One cockfighting family killed another
CINCINNATI, Ohio––There appeared to be no doubt in the minds of previewers of The Pike County Massacre, a three-part Oxygen mini-series that premiered on November 24 and November 25, 2023, as to just what led to the eight murders the series described.
“Center to the case,” wrote Peter White of Deadline.com, “was the presence of marijuana cultivation and cockfighting operations at some of the crime scenes.”
Added Christine Brown for Sports Illustrated, “The catalyst for the murders centered around a marijuana and cockfighting operation that went south, motivating the elimination of an entire family.”
But anyone who imagined that The Pike County Massacre would expose cockfighting as the 2020 Tiger King Netflix television series exposed the exotic cat trafficking and cub-petting racket must have been disappointed.
What The Pike County Massacre was all about
Very little of the hoopla and public response surrounding The Pike County Massacre made any mention of cockfighting, even though both the victims and their alleged killers were deeply involved in cockfighting, and even though the murders might never have occurred if the participants had not been steeped in the violent cockfighting subculture.
The victims included Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40, whose local claim to fame was having once won $30,000 betting on a cockfight, discussed in testimony before the jurors at his trial; cockfighter Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Dana Lynn Rhoden, 37; Gary Rhoden, 38; Hanna May Rhoden, 19; Hannah Mae Rhoden Gilley, 20; Kenneth Rhoden, 44; and Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16.
All were shot dead in or near their three rural homes and a trailer, just before dawn on April 22, 2016, near Piketon, Ohio.
The killings were initially believed to have resulted from a cockfighting-related feud, possibly also involving marijuana trafficking.
“Evidence consistent with cockfighting”
Eve Mueller, spokesperson for then-Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine, told media soon afterward that “Evidence consistent with cockfighting was found” at one of the murder scenes, including caged gamecocks, and that marijuana “grow operations” were found at three of the murder sites.
The killings, however, turned out to have originated chiefly from a custody dispute between Edward “Jake” Wagner and Hannah Mae Rhoden Gilley, with whom Jake Wagner wrongly believed he had fathered a child.
Four members of the Wagner alleged cockfighting family, were eventually charged with the killings.
Another family member, Rita Jo Newcomb, 67, charged as an accessory after the fact, on December 3, 2019 pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to a grand jury that was investigating the murders.
Jake Wagner pleaded guilty to all eight murders on April 22, 2021, in a deal that spared his alleged fellow participants in committing the murders from facing the death penalty.
Jake Wagner was sentenced to serve eight consecutive life terms without parole, plus 100 years on fifteen additional charges, including having had sexual intercourse with a minor, Hannah Mae Rhoden Gilley, beginning when she was 13 years old and he was in his early twenties.
Age 20 when murdered, Hannah Mae Rhoden Gilley had in the interim become fiancé of cockfighter Frankie Rhoden.
Angela Wagner, 52, wife of George “Billy” Wagner III and mother of both George Wagner IV and Jake Wagner, all of them alleged to have helped in killing the Rhoden family, pleaded guilty on September 10, 2021 to conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, plus multiple other related counts, as part of a plea bargain contingent upon her testimony against the other defendants.
The prosecution has reportedly recommended that Angela Wagner receive a 30-year prison sentence. She will not be sentenced until all of the trials are over with.
Last alleged perp due for trial in 2024
George Washington Wagner IV, 31, the first member of the Wagner family to actually go to trial, was on November 30, 2022 found guilty of 27 related counts.
Pike County Court of Common Pleas judge Randy Deering on December 20, 2022 sentenced Wagner IV to serve eight consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole for the murders, plus another 121 years for the various other offenses.
George “Billy” Wagner III is scheduled for trial in 2024.
Visiting judge R. Alan Corbin on November 23, 2023 ruled that the trial will remain in Pike County, rejecting Wagner III’s request for a change of venue.
YouTube zaps pro-cockfighting clip by Oklahoma governor
The extent to which the cockfighting subculture subverts justice in rural parts of the U.S. surfaced yet again on November 12, 2023 when Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt regretted in a videotaped message to the Oklahoma Game Fowl Commission annual legislative meeting that he could not personally attend.
In the videotaped message Stitt made plain his intent “to protect the nearly 5,000 gamefowl farmers across Oklahoma,” in defiance of the 2002 Oklahoma state law, passed by ballot initiative, that made cockfighting a felony.
Recent polls show that 87% of Ohio registered voters want to keep cockfighting a felony.
The Stitt video was obtained and posted to YouTube by the animal advocacy organization Animal Wellness Action.
