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Ohio Murders: Pot Growing and Evidence of Cockfighting Linked to Slain Family of Eight

Eight members of the same family were slain execution-style at four separate crime scenes in rural Pike County last week. So far, no arrests have been made.

by Tess Owen
Apr 26 2016, 10:10pm

Photo by Lisa Marie Miller/AP

Ohio investigators are still trying to determine what led to last Friday's bloodbath in rural Pike County, where eight members of the same family were shot execution-style at four separate crime scenes.

At a news conference on Sunday, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader described the killing spree as "very methodical."

"This was well planned. This was not something that just happened," he said, noting that most of the victims were killed while they slept in their beds.

Officials disclosed that they had discovered three marijuana grow operations at the crime scenes, from which they collected some 200 plants. The extent of the haul, with a worth estimated at $500,000, suggests that the cannabis was being grown for distribution rather than personal use.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine also acknowledged that investigators had also found possible evidence of cockfighting, including chickens and cages, but said that it was too early in the investigation to link the murders to drugs or other illegal activity. An unnamed law enforcement source told local news outlet WBNS-10TV that police are considering various possible motives for the killings, "whether there is a Mexican drug cartel connection, a possible drug turf war, or a family feud."

Related: How One Family's Drug Trafficking, Kidnapping, and Murder Charges Turned a Texas Teacher Fugitive

The victims ranged in age from 16 to 44, and were all members of the Rhoden family. They were identified on Saturday as Dana Rhoden, 37; her 40-year-old ex-husband Christopher Rhoden Sr.; their three children, Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 20, Hanna Rhoden, 19, and Chris Rhoden Jr., 16; Christopher Rhoden's 44-year-old brother, Kenneth Rhoden; his cousin, Gary Rhoden, 38; and Hannah Gilley, Frankie's 20-year-old girlfriend.

Autopsy results released Tuesday indicated that some victims had struggled. Authorities have said all of the victims were shot in the head — none of the injuries appeared to be self-inflicted. Some of the victims appeared to have been sleeping when they were murdered. Hanna Rhoden's newborn baby was lying in the bed with her when her mother was killed. The baby was not harmed.

Leonard Manley, Dana Rhoden's father, rejected the suggestion that his daughter was involved with drugs in an interview he gave to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

"They are trying to drag my daughter through the mud and I don't appreciate that,'' he said. "If they tell me she was mixed up in this, I would call them a liar."

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Sheriff Reader noted that he had "never been involved with that family in a criminal nature" in his 20 years on the force, but said that there was no doubt that it had been targeted. He warned all surviving members of the family to take precaution.

"If you are fearful, arm yourself," he said.

Jill Del Greco, a spokesperson for the Ohio attorney general's office, said that no arrests have been made. She was not at liberty to disclose additional details of the killings or the investigation, though authorities have reportedly received more than 100 tips, conducted over 60 interviews, and collected 18 pieces of evidence after executing five search warrants.

"This is going to be a very lengthy process," Reader said

DeWine and Reader said that the state in general has a problem with drugs. A 2011 report classified Ohio as a "high intensity drug trafficking area," but mainly attributes that categorization to increasing availability of heroin and opioids rather than marijuana.

Related: The Golden Age of Drug Trafficking: How Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin Move Around the World

Rumblings of a "cartel connection" in the Appalachian region of the Buckeye State emerged years ago when police officers discovered 1,200 marijuana plants growing in Pike County.

Upon further investigation, officers say they discovered two encampments on the site that "appeared to have been abandoned quickly." They concluded that evidence found on site were consistent with a Mexican cartel operation but did not provide much more detail, nor did they specify a particular cartel.

CBS News reported that authorities were looking at a Facebook threat that specifically called out Christopher Rhoden Jr., and later reported that it had questioned a man named Rusty Mongold about it.

Mongold later posted on Facebook that he had recently had a conflict with the family that had since been dropped. He insisted that he had no connection with the bloodshed and said he had supplied DNA to the sheriff's office.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen