Authorities: Custody dispute played role in slaying of 8

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WAVERLY, Ohio (AP) - A family of four was arrested Tuesday in the gruesome 2016 slayings of eight people from another family in rural Ohio in a crime that prosecutors suggested stemmed from a custody dispute, authorities said.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said a grand jury indicted the four on aggravated murder charges and could be sentenced to death if convicted.

DeWine gave scant detail about why the victims were killed, but said the custody of a young child played a role. He said they had carefully planned the killings for months.

"There certainly was an obsession with custody, obsession with control of children," said DeWine, who earlier this month was elected governor.

He added: "I just might tell you this is just the most bizarre story I've ever seen in being involved in law enforcement."

Authorities said marijuana growing operations were found at three of the four crime scenes. That's not uncommon in this corner of Appalachia but stoked rumors that the slayings were related to drugs, one of many theories on possible motives that percolated in public locally.

DeWine said Tuesday "there's an undercurrent of drugs" in the case, but there's no evidence the killings were drug-related. He wouldn't elaborate.

Arrested were four members of the Wagner family, who lived near the scenes of the killing about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Columbus. They've long been considered the chief suspects, DeWine said.

One of those arrested was Edward "Jake" Wagner, 26, who was a long-time former boyfriend of 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden, one of the eight victims, and shared custody of their daughter at the time of the massacre.

Wagner was also charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for having sexual contact with Rhoden when she was 15 years old and he was 20 years old, DeWine's office said.

The others arrested were Wagner's father, George "Billy" Wagner III, 47; his wife, 48-year-old Angela Wagner; and George Wagner, 27.

Police in Kentucky say the FBI tracked "Billy" Wagner to Lexington, where he was arrested without incident at around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. Lexington police weren't sure if he had been living in the area.

The mothers of Angela Wagner and "Billy" Wagner also were arrested in Ohio and charged with misleading investigators.

It's the culmination of a massive investigative effort since seven adults and a teenage boy were found shot in the head at four homes in April 2016.

Investigators scrambling to determine who targeted the Rhoden family and why had conducted over 130 interviews and processed over 100 pieces of evidence and 550 tips, while getting assistance from more than 20 law enforcement agencies.

The last significant piece of evidence was collected on Oct. 30, DeWine said.

DeWine and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader painted a picture of a meticulously planned crime. The suspects studied the layouts of the victims' properties, habits, routines, sleeping locations and pets, they said.

The indictments accuse the Wagners of tampering with phones, cameras, a gun silencer, shell casings and parts of a home security system.

"They did this quickly, coldly, calmly, and very carefully. But not carefully enough," Reader said. "They left traces. They left a trail."

Authorities in June of 2017 announced they were seeking information about the Wagners, including details on personal or business interactions and conversations that people may have had with the four.

None was named a suspect at the time. Investigators also said they had searched property in southern Ohio sold by the Wagners.

Both Jake Wagner and Angela Wagner told the Cincinnati Enquirer they were not involved in the April 2016 killings.

Angela Wagner said in an email to the newspaper that what happened was devastating and Hanna Rhoden was like a daughter to her.

Wagner also told The Enquirer that her husband, Billy, and Christopher Rhoden Sr. were more like brothers than friends.

John Clark, a lawyer who has been representing the Wagners, has said previously that four of the Wagner family members provided laptops, phones and DNA samples to investigators and agreed to be interviewed about the slayings.

"We look forward to the day when the true culprits will be discovered and brought to justice for this terrible tragedy," Clark said in a statement Tuesday. He added: "The Wagners are also very hopeful that in the ensuing months there will be a thorough vetting of all the facts."

The Wagner family has lived in Peebles, Ohio, at the time of the killings but later moved to Alaska, returning in the spring.

Clark once told The Cincinnati Enquirer that the family was being "harassed while the real killer or killers are out there."

DeWine said there's "absolutely no evidence" anyone else was involved.

A coroner said all but one of the victims was shot more than once, including two people shot five times and one shot nine times. Some also had bruising, consistent with the first 911 caller's description of two victims appearing to have been beaten. The coroner's report didn't specify which victims had which wounds.

Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk cautioned the case could last several years, and it's possible the trial could be moved out of Pike County because of the publicity.

"This has been so long coming. Thank God!" Verlina Jarrell, of Circleville, Ohio, co-administrator of a Facebook page about the "Pike County massacres" with some 650 members, told The Associated Press.

The victims were identified as 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., and 19-year-old Hanna; Frankie Rhoden's fiancée, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.'s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden. Hanna Rhoden's days-old baby girl, another baby and a young child were unharmed.

It appeared some of them were killed as they slept, including Hanna Rhoden, who was in bed with her newborn nearby, authorities said. The child, Hannah Gilley's 6-month-old baby and another small child weren't hurt.

Three funerals were held for the victims.

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Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus. Associated Press Writers John Seewer in Toledo and Dylan T. Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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