Rural Town Reacts To Murder Arrest
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In 2016, members of the Rhoden family were killed in their homes in rural Ohio. This week, authorities charged several members of another family for the execution-style murders. The brutality of the crime shook residents of this town in the Appalachians. And despite the arrests, many there still struggle to come to grips with the event. Nick Evans from member station WOSU reports.
NICK EVANS, BYLINE: The small town of Piketon sits about an hour south of Columbus in a part of the state where broad fields give way to the Appalachian foothills. The region is known for uranium enrichment. A Next Generation plant was expected to provide new jobs a decade ago. But in 2015, the Department of Energy ended the project.
It would be hard to overstate how shocking the murders were here - seven members of the Rhoden family and a woman engaged to marry one of them all found dead on the same night at four different homes. Three young children were spared. And now state and county officials have arrested six members of a different family, the Wagners, charging four with first-degree murder and all six with attempting to cover it up.
The trail went cold for more than two years, and the ruthlessness of the killings rattled residents. Even with the arrests, Chay Howard says it'll be years before the town recovers.
CHAY HOWARD: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Pike County is getting to be dangerous. They used to be a real easygoing, calm little place like Mayberry, you know?
EVANS: Howard chalks that up to drugs. Not long after the killings, rumors swirled because investigators found marijuana-growing operations at three of the homes. But at a press conference announcing the arrests, Attorney General Mike DeWine highlighted a custody battle between the Wagners' son and the Rhodens' daughter.
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MIKE DEWINE: There certainly was an obsession with custody, obsession with control of children. I just might tell you this is just the most bizarre story I've ever seen.
EVANS: DeWine, who was just elected governor, calls the investigation the longest, most complex and labor-intensive they've ever conducted. Officers followed up on more than a thousand tips, interviewed 550 people and visited 10 states over the course of the investigation. From the outset, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader says his deputies' focus was not the drugs but the murders.
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CHARLES READER: No one - no one deserved, in the dark of the night, for cowards to come in while sleeping and execute them in a way that would be unbelievable to anyone.
EVANS: And that undercurrent of anger is palpable here. The county is sparsely populated. Piketon has only about 2,000 residents. And many people knew or were related to the Rhodens - people like Roger Grubb, who's a distant cousin.
ROGER GRUBB: And, yes, I'm not for the death penalty, you know, normally. But if you're going to kill eight people for no reason, then, yeah, go for the maximum.
EVANS: Grubb says the murders have fundamentally shaken his sense of safety.
GRUBB: Every time a car comes down my driveway, I pull out a pistol to make sure nobody's going to hurt me. I'm an old man, and I'm not well. And I'm not going to take a chance.
EVANS: The Wagners are in custody at four different jails. The family's grandmothers stand charged with misleading authorities and assisting in covering up the crimes. While the Wagners' lawyer declined an interview request, he released a statement saying, quote, "the Wagners eagerly look forward to their trials and to have their day in court so they can vindicate their names."
While the town struggles to regain its footing, prosecutors say they're seeking the death penalty for all four of the Wagner family members. For NPR News, I'm Nick Evans in Columbus.
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