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CrimeMatriarch of Wagner family accused in Pike County massacre spent decades building wealth

22:30  04 december  2018
22:30  04 december  2018 Source:   cincinnati.com

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Matriarch of Wagner family accused in Pike County massacre spent decades building wealth Cincinnati.com PIKE COUNTY – Mention Fredericka Wagner Mercedes-AMG Will Build a GT Black Series RoadandTrack.com Today at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Mercedes-AMG revealed the most

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PIKE COUNTY – Mention Fredericka Wagner around Pike County and most folks have a thing or two to say.

To many, she’s the wealthy landowner who worked with her husband acquiring hundreds of acres to build a renowned horse-breeding empire atop a hill largely out of sight here.

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The Pike County , Ohio shootings took place on the night of April 21–22, 2016, when eight people – all belonging to the Rhoden family – were shot and killed in four homes in Pike County , Ohio

To those who tried to buy land from her, she’s a money-hungry opportunist who takes advantage of low-income families.

To her lawyer, she’s a God-fearing, tax-paying Pike County business owner who is being wrongly accused in helping her family plot a cover-up of one of the state’s most heinous crimes.

Some things are undisputed: She is the fiercely protective matriarch of the family who stands accused in the calculated, cold-blooded killings of eight members of the Rhoden family in April 2016.

By both wealth and stature, she is an outlier in her own county.

Her arrest and those of her son, George “Billy” Wagner, 47; her daughter-in-law, Angela Wagner, 48; and her two grandsons, George Wagner IV, 27, and Edward “Jake” Wagner, 26, have shone a national spotlight on rural America where for some, land ownership symbolizes success.

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From the Wagner farm, accessed through metal gates, Fredericka Wagner and her husband conducted their business operations, offering exotic animals and dozens of acres of land for sale.

Now, Fredericka Wagner is largely confined to that farm, under house arrest as part of her bond conditions. She is even reluctant to attend church, fearing intimidation from fellow congregants, according to her attorney.

“I’m not supposed to be talking about the case,” Fredericka Wagner said in a brief phone conversation with The Enquirer. “All I can say is I’m innocent. That’s all.”

She's pleaded not guilty to felony charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

And she "passionately and fervently believes in the innocence of her son, her daughter-in-law and her two grandsons,” said her attorney, James Owen, at her arraignment earlier this month. “She’s a tough old bird and willing to express her opinions. … But right now, she’s presumed innocent.”

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More than 100 land contracts
Those who rented or attempted to purchase land from Fredericka Wagner described her as driven by one thing: money.

Fredericka Wagner's properties – listed under her name, a trust bearing her name or under her real estate company – are worth more than $4 million and span 1,767 acres, according to Pike County Auditor’s Office records.

Over decades, she and her late husband, George "Bob" Wagner, entered into at least 132 land installment contracts in an apparent attempt to sell off smaller portions of their land. The contracts allowed the Wagners to retain deeds on the land as buyers attempted to pay off their principal and interest.

Some contracts included interest rates of 10 percent or higher, including at least three above 13 percent.

If buyers made all their payments, they’d eventually become owners of the land.

It rarely played out that way.

Twelve contracts were satisfied.

Nearly 80 percent were ultimately terminated without a corresponding deed transfer, indicating the land returned to Wagner possession.

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“Quite frankly I’m surprised it’s not more,” said Owen, Fredericka Wagner's attorney. “I would suggest that a lot of people buying property on land contracts don’t have good credit, don’t have a history of paying things on time.”

Attorneys specializing in real estate back up Owen’s contention, saying buyers in land installment contracts are often unable to obtain a traditional bank loan due to poverty.

1 property, 3 failed attempts to purchase
In an examination of the Wagner contracts, the terminations and civil disputes that ended up in court, The Enquirer found three separate parties attempted to buy the same 5-acre parcel owned by the Wagners.

Not one of the buyers was successful.

The first potential buyer improved the land, boosting its value, according to the buyer’s son.

The contract called for the buyer to make improvements to the property.

Charlie Swain signed the contract for $29,000 on June 27, 1997. But he was unable to keep up with the $250 payments due to health issues and the loss of his job.

So Cecil Swain, son of Charlie Swain, tried to help by offering to make his father's payments.

Fredericka Wagner declined the offers, Cecil Swain said. She told him she could make more money by reselling the land since his father had developed it, he added.

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Owen denied Cecil Swain made such an offer.

"She didn't care, as long as she got the money," Cecil Swain said.

Fredericka Wagner said by phone on Nov. 25 that the issue of land contracts has "nothing to do with (the criminal allegations). It’s irrelevant.”

She added, “If you don’t make your payments, you can’t stay there.”

A Pike County judge ordered Charlie Swain to forfeit the land, returning it to the Wagners.

Charlie Swain may not have been able to obtain it even if the Wagners hadn’t sued. His original contract included a provision calling for a “final balloon payment” of $27,351.99. The balloon payment was due about five years into the contract.

Less than four months after Charlie Swain lost in court, the Wagners found a new buyer for the 5-acre parcel.

A woman entered into a land installment contract agreement in May 2001. This time, the Wagners charged $40,000, or 37.9 percent more than they charged Charlie Swain.

And the monthly payments increased by $100, to $350.

Six months later, in November 2001, the contract was terminated. No cause was given. The termination document said the Wagners would keep all payments made and “all parties agree that there shall be no monetary reward, or reimbursement to the (woman) for any improvements they may have made to the land.”

About three years later, yet another land contract began for the parcel, this one in October 2004, according to the corresponding lawsuit the Wagners would eventually file.

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Fredericka Wagner , one of two women charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the Rhoden family murders, is arraigned in Pike County Court on November 15, 2018. Cincinnati Enquirer.

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This time, a mother of two young children and her boyfriend were the hopeful buyers. The price for the property increased again, to $48,000, according to a receipt shared by Owen with The Enquirer. Monthly payments jumped to $400.

A contemporary memo prepared by Fredericka Wagner and shared with The Enquirer said the buyers missed payments.

Fredericka Wagner and her husband sued the mother, Misty Ison, and her boyfriend in 2008. A judge terminated the land contract and ordered the family off the land.

“We done all the work to the land and everything, and finally got it fixed and everything, then all of a sudden losing it like we did,” Ison said from a Piketon motel, where she’s been staying recently after becoming homeless last March. “It was – it was tough.”

Today, that 5-acre parcel is valued at $23,860, according to the Auditor’s Office. It’s owned by White Pines Realty LLC, a business formed by Wagner and her husband.

New hopeful buyers signed yet another land contract for the parcel in 2014. The contract calls for $143,300 to be paid over approximately 30 years.

Michael Gibbons-Camp, a staff attorney with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, which provides legal assistance to those who can’t afford it, said some land contracts are predatory.

"The seller is just squeezing whatever money they can get out of a purchaser, knowing that they're going to get the property back and they can do it again," he said.

The Wagners ‘may have taken advantage of the situation’

Those were far from the only deals with the Wagners that soured.

In another case, Fredericka Wagner and her husband were accused in court of attempting to exploit an illiterate man to gain control of a small bit of land he'd been making payments on for about a decade.

The Wagners sued the man and his family in 2006, claiming he defaulted on a contract for 5 acres in the neighboring Newton Township.

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But in response, and with the help of attorney Stacy M. Brooks, the man denied the claims and alleged the Wagners were bilking him. Brooks, who told The Enquirer the man was a veteran with limited resources, represented him pro bono through Southeastern Ohio Legal Services.

The man had entered into an oral agreement with the Wagners to pay $15,000 and no interest for the land near his property in 1996, according to Brooks’ filing in the case.

That same year, according to the filing, the Wagners attempted to have him sign a land contract he couldn’t read and that included "a balloon payment at the end." The man never signed the contract.

The land contract called for about $9,000 in payments over about five years, with a “final balloon payment” of $14,764.55, according to property records.

The man kept up his $155 monthly payments, Brooks’ filing states, which indicates he paid a total of approximately $18,000 prior to the suit. But in the 2006 suit, the Wagners alleged he still owed about $14,000 at 12 percent interest per year, plus a $201 late fee.

Brooks, on behalf of the man, wrote: "the land installment contract is unconscionable since the price greatly exceeds the value of the property."

Owen said Fredericka Wagner and her husband sued after the man asked for a deed to the land, claiming he’d completed his payments.

“Fredericka said, ‘Well, you’re forgetting the interest,’ ” Owen said. “He said, ‘What do you mean? I thought I just had to pay you this.’ She said, 'It’s in the contract.' ”

Brooks told The Enquirer she remembered the man as "not sophisticated in dealing with the Wagners, and our theory was they may have taken advantage of the situation ..."

The case was dismissed after an out-of-court settlement. Terms of the settlement were not listed in public documents. Brooks could not recall the terms and said the record of the agreement may be confidential.

Owen said Fredericka Wagner waived what the man owed when she learned he couldn’t read in court. When asked if she could have determined the man’s literacy without a lawsuit, Owen said Fredericka Wagner “didn’t really believe initially that he couldn’t read or write.”

A deed was filed a week after the case was dismissed, transferring the land into the man’s name.

Ed Rhoads, a former property attorney for the Wagners, said families with various properties can expect some disputes.

He didn't know the Wagners to exploit people by signing a land contract, only to later seek a forfeiture and attempt to sell the land again.

"I don’t recall the Wagners doing that," he said, adding, "I don’t know that they don’t."

Pike County, on the edge of Appalachia, had a median property value about half that of the U.S. median in 2016. One in five people live in poverty here, according to Census data.

"A lot of it is just plain poor," Rhoads said of land-contract buyers who can't keep up payments. "Living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. One little thing goes wrong and next thing you know they default on their payments."

The Flying W farm
Fredericka Wagner’s family farm is nestled amid hundreds of acres of open fields, largely tucked away from public view.

She and her late husband are listed as the owners of the second-largest land parcel in Pike County, at 1,003 acres, second only to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant property owned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

The land and buildings on the parcel were valued at $2.38 million in 2018, according to property records.

A poster could be seen last week facing the Wagners’ stately gates off Camp Creek Road. It included pictures of each of the eight victims, their frozen images gazing toward Wagner land.

“Do you know who murdered us ...?” it read.

The four Wagners are accused of killing: Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Christopher's former wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, 38; Dana and Christopher's three children: Hanna Rhoden, 19; Chris Rhoden Jr., 16; and Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 20' Frankie's fiancee, Hannah Gilley, 20; Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and the older brother of Christopher Rhoden Sr.; and a cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38.

The gates guarding Fredericka Wagner's farm are flanked by low stone walls and pillars topped by silver lamp fixtures. Two signs warn of surveillance cameras.

The Flying W farm stands out from the mobile homes, trailers and one-room homes that encircle it. Located along a dirt and gravel road, the farm consists of a collection of red-roofed barns and houses. Hundreds of acres of open land separate the structures from the neighbors.

Carol Estep, a bartender in the nearby county seat of Waverly, said she worked for Fredericka Wagner's husband in the '70s. Estep shoed some of the many miniature horses owned by the Wagners, she said.

The Wagners took their horses to shows "all over the world," Estep added. And mini horses were offered for sale from the farm as recently as this year, according to the Flying W website. The farm has also been ranked a top 10 breeder of "dressage champions" in the world. One of its horses earned sixth-place honors in a category called "Friesian Sires" in 2016 from the United States Equestrian Federation.

Today, the Flying W website offers American Mastiff puppies for as much as $2,100 and a kunekune pig, found in the Maori Islands, for $1,500.

In the early '90s, Fredericka Wagner and her husband were sued by a small group of customers alleging that Flying W did not meet the standards promised in the sale of exotic animals, including Vietnamese potbelly pigs.

The group said the Wagners defrauded them in the sales, providing animals that did not match their advertised description. The suit was ultimately tossed by a federal court judge but not before several years of proceedings and failed mediation sessions.

The matriarch is known as an imposing figure in Camp Creek, a township of about 1,000 people. Her neighbors spoke of her vast property holdings, including a group home and church less than a mile from the farm.

She is listed as the executive director on a 2017 nonprofit tax form, called a 990, for the Crystal Springs group home. Four developmentally disabled people lived at the home, according to the filing.

Fredericka Wagner earned more than $50,000 in compensation in 2017, and nearly $170,000 total in 2014, 2015 and 2016, according to the nonprofit tax forms. In 2017, she was paid $15,000 for renting the group home to the nonprofit, the 2017 tax form shows.

During her court appearance, Owen, her attorney, claimed she "doesn't have liquid money" because it's tied up in her farm.

Living near the Wagners
One couple, currently buying land from Fredericka Wagner, said the matriarch has in the past delivered food baskets for Thanksgiving to some of her tenants.

Others say she’s less charitable.

Kim Parks has lived for about a decade near the Flying W farm.

“They (the Wagners) act like they’re churchgoing people, but they’re not,” Parks said. “It’s all a cover-up.”

A tenant, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of the Wagners, said Fredericka Wagner has increased her rent 25 percent since the massacre of the Rhodens.

“She don’t care what her (tenants) do, long as she gets the money,” Parks said of the matriarch.

Another tenant lives in a one-room home, an exposed toilet standing a few feet from the foot of his bed. Tom Shields recalled delivering his rent in cash to Fredericka Wagner on her farm.

Shields feels as though he’s in limbo, uncertain what will become of his home and who will accept his payments with so many Wagners facing charges.

When asked if she feels safe in her home so close to Wagner land, Parks looked back inside from her doorway.

“We keep a gun loaded,” she said. “You have to around here.”

Bob Strickley, Meg Vogel and Jona Ison contributed. Chris Graves can be reached at [email protected]

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