Ohio family massacre highlights rural region’s ties to illegal drugs

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Pike County, Ohio (May 1, 2016)–Just about everyone in tight-knit Piketon had a connection to the Rhoden family.

Dana Rhoden, a 38-year-old certified nursing assistant, cared for many in this rural Ohio community of 2,200. She was remembered for her compassion and sunny demeanor, a soothing presence to patients and their families.

Chris Rhoden Jr., 16, was a student at Pike County High School. He had just gotten his driver’s license and enjoyed working on demolition-derby cars with his older brother and father.

Hanna Rhoden, 19, was part of a girls’ championship power-lifting team at Pike County High School. She followed her mother into a nursing career and had taken time off from work to give birth to her first child.

They were among eight family members shot to death, execution style, in their beds the morning of April 22. Also killed were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Gary Rhoden, 38; Kenneth Rhoden, 44; Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20; and his fiancee, Hannah Gilley, 20, mother of their 6-month-old son. The bodies were found in four properties on Union Hill Road owned by Christopher Rhoden Sr.

Three young Rhoden children were found unharmed: Gilley and Frankie Rhoden’s 6-month-old, along with Rhoden’s 3-year-old son from another relationship, and a 4-day-old infant who was found next to Hanna, her slain mother.

The gruesome slayings have rattled this southeast corner of Appalachian Ohio, a region that culturally identifies more closely with neighboring Kentucky and West Virginia than the state’s northern cities. As U.S. 23 leads away from Columbus, business parks and strip malls give way to lush stretches of farmland dotted with old farmhouses and rusted silos. Farther south into the Appalachian foothills, churches, pickup trucks and Confederate flags become more common.

Adding to the shock was the discovery of hundreds of illegal marijuana plants on Rhoden’s property, highlighting the region’s dependency on the illegal drug trade as jobs in agriculture and timber have dried up.

No one has been arrested, and law enforcement has kept a tight lid on the investigation. What little is known has raised more questions than answers.

Meanwhile, many in Pike County worry the negative attention will further traumatize a community in pain.

Several Piketon residents told CNN they were genuinely surprised to learn that investigators found large marijuana-growing operations at the crime scenes, along with evidence of cockfighting. In a place where secrets don’t stay that way for long, the revelations cast doubt on what people thought they knew about the Rhodens.

“You would never expect to see them portrayed this way,” said Piketon resident Dennis Tschudy, whose 15-year-old daughter was close friends with the younger Chris Rhoden.

For some, it was simply unbelievable.

“The family that I knew could not have been involved in that,” said friend Heather Romine of Waverly, the next town over. She met Dana Rhoden while working in a nursing home years ago and they became friends. “It’s just so out of character for them. I don’t think it’s plausible.”

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