WAVERLY, Ohio (AP) — A man convicted in the killings of eight members of an Ohio family was sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in what one surviving relative called a “monstrous act” of mass murder.
George Wagner IV was sentenced after an emotional hearing at which the victims’ anguished family members spoke of their devastation and grief, and urged the judge to show no mercy toward a man they called evil and remorseless.
“None of these victims deserved to die. None of them did anything to warrant the death sentences they received at the hands of the defendant and his family,” special prosecutor Angela Canepa told the judge.
Wagner, 31, declined to make a statement in court, and his lawyer said he maintains his innocence.
Wagner denied any knowledge of his family’s involvement in the 2016 shootings of seven adults and a teenager from the Rhoden family. Prosecutors said most of the victims were killed as they slept, in some cases next to their very young children, who weren’t injured.
Authorities alleged Wagner, his brother and their parents plotted the killings amid a dispute over custody of Wagner’s niece, whose mother was among those slain.
The April 2016 shootings at three mobile homes and a camper near Piketon terrified residents in that part of rural Ohio and initially prompted speculation about drug cartel involvement. The resulting multimillion-dollar investigation and prosecution is among the state’s most extensive.
Andrea Shoemaker, the mother of shooting victim Hannah Gilley, pounded the lectern as she raged against the Wagner family and mourned the loss of “my baby girl” as well her daughter’s fiance, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, both of them just 20 and the parents of a baby boy.
“We are all suffering, hurting, always heartbroken, forever without our children! All because devils like the dark, devils hunt at night, just like you, George Wagner IV, and your evil family did,” Shoemaker said.
Tony Rhoden, whose brothers Chris Sr. and Kenneth Rhoden were among the victims, remembered better, earlier times, when he and his siblings played in the local creek, raced homemade toy boats and caught skunks with buckets. Rhoden said in court that his family members’ lives had been “cut short by the selfish acts of others.”
Wagner looked down at the defense table and showed no emotion as family members lashed out at him.
Wagner was convicted on 22 counts, including aggravated murder. It was no longer a death penalty case because his brother made a plea deal to testify against the others and help all four Wagners avoid execution.
Prosecutors had said Wagner showed no remorse in urging he be imprisoned with no chance of parole. They said what he really deserved was a death sentence and that he was spared only because of his brother’s actions, not his own.
The prosecution alleged Wagner was with his brother and father when they went to the homes, that he went inside, and that he helped his brother move two bodies.
Wagner’s attorneys emphasized that he didn’t kill anyone and argued that denying him “a meaningful chance of parole” would be unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
They also requested a new trial. Judge Randy Deering denied that motion Monday. He imposed eight consecutive life sentences, one for each victim.
Of the four defendants in the slayings, Wagner is the only one to face trial so far.
His brother, Edward “Jake” Wagner, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and other charges, admitted responsibility for five of the shootings, and is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Angela Wagner pleaded guilty to helping to plan the slayings, and prosecutors recommended a 30-year sentence for her.
Her husband, George “Billy” Wagner III, pleaded not guilty in the killings and awaits trial.
The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden and 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr.; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancee, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden.