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After Guilty Plea, Jake Wagner Faces Life Without Parole And The Daughter He Killed For

edward jake wagner
Robert McGraw
/
The Chillicothe Gazette via AP
Edward "Jake" Wagner is arraigned at the Pike County Courthouse on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in Waverly, Ohio.

Edward "Jake" Wagner said he wanted a happy home life, to keep his young family together, and to see his daughter grow up safe and happy.

But, instead, he and his family decimated all hopes for that future five years ago.

Wagner, now 28, on Thursday pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder and 15 lesser charges on the anniversary of the methodically calculated and cold murders of his daughter's mother, Hanna Rhoden, both her siblings, her parents, an uncle, a cousin and a soon-to-be sister-in-law. They were all found shot to death in four trailers in Pike County.

Wagner admitted he personally killed five of the eight members of the family. It was not disclosed, however, if he fatally shot Hanna --  who died with a four-day old newborn at her side.

The surprise change in his plea on the five-year anniversary of Ohio's most complex crime investigation and one that initially stymied investigators, means he saved himself, his parents and older brother from the potential of the death penalty by admitting his role in the mass murder by agreeing to testify in their future trials.

The move also appears to make certain he will never see his daughter, now 7, outside of prison walls.

If he ever sees her at all again.

*********************

This was certainly not the future Wagner envisioned for himself back when he started dating Hanna when he was 17 and she was 13.

The state called the relationship a crime and Wagner admitted guilt Thursday to unlawful sexual conduct with a minor tied to their courtship.

Wagner called it love back in 2016 during an exclusive interview just five weeks after the murders. He said he and Hanna's relationship blossomed in the foothills of Appalachia naturally and quickly.

Despite their young ages, he said, the two planned the birth of a child. Hanna gave birth to Sophia in November 2013 and the two got wedding rings tattooed on their left ring fingers. Jake said he gave Hanna an engagement ring and they planned to marry on August 27, 2015.

The young family lived with his parents shortly after Sophia's birth, he added. He said he thought they were happy.

But by February 2015, Hanna Rhoden ended the relationship. "Up and out of the blue she decided she wanted to move on," he said.

Others said Hanna bristled under Jake's controlling and regimented ways. Some friends and family members have implied he physically assaulted her.

She wanted a life of her own; she wanted to pursue a life for herself - like her mother had done, he said then. He wanted her to be a wife and mother. He wanted her to stay home - like his mother.

"I figured it was a phase ... and then this happened," said Jake, whose mother Angela Wagner joined him outside their then-Peterson Road farmhouse in the May 2016 interview.

********************

"This" turned out to be a cold-blooded plan to keep Sophia out of her mother's life for good, masterminded by Wagner and his family.

They plotted and planned the killings for months because the Wagners wanted custody of Sophia. Hanna, a devoted and protective mother, wrote a message to a friend in 2015 that shared a prophecy an emboldened and angry Wagner family took to a deadly end.

She said the Wagners would have to kill her before she relinquished custody of her daughter.

Angela Wagner found that message and shared it with Jake, special prosecutor Angela Canepa said during the court hearing Thursday. Jake had grown upset with Hanna, who was pregnant with another man's child.

"Jake grew to be upset with Hannah over the fact that Hannah was exposing Sophia to people that he believed she should not be around," Canepa said.

And so for months, the Wagners bought guns and built silencers for them; bought phone jammers; hacked into social media accounts and watched and waited before they -- as a family -- annihilated another family, he admitted in court Thursday.

Wagner sat nearly emotionless as prosecutors read the names of the victims: Christopher Rhoden; his older brother, Kenneth Rhoden; his cousin, Gary Rhoden; his former wife, Dana Lynn Rhoden and their children: Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, Hanna, and Christopher Rhoden Jr. as well as and Frankie's fiancé, Hannah Gilley.

His voice cracked only twice: when he admitted to the murders of Hanna Rhoden and Hannah Gilley.

He stood with his eyes focused on the judge and said he understood his admission of guilt will likely mean he will serve eight consecutive life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole and another 160 years when he is sentenced at some point in the future

Read the indictments

When asked if he understood the charges read to him by Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering:

"I do your honor," Wagner said, sitting between his lawyers dressed in a black buttoned-down shirt and jeans. His hands remained in his lap.

"Have you agreed on that?" the judge asked after reading all 23 counts to Wagner.

"I have your honor," Wagner said.

Near the end of the two-hour hearing, Deering asked Wagner to stand as he read each of the counts and asked Wagner if he was withdrawing his not guilty pleas to each count. One by one by one. Twenty-three times.

"I am your honor. I am guilty, your honor," he said, his hands folded in front of him, left over right  - the tattooed ring still visible on his left ring finger.

When Deering read the charges related to Hanna Rhoden, Wagner's chin appeared to quiver, he repeatedly blinked, paused and appeared to choke back tears.

The Rhoden family matriarch, Geneva, sat in the front row of the courtroom packed with members of her family as well as the Gilley and Manley families. She held tight onto the hands of one of her surviving sons and a daughter while she inhaled oxygen from a tank.

At one point, Wagner glanced toward the family members and said: "I am deeply and very sorry."

That was the first time Wagner has publicly shown remorse.

********************

Until his arrest in November 2018, Jake Wagner painted a picture of a grieving father who wanted the best for his daughter and ultimately to protect her.

He said he had incurred expenses after the homicides, prompting him to set up a GoFundMe account: "These were not expenses I was supposed to have. I was just supposed to be able to spend time with (Sophia) and give her a happy childhood, she is only 2 1/2 years old,'' Wagner wrote on the page of the crowd-fundraising site. "Sophia and I are just asking for enough to settle the fees that we acquired due to the horrific tragedy to her mommy.

"We want to get our lives back,'' he wrote. "I hate seeing my daughter cry."

Jake said he and Hanna had an amicable custody arrangement that worked well for them both and that his move to hire a lawyer in 2016 was simply to draw up formal custody documents.

That, too, appears to be a lie. Instead, Jake, his mother and brother forged custody documents, prosecutor Canepa said. Just three weeks before the murders, Jake, his mother and brother, George, created fake custody documents that outlined who would get custody of Sophia and George’s underage son, Canepa said. One of them forged Hanna Rhoden's signature.

Jake Wagner called an abrupt family move to Alaska in 2017 -- apparently as investigators were turning their sights on him and his family as possible suspects in Ohio's most complex investigation -- as a way to protect Sophia.

That too, appears to be a lie.

It was during that move that law enforcement officials searched the Peterson Road farm property, finding pieces of a homemade silencer. Investigators also spent days searching their belongings stored in tractor trailers and a horse trailer in Pike County. It remains unclear if they found any evidence in the Rhoden killing.

But investigators did find evidence connecting them to the murders when they stopped them at the U.S.-Canada border, including a laptop that included documents that helped investigators build their case, Canepa said.

The Wagner family lived in Kenai, Alaska, for a year before they returned to Ohio and were subsequently arrested and charged in the case. They continued to deny their involvement in an interview and their lawyer at the time said investigators were unfairly "harassing" the family.

Canepa said Wagner corroborated much of the information investigators pieced together over the past five years. He also, she said, provided additional evidence, including the guns and a vehicle used the night of the murders.

Each family member has remained jailed in separate counties for nearly three years.

Wagner, one of his lawyers said, knows he will die in prison.

It remains unknown if Wagner has seen his daughter since his arrest.

Chris Graves is a former columnist at The Enquirer when she interviewed the Wagner family. She is now an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska -- Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications. She continues her reporting into this case.