's going to be a group of kids sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories about this."
Having never dealt with a case of that magnitude, local authorities called in the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation for assistance. But with no witnesses, no fingerprints and no DNA—as remembered in the series by then-Ohio attorney general and now Gov. Mike DeWine—their prospects for a swift resolution didn't look promising.
Still, evidence was collected, suspects were interviewed, arrests were made and four members of another family are behind bars.
Yet as so often tends to be the case, finding out who pulled the trigger isn't the same as figuring out why. Or, with the Piketon murders especially, how on earth this could happen.
"It's in the DNA and the fabric of this community now," said Morgan, who spent four years consulting on the case and appears in the Oxygen series. "You don't escape anything like this, particularly where nothing else really happens—and boy, did something happen. This is going to scar that area and generations of the people to come."
Who were the victims in the 2016 Pike County murders?
The body of Chris Rhoden Sr., 40, was the first to be discovered. Hs sister-in-law Bobby Jo Manley showed up at his Union Hill Road property near Piketon on the morning of April 22, 2016, to feed the Rhodens' dogs and chickens. She let herself inside Chris' trailer with her key and found him and his cousin Gary Rhoden, 38, looking, as she told 911 at 7:49 a.m., like "somebody beat the hell out of them."
Bobby Jo then knocked at another trailer on the property to check on Chris Sr.'s 20-year-old son, Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden. Instead, Frankie's 3-year-old son answered the door and said his dad was "playing zombie" in bed, according to Bobby Jo. Frankie and his fiancée Hannah Gilley, 20, were both dead, their 6-month-old lying between them—physically unharmed, but covered in blood.
Bobby Jo's brother James Manley found their sister—and Chris Sr.'s ex-wife—Dana Rhoden, 37, shot to death in a rear bedroom in a third residence on the same road. Chris Sr. and Dana's son, Chris Rhoden Jr., 16, and daughter Hanna May Rhoden, 19, were dead as well, both shot in the head. Hannah had given birth just days earlier and the infant was lying next to her, unharmed.
Hanna was also mom to a 2-year-old daughter who was not staying with her at the time.
Another 911 call was made at 1:26 p.m. later that day when a cousin found the body of Chris Sr.'s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, at a trailer home on West Fork Road, about a 10-minute drive from the rest of the carnage. He had been shot once through his right eye and dollar bills were sprinkled around his body.
"This was definitely the largest and most complicated mass killing in Ohio's history," BCI Special Agent in Charge Benjamin Suver recalled in the series.
Autopsy findings released more than two years later (after the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch sued for access to the preliminary reports, per WCPO) revealed that all eight victims had been shot point-blank in the head, most of them multiple times.
What did the investigation into the Rhoden murders uncover?
In the Oxygen series, Morgan described seeing the bullet holes pocking the outside of Chris Sr.'s trailer and just knowing it was going to be "a horror show" inside.
He also concluded right away "that whoever did this was purposed," the investigator told E!. "This was not a random act. This is not a wrong place, wrong time scenario. You don't wind up in these locations by accident. It's a case involving a certain level of familiarity."
Meanwhile, the killers may not have left behind DNA, but they left distinct shoeprints—from two left shoes in different sizes—in a blood trail that indicated there were at least two shooters. Shell casings found at Frankie and Chris Sr.'s homes indicated that several different types of guns were used in the murders.
"There's nothing that's insignificant at any crime scene," Morgan said, speaking to the possible importance of the smallest detail when it comes to cracking a case open. "It's always been my adage, cast a wide net and catch a lot of fish. You never diminish or dismiss anything, particularly when you first arrive at a scene."
BCI analysts eventually matched the shoeprints to sneakers that were sold at a local Walmart.
A shed near Kenneth's trailer where he appeared to have been cultivating marijuana, according to investigators, led to a theory among law enforcement that the murders might have been drug-related. More evidence of a growing operation was found in a barn on Chris Sr.'s property.
By October 2016, however, authorities had dismissed the drug theory, their investigation pointing more to perpetrators who were familiar with the Rhoden family and the layout of their properties.
What was the Rhoden family's connection to the Wagner family?
The father of Hanna's then-2-year-old daughter, Sophia, was Edward "Jake" Wagner, who was granted temporary custody of the child a couple weeks after the murders. (The 4-day-old baby found next to her body had a different father.)
Jake lived with his big brother George Wagner IV and their parents Angela Wagner and George "Billy" Wagner III.
In the series, a friend of Hanna's recalled how "blindly in love" she was with Jake, whom she met at the Pike County Fair in 2010 when she was 13 and he was 17. She got pregnant with Sophia at 15.
George, meanwhile, was best friends with Hanna's older brother, Frankie, and Hanna lived with the Wagner family for awhile before she and Jake broke up.
In March 2017, the Wagners packed up and moved to Kenai, Alaska, letting it be known to other family members that they were afraid for their lives. (They had also talked before the murders about relocating to Alaska, according to one relative.)
As they continued to work the case, BCI investigators found a Walmart receipt showing someone in the Wagner family had purchased the shoes that matched the prints found at the Rhoden crime scene. A review of store security footage showed Angela shopping at the time of the purchase.
Hearing that the Wagners were returning to town to retrieve more of their belongings, authorities intercepted them in Montana in May 2017. Angela agreed to speak with investigators, who confronted her with the Walmart info to see what she said.
Why were Hanna Rhoden and seven members of her family killed?
A motive started to take shape as investigators combed through text messages and social media records, eventually piecing together that Hanna and Jake seemed to be headed for a custody battle over Sophia.
"The motive was a challenging one for all of us," Pike County special prosecutor Angie Canepa acknowledges in the series. As they put their case together, she recalled, "We heard, 'No one's going to believe eight people were killed over custody.'"
In April 2018, the Wagners moved back to Ohio, where authorities proceeded to set up wiretaps to monitor the family's conversations. When Jake and his brother started working for a trucking company, the BCI bugged their trucks, too (with the company's consent).
"We're running on borrowed time," Angela was heard telling her sons on June 9, 2018, per a wiretap recording played in the series. Jake told her, "Mom, you're paranoid."
On Nov. 13, 2018, Billy, Angela, George IV and Jake were arrested and charged with aggravated murder, plus a number of related counts, in the deaths of Hanna, her brothers Frankie and Chris Jr., her parents Chris Sr. and Dana, her uncle Kenneth, her dad's cousin Gary, and Frankie's fiancée Hannah.
"We believe that the Wagners conspired together to develop an elaborate plan to kill the eight victims under the cover of darkness and then carefully cover up their tracks," DeWine said in announcing the charges.
Prosecutors said they planned to seek the death penalty for all four at trial.
The Wagners pleaded not guilty to all the charges they were facing and were locked up in four separate facilities to await trial.
Jake, however, waived his right to a speedy trial at his arraignment, where it took an hour for the judge to read the 23-count indictment, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
What happened to the Wagner family?
Needless to say, anyone who knew the Rhodens or the Wagners (and more likely both) was gobsmacked by the arrests.
Even more shocking was Jake's decision to plead guilty to eight counts of aggravated murder in April 2021 as well as the 15 related counts he was facing. He agreed to testify against his brother and parents in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table in all four cases.
Jake, who's now 30, was subsequently sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In September 2021, his mom Angela pleaded guilty to conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, forgery, unauthorized use of property and unlawful possession of a dangerous ordinance in exchange for prosecutors dropping the murder charges against her.
She also agreed to testify against her husband and eldest son in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence.
"Our society reveres mothers for taking care of their children and teaching them to do the right thing, even when it's hard," Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a statement regarding Angela's plea agreement. "But by actively plotting the murder of an entire family and encouraging her own kids to carry out the violence, Angela Wagner abjectly failed in her responsibilities."
George IV was found guilty last December of murder, conspiracy, burglary and tampering with evidence. His brother and mother testified during his trial, Jake confessing on the stand to killing five of the victims himself and wounding a sixth.
Jake testified that George didn't fire a shot but helped plan, prepare and cover up their crimes.
"Today, the Rhoden and the Gilley families could take some comfort knowing that George Wagner has been convicted, and he will be punished as well his brother Jake and his mother Angela," DeWine, the former AG who was elected governor of Ohio in 2019, said in a statement at the time.
George, then 31, was sentenced to eight terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, to run consecutively, plus 121 more years.
Dad Billy remains in custody. He was recently denied a request for a change of venue and a date of May 6, 2024, has been set for the start of his murder trial, according to WXIX.
DeWine said after George was convicted, "Billy Wagner's fate will also be determined, and I will remain steadfast in my belief that everyone who was involved in these murders will get what they deserve."
The Pike County Murders: A Family Massacre premieres Friday, Nov. 24, at 8 p.m. on Oxygen, with episode two to follow. The series concludes Saturday, Nov. 25, at 9 p.m.
(E! and Oxygen are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)