Jurors on Wednesday convicted a man of the slayings of eight people from another Ohio family after weighing his denials and other testimony against witnesses, including his brother and mother, who previously pleaded guilty to their roles.
George Wagner IV, 31, was found guilty of all 22 counts he faced in southern Ohio’s Pike County, including eight counts of aggravated murder in the 2016 shootings of seven adults and a teenager from the Rhoden family. Wagner sat motionless as the verdicts were read, closing his eyes or looking down.
Members of the Rhoden family, who packed the courtroom in Waverly, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of Cincinnati, hugged each other and wiped away tears moments after Wagner was led away in handcuffs.
Tony Rhoden, whose brother, Christopher Rhoden Sr., was among the victims, said he felt sorry for Wagner “because he’s human.”
“George Wagner is a human being. They just didn’t show it that night,” Rhoden said outside the courthouse. “It should never have happened.”
Prosecutors say the killings, which initially fueled speculation of drug cartel involvement, stemmed from a custody dispute over Wagner’s niece. The fatal shootings of three mobile homes and an RV near Piketon in April 2016 shocked residents and sparked one of the state’s most extensive criminal investigations.
Wagner denied any knowledge of his family’s involvement in the killings and testified that he would not have let it happen if he had known about the plans.
Prosecutors argued that he knew, participated in the plans and therefore should be convicted of the killings. Although he was not accused of shooting anyone, they alleged that Wagner was with his brother and father when they went to the homes, that he went inside with them, and that he helped his brother move two bodies.
His younger brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and other charges and agreed to testify against George and their parents in a deal to help the family avoid potential death sentences.
Their mother, Angela Wagner, pleaded guilty to helping plan the killings. Their father, George “Billy” Wagner III, pleaded not guilty to the killings and is awaiting trial.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who oversaw much of the investigation while he was the state’s attorney general, said he hopes the victims’ families take comfort in knowing George Wagner IV was convicted and will be punished.
“From the day these murders occurred and throughout the long investigation, I always believed we would find the truth,” DeWine said. “And I always believed there would be justice for the victims.”
“We’re not done yet,” he said. “There is another trial.”
The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden and 16-year-old Christopher Jr.; 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.
Most were shot repeatedly in the head.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a statement after the verdicts that investigators spent countless hours on the case and that it “reinforces the team’s dogged determination to secure justice for the victims and their families.”
Prosecutors say the Wagner family planned the killings for months, motivated by a custody dispute over the daughter Jake Wagner had with Hanna Rhoden. Authorities said the child was living with the Wagner family at the time of the killings.
Three other young children from the Rhoden family who were present were not injured.
Jake Wagner pleaded guilty on the fifth anniversary of the killings and apologized in court. He has not been sentenced, but his lawyer said he understood he would spend his life in prison.
The prosecution recommended a 30-year prison sentence for Angela Wagner.
A sentencing date will be scheduled later for George Wagner IV. In addition to the aggravated murder charges, he was convicted Wednesday of charges including conspiracy, tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.