The Nov. 18 trial is to proceed despite the news a lead investigator, Mike Trout of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations and Identification was suspended for reasons which have not been made public. Trout was the investigator in the case against the six members of the Wagner family charge directly and indirectly with the deaths of seven members of the Rhoden family and one member of the Gilley family.
“Over 30 law enforcement agencies inside Ohio and nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies from 10 different states, along with federal partners and Canadian authorities assisted with the Pike County investigation – a review of the (Trout’s) work in a different role after the investigation completed has no bearing on the pending cases brought against the Wagner family,” said Dominic Binkley, public information officer for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.
Like Binkley, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk contended Trout’s suspension will not affect the Wagner cases. Junk added no one seems to know precisely why Trout was suspended.
“They certainly didn’t tell me,” Junk said, although he confirmed Trout’s suspension is unrelated to the Wagner cases. Junk also stated the indictments against Pike county Sheriff Charles Reader will not impact the Wagner trials.
The first member of the Wagner family to face a jury is scheduled to be grandmother Rita Jo Newcomb, who faces counts of perjury, forgery and obstruction of justice. Pike County Court of Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering originally set Newcomb’s trial for earlier this year in July . Apparently because of what has been described as huge amounts of discovery which need to trade hands between prosecutors and defense teams, Deering postponed Newcomb’s trial until Oct. 21. At the request of the prosecution, including Junk, Deering again postponed the trial until the new November 18 date.
Junk asked for that postponement because he said an investigator necessary for the case would not have been available on the October date. He noted that investigator was not Trout.
“I’ll say this, we plan on having a trial,” stated Junk.
As has been widely speculated among court observers, Newcomb’s trial may reveal a motive for the Rhoden murders. Prior to Deering imposing a gag order preventing anyone connected with the case from speaking to the media regarding specifics of the various cases, prosecutors, including then Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, indicated custody of the daughter of murder suspect Edward Wagner (Newcomb’s grandson) and murder victim Hanna Rhoden is possibly the reason behind the massacre. The forgery charge stems from her allegedly creating phony custody documents regarding the daughter of Edward Wagner and Hanna Rhoden.
Newcomb’s time in front of a jury could be the first chance for the public and reporters to gain a real glimpse of the case prosecutors have compiled against the Wagner clan.
As noted, Deering long ago put a gag order in place legally preventing anyone connected with the trials from talking particulars with the media. Pre-trials held to date revealed very few specific details regarding the various cases.
Among the hundreds of pretrial motions filed to date, Junk requested an additional special prosecutor to help him handle the complex and significant Wagner cases, which of course, include four capital cases.
Those capital cases do not include Newcomb, who is not directly charged with the murders.
Both DeWine and later Yost supplied Junk with help in dealing with the cases. Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa has been present at every pre-trial held to date. At Junk’s request, Deering has added a second special prosecutor, Robert Pierson from the Attorney General’s office to the prosecution team.
Junk told the Times Canepa still will be part of the cases going forward. Junk said prosecutors will sort of tag team the actual trials. He stated he personally will sit in on probably no more than two of the trials, one reason being he has other trials besides the Wagner cases to which he needs to attend.
“You’re probably going to see a couple of different trial teams,” Junk said.
Pierson is listed as a prosecutor on Newcomb’s case and three of the four other Wagner cases currently before the court. In June, stating they needed more time to investigate some new information regarding family matriarch Fredericka Wagner’s testimony to a Pike County grand jury prosecutor’s motion to dismiss charges against Fredericka Wagner. The grand jury testimony in question led directly to the perjury charge filed against Fredericka Wagner. Judging from two lengthy memoranda filed by the state along with its motion to dismiss charges against 77-year-old Fredericka Wagner, who left as a free woman what was advertised as the last pretrial prior to her jury trial, those charges will be refiled at a later date.
During Fredericka Wagner’s last court appearance, Canepa also made several remarks seemingly indicating the state will refile charges. Junk has declined to speculate when or if that will happen, stating he is unclear whether or not Deering’s gag order still applies to Fredericka Wagner’s case.
For her part, as she exited following her last court appearance, Wagner claimed prosecutors dropped the case because she is innocent. She further quoted scripture to a small group of reporters following the hearing.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding, in all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths,” Wagner stated, adding, “King Solomon said that.”
The following represent a brief recounting of each of the cases against the four Wagner family members charged directly with the eight murders. All four suspects face the death penalty.
Edward “Jake” Wagner
The youngest member of the Wagner clan charged with any crime, Edward Wagner was last in court Oct. 8. He is not scheduled to be back in court until Dec. 11 when he will face yet another pretrial. Wagner twice has waived his right to a speedy trial and likely will not face a jury until 2021. His defense team has filed approximately 46 pretrial motions. Wagner faces a total of 23 counts, including eight counts of aggravated murder and one count, unique to his case involving sexual relations with a minor, allegedly Hanna Rhoden.
George Wagner III
The father of Jake and George Wagner IV, he has not been in court since mid-September. According to the website of the Pike County Common Pleas Court, there is no new pretrial date set for the patriarch of the Wagner family. His defense team has filed over 40 motions, many of which are common to all of the suspects facing capital charges. One motion which appears unique is the suspect’s request for in-person visits with a psychologist. Wagner III himself faces 23 total charges including eight counts of aggravated murder. While Deering has not set a date for another court appearance for Wagner III, he did set Oct. 31 as the final date for filing of what have been called substantive motions.
George Wagner IV
As with his father, Deering has not set another date for the next court appearance for Wagner IV, who also least appeared in court in September. Defense lawyers have filed 53 non-substantive pretrial motions. Also like his father, Wagner IV faces 22 total counts.
Again facing 22 counts, the mother of Jake and Wagner IV and the wife of Wagner III has no set court date in front of her. Also like the others, her last court appearance was in September. Defense lawyers have filed roughly 50 motions.
It should be noted many of the motions filed so far by the various defense teams are virtually similar. Most have to do with requests for discovery and things like allowing the suspects to appear in court in street clothes. (With the exception of Newcomb and Fredericka Wagner, who as noted currently is not under indictment, the other Wagner suspects all are being held without bail in separate jails around the area.)
Deering and others have referred to the pretrial motions filed to date as non-substantive because they do not deal with specifics of any one case. Substantive motions will deal with the specifics of individual cases. As with the non-substantive motions, there are likely to be many.
Deering has yet to rule on the vast majority of the non-substantive questions, instead choosing to rule on them in mass. Junk recently said he does not know when Deering will make his thoughts known.
Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370-0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.