“You must purge the evil from among you
… Do not leave alive anything that breathes.”
- Deuteronomy 17:7, 20:16
You heard gunshots all the time in Pike County. People shot coyotes. They shot into the sky to call back dogs who’d run into the woods. Sometimes people even stalked from bed and shot blind into the dark because they couldn’t sleep. In these hills, people honked hello when they passed each other’s driveways; at church the pastor sang “Satan” to indicate the devil himself and the human capacity for sin in general.
On Friday, April 22, 2016, sometime before dawn, a series of at least thirty-one gunshots woke several dogs on Union Hill Road in Piketon, a rural Ohio community. Owners told them to stop barking.
Forty-year-old Chris Rhoden Sr. and his ex-wife, Dana Manley Rhoden, lived in separate trailers less than a mile down Union Hill Road from one another. Chris Sr.’s property was equipped with security cameras. Their eldest son, twenty-year-old Frankie Rhoden, lived next door to his dad in his own trailer, with his blonde, bespectacled fiancée, twenty-year-old Hannah Gilley, and their six-month-old son, Ruger. Dana and Chris Sr.’s other children (sixteen-year-old Chris Rhoden Jr., nineteen-year-old Hanna Rhoden) and grandbabies (Hanna’s daughters: Sophia and Kylie—two years old, and five days old, respectively) lived with Dana. A festive, three-dollar Walmart wreath hung from their front door.
Dana’s family dominated Union Hill Road’s limited real estate; if you turned right out of her driveway, you’d run into her ex-husband, son, future daughter-in-law and grandson; if you turned left, you’d find Dana’s parents, Leonard and Judy Manley, in a trailer a two minute drive away. Dana’s sister Bobby lived on Union Hill Road, too.
Bobby had done chores for Dana and Chris Rhoden Sr., and gave rides to anyone who called. People took advantage; her father Leonard calls her “naïve.” “She’s thirty-six—thirty-eight years old? I can’t remember. But she’s got the heart of a kid,” he said.
On the morning of April 22, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bobby picked up her friend and his wife and headed to her former brother-in-law’s place to complete some chores. At Chris Rhoden Sr.’s property, she left her phone charging in the car, and lowered her heavy frame onto the gravel. Hungry chickens chortled at her from their A-frame tents. She turned and saw that Chris Sr.’s pit bulls were loose. Confused, she walked to Chris Sr.’s private trailer, found the front door locked, and reached for a spare key.
In the days to follow, her relative access made people wonder.
Bobby’s first thought could have been the smell: metal and damp, like pennies clutched too long in a sweaty palm. She went down the hallway, yelling “Rhoden?” She found her sister’s ex-husband on the floor, bloodied and still, covered up. Blood caked the carpet and Bobby saw Chris Sr.’s cousin Gary Rhoden, who’d apparently been visiting, lying on the floor, too. She started to hyperventilate. She ran back to her truck, screaming for her phone.
9-1-1 operators received her frantic call at 7:49 a.m. In shock, Bobby cried that it looked “like someone had beaten the hell out of them…blood all over the house!” She couldn’t remember the street number and went to the mailbox, “4077” scrawled in red paint on the side, and relayed Chris Sr.’s address to officials.
Bobby bolted from the blood-spattered trailer to her nephew Frankie’s place. The door was locked there too. According to The Enquirer, when no one answered, Bobby fell into a trance as she screamed and banged on the trailer. She heard a lock turn.
Frankie’s three-year-old boy, Brentley, stared up at her. The night before, according to the Columbus Dispatch, Frankie’s ex, Chelsea Robinson, had dropped off their son to spend time with his father.
“Where’s your Daddy?” Bobby said, according to The Enquirer. The boy pointed and she nudged open the bedroom door, smelling pennies again.
She processed the rest in blinking snippets: Hannah Gilley’s pale hair stained red on the pillow, her left breast protruding from the nursing bra; baby Ruger, covered head-to-toe in blood, lying squashed between his dead parents, tiredly petting Frankie’s sticky chest, trying to nurse his mother.
Bobby forced herself to pry Ruger from the grisly marriage bed. She put her hoodie on Brentley, and led the little boys away.
Law enforcement arrived and began to question Bobby. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Brentley’s mother, Chelsea, came to get him, and made the forty-five minute drive in twenty.
According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bobby’s older brother James found their sister Dana dead in her trailer. Officers found Hanna Rhoden’s four-day-old newborn, Kylie, wriggling unharmed near her mother’s corpse. Hanna’s other daughter, two-year-old Sophia, was staying with relatives.
At this point, the number of gunshot wounds totaled at least thirty-one, and unless every shot hit its mark, even more than that had been fired. Chris was shot in the torso, extremities, and head. His cousin Gary was shot multiple times in the head, as were Frankie and Hannah Gilley. Down the road, Dana, Hanna Rhoden, and Chris Jr. had also been killed execution style, suffering multiple cranial gunshot wounds.
They must have known the dogs, Leonard says. The animals were vicious, and would have attacked anyone unfamiliar.
That same day, operators received another 9-1-1 call, this time from Donald Stone, Chris Sr.’s cousin on his mother’s side. Donny explained in monotone that, after seeing the news, he’d looked in on Chris Sr.’s brother, Kenneth Rhoden—“to check if he was all right.”
Compared to Bobby’s tearful hyperventilation, and despite the closeness implied by his checking on Kenneth in the first place, Donny, though rattled, remained calm throughout the call. He explained in a hollow voice that he’d gone in “hollering,” and had “looked up” to see Kenneth who “had a gunshot wound.” It was as if he had spotted Kenneth on the ceiling.
At the press conference held that afternoon, Pike County’s sheriff, Charles Reader, welcomed media and told them that child services, “and, of course, the Pike County Coroner” were working on the case. He announced only the barest details.
Chris Sr. had been one of nine children, who now had multiple children and grandchildren. Around 150 relatives gathered at Union Hill Church that afternoon for consolation. The church and locals would eventually raise $10,000 for the family.
According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, on Sunday morning, at around 3:45 a.m., officers dragged Bobby from bed and led her from her trailer to their squad cars. Five other people were questioned around the same time. As Bobby struggled to stay awake, they demanded to know what time had she really arrived at the property.
Five weeks after the massacre, while Bobby looked forward to her first official polygraph test, I sat down across from her at church.
The Rhoden Massacre marked the largest mass gun killing in the country so far that year, and in the midst of ensuing panic, area schools were on lock-down. Authorities hauled between one hundred and one hundred and fifty cars from Chris Sr.’s property. Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said he suspected more than one person executed the killings. Family members said that anyone wanting to sneak up on the Rhodens might have parked on the shoulder of the highway and made their way up backwoods trails that snaked through the hill and forked into residents’ yards.
At first, the county was afraid. A Cincinnati restaurant owner posted a reward of $25,000 for anyone with information leading to an arrest. Union Hill Church’s Pastor Phil visited Bobby equipped with a prayer book and a teddy bear. She felt the police wouldn’t listen to her—they said she wasn’t getting her facts straight—so she gathered up the courage to give interviews to The Cincinnati Enquirer, telling reporters that she used to clean Kenneth Rhoden’s trailer from time to time, and had seen security cameras set up around his house, just like at Chris Sr.’s.
Down the street from Leonard and Judy’s, cops patrolled blockades on either end of Union Hill Road, keeping reporters at bay. Individuals from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation were there, and the number of BCI working the case totaled more than ninety people, around one-quarter of BCI’s overall staff. “My guess is by the time this is done it will be the biggest investigation BCI has ever done,” said Attorney General Mike DeWine, who would go on to compare the unsolved case to a five hundred and later, a one thousand piece jigsaw puzzle.
Two days after the bodies were found, DeWine said investigators found three “marijuana grow operations” at two of the four crime scenes. News outlets asked if the crimes were tied up with the Mexican Cartel, and locals channeled gossip that Chris Sr.’s family had been drug users—though Dana Manley Rhoden had undergone routine drug tests from her employer. Aside from the marijuana development, officials released very little information. “We will not be telegraphing or telling the bad guys everything that we know,” DeWine said.
But, as weeks passed without an arrest, locals accused DeWine and the Sheriff’s Department of moving too slowly. Without new information on which to base fresh stories, media coverage of the case centered increasingly on cartoonish portraits of the Rhoden family, cobbled together based on interviews with toothless rivals. The Daily Beast reported that, prior to their deaths, Chris Jr. and Frankie Rhoden took more than a dozen friends to the home of a demolition derby opponent, where they beat down Tommy Jr., and knocked out his dad Tommy Sr.’s teeth. (“At least he had false teeth,” said Tommy Sr.’s son Richard. “He was able to superglue them back in.”) Anonymous commentators on Reddit expressed boredom: “Summary: A bunch of hicks/white trash got into a brawl, thought they were badass [and] were out-badassed by others with guns,” one concluded.
Basic elements of the case were now changing article to article. The Dayton Daily News reported that Chris Sr.’s cousin, Gary Rhoden, was found splayed at Chris Jr.’s feet, when, actually, Chris Jr. and Gary were found in separate trailers. An article in the New York Daily News said Bobby discovered her sister, when really she’d come upon her ex-brother in-law and her nephew. The Daily Mail published an exclusive saying that Donald Stone had found one thousand dollars in cash scattered across the legs of Chris Sr.’s brother, Kenneth.
In light of mounting suspicion that the Rhodens were drug dealers, the Cincinnati restaurateur retracted his $25,000 reward for information relating to the case. Thereafter, coverage dwindled to almost nothing.
I brought Allis to Pike County because she was the closest thing I could get to a fixer. Unlike me, she was extroverted, normal, remembered things, and people liked her. No matter how hard I smiled, the contrast between her easy Southern Ohio drawl and my bland, pan-American accent made me sound discouragingly prim—or, as one derby goer would accurately put it, like a stuck-up bitch.
Despite years of arduous, self-imposed diction classes, Allis, who grew up in Southern Indiana, could still, albeit reluctantly, turn on her thick southern accent. “My family ate road kill off the tires,” she told me. “We played the upright bass at Christmas.” Also, she carried a knife, which seemed like a good thing because we were headed to an area where, technically, there was a killer on the loose.
Unfortunately, people would not return my phone calls, which Allis cited as further proof of my needing her help. Allis went on paleontological digs, made tons of money when she wanted to by consulting on tricky business maneuvers, and occasionally taxidermied her friends’ pets. She knew everything. “You don’t just cold call people,” she said. “You show up, you smile, you offer them a pack of cigarettes.”
We arrived in Ohio over Memorial Day weekend, the first official holiday since the massacre. The Rhodens had been dead for five weeks, and Sheriff Reader had yet to make an arrest. I wanted to see how people in such a cloistered place were coping.
I’d grown up in a small village, too: Thiensville, Wisconsin, population 3,200—“the Square Mile of Smiles.” So I could only imagine what people in southern Ohio must be going through; in my neighborhood, if an entire family were killed, vigils would continue until murderers were caught, and if five weeks passed without a single arrest, rabid PTA committees would scramble to shame someone into action. I prepared myself for angry, sloppy tears, and mournful outrage. I thought such a shattering crime must have arrested the entire state.
Allis and I kept up to speed on Topix.com, a website for inquisitive and hateful snoops to anonymously slander their neighbors, which pointlessly ruins lives. Several threads were devoted to the Rhoden murders, and had veered off into new speculative territory: In addition to the Daily Beast article about Frankie Rhoden and Chris Jr.’s violent altercation with derby rivals, people on Topix were whispering, based on a Daily Mail interview with a relative, that Frankie Rhoden owned a derby car worth a couple thousand dollars.
Later, with her feet on the dash of our rental car, Allis turned to me and asked, “Can you make a citizen’s arrest if it’s homicide?”
“This isn’t Murder, She Wrote,” I said. “I mean, I want it to be Murder, She Wrote, because I love Murder, She Wrote, but we’re not here to catