8 dead in Piketon; 1 week later
The caller was breathless. She was panicked.
“Yes, I need a deputy at 40 … um.”
“I need you to tell me the address,” the Pike County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatcher urged.
“Give me just a second,” she gasped. “I need to walk to the mailbox. I think my brother-in-law is dead.”
Bobby Manley had arrived at her brother-in-law’s house in the hills of Pike County shortly before 8 a.m. Friday, April 22, to feed the chickens and dogs. She unlocked the door and walked into a scene that seasoned law enforcement would later call “shocking.”
“There’s blood all over the house,” Manley told the dispatcher.
It was only the beginning; there would be a total of four crime scenes. In the following days, more questions would be raised than answers given as hundreds of law enforcement agents surged into the impoverished county of only 28,000 residents.
Was this drug-related? Was it someone who knew the family?
Leading the investigation is Ohio’s attorney general — a former Greene County prosecutor with an interest in running for governor — and a sheriff with decades of experience but new to the job as Pike County sheriff.
“This is an old-fashioned, cold-blooded, calculated massacre of eight human beings,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said, vowing that “in the end I believe we will find out who did this.”
Meanwhile, profiles of the victims have emerged.
A nurse. A teenager. Hard-working country boys who loved demolition derby, fishing and hunting. Women remembered as kind and equally hard working — all mothers of children under the age of 3, including one who was only four days old.
Seven adults and one 16-year-old all dead, shot a total of 32 times combined. Only the young children were spared.
Manley made the 911 call after discovering the bodies of 40-year-old Chris Rhoden Sr. and his cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38. Deputies arrived on scene by 8:07 a.m., according to police records, and were flagged down by other residents and informed that there were more bodies in other homes.
“I was laying in bed, heard the sirens going up the road,” said Brittany Barker, a neighbor whose children rode the school bus with the youngest victim. Her uncle went to see what all the ruckus was about.
He came back, she said, with the news: “ ‘Every one of them has been killed.’ He broke down. And I broke down.”
“I would never of thought in a million years something like this would happen here,” Barker told reporters Wednesday, standing at a police barricade near her home where media from around the world were converging.
The blocked-off crime scene stretched more than a mile along Union Hill Road, a divided country lane where houses and trailer homes tend to be a tenth-of-a-mile apart. Aerial images show houses with farm outbuildings and numerous non-working cars.
Much of the property was owned by Chris Rhoden Sr., according to county property records.
Chris married Dana Lynn Manley in October 1994. Dana was 16 at the time. Ten months later their son Clarence was born, though he went by “Frankie.” Then came Hanna and Chris Jr.
Chris Sr. and Dana divorced in 2007, though they reportedly remained close.
In recent years, Chris worked manual labor jobs at a local lumber company with his brother Kenny, records show. He held seasonal jobs at Great Bear Lake Family Resort with his kids.
An employee who answered the phone at the lodge Thursday declined to talk about the family, saying “we need to take care of mourning.”
Employees there included Frankie, whose passions included demolition derby and his children. Frankie’s social media accounts last year displayed his prized 1990s-model Ford Crown Victoria, the envy of the derby circuit. This year they showed him smiling, curled up with his sons, ages 3 and 6 months, and kissing his fiancée, Hannah Gilley.
Gilley, 20, attended high school in McDermott, Ohio, where she participated in 4-H and was on the homecoming court. During an interview for the court, she said her favorite hobbies were riding four-wheelers, going “mudding,” and hanging out with friends. At that time, Gilley said she planned to go to college, obtain a business degree and open a daycare.
She was buried Saturday at Hackworth Hill Cemetery in Otway, Ohio.
“She was a real good kid,” said Vanetta Throckmorton, who works at Smart Mart in Piketon, and whose son was close with Gilley. “She was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The children at the murder scene are now in the care of relatives or children services. The youngest survivor was born just four days before the killings. The baby girl was found next to her mother, Hanna Rhoden, who was found murdered in bed.
Hanna Rhoden, 19, said about herself on Facebook, “I had a pretty rough start but have came out on the better side. I’m beyond happy of where I am today.”
Her favorite quote, according to Facebook, was “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
Dana Rhoden was robbed of a future with her grandchildren.
“Her world revolved around them,” said Jennie Elliot, director of nursing at Hillside Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation where Dana worked as a state-tested nurses aid. “She talked about her grandkids and her children all the time. She was extremely proud.”
Dana had been a licensed STNA since 1997.
“She had a heart of gold and was extremely giving and excellent at what she did,” Elliot said. “It was nothing for her to bring in food for all the staff that was working, or bring in gifts.”
Dana’s youngest son, Chris Rhoden Jr., 16, also was one of the victims. He was a freshman at Piketon High School, which has 530 students.
“He was the first one that if he thought that someone wasn’t being treated fairly or felt like someone wasn’t being treated appropriately, he would speak up about it,” Scioto Valley Local School District Superintendent Todd Burkitt told the Associated Press.
Chris Rhoden Jr. was “like brothers” with his older cousin Gary Rhoden, Gary’s father Kenneth Rhoden said before a funeral service for his son Thursday. They died together, he said.
“My nephew was laying one way and Gary was laying over his legs, shot three times in the head, Gary was. The rest of them, I don’t know,” he said.
Kenneth, 68, said his son was a hard worker who used to help out on the tobacco farm in Kentucky, where the family had its roots.
Kenneth wore a checkered, buttoned-down shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes to his son’s funeral. When a reporter asked what he’d like to say about the killers, Kenneth’s eyes steeled.
“Really? You might not want to hear it,” he said, pausing. “I’d like to take ’em and torture them for killing the whole family like this.”
Five hours after the original 911 call, another call came in from seven miles east of the active crime scene on Left Fork Road. The caller asked for a deputy to be sent out.
“All this stuff that’s on the news, I just found my cousin with a gunshot wound,” the caller said.
“Sir, is he alive?” the dispatcher asked.
“No. No,” the caller responded.
Deputies responded and found the eighth victim, 48-year-old Kenneth Rhoden.
Realizing the scale of the crime — it is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. this year — Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader called on the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for assistance.
Reader was sworn in as sheriff in May 2015 after the former sheriff resigned from the post to take a job at the Piketon atomic plant, one of the county’s largest employers. Prior to that, Reader was an investigator in the county prosecutor’s office with experience as a police officer and deputy.
In addition to this tragedy, Reader’s first year on the job included the indictment of one of his deputies on murder charges for a March 2015 officer-involved shooting, plus involuntary manslaughter charges for another incident in December in which the deputy said he accidently shot and killed his neighbor.
Reader established a reputation for cracking down on drugs. In February, his office intercepted a 28-pound package of marijuana allegedly destined for a THC extraction lab.
Next to Reader at every news conference related to the case has been DeWine, no stranger to controversial cases of national interest. He has expressed an interest in running for governor in 2018.
Sheriff’s offices from every county in Ohio have offered assistance, and dozens have worked the scene, including Butler County, which lent a mobile command center. Warren County provided cruisers and deputies for security at the funerals.
Federal investigators and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency are lending technical expertise.
Among the few details that have emerged is that one of the properties had roosters and cages consistent with cockfighting, DeWine said. And three of them had marijuana growing operations that DeWine called “commercial” in scale.
Pot is a big cash crop in poor parts of the state. More plants were seized in southeast Ohio last year than any other region of the state, according to statistics compiled by the AG’s office. Pike County ranked 10th in the state with 557 plants seized, and neighboring Scioto County ranked second with 2,750 plants.
State officials say the numbers are incomplete because not all counties report all confiscations. But the numbers reported in Pike County alone have made headlines in recent years. This includes a 2012 bust finding nearly 1,300 plants and a 2010 discovery of more than 22,000 plants. Both were next to camps linked to Mexican organized crime, according to DeWine.
DeWine won’t say whether his office believes the grow operations were linked to the murders. Some in the community believe they were. Neither Kenneth Rhoden nor Dana Rhoden’s father, Leonard Manley, believe it had anything to do with drugs.
“Whoever done it knows the family,” Manley said. “(Because) there were two dogs there that would eat you up. But I ain’t going to say no more.”
Pictured: Leonard Manley
None of the victims have prior convictions in Pike or Adams counties for anything drug-related, according to court records. All but one have a criminal history limited to traffice citations and misdemeanors.
Frankie Rhoden was charged with assault after a fight last year. Media reports say Frankie punched a man so hard that he knocked several teeth out of his dentures. The charges were later dismissed.
“I have never been involved with that family in a criminal nature and I’ve been in law enforcement locally for 20 years,” Reader said.
Speculation has extended beyond Mexican cartels. Police questioned someone who made a Facebook threat against Chris Rhoden Jr., though the poster, Rusty Mongold, was released after questioning.
The killings remind some of an another unsolved murder in nearby Minford in January, in which a woman was found shot to death in her bed — execution-style, according to some reports. Her daughter reportedly was shot to death after trying to flee.
Some news outlets have quoted members of the community who believe the Pike County killings stemmed from jealousy over Frankie’s demolition derby car.
“I don’t intend to shoot down any rumors,” DeWine said, noting he didn’t want to tip his hand to the killers. “Our priority is to get convictions, not just arrests, but convictions.”
Meanwhile, the sheriff has suggested members of the Rhoden family arm themselves, and some are clearly afraid. A Kenny Rhoden in Kentucky called 911 last week claiming he was being chased on the road, though he later said it was just someone having fun.
The killings have cast a harsh light on a struggling community.
Nearly a quarter of Pike County’s residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Jobs are scarce, and life is hard. And now — with killers still on the loose — people are scared. But they are trying to maintain a sense of normalcy.
The day after the bodies were found, vendors lined East Main Street in Piketon for the annual Dogwood Festival, selling printed T-shirts and gifts out of moving boxes, including pairs of socks with marijuana leaf prints.
Isiah Ebersole, 16, walked around the crowded festival with his younger brother as a band played under a festival tent. He said he hopes the best for the Rhoden family, and said the county is feeling the impact of the eight homicides.
“I think they’re a little shocked at what happened and a little depressed,” Ebersole said. “I feel bad for the other family members.”
“I’m sure it’s going to be … I feel terrible for them.”
Last Sunday, members of the beleaguered community and the Rhoden family gathered at the Union Hill Church less than a mile from the crime scene and prayed for answers.
“The anchor holds, though the ship is battered,” the congregation sang in chorus. “The anchor holds, though the sails are torn. I have fallen on my knees, as I faced the raging seas. The anchor holds, in spite of the storm.”
A week later, little has changed.
By Staff Writers Josh Sweigart, Steve Bennish and Will Garbe. Staff Writer Sharahn Boykin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.