As they sat Tuesday in the audience for the first of two scheduled pretrial hearings for two of the capital murder suspects in the Rhoden family murder cases, some surviving members of the Rhoden family wore bright white T-shirts reading on the front “Happy Heavenly Birthday Chris.”
The shirts presumably were a reference to at least one of eight 2016 murder victims, seven of whom were members of the Rhoden family. An eighth victim, Hannah Hazel Gilley, was a fiancee of murder victim Clarence Rhoden. It was not clear if the shirts one Tuesday referred to Chris Rhoden Sr., 40 at the time of his death, or Chris Rhoden Jr., who was 16.
The backs of the shirts read “We Will Never Stop Fighting for Justice” and “#Rhodenstrong.”
The family’s fight may go on for quite some time. During his pretrial hearing Tuesday morning, murder suspect Edward “Jake” Wagner once more waived his right to a speedy trial, this time extending the deadline for his trial until January 2021. Defense attorneys told Pike County Court Of Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering they recommended the move to their client, presumably to give them the maximum amount of time to prepare their defense. The move, which Deering approved with no comment from prosecutors, means there is every chance Edward Wagner will not face a jury for more than a year.
Rhoden family members in attendance declined comment on the prospect of a possible yearlong delay in a trial for Edward Wagner.
Outside of Edward Wagner waiving of his right to a speedy trial, the latest pretrial for the youngest of the Wagner clan charged in the murders largely was uneventful. Defense attorneys said they have received copious amounts of discovery from the prosecution. As Deering noted, discovery — defense requests for evidence held by prosecutors a — has been a major issue in all of the Wagner pretrials due to what’s been described as huge amounts of material in question.
“We’ve given them the bulk of what they can expect,” said Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa.
Deering said Tuesday’s pretrial for Edward Wagner was planned as a motion hearing on what he said attorneys had termed non-substantive motions. The judge stated such motions might more accurately be termed nonfactual motions, motions not pertaining to specific aspects of the case under discussion. Defense attorneys filed 35 additional motions the morning of the pretrial, all of which were described as non-factual. One defense attorney described the motions as routine proceedings any competent defense team would file in a capital case. Deering said those 35 motions, as well as five previous motions filed by the defense, will be handled during a motion hearing set for Oct. 8. Deering added Tuesday was the last day for submission of nonfactual motions.
Deering went on to set November 1 as the final date for submission of factual motions. Prosecutors will have until early December to respond to any such filings by the defense.
As previously reported, the case against Edward Wagner could prove key to the prosecution in all of the Rhoden murders. Prior to the imposition of a gag order imposed by Deering, then-Attorney General Mike DeWine told the media at a press conference announcing the arrests of six members of the Wagner family that a custody battle over a child of Edward Wagner and murder victim Hanna Rhoden may be at the heart of the motive for the murders.
Some further details of the alleged custody battle over Edward Wagner’s daughter may come to light next month when Rita Newcomb, a grandmother to Edward Wagner, becomes the first suspect charged in relation to the murders to face a jury.
While not charged directly with any murder, Newcomb is charged with, among other counts, forgery, a charge apparently related to her allegedly creating fictitious custody papers related to the child of Edward Wagner and Hanna Rhoden.
The second pretrial of the day was held Tuesday for George Wagner III, Edward Wagner’s father, also charged with multiple counts of murder in the Rhoden cases. Like Edward Wagner’s defense team, his father’s attorneys filed multiple pretrial hearings, a total of 41.
In that instance, Deering decided to move forward with the motion hearing as planned. However, he declined to rule on any of the defense motions, stating many of them are virtually identical to those filed by attorneys representing the three other murder suspects in the case, including Angela Wagner, mother to Edward Wagner and George Wagner III’s wife.
Angela Wagner faced Deering in a seemingly hastily scheduled pretrial hearing Monday.
According to the Pike County court website, Deering scheduled the hearing Aug. 28 after Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk filed a motion to revoke some of Angela Wagner’s jail privileges. Prosecutors allege Angela Wagner and Newcomb, her mother, held phone conversations during which they discussed the ongoing cases against the various family members. Prosecutors further hold those conversations directly violated court orders issued by Deering mandating the suspects in the case not discuss the cases with each other.
On Monday, Deering revoked Angela Wagner’s phone and mail privileges while she remains incarcerated.
During the hour or so Deering spent reviewing George Wagner III’s many motions, his assertion that those motions are similar to those filed by other defense attorneys in the various cases proved true. For example, like his father’s defense counsel, attorneys for Edward Wagner asked the court to allow defense attorneys to discuss the concept of mercy during any potential sentencing phase of the capital trials. Junk argued the Ohio Supreme Court has decided that issue previously and determined the idea of mercy in capital cases is irrelevant.
Junk further objected to numerous other of Collins‘ motions, stating those motions simply asked prosecutors to follow state rules.
“We don’t need a court order to tell us to follow the law,” Junk said.
In a preview of a couple of issues to come, Collins promised that at the appropriate time he will make a motion for a change of venue, moving his client’s trial out of Pike County. Collins did not indicate when the “appropriate time” might be. Defense attorneys also proffered motions to allow what Collins termed “jury views” of alleged crime sites, to include mobile home units where some of the murders took place, units now moved from their original locations and stored by law enforcement.
One other motion drew a few dirty looks from Rhoden family members in the audience. Collins asked the judge to ensure decorum be maintained during any trial.
The Rhoden case takes another step forward Friday when Edward Wagner’s brother, George Wagner IV, another multiple murder suspect, is before Deering for an early morning pretrial.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-370-0715.