PIKE COUNTY -- Agents with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation had been tracking a truck being driven by the brother of a victim of the Rhoden family massacre, according to a search warrant obtained by The Enquirer Monday afternoon.
The warrant was issued April 21 and gave authorities 45 days to track James. T. Manley’s 1997 Chevrolet K2500 truck. Manley is the older brother of Dana Manley Rhoden, who was shot to death during the April 22, 2016, homicide that left seven of her family members dead and sparked the largest and most complex investigation in Ohio history, which remains without an arrest.
The warrant, signed by Pike County Common Pleas Judge Timothy S. Hogan, indicated authorities believe the truck was “used as a means of the commission of the crime’’ of aggravated murder. Or it was in the possession of another person with the intent to use the vehicle as a means of committing the crime, the warrant stated.
The search warrant never names Manley as a suspect, nor does it state that it is tied to the Rhoden homicide investigation.
However, three BCI agents went to James Manley’s home on Union Hill Road on Monday afternoon to remove the GPS tracking device, said his father, Leonard Manley. Manley was at the home and spoke with agents, he said.
Manley said he told agents that they would not find the device on the truck because his son removed it when he discovered it about a week ago. Manley said a BCI agent warned him that they were going to arrest his son on felony charges tied to the destruction of government property. Manley said they also threatened to arrest him on obstruction of justice charges on Monday.
The agents left a copy of the search warrant with James Manley’s wife Monday. They also told her to call her husband at work to tell him to come home. She made that call, but the younger Manley declined to leave his logging job in Lima, his father said.
The younger Manley was at home with his family Monday evening. He was mowing his lawn and unavailable for comment.
Are investigators getting closer?
It is not the first time agents singled out the Manley family. Just two to three weeks ago, the elder Manley said BCI agents surprised his son at his job around 5 p.m. and took him to Dayton, where he submitted to a polygraph test. Manley said agents took him back to his work site at 4 a.m. On Monday, a BCI agent told Manley his son failed that test.
Manley's youngest daughter, Bobby Jo, has said she has submitted two tests and was told she passed both of them. She found four of the eight victims and her brother, James, found his sister dead in her trailer, family members have said. Manley said his son and his eldest daughter were extremely close and there is no way he could be involved in the killings.
BCI agents also told the elder Manley on Monday that a text from his son’s phone was sent to Jake Wagner’s phone at 2 a.m. the morning of the massacre. Wagner was the long-time boyfriend of one of the Rhoden victims.
Manley said he feels authorities are “grasping at straws,'' adding he is growing increasingly frustrated by the ongoing scrutiny. He said he and his family have provided DNA samples, been interviewed numerous times and have cooperated in the probe, entering its 13th month without an arrest.
"It's like a wound and then you pick at it and they are starting to pick pretty hard,'' he said. "I've always believed justice was supposed to be fair, but it ain't. Not when they go picking on people I know. I'm tired of it, they've harassed me enough.
"I've had a belly full of it,'' he said.
The Ohio Attorney General's Office, which is leading the investigation, has steadfastly declined to discuss specifics of the case including the location of searches or if its agents have developed a motive or suspects. All of the search warrants and court orders have been sealed to date.
More details emerge in three property searches
The BCI visit on Monday came on the heels of searches Friday and Saturday at three area farms near the Rhoden crime scenes. The recent spate of activity has been the most public in the investigation in months. In mid-April, authorities said they had executed 41 search warrants. Tracking vehicles and monitoring cell phone activity is not uncommon in such investigations, as is the use of polygraph tests.
The owner of one of those sites said Monday that authorities combed through household items left there by a former boyfriend of one of the victims.
Bernie Brown said Jake Wagner and his brother needed a place to store their household goods "for a few days" after they sold their 71-acre Adams County farm because the new owners were moving in and they had nowhere to take it. The Wagner brothers also indicated they were looking to move "north," Brown said.
Authorities swarmed Brown's property on State Route 41 in rural Peebles, and the Wagner farm nearby on 260 Peterson Road about 11 a.m. Friday. State officials have declined to publicly acknowledge that the searches, which widened Saturday to include a more than 300-acre horse farm owned by Wagner's grandparents in neighboring Pike County, are linked to the Rhoden case. All the properties are about 10 to 12 miles from the crime scenes.
Jake Wagner was the long-time boyfriend of Hanna Rhoden, whose parents and siblings were among those slain. The couple has a daughter, Sophia, now 3, who is believed to be in Wagner's custody.
"They called and said they wanted to park their stuff for a few days until they could find a place,'' Brown said, adding that Wagner, 24, and his older brother, George Washington Wagner IV, 25, indicated that they had gotten "good-paying jobs up north."
Brown said the brothers, both diesel mechanics and one-time over-the-road truck drivers, often worked on his vehicles. He said he was doing them a favor by letting them store the items on his property.
Toys, kitchen goods, framed photos and paperwork
The Wagners showed up a week before the search and dropped a container about the size of a semi-tractor trailer, a horse trailer as well as a small enclosed trailer on the north side of a barn on his property. The larger container housed numerous boxes as well as household items and was covered in tarps, Brown said. He also said the horse trailer was loaded with items.
Those two containers remained on his property Monday along with two pickup trucks, believed to be owned by the Wagners. The beds and cabs of both trucks were loaded with items including a rocking horse, a stuffed bear and small plastic kid's motorized car as well as framed photos and paperwork.
Authorities towed away the enclosed trailer around 11:30 p.m. Friday, Brown said.
Authorities did not search Brown's home, garages or barn. Nor did they search the car lot, which is owned and operated by his son and is also on the property, he said. Brown said authorities told him they had a warrant to search the items left by Wagner. He did not see, nor was he given, a copy of that warrant.
The searches that spanned Friday and Saturday were the most public activity in the case for months. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has made repeated assurances over the past year that authorities were working the case and chasing leads. Just last month, DeWine and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader implored anyone with information to step forward. It was unknown if the searches were sparked by a recent tip or were born out of the ongoing probe.
Brown said he hopes that investigators solve the case and make an arrest.
"What happened over there is too bad,'' said Brown. "I hope they get them ... We are not involved in anything and I hope those boys aren't either."
In addition to Hanna Rhoden, 19, those killed were: her parents, Christopher, Sr., 40, and Dana, 37; her brothers, Christopher, Jr., 16, and Frankie, 20, and his fiancee, Hannah Gilley, 20; her uncle Kenneth, 44; and a cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38. Their bodies were found in four separate trailers and many of them were killed while they slept. Three children were found alive and unharmed. DeWine has said there were at least two killers who were familiar with the property.
The Enquirer interviewed Jake Wagner and his mother, Angela Wagner, at the Peterson Road farm a year ago. The farm was filled with children's toys, many of which could be seen stacked in the containers stored on Brown's farm Monday afternoon. Wagner said in July he still had not told his daughter that her mother was killed. The toddler was with him the morning of the killings.
'I don't know anything'
Attempts to reach Wagner and his mother remained unsuccessful Monday.
A woman, who answered the phone of the Flying W horse farm on Camp Creek Road in Pike County - the site of a raid Saturday afternoon - declined to discuss the searches. That 300-acre farm is owned and operated by Jake Wagner's grandparents George Washington Wagner, Jr., and his wife, Fredericka C. Wagner, according to property records.
"I don't know anything,'' the woman said and hung up the phone.
According to a real estate website, the Wagner's Peterson Road farm sold in March for $165,000 - $10,000 less than what they bought it for in 2014. Dozens of state and local investigators used metal detectors and dug in areas on the property and they towed two red all-terrain vehicles from the area as well.
Authorities have not publicly said if those ATVs belonged to the Wagners.
Leonard Manley said a BCI agent told him Monday that they belonged to law enforcement and were not seized as part of the search.