This newspaper does not wish to downplay the importance or significance of any legal action taken so far with regard the infamous murder of eight members of the Rhoden family in Pike County in April 2016.
That said, anyone looking for any courtroom drama in the case is going to have to wait at least a little bit longer.
In late November, Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, became the first of four members of the Wagner family directly charged in the Rhoden murders to face Pike County Court of Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering. On Thursday morning, he became the first of the Wagners to sit in front of Deering for a pretrial hearing.
The hearing began roughly one hour after its scheduled start time of 11 a.m. and lasted for perhaps 10 minutes. Dressed in street clothes with the judge’s permission and surrounded by his court appointed attorneys, Wagner appeared calm and said nothing except to answer simple questions from Deering. Prior to the hearing, Wagner’s attorneys filed several motions on their client’s behalf.
As already hinted at, one motion was to allow Wagner to appear in court in civilian clothes as opposed to the brightly colored jail jumpsuit he wore to his arraignment last month. They also asked Wagner to be allowed to enter the courtroom without shackles. Deering agreed to the motion for street clothes but denied the request Wagner be free of even handcuffs. He did instruct the Pike County Sheriff’s Office to investigate alternative means of restraining Wagner and report back to the court.
Other motions made also were largely routine. The defense made a demand for discovery but upon questioning by Deering, Wagner’s attorneys indicated they are satisfied with the state’s response to their discovery requests so far. The defense also asked for and was granted an extension of time to file pretrial motions.
Two additional motions will be settled at a later date. The defense submitted what Deering said was 25 pages of requests for information, a request formally known as a bill of particulars. Essentially, a bill of particulars asks prosecutors to supply additional information on the case, information beyond what might be contained in an indictment. Deering indicated he expected the prosecution and defense attorneys to work out any differences over the bill of particulars or he added the issue could come up again when Wagner appears for his second pretrial hearing set for Jan. 24.
One final motion would limit the persons allowed to communicate with the defendant, whose being held without chance of bond. The motion likely is an attempt by the defense to limit Wagner’s contact with jail personnel and/or other inmates. Deering noted this is a separate motion from the gag order already in place, a gag order which prevents any official connected with the various Rhoden cases from speaking with the media. On this motion, Deering instructed defense attorneys to create a proposal and present it to him prior to Wagner’s next pretrial hearing.
The youngest of the six members of the Wagner family charged in connection with the Rhoden murders, Jake Wagner faces a total of 23 counts, most notably including eight counts of aggravated murder, one for each of the victims in the Rhoden massacre. Each of those counts carry death penalty specifications.
Edward Wagner’s parents George Washington “Billy” Wagner III and mother Angela Wagner, along with brother George Wagner IV all face the same eight charges along with, other counts, to include among others, charges of conspiracy, forgery and breaking and entering, as prosecutor’s claim the Wagner’s broke into the homes of the victims in order to commit the murders.
Additionally, Edward Wagner faces one charge unique to his case, specifically sexual conduct with a minor, namely one of the victims, Hanna May Rhoden, with whom he fathered a daughter. Prior to Deering placing a gag order on prosecutors, officials, including Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, said custody of Edward Wagner and Hanna Rhoden’s child might be at the heart of what led to the massacre.
As did all six persons arraigned in connection with the murders, Jake Wagner pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Among the various defendants, next up in court should be Angela Wagner scheduled for pretrial Jan. 7. George Wagner IV is slated to be in court two days later on Jan. 9. The two grandmothers charged in the case – neither charged directly with the murders – are both scheduled for pretrial hearings Jan. 10.
Fredericka Wagner, 76, and Rita Newcomb, 65, two additional suspects were arraigned Nov. 14 and are the only suspects in the case released on bail, though each are also under electronically monitored house arrest and barred from any contact with the families of the victims. Both face felony charges of obstructing justice and perjury. The latter charges stem from false testimony the two allegedly presented in July to a Pike County grand jury investigating the murders.
Newcomb also faces forgery charges, relating to allegedly false documents regarding custody of Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden’s daughter. Fredericka Wagner is the elder George Wagner’s mother. Newcomb is mother to Angela Wagner.