Pike County trial: ‘George was smart, Jake was trouble,’ pastor testifies
WAVERLY, Ohio (WXIX) - Testimony continued Monday in George Wagner IV’s murder trial for the 2016 Pike County massacre.
A dispute over which recordings of the Wagner family from 2018 wiretaps led to the judge canceling court and sending the jury home Friday.
The recordings are expected to be the final pieces of evidence the state will present in their case against the eldest Wagner son.
Until that is worked out during a hearing now scheduled for Tuesday, the defense is moving forward with presenting its case.
Five defense witnesses testified Monday: Andrew Carson, Michael Ramsey Walters, Sean Fisher and two pastors, Kelly Cinereski and his son, Caleb Cinereski.
The judge who is overseeing this case is giving each witness a choice of whether the public can view their testimony.
Only two of the five chose to testify so the public can see it on camera: the Wagners’ one-time pastor, Kelly Cinereski and his son, Caleb Cinereski.
Earlier Monday, Kelly Cinereski told the jury he knew the Wagners through a church he used to oversee in Minford, Ohio and through his son’s church in Alaska, Kenai, which the Wagners attended when they lived in Alaska from spring 2017 to spring 2018.
Caleb Cinereski’s church in Kenai is about 90 miles away from the church Kelly said he oversees in Seward, Alaska.
Kelly said on the stand the Wagners “were trying to find the Lord” when he first got to know them several years ago at his Minford, Ohio church.
When he first encountered them, he estimated George Wagner IV was 11 or 13 years old.
“I saw them making really good decisions,” the pastor said, noting they were at the church on Saturday nights. “It was a time when I believe they were making a turnaround.”
Under questioning by defense attorney John Parker, Pastor Cinereski confirmed George Wagner IV was more independent than his younger brother, Jake Wagner.
“In short, George was smart and Jake was trouble,” he told Parker.
He said he was in “shock” over the massacre and of Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner’s guilty pleas. That didn’t make sense compared to the people he said he knew.
He recalled allowing his son to go to the Wagner family home when they lived off Bethel Hill Road in Lucasville before the family moved to a property nearby in the same community but off Peterson Road. The Wagners were living off Peterson Road at the time of the slayings.
Kelly said he was unaware of any criminal activity occurring there at the Bethel Hill Road home. Otherwise, he said he would not have permitted his son to go there.
He did express reservations, he said, when George Wagner’s former wife and Hanna Rhoden, Jake’s girlfriend, lived with the family. He said he talked with Billy Wagner, George Wagner and Jake Wagner’s father, telling him “Billy, this isn’t good. Things happen between boys and girls....You rub two sticks together, you get fire.”
Caleb said Jake Wagner contacted him once the Wagners moved to Alaska. Jake Wagner and George Wagner came over for dinner and his wife cooked moose stew.
He asked how everyone was doing and said Jake Wagner let him know Hanna Rhoden had passed away and how eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families were killed.
He testified he told Jake Wagner: “I said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that and it must be difficult to deal with.’”
At one point, he said the Wagners talked about buying the house next to his in Kenai.
Caleb recalled playing baseball with George Wagner when they were younger. They also fished and went hunting, he said, and he spent the night a few times, recalling these experiences as “nothing unusual.”
Once the Wagners moved to Kenai, Jake Wagner and some of his family including his daughter, Sophia, and Bulvine, George Wagner’s son, and their mother, Angela Wagner, were at his church. Jake Wagner was there “often,” Caleb Cinereski testified. His father, Billy Wagner, was not.
Jake Wagner liked the church programs for his daughter. His attendance especially increased after he began to date Beth Ann, who went on to briefly become his wife.
However, once the Ohio Attorney General’s Office put out a news release in 2017 naming the Wagners as persons of interest in the massacre, Caleb Cinereski said he realized “‘Oh, my word, I guess this is a serious situation.’”
He said he called a 1-800 number on the flyer and a state law enforcement agent called to do an interview about the Wagners.
He said they warned him to “stay away from them, they are dangerous people.” He listened to them: “I respect law enforcement.”
Media showed up at his church multiple times by this point, but he said he stopped talking to them at that point.
He did not perform the wedding ceremony of Jake Wagner and his wife, Beth Ann. He contacted Jake Wagner about a month after they were married and said Jake told him that she left him.
When Caleb Cinereski learned the Wagners were arrested, he said he was “shocked” and hoped something like that hadn’t happened.
“You want to believe you only have good people around you in your life,” he said, not ones who are capable of doing something “so evil and disgusting.”
The other three witnesses that the defense called on Monday, Carson, Walters and Fisher, decided against allowing the public to see their testimony.
Fisher, a tattoo artist out of Portsmouth, said sometime after the murders George IV came to him to cover up a tattoo on his arm that he no longer wanted.
Prosecutors had previously claimed the 8-ball and skull tattoo represents the eight members of the Rhoden family who were killed.
Fisher testified that has done “about a million” 8-ball tattoos and the skull was “very popular.” He added that it was a design he suggested to George IV, not the other way around.
The prosecution questioned another one of George IV’s tattoos - three ace playing cards. They suggested the number of cards was not random and that the accused George IV chose three to represent the Wagner trio who committed the murders.
Fisher said it was “just a [gambling] theme that went along with the 8-ball.”
The prosecution said George IV did choose the final design.
Carson is a friend of both George Wagner IV and his younger brother, Jake Wagner. Carson was the first person to call Jake Wagner, 28, about the massacre the day the victims’ bodies were found, on April 22, 2016.
Walters was Jake Wagner’s boss while the Wagners lived in Alaska from 2017 to 2018.
It is expected the defense will have the case for itself sometime Tuesday or Wednesday.
George Wagner IV and his brother and their parents, Billy Wagner, 51, and Angela Wagner, 52, were all indicted in November 2018 for the execution-style killings of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families.
Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner have both pleaded guilty to their roles in the slayings and testified against George Wagner IV as part of their plea deals.
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.
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, 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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