Cockfighting, pot growing, demolition derby, pitbull breeding. You name it, the Rhoden family of Pike County, Ohio, were into it.
Rivalries go hand-in-hand with such interests and it’s no surprise many of the theories regarding who executed eight members of this ragtag clan last month centre around feuds and turf wars.
But the truth is, the Rhoden family didn’t roll much differently to anyone else in their neck of the woods. They lived in mobile homes on sprawling, rural properties littered with rusty trucks and animal cages, supplementing their incomes selling dope and betting on roosters.
So what happened that was so bad that eight people had to die?
Initial fears that the shootings were the work of Mexican drug gangs, including El Chapo’s notorious Sinaloa drug cartel, which has been active in the area since 2010, have been replaced with whisperings of “hillbilly justice”.
Lisa Wallace, former sister-in-law of Gary Rhoden, speaks to the media outside of his wake. Photo / AP
Hannah Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; Dana Rhoden, 37; Gary Rhoden, 38; Hanna Rhoden, 19; Kenneth Rhoden, 44, were found shot to death in four mobile homes on April 22.
The killer pumped between one and nine bullets into each victim as they slept but spared three children under the age of three and two pitbulls guarding one of the properties.
Hanna May Rhoden was killed in the Piketon shooting that has rocked the small community. Photo: Hanna May Rhoden/Facebook
The last person to be killed, Kenneth Rhoden (the brother of Gary Rhoden Snr), lived at Left Fork Rd in Rardon (population 159), about 5km from where the seven other murders took place in a cluster of trailers on Union Hill Rd in Piketon village.
His cousin Donald “Donny” Stone stunningly revealed to reporters that he’d found Kenneth dead in his bunk with around $1000 cash strewn around his feet. Kenneth had been shot just once (compared to the nine and seven bullets found in two of the other victims) and his pitbulls left alive.
Stone claimed that a CCTV system his cousin had recently installed inside the trailer had been removed by the killer and that the dogs, not bred to being friendly to strangers, didn’t raise a paw during the incident.
The Mexican drug cartels theory was introduced almost immediately after the killings, when police revealed that large marijuana growing operations were found at three of the four crime
As brutal as the Rhoden murders were, the perpetrator drew the line at killing babies and animals, a line that simply doesn’t exist for Mexican drug lords and their hired assassins.
While the rest of the country dropped its collective jaw at the El Chapo link to the Ohio drug trade (who knew?), it wasn’t news
to locals, whose suspicions that the executions were hillbilly justice staged to look like a cartel’s calling card, continue to grow.
A RED HERRING?
A truck with ‘Fly High Rhodens’ painted on the window sits in the parking lot before start of the Pike County Vigil. Photo / AP
“Whoever done it knows the family.”
Those words were declared by Leonard Manley, who lost his daughter Dana and two grandchildren, Hanna, 19 and Christopher, 16, in the massacre, when confronted by reporters on an old dirt road in Piketon earlier this week.
“There were two dogs there (at Kenneth’s house) that would eat you up,” he continued. “But I ain’t gunna say no more.”
In addition to the mercy shown to the babies and the dogs, there other aspects of the murders that scream: “It’s personal”.
Two of the victims, police have not revealed which, were shot nine and seven times respectively, compared to others who were shot between one and three times. Since all were asleep at the time of their execution, that suggests varying degrees of hate rather than a matter of subduing those most likely to fight back.
Grandmother-to-be Dana Lynn Rhoden, 37, was also murdered. Photo: Dana Lynn Rhoden/Facebook
Post-mortem examinations revealed several Rhodens had also been badly beaten, another sign this was not the work of professionals but someone closer to home.
Mr Manley also said he didn’t believe the murders had anything to do with marijuana.
He’s not alone.
Residents in Ohio’s economically distressed southeast, where the Rhoden murders took place, have relied on marijuana to survive for many years. Despite its illegal status, or perhaps because of it, marijuana is a big cash crop here.
Drugs are so prevalent that highway signs provide drivers with a number to report impaired, rather than drunk, drivers.
The day after the massacre, vendors lined East Main Street in Piketon for the annual Dogwood Festival, selling printed T-shirts and gifts out of moving boxes, including pairs of socks with marijuana leaf prints.
So the discovery of commercial-quality marijuana growing operations at three of the Rhoden properties where bodies were found was not out of the ordinary.
Mourners arrive at Dry Run Church of Christ as authorities provide security before funeral services for six of the eight murder victims from Pike County. Photo / AP
Tens of thousands of plants are seized each year, many of them linked to Mexican drug gangs.
One of these is El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel, which started spreading its tentacles in the area six years ago and now has a major presence in the state.
State Attorney-General Mike De Wine has repeatedly declined to draw a link between drugs and the killings, saying he didn’t want to dissuade anyone who might think the investigation was headed in a different direction from coming forward with information.
Michael Throne, the editor of local newspaper the Chillicothe Gazette, told website Reforma: “Since 2010, I remember stories of growing marijuana operations in Ohio that are linked to a Mexican drug cartel, but I cannot remember any act of violence that could be attributed to drug cartels”.
16-year-old Chris Rhoden, the son of Dana Lynn Rhoden was also murdered. Photo: Chris Rhoden/Facebook
A Pike County resident who claimed to know the Rhoden family told WHIO that locals didn’t buy the El Chapo angle because pretty much everyone was growing pot in their backyards.
“There’s little jobs down there,” she said. “Everybody has to survive some way. This is how they survive.”
The woman, who asked not to be identified because she feared for her life, said she believed the killings were the result of “hillbilly justice” an apparently “common practice in the area involving people taking the law into their own hands instead of calling police.
“There’s a lot of drugs that are relevant in the hills right now, and with meth and heroin being two of the main ones, I don’t think this is over pot,” she said.
Ohio is famous as the birthplace of seven presidents and 24 astronauts. It’s home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as two Major League Baseball teams, the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds.
It also has one of the largest Appalachian communities in the country. The massacre has shined an unwelcome light on the poverty and social problems of the area, with out-of-state-reporters writing breathlessly of hillbillies, rednecks and moonshiners, of confederate flags and tin roofs, of trashy locals willing to spill the beans about the Rhodens in exchange for a pack of cigarettes.
Leonard Manley, third from right, father and grandfather of several murder victims, stands outside Dry Run Church of Christ before funeral services for six of the eight killed. Photo / AP
Demolition derby, hunting, cockfighting and being stoned every day is a way of life. Most people own at least one dangerous breed of dog and several rusting, undriveable vehicles in their backyards.
The Rhodens may not have been the pillars of society in their community or their state, but none of them had prior convictions for anything drug-related, according to court records. And only one of the victims, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden had any form beyond traffic citations and misdemeanours.
“I have never been involved with that family in a criminal nature and I’ve been in law enforcement locally for 20 years,” Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said.
That doesn’t mean the Rhodens didn’t have some serious feud action going on – both inside and outside the clan – that they dealt with using “hillbilly justice”.
Last year, Frankie Rhoden was charged with assault after reportedly punching a man so hard he knocked several teeth out of his dentures. The charges were later dismissed.
A local youth called Rusty Mongold was hauled in for questioning after it was discovered he’d posted a Facebook threat against Chris Rhoden Jr. prior to the murders.
Mongold was released without charge and has repeatedly apologised for behaviour and protested his innocence.
Some news outlets have quoted members of the community, including surviving Rhoden family members, who believe the murders stemmed from jealousy over Frankie’s demolition derby car.
More recently, locals have been talking about love triangles and property disputes. One of the victims is rumoured to have fathered a baby with a man she was having an affair with.
Donald Stone, the cousin who found Kenneth Rhoden’s body has come under scrutiny for his calm demeanour during the 911 call he made, compared to the hysterical Bobby Jo Manley, who raised the alarm after finding the bodies of her sister Dana and her children Christopher and Hanna when she went to the property to feed the chickens.
Mourners arrive at Dry Run Church of Christ. Photo / AP
Someone posting in online forum Topix under the name Jake Rhoden claimed police had told the family “Donny Stone” was “the prime suspect” but its unlikely the comment was genuine or that investigators were careless enough to say such a thing to relatives.
In recent days, the forum has been inundated with comments from people claiming to be relatives accusing each other of treachery and even murder.
Sheriff Reader this week confirmed investigators had still not established a motive for the killings but were keeping an open mind. They were prepared to tread slowly and carefully in order to build a case that would stand up in court and win a conviction, no meant feat in a region where people risk death by ratting on their neighbours.
“This is something that’s going to take a while,” Sheriff Reader said. “It’s absolutely shocking, some of these scenes. It’s not one that you can simply go in process, collect the evidence and call it a day.”