WAVERLY, Ohio (WCMH) – Opening statements were heard Monday in the murder trial of George Wagner IV, one of four suspects accused in the Pike County massacre in 2016.

The state laid out a thorough description of events that led to the killings, including issues over custody of a child between the Wagners and the Rhodens.

However, the defense argued that George Wagner IV had no knowledge of his family’s actions and never took part in the killings.

George Wagner IV is facing several charges including eight counts of aggravated murder. He and three of his family members are accused of killing eight members of the Rhoden family.

Christopher Rhoden Sr., Dana Rhoden, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, Christopher Rhoden Jr., Hanna May Rhoden, Hannah Gilley, Gary Rhoden, and Kenneth Rhoden were all found dead on the morning of April 22, 2016. The Pike County Sheriff’s Office said three young children, including a baby, were discovered unharmed.

Prosecutors said the shootings stemmed from a custody dispute between his brother Jake Wagner and one of the victims, Hanna May Rhoden.

“Hanna May responds, ‘I won’t sign papers ever, they’ll have to kill me first,’” said special prosecutor Angela Canepa. “Just over four months later, Hanna May and seven members of her family are dead.”

The state alleges that the Wagner family threatened and tried to intimidate Hanna May Rhoden into giving custody of the child to them, and when she refused, they killed her and her family in a coordinated, execution-style attack that took months of planning.

“The character of this family was very controlling of any women who came into their circle,” Canepa said. “So, any women who dated or had children with George Wagner, or any women who dated or had children with Jacob Wagner.”

Canepa said Hanna May Rhoden had been in contact with the mother of George Wagner’s wife, who had allegedly warned Hanna of the family’s behavior.

“This was not a crime of passion, this was not in a fit of rage, this was not in self-defense,” Canepa said. “These murders happened after a period of three months of planning and plotting and purchasing and preparing and executing eight individuals of a family.”

However, the defense argues George Wagner never took part in these crimes, claiming he never knew of his family’s actions.

“George knew his family had done a lot of bad things in their life, but he had never known them to commit an act of violence,” said defense attorney Richard Nash. “He couldn’t believe it. He denied it.”    

Nash also said Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation never asked to speak to George and that he was never a suspect.

“On all of those occasions that BCI came around, asking for cellphones, asking to speak with Jake, Angela or Billy, George was right there,” Nash said. “Not once did they ever ask to speak with George.”

Wagner’s younger brother Jake and his mother Angela reached plea deals with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty and are expected to testify against him. Jake and George’s father, Billy Wagner, is still awaiting trial.