PIKETON, Ohio — From her house on Union Hill Road, Brittany Barker heard the first sirens first thing in the morning. She looked out and saw four police vehicles rush past. That was only the beginning.
“They just kept coming, kept coming, and kept coming,” she recalled.
Authorities in this struggling corner of Appalachia were dealing with what turned out to be one of the worst mass killings in Ohio history: Eight family members were shot to death at four homes scattered across a few miles of countryside in what investigators have portrayed as a meticulously planned “execution.” Nearly all were shot repeatedly — one, nine times — and some were also beaten.
What looked to some people like a feud within a family, possibly a murder-suicide, soon took on a more sinister cast when authorities disclosed a large-scale illegal marijuana growing operation at one of the crime scenes and said pot was being cultivated at some of the other homes, too. Ohio’s attorney general also said there were signs of cockfighting at one of the properties.
Nearly a week after the killings, though, authorities have announced no arrests and no motive, an unsettling silence considering the huge investigative force brought to bear in this thinly populated county where many people either knew the victims or knew of them.
Since the discovery of the bodies April 22, over 215 law enforcement officers have been involved in the investigation, with several hundred tips received and more than 50 people interviewed.
Attorney General Mike DeWine has said he doesn’t want to telegraph the killer or killers what investigators know.
Relatives of the victims said they were surprised by the marijuana. Some neighbors said they had heard rumors. And some said the marijuana-growing was a case of courting trouble.
“If you don’t go around bad places, the odds of something bad happening to you are pretty slim,” said Ron Lucas, a paper-mill worker who lives a few miles from where the killings took place.
But Angie Tolliver, a home health aide, said that whatever connection drugs may have had to the slayings, “Nobody deserves that. That’s just evil.”
Large marijuana operations are common in Pike County, scene of the killings. Authorities in 2012 said the seizure of about 1,200 plants in Pike County could be related to a Mexican drug cartel, while in 2010 more than 22,000 plants were confiscated. Marijuana is grown widely in parts of southern Ohio, where the dense forests and rural roads make it easy to hide the crop, and where many people need the money.
While the cleanup of a shuttered Cold War-era uranium plant employs hundreds of people in some of the best-paying jobs around town, about one-fifth of Pike County’s 28,000 residents live in poverty, and the area roughly 80 miles east of Cincinnati consistently has some of Ohio’s highest unemployment and drug-overdose death rates.
Investigators won’t say if the killings are related to the marijuana, and law enforcement officials not associated with the investigation cast doubt on any cartel connection, saying there are no signs of it in Ohio.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati-area restaurateur Jeff Ruby tweeted Thursday that he is withdrawing the $25,000 reward he had offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction. He cited “recent complex criminal developments.” A message left with his spokeswoman was not immediately returned.
The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 16-year-old Christopher Jr., 19-year-old Hanna and 20-year-old Clarence, or “Frankie”; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; their cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden; and 20-year-old Hannah Gilley, whose 6-month old son with Frankie Rhoden was unharmed.
Two other children, Hanna Rhoden’s 4-day-old daughter and Frankie Rhoden’s 3-year-old son, also were unharmed.
Neighbors accustomed to leaving doors open are settling into a nervous new reality. Gone is the sound of the loud truck that Frankie Rhoden used to drive up and down Union Hill Road. Sheriff’s deputies sit round-the-clock in cruisers on either end of the hilly road, keeping out everyone but residents, approved visitors and investigators.
Roads in the area cut through slowly greening forests sprinkled with the white petals of early-blooming dogwood trees. Trailers surrounded by jumbles of cars, propane tanks and tractors sit side-by-side with neat, well-kept homes. Steer grazing on pastures share the landscape with old family cemeteries.
Guns are a staple in these wooded hills, where neighbors say they wouldn’t think twice about opening fire if an unfamiliar figure showed up with a weapon. A $10 fund-raising raffle for a local Masonic lodge offers a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle as first prize.
Some people in the area said they are scared, but most seem to believe the victims were targeted and the killers long gone.
“Somebody that slaughters a whole family wouldn’t stay here,” said Ray Goldsberry.
Law enforcement authorities have pretty much suggested the same thing, though Sheriff Charles Reader said: “If you are fearful, arm yourself.”
Dozens of officers from outside the county have come to town, helping the beleaguered sheriff’s office with patrol duties. At calling hours Wednesday at the Kentucky funeral home where Gary Rhoden lay, several state troopers and sheriff’s deputies stood guard at the front door.
Family members “really want their privacy. And a lot of them are scared,” said Lisa Wallace, Gary Rhoden’s former sister-in-law. She said he was a harmless person whose killer or killers were cowards.
“Hurting Gary was like kicking a dog,” she said.
Barker, the neighbor who saw the first emergency vehicles scream past, said that if she were in any danger, she probably would have been killed the night of the slayings. But she also said her peaceful surroundings don’t feel like home now.
“It just feels kind of strange knowing that they’re not there anymore,” she said.