Written by Laura Pettler, Ph.D., LPI
Last week on The Dr. Oz Show, we tackled the murders of the Rhoden Family in Pike County, Ohio. On the night of April 22, 2016, eight members of the Rhoden family were murdered in their homes across four crime scenes. While eight murders “at one time” meets the general definition of mass murder, my overarching opinion was that they were actually individual murders most likely committed by more than one offender at the same time. Not including serial homicide, generally speaking, murder is conflict resolution for the offender or offenders. Let’s take a closer look at the Rhoden family murders and my unofficial profile of the killer or killers.
There are many kinds of homicide, such as infanticide, mariticide, and uxoricide. That is the killing of an infant, husband by his wife, and wife by her husband respectively. Regardless of what type of homicide you’re studying, the best practice is to study across at least these four categories: Victimology, Crime Scene Dynamics, Homicidal Pattern, and Offender Profile. In many cases, aspects or elements of the latter can be derived from the first three. Let’s start with the victims in this case:
- Christopher Rhoden, Sr. – Patriarch of the family; divorced from Dana Rhoden; father of Frankie, Hanna, and Chris Rhoden, Jr.; large marijuana growing operator on Rhoden family property
- Gary Rhoden – Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s cousin
- Ken Rhoden – Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s brother
- Dana Rhoden – Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s ex-wife; mother of Frankie, Hanna, and Chris Rhoden, Jr.
- Frankie Rhoden – Chris Rhoden, Sr. and Dana Rhoden’s eldest son
- Hanna May Rhoden – Chris Rhoden, Sr. and Dana Rhoden’s daughter; mother to Sophia Wagner
- Chris Rhoden, Jr. – Chris Rhoden, Sr. and Dana Rhoden’s youngest son
- Hannah Gilley – Intimate Partner of Chris Rhoden, Jr.; mother of Ruger Lee Rhoden
Victimology tells us that all eight victims, in this case, share the common denominator that they are all part of the same family, except Hannah Gilley who is in an interpersonal relationship with Chris Rhoden, Jr. However, when delving into the victimology of each victim separately, that’s where we begin to learn who each victim is as an individual; if they are in conflict with anyone in their lives, factors that increase or decrease their risk of becoming a victim of violent crime, and their lifestyles. Chris Rhoden, Sr. and cousin Gary were killed in their home on Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s property, the location of an illegal marijuana growing operation, which increased their likelihood of becoming victims of violent crime. A mile away eldest son Frankie Rhoden and fiancé Hannah Gilley were killed in their bed as their infant son slept between them. The child was unharmed. Dana, Hanna, and Chris, Jr., were killed in their home also located on the same road. Finally, Ken Rhoden was discovered eight miles away dead in his home. Eight murders and four crime scenes later it begs the question: Who is in conflict with the victim(s)?
At first glance, it appears that Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s drug operation is the center of conflict for this family. However, there are alternatives to consider. Each individual has to be studied meticulously sifting through the evidence to determine if the preceding conflict is present. Based on my education, training, and experience as a forensic criminologist, my opinion is that the most common conflicts that preempt murder are affairs, divorce, custody, child support, sex, money, power, and anger. Clearly, most of these can overlap.
Now let’s take a closer look at the crime scene dynamics and characteristics:
- Close Range
When asking “why?” the answer is always the same…because it meets the needs of the offender.
So why nighttime? Because it meets the needs of the offender. The fact that these murders took place at night is telling because the offender or offenders is telling us he, she, or they wanted to ambush each victim when they were most vulnerable…while they were sleeping. Nighttime: provides natural cover, less risk of detection with fewer people traveling the roads, and most likely sleeping victims. Choosing nighttime tells us that the offender or offenders most likely were familiar with the routine activities of the victims overall.
Why indoors? Because it meets the needs of the offender. All of the murders occurred indoors as opposed to while the victims were at work, school, in the yard, driving, etc. Considering the alternatives compared to indoors, which is the easiest? That’s right. Indoors: closed-room murder, concealed, private, muffled, etc.
Why “close range?” And to be clear, I mean as opposed to a sniper type shot or more than 20 yards away outdoor type shooting. Same answer: Because it meets the needs of the offender. Sometimes this type of murder is called “execution style,” which means that the victims are trapped and cannot escape their attackers. Close range or in this case, execution-style murders, are usually carried out by firearm. The offender or offenders wanted to increase the likelihood of killing their victims by shooting at close range as opposed to from far away. Close range in each of the four homes tells us the offender or offenders had some familiarity with the floor plans of each of the homes.
Next, we can observe aspects of homicidal pattern from these crime scenes. These attacks while coordinated and synchronized, it is important to recognize that each individual victim is killed by aiming a firearm and pulling the trigger directly at each victim maybe one at a time, maybe at the same time. The murders were premeditated and well planned, resulting in organized crime scenes with the slight exception of Chris Rhoden, Sr.’s murder, which some might argue due to the wound pattern on the victim that Chris pushing back against the threat came unexpectedly by the offender or offenders, hence firing multiple times to stop the threat. Organized crime scenes are a symbol of the offender or the offenders wanting to remain in complete control. But there’s more…the wound patterns, we’re going to get to that.
Let’s look at location macro to micro: the murders occurred in North America in the United States. In the state of Ohio in Pike County on Union Hill Road on four specific properties all with mobile homes belonging to the same family. Behavior is purposeful, not random, except in some cases of where psychosis is present or other deficits. Therefore, the murders of these eight victims is deliberate, purposeful, and specific. The victims were targeted, not selected at random. In mass murder cases like the Los Vegas Shooting last year, those victims were random, yet part of the same group of “concert attendees” targeted by the shooter. The crime scene locations tell us that the offenders were familiar with Pike County, familiar with Union Hill Road, knew how to get in, out, around, and about with the least likelihood of being detected, etc. The offender or offenders knew the addresses of each victim, the directions for how to reach the crime scenes on foot, by car, or by other means like an ATV, horse, etc.
The wound patterns to the victims tell us a lot that helps us develop an Offender Profile. The crime scenes and wound patterns show us the offenders knew the victims especially in the case of Dana Rhoden, who suffered two gunshot wounds to each side of her head and a fifth under her chin. This wound pattern is extremely specific, the offender or offenders chose to shoot Dana in extremely specific locations out of anger? Maybe. Because she’s seen as the core of the conflict? Maybe. What we do know is that Dana’s murder is different than the others in terms of the wound pattern, which raises a red flag and directs us to ask the question: Who is in conflict with Dana?
As an expert in crime scene staging, one of the things I took into careful consideration was the sophistication, education, training, and experience of the offenders. The offender or offenders demonstrated ambition and dedication to carrying out the attacks on all eight family members in one night as opposed to alternatives, such as but not limited to over months or years. There were some elements of sophistication, education, training, and experience evident in the reported facts about the crime scenes and wound patterns because it appears all victims were shot in a similar manner, which required familiarity with firearms and in good practice. The execution-style shots to the eyeball methodology met the needs of the offender, but in some cases, I’ve seen shots to the eyes of victims that were not meant for their eyes, rather the shooter simply aimed for the heads and ended up shooting multiple victims in the eyes. Crime scene staging is a function of victim relationships meaning only offenders who have some relationship to the victims’ stage because they know they will be the most likely suspect, so they take precautions on the front end…and on the back end (which is where we catch them most often by the way). So did the offender or offenders insert elements of crime scene staging to detract attention from people the Rhodens knew towards pointing the finger at an outsider?
The fact that no children were harmed in the attacks demonstrated the offender or offenders’ personal boundary. Maybe they have children of their own, grandchildren, or work with children? These were all things I considered before the arrest of the Rhodens’ neighbors, four members of the Wagner family. When investigators would have studied Hanna May Rhoden, they would have discovered her daughter Sophia was fathered by Jake Wagner who sought full custody days before Hanna and her family’s murders. Custody was denied, but after Hanna was killed, Jake filed for full custody days after her death. Was Dana in the middle of this custody dispute, fostering it, shielding Hanna, providing resources for her that kept Jake from getting custody? Maybe. Regardless, whoever killed Dana Rhoden didn’t like her, was very angry with her, and wanted to see her suffer and cause her deliberate pain.
While other theories like the mafia, a drug cartel hit, a professional hitman, etc. swirled in the two years since the Rhodens were killed, asking the question, “who is in conflict with the victim?” seems to get the ball rolling in the right direction. I personally did not opine these murders were really a true “mass murder”, but instead individual murders all achieved on the same night to serve the same purpose: to keep a secret, take over their business, or to resolve some other conflict with one or more Rhoden family members in one fell swoop.
The four Wagner family members are now charged and the People of Pike County, the survivors of the Rhoden family, including the orphaned children, and law enforcement can rest a little easier knowing four allegedly violent, aggressive individuals are in custody removing their ability to harm any additional targets they might set their sights upon.
May justice prevail.
Forensic criminologist, North Carolina licensed private investigator, and IAI certified senior crime scene analyst, Dr. Laura Pettler is one of the world’s foremost experts in crime scene staging and domestic violence homicide. She is well known for her dynamic presentation style: With a background in show business, Laura calls her presentation style “edutainment” and believes that human connection is one of the most fundamental principles of leadership and being able to earn the respect of an audience. Additionally, Laura is known for her sheer passion for using her life to make a difference and for being a pioneer in staging research and cutting-edge homicide investigation practice.