At least regarding the perjury and obstructing justice charges pending against both women, what seems to primarily be at question is the testimony given in July 2018 to a Pike County grand jury investigating the infamous Rhoden massacre.
Prosecutors allege suspects Rita Newcomb, 65, and Fredericka Wagner, 76, lied to the grand jury in order to protect members of their family, including four persons now facing the death penalty, each of whom is charged with eight counts of aggravated murder, one for each member of the Rhoden family victims. Newcomb and Wagner were in front of Pike County Court of Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering Thursday for separate pretrial hearings. But some of the questions raised during those hearings were essentially the same.
Representing the state of Ohio and prosecuting the case, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk and Angie Canepa, a special prosecutor assigned to the case by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, contend defense teams, by statute, are not entitled to transcripts of the entire testimony given by either woman to the grand jury. Predictably, defense lawyers argue otherwise.
Canepa said she would provide the court a brief regarding the state’s argument against releasing the grand jury transcripts by the end of this month. Deering said the defense team will have one week to respond to that brief. He will then make a decision as to what parts of the grand jury testimony defense attorneys are entitled to obtain through pretrial discovery motions.
Essentially, discovery motions are requests for information held by the prosecution.
In the case of Wagner, the key bit of grand jury testimony seems to revolve around her comments regarding the purchase of two bulletproof vests that prosecutors said ended up in the home of her son, murder suspect and family patriarch George “Billy” Washington Wagner III. Fredericka Wagner’s attorney James Owen complained the state had not even compiled written transcripts of any of the grand jury testimony. Deering ordered transcripts of the testimony be prepared and stated Owen and his client at least are entitled to see transcripts of any testimony dealing with the bulletproof vests.
Both Fredericka Wagner and Newcomb have been out on bond but also subject to electronically monitored house arrest since their indictments in November. On Thursday, through their respective attorneys, both also asked the court to alter the conditions of their house arrest.
Wagner wants to be able to visit Crystal Springs, a nursing home in Piketon. Owen said Wagner would go to the business on an as-needed basis. She also requested the right to attend church services.
Canepa said Wagner had been employed as an administrator at Crystal Springs but it was her understanding that was several years ago. Junk specifically asked for the clarification of what Wagner would be doing at Crystal Springs. The prosecution team also suggested Wagner has not been a regular church-goer.
Owen offered no objection to the prosecution’s request Wagner be banned from any contact with any member of her family currently under indictment in connection with the murders. He did make a point of saying his client is an “honest, decent law-abiding citizen,” who has had no contact with the members of her family presently in trouble with the law.
At the request of prosecutors, at least in the instances of those members of the Wagner family directly charged with the Rhoden murders, Deering has imposed a gag order preventing anyone officially connected with the cases from speaking with the media.
On Thursday, prosecutors asked the gag orders to be extended to include persons connected with the cases against Fredericka Wagner and Newcomb. Owen immediately objected noting the state held a heavily attended and well-publicized press conference announcing the arrests in the Rhoden case. He stated at some point he may want to publicly respond to comments made during that press conference and prior to the imposition of the gag orders. Deering said he wants a written argument from prosecutors before making any decision on additional gag orders.
Newcomb’s attorney former Portsmouth Mayor Franklin Gerlach made some of the same contentions as Owen regarding transcripts of the grand jury proceedings. As already stated, he also sought modification of his client’s house arrest. Newcomb has been living at the home of her elderly mother in order to care for her. Gerlach requested she be allowed to visit her farm some 12 miles away in order to take care of the animals housed there, including up to four horses and eight dogs and puppies. Junk immediately objected. Gerlach told the court Newcomb’s son has been caring for the animals up until now.
“It starts to defeat the purpose of house arrest,” he told Deering, who made no immediate decision on the request but asked Gerlach to supply details as to why his client needed to visit the farm. He added the state would have a chance to reply to any claims the defense team made in such a statement.
Finally, over Gerlach’s objections, Deering agreed to a prosecution request banning Newcomb from any contact with other persons under indictment in the Rhoden case. Gerlach unsuccessfully argued his client had not been convicted of any crime and therefore should not be denied contact with the members of her family. He said there is simply no need for such a ban.
Although there has been a flurry of pretrials in the Rhoden case in the last few weeks, there will now be somewhat of a lull before any of the suspects are back in court. The next round of pretrials are not expected until March. Of course, both prosecutors and defense attorneys should be responding to Deering’s information requests long before then. Both sides also can be expected to file various pretrial motions prior to returning to court.