Pike County massacre: Woman facing felonies is a fiercely protective matriarch
PIKE COUNTY, Ohio — Mention Fredericka Wagner, 76, 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.
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.
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.”
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 allowing 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.
Attorneys specializing in real estate say buyers in land installment contracts are often unable to obtain a traditional bank loan due to poverty.
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.
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.”
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