YouTube, however, took down the Kevin Stitt video “because it said the video violates the company’s community guidelines by promoting cruelty to animals,” explained a joint media release from Animal Wellness Action and the Oklahoma City-based Kirkpatrick Policy Group.
Football coach rips Stitt remarks
The media release featured the response of former University of Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer to Stitt’s remarks.
Switzer, 86, directed the University of Oklahoma football program for 16 years, winning three national championships, followed by four years with the Dallas Cowboys, during which the team won three division championships and the 1995 Super Bowl.
Said Switzer in a written statement, “I know a little something about sports and my state of Oklahoma. That’s why I am very disappointed in our governor for encouraging the barbaric blood sport of cockfighting in our great state.
“Staged fighting between animals is cruel, immoral, deeply unpopular in our state,” Switzer continued, “and a felony to boot. I hope that Governor Stitt made a terrible mistake and that he will correct the record and indicate he opposes cockfighting and will oppose any legislation at the capitol to weaken our law.
“I voted for the anti-cockfighting law in 2002,” Switzer affirmed, “and support every word of it.”
Switzer, ironically, on November 6, 2023 endorsed a chicken sandwich sold by the PDQ fast food franchise at three Oklahoma locations, in Edmond, Norman, and Oklahoma City.
Big cockfighting bust in Texas
Animal Wellness Action and the subsidiary Center for a Humane Economy meanwhile praised the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office in Coldspring, Texas, “for making 19 arrests after finding about 300 people at a large-scale cockfighting operation at a residence in the county” on October 15, 2023.
“Officers also confiscated 96 roosters seized from vehicles, cages, and transport boxes,” an Animal Wellness Action media release said.
“According to reports,” Animal Wellness Action detailed, “deputies found a cockfighting arena and various items of gambling paraphernalia, including a dry erase board that indicated 44 fights had already taken place. Deputies also found several dozen dead roosters, and several live roosters were found still wearing gaffs (razor-sharp blades attached to their legs) in their cages.
“Other items seized included gaffs, vitamins, steroids, syringes, food and cages, as well as 43 vehicles, four trailers, five pistols, some marijuana, and more than $22,000.
“United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement was contacted regarding the arrest of subjects suspected to be undocumented immigrants.”
Cockfighting ex-deputy sheriff sentenced
Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK], meanwhile, celebrated the November 14, 2023 sentencing of former Laurel County, Kentucky deputy sheriff Jacklyn R. Johnson, 31, to serve a month in jail plus eight months of home detention for her part in operating cockfights at the Bald Rock pit, repeatedly exposed by SHARK undercover and drone video since 2020.
The Bald Rock cockpit was one of several allegedly protected by Laurel County sheriff John Root, who openly boasted about not busting cockfights.
“Johnson “also was fined $250,” reported Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Court bailiff & cockfight security
“U.S. District Judge Claria Horn Boom sentenced Johnson in federal court in London, Kentucky. Johnson was a Laurel County deputy sheriff, serving as a court bailiff,” Estep recounted, “when Kentucky State Police went to investigate a report of animal cruelty late one night in July 2021 at a large metal building at Bald Rock, a rural community in the county.
“Johnson helped her father run the fights,” Estep detailed, “collecting money from spectators and from people entering roosters in fights, and weighing and matching roosters, according to court documents. She advertised the fights online and recruited people to participate, the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kate K. Smith and Andrea L. Mattingly Williams said in a sentencing memorandum.
“The venue, which had operated for years,” Estep added, “included several fighting pits, stadium-style seating, a concession area, and an area to sharpen the metal gaffs attached to roosters’ legs to cut and stab each other, according to the court record.
Daddy & boyfriend both now convicted cockfighters too
Johnson, the last of nine people convicted in the case to be sentenced, “pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the law against cockfighting and to attending a cockfight,” Estep said.
Sentenced earlier were her father, Rickie D. Johnson, and her boyfriend, Oakley “Whitey” Hatfield, Estep noted.
Johnson’s lawyer, Douglas G. Benge, told the court that Jacklyn R. Johnson “had a difficult childhood because both parents were substance abusers,” Estep summarized, “but she overcame that to become the first high-school graduate in her family and went on to get a two-year college degree in criminal justice.
“Benge also said,” Estep added, that Jacklyn R. Johnson’s “grandparents and father were all involved in cockfighting, so she had been around it all her life.”
Which hardly sounds as if Jacklyn R. Johnson had really overcome much, since she was caught aiding and abetting activities of her father and boyfriend that she knew very well were illegal.