First trial linked to Rhoden family slayings set to start Monday

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PIKE COUNTY, Ohio (AP) — More than three years after authorities discovered the grisly slayings of eight family members at four separate homes in southern Ohio, the first trial connected to the investigation is set to begin.

Rita Newcomb isn’t charged with any of the Rhoden family slayings but instead is accused of forgery, obstructing justice and perjury charges related to the case.

The jury trial slated to begin Monday in Pike County could reveal more details about a possible motive in the killings and the evidence against the four people charged with carrying them out.

Prosecutors have not given any specifics, but have said the forgery charge involves child-custody documents. Newcomb has been out on bail for the past year.

Beyond pleading not guilty, Newcomb has not said anything in her defense, though she did ask a judge to ease her house arrest restrictions.

Newcomb is the mother of Angela Wagner, who is charged with aggravated murder as are Wagner’s husband, George “Billy” Wagner III, and their two adult sons. All have pleaded not guilty.

Before the judge overseeing the cases ordered the lawyers and authorities involved from publicly discussing the details, authorities said that a custody dispute between the Rhoden and Wagner families may have been the motive.

One of the suspects, Edward “Jake” Wagner, was the longtime former boyfriend of 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, one of the victims, and shared custody of their daughter.

The shooting deaths of the seven adults and a teenage boy in April 2016 terrified residents in southern Ohio and led to one of the most extensive criminal investigations in state history. Prosecutors say the Wanger family spent months planning the killings.

Since the arrests, there have been few details about what led to the killings but plenty of twists and turns in the case.

— Angela Wagner, who remains in jail, and Newcomb were ordered by a judge in September to stop talking with each other after prosecutors said they violated a previous order in a series of jailhouse phone calls in which they discussed trial strategies and what to say in court. The judge also took away most of Wagner’s mail and phone privileges but stopped short of revoking Newcomb’s bail.

— The county sheriff who was involved with the investigation was indicted on felony charges, including evidence-tampering and theft in office, after authorities looked into a complaint that he stole money seized in drug cases. He has denied the charges. One of the lead investigators for the state was placed on administrative leave this summer over allegations unrelated to the Rhoden killings.

— Prosecutors in June dropped obstruction and perjury charges against Fredericka Wagner, the mother of Billy Wagner, one of those charged in the slayings. Prosecutors had said Fredericka Wagner lied to a grand jury after investigators found two bulletproof vests at her home. But her attorney said she bought the vests two weeks after the killings to protect her family and that she initially didn’t remember where she bought them.

— Investigators earlier this month searched Fredericka Wagner’s horse farm in southern Ohio. Authorities would only say they were executing a new search warrant as part of an investigation into the killings.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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