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Pike County massacre: Experts struggle to describe how a child-custody dispute left 8 dead

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Screen shot of Facebook page of Hanna Rhoden. Screen shot of Facebook page of Hanna Rhoden.
Screen shot of Facebook page of Hanna Rhoden. Screen shot of Facebook page of Hanna Rhoden.
Jake Wagner, father of Sophia Wagner, was in a custody dispute with Hanna Rhoden, who was killed in the massacre. 
 Provided
Jake Wagner, the father of Sophia Wagner, created a GoFundMe account to help defray attorney costs related to his custody battle. Jake Wagner, father of Sophia Wagner, was in a custody dispute with Hanna Rhoden, who was killed in the massacre. Provided Jake Wagner, the father of Sophia Wagner, created a GoFundMe account to help defray attorney costs related to his custody battle.
The Rhoden family murders The Rhoden family murders

Authorities investigating the 2016 Pike County, Ohio mass killing said this week the slaughter apparently arose out of a child-custody dispute. Domestic-violence experts say that while the details of the massacre are breathtaking, the motive is all too common.

Eight members of the Rhoden family in Pike County, 90 miles east of Cincinnati, were shot to death April 22, 2016, as they slept in four different dwellings. Three small children who were with the adults, including a 5-day-old infant, were not harmed.

Police investigated the case for more than 2½ years and remained tight-lipped about motive and other details. But Tuesday, they arrested six members of the Wagner family, four of whom police said committed the murders.

The Rhoden and Wagner families were close for many years. Edward "Jake' Wagner, 26, and Hanna Rhoden, 19 at the time of her death, had been in a long relationship that began when Wagner was 20 and Hanna had not reached Ohio's age of consent, which is 16. The couple had a daughter together.

Ohio Attorney General and Gov.-elect Mike DeWine, who oversaw the investigation, said the murders arose from "an obsessive need to control children.'

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Experts say lethal violence can occur amid struggles over who controls a child - just not on the scale of the Pike County massacre.

"Your case is like a once-in-a-century storm,' said Richard Gelles, professor of child welfare and development at the University of Pennsylvania. "I've never seen this many homicides involved in a custody dispute.'

Gelles has testified as an expert in child-custody cases. He pointed out many parents in a custody dispute often resort to kidnapping.

"There are multiple options for getting illegal custody of a child without having to murder an entire family,' Gelles said. "And then to recruit your whole family to do it. It must be a fairly massive amount of stored-up anger.'

That anger blinds adults, he said. "People become so wrapped up in controlling one another that they completely lose sight that there's a child involved.'

"This is an extreme case,' said Randolph Roth, a historian of murder and sociologist at Ohio State University. "What's unusual about this is enlisting the family in a murder rooted in possessive rage.'

Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said if the Pike County murders indeed were rooted in a custody battle, they are different merely in horrible scale to other domestic-violence murders. "It is absolutely common in domestic violence that if somebody, an abuser, loses control over his victim and his children, then he will do whatever he can to regain that control.'

More: Custody battle played starring role in 2016 slaying of 8 family members in Ohio, prosecutors say; 6 arrested

At some point, the families had a falling-out. Rhoden relatives have told The Enquirer Jake Wagner was abusive to Hanna Rhoden, the couple split up, and the subsequent custody battle had been acrimonious. Wagner family members disputed that characterization and said the custody arrangements was amicable.

Five days before her death, Rhoden gave birth to the infant found at the scene of the murders. Wagner said he was that child's father as well until a paternity test showed he was not.

The term for the murder of a family is familicide, but there are elements of that crime not present in the Rhoden case.

A familicide usually involves a deeply depressed man who experiences a financial or social reversal and so dreads humiliation that he kills a wife and at least one child to spare them suffering. The perpetrator then dies by suicide. More than 650 children (including 22 from Ohio) have been killed by a parent in cases involving divorce, custody or child support cases since 2008, according to data kept by the California-based Center for Judicial Excellence.

Murders over child custody, though, are fueled by rage and an overpowering need to exercise ultimate control. Even DeWine, with a lengthy career in law enforcement and policy-making, said he had never seen a case like the Pike County murders over child custody. On Thursday, he told The Enquirer: "When this case goes to trial, people are just going to shake their heads."

Not only was Jake Wagner accused of the murders, so were his brother, his mother and his father. They are facing the death penalty if convicted. Plus, his two grandmothers were charged with conspiracy and forging documents in the child-custody case. Authorities have not released details on that aspect of the case.

"What's unusual about this case is enlisting the family in a murder rooted in possessive rage or rooted in child custody,' said Ohio State's Roth. "But in these cases, particularly in the year after the relationship ends, that's when you have your highest risk of your murder occurring over custody or visitation. Or over the simple fact that a woman left.'

Neyler, a veteran of domestic-violence advocacy, says she, too, is puzzled by the number of deaths in the Pike County case. "The motivation might be if there's nobody left, then I'll get the kids. That's the only thing I can imagine. I just can't even fathom it in my wildest imagination.'

Child custody, she said, is a war for control in which anger is ammunition. "When there's domestic violence, that's an abuser's mindset: You are my property. I get to control you. You can't go away from me. You can't take my children away from me.'

Neyler said she would not classify the Pike County murders as a familicide because of the level of planning involved to commit murder at four locations. Security cameras on the Rhoden property also had been disabled.

"It sounds almost like a planned hit, if anything,' she said. "It sort of explains why the children were left alive.'

Follow Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker.

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