Arguably the most important statement Wednesday in what turned out to be the longest hearing so far in the ongoing trials related to the 2016 Rhoden family massacre was the last statement made by Pike County Court of Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering.
Despite the potential for at least one final snag, before he banged the gavel for adjournment of the nearly three-hour hearing, Deering stated the first day of a jury trial for Rita Jo Newcomb, 65, still is set for 8:30 a.m. Oct. 21.
Newcomb’s trial for perjury, obstruction of justice and three counts of forgery may hold the key to the entire mystery of the Rhoden murders.
Prior to Deering putting in place a gag order preventing attorneys and others connected with the case from speaking to the media, prosecutors indicated a custody battle over the daughter of murder suspect Edward “Jake” Wagner and murder victim Hanna Rhoden possibly was the motive for the murders. Newcomb’s forgery charges stem from her allegedly creating or notarizing phony custody documents for the girl.
Newcomb walked free out of the pretrial hearing held in Deering’s Pike county courtroom. After what Deering initially said would be a 10-minute recess than ended up lasting more than an hour, the judge rejected a prosecution motion to revoke Newcomb’s bond. Prosecutors argued Newcomb violated the conditions of her house arrest by having repeated conversations with her daughter and one of the four other murder suspects, Angela Wagner.
Special Prosecutor Angela Canepa told Deering Newcomb and her daughter held extensive conversations taped by personnel at the jail where Angela Wagner is incarcerated awaiting trial. Canepa further said during those conversations both sides acknowledged they should not be talking to each other, but did so anyway. Deering months ago barred Newcomb from having any contact with any of the suspects in the case, all of whom, with one exception, are members of her immediate family.
Canepa insisted the conversations between Newcomb and Angela Wagner were substantial and involved the ongoing trials. She talked about how Angela Wagner urged her mother to use certain “buzzwords” when talking about any custody papers. Canepa added that 11 of 13 calls between Newcomb and her daughter in the months of June and July included discussions about the Rhoden cases.
In the end, while Deering said he took violations of the conditions of Newcomb’s house arrest seriously, he did not revoke house arrest. Instead, Deering said he was expanding the communication ban to include any phone calls between any of the suspects in the Rhoden case and the South Webster home where Newcomb lives with her mother. Deering said the ban applies to incoming or outgoing calls on the home’s landline, as well as Newcomb’s cell phone.
Neither Canepa nor Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk made any objections to Deering’s ruling.
Newcomb’s attorney, former Portsmouth Mayor Franklin Gerlach, successfully lobbied the judge for leniency on his client. Deering promised that any further violations brought to his attention will result in Newcomb spending time behind bars prior to her October trial. Deering gave no reason for his leniency. Attorneys for both sides and the presiding judge spent most of the long recess huddled behind closed doors.
“I thank you for giving me a chance,” Newcomb told the judge just prior to adjournment of the pretrial.
While Newcomb walked out of the courtroom a free woman, Wednesday was not without its losses for her and her defense team. After hearing contested testimony from Newcomb and a sheriff’s office administrative secretary – who acted as a court reporter during Newcomb’s appearance in front of a Pike County grand jury – Deering overturned Gerlach’s motion to dismiss the charges against his client because of supposed irregularities in the grand jury process.
Deering said he remained unconvinced any irregularities existed, let alone problems serious enough to result in the dismissal of charges. Deering also ruled against Gerlach’s request to dismiss or move Newcomb’s forgery trial out of Pike County because he alleged Pike County is not the proper jurisdiction for the hearing of both those charges.
According to her attorney, it is unclear where Newcomb allegedly forged the documents involved in the case. Gerlach repeatedly stated the prosecution seems unable, or unwilling, to come up with an exact location where the alleged forgery took place.
According to the motion Gerlach filed, “The custody documents in question in the indictment do not indicate where the alleged forgery took place. At all times relevant, defendant was a resident in Scioto County and did not have transportation to Pike County.”
Deering handed Newcomb and her attorney one other victory, ruling in favor of the defense and ordering prosecutors turn over a full transcript of Newcomb’s grand jury testimony. Canepa unsuccessfully argued the defense team had a right only to testimony relevant to the counts against Newcomb and not any additional testimony possibly related to the Rhoden murders.
Deering slated one more motion hearing prior to Newcomb’s scheduled four-day jury trial. On Oct. 7, Deering said he will hear arguments regarding redacted documents turned over to the defense by prosecutors.
Gerlach argued he is entitled to the complete documents in question. He also said he would like removal of a prohibition naming the documents as for attorney’s eyes only. Gerlach argued that prohibition prevents him from gaining comment on those documents from his client and possibly others. Deering indicated he expects attorneys for both sides to try to work out that issue prior to Oct.7, meaning Newcomb’s next day in court would be the beginning of her full-blown trial — the first in the Rhoden saga.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-370-0715.