Pike County massacre trial: Judge sends jury home, cancels court Friday
WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - The jury in the Pike County massacre trial was sent home Friday without hearing any evidence or testimony when the judge unexpectedly canceled court, bringing an abrupt end to the eighth week of George Wagner IV’s murder trial.
Pike County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Deering dismissed the jury after deciding Wagner’s defense team could take the weekend to review transcripts of 2018 wiretap recordings of the Wagners the state plays them for the jury.
The state planned to start playing those on Friday and had two law enforcement officials with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation ready to go on the witness stand to testify about them.
But defense attorney John Parker said they only learned that morning which two dozen or so recordings prosecutors planned to present to the jury out of the thousands of hours of tapes, with the related transcripts, the state turned over to Wagner IV’s legal team a couple of years ago.
Special Prosecutors Angela Canepa and Andy Wilson argued they couldn’t decide which recordings to play for the jury until most of their witnesses testified.
The state’s star witnesses, Jake Wagner and his and George Wagner’s mother, Angela Wagner, have now both testified, along with several others.
Jake Wagner testified for four days last week.
Angela Wagner’s wrapped up three days of testimony on Thursday.
The judge sided with the defense, saying he would cancel court for the day and “in all fairness” give them the weekend to review the transcripts of the recordings the jury will now hear once court resumes on Monday.
The defense is going to challenge the wiretaps being played or at least ask the judge to limit which ones. The judge is expected to decide Monday if any of the recordings the state plans to present will be limited.
It came out during that tense briefing hearing that the state is nearing the end of its case and plans to rest early next week after presenting the wiretap evidence.
There will be other evidentiary issues to hash out next week.
Special Prosecutor Canepa and Parker also argued bitterly Friday over photos of a BCI simulation of the real pickup truck bed Jake Wagner said they built on the vehicle he purchased specifically for the slayings.
Parker says the state never asked Jake Wagner to identify the simulated truck bed during his testimony and didn’t turn photos of it over to the defense.
That prompted the judge to ask Canepa why they didn’t ask Jake Wagner about the “contraption” they built.
It wasn’t an intentional omission, she responded, adding that the defense had as much access to the simulated truck bed as the state did.
But what’s more, Parker noted, the pickup truck was altered after Billy Wagner turned it over to his niece.
Plus, George Wagner’s defense team is skeptical that their client, given his weight at the time of the murders, would have fit under the false truck bed, which was topped with bales of hay they also noted were not shown in the simulation photos.
The judge said if he allows pictures of the simulated truck bed to be admitted as evidence, the jury should be instructed to consider all these additional facts and compare it with Jake Wagner’s testimony as they determine whether to find the photos credible.
In other developments Friday, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk was out sick but the other prosecutors said they could proceed without him.
The jury was told none of this as the judge dismissed them.
“Again, the court appreciates you being here each day and your attentiveness each day,” Judge Deering said.
George Wagner and three other members of his family were indicted in November 2018 for the execution-style killings of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families: his father Billy Wagner, 51; his mother, Angela Wagner, 52 and his younger brother, Jake Wagner, 28.
George Wagner, 31, and his father have pleaded not guilty and continue to fight all charges, including eight counts of aggravated murder.
George Wagner’s attorneys unsuccessfully tried to have the murder charges thrown out against their client earlier this year, before the trial started.
His brother and mother’s confessions prove he didn’t kill or even shoot anyone, they argued in court records, but the judge still refused to dismiss the charges.
The judge sided with the state, who contends George Wagner should be convicted of the murder charges because he actively participated in the planning, preparation and cover-up of the massacre.
Billy Wagner’s trial is expected to be held in Pike County next year.
But Angela Wagner and Jake Wagner pleaded guilty to their roles in the slaying last year. Their testimonies against George Wagner were part of their plea deal.
Their testimonies occurred off-camera at their request and the state’s.
Custody and control over the then-2-year-old daughter of Jake Wagner and one of the victims, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, was the motive behind the slayings, prosecutors have said.
Angela Wagner and Jake Wagner both testified they feared Sophia would be sexually abused as their motivation for the massacre.
By 2016, Jake Wagner and Hanna May Rhoden were sharing custody of Sophia, exchanging her every other week.
Jake Wagner said on the stand he grew “jealous” when the mother of his child moved on and began to see other men after they broke up.
Hanna May Rhoden had a second daughter, Kylie, with one man and was dating another when Jake Wagner says he killed her.
Angela Wagner said on the stand that when Sophia would return to their home, her private areas were “red” and had “strong odors.”
During her week with the Wagners, the redness would subside, Angela Wagner claimed, only to return after Sophia went back to the Rhodens.
Under cross-examination, George Wagner’s lawyers asked Angela Wagner why she didn’t report her concerns to children’s services and Jake Wagner why he didn’t go to a judge or alert Dana Rhoden, Hanna May Rhoden’s mother (his daughter’s other grandmother).
Angela Wagner responded she didn’t know and Jake Wagner said on the stand: “I felt I had no other option.”
Both mother and son confirmed on the stand that the entire family participated in the massacre.
Jake Wagner also recounted in graphic details killing five of the eight victims and shooting and wounding a sixth. He implicated his father in killing three of the victims and confirmed on the stand his brother killed no one, shot no one and, in fact, never once fired his gun.
Angela Wagner was not with her sons and husband on the night of the killings. She stayed behind at their home with her sons’ children (her grandchildren) and fell asleep once she put them to bed.
In her testimony this week, she said she didn’t want to know the details of the slayings.
But, Angela Wagner did say on the stand that George Wagner did offer to take responsibility for the killings.
She said she told him he couldn’t do that because she didn’t think investigators would buy his story.
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