WAVERLY — After his son went before the Pike County Court of Common Pleas on Monday, George “Billy” Wagner III followed suit on Thursday.
Among four family members — Angela Wagner, Edward “Jake” Wagner and George Wagner IV — charged in the 2016 Rhoden murders, the motion hearing for Billy Wagner was heard before Judge Randy D. Deering just before noon.
The motion his defense attorneys made was to remove the death penalty from Billy Wagner’s case, where he is facing 22 charges, including aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and tampering with evidence.
With Jake Wagner taking a guilty plea agreement in April, the defense argued Billy Wagner was a “third-party beneficiary” and should therefore avoid a death sentence. Jake Wagner’s plea was made to prevent a death penalty for himself or his family members.
“It would become unwieldy,” Defense Attorney Thomas Hayes said. “It would become prejudicial to start this case as a death penalty case and then only after the subjectivity of how Jake Wagner proceeded at trial, that the state would then remove the death specifications.”
However, that agreement would only go into effect if Jake were to testify in court, argued Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa. Jake Wagner, as well, is facing 22 charges and pleaded guilty on April 22, 2021 before being joined by his mother, Angela Wagner, who pleaded last Friday. Her aggravated murder charges were dropped as a result.
“Third-party beneficiaries do not enjoy their rights until their rights are vested,” she said. “Specifically, in order to vest, they have to accept the promises of the contract.”
“In other words, they have to agree to what was negotiated.”
Alongside Hayes, Defense Attorney Mark Collins said setting a precedent that the death penalty would be removed and then taking it away would only complicate the legal process. Three years have already passed since Billy and the rest of his family were arrested.
“We would be wasting resources, time, doctors, psychologists, all those types of things, your Honor that are normally in a death penalty-type case,” he said. “Then we would add a good month to this potential trial.”
Ultimately, Judge Deering sided with the prosecution and kept the death penalty as a possibility for Billy Wagner. His next day in court is scheduled for Nov. 17 at the county courthouse.
This hearing is the latest of a lengthy saga, which started following the 2016 murders of nine people at four separate Pike County homes. The motivation behind these killings, prosecutors say, was a custody dispute between Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden.
Those murdered include: Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden, 37, and their three children, Hanna May Rhoden, 19, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20. Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley, 20, was also killed, along with the elder Christopher Rhoden’s brother Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and cousin Gary Rhoden, 38.
Patrick Keck is the editor of the Pike County News Watchman. Contact Keck at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 740-947-2149, ext. 300431 and follow him on Twitter @pkeckreporter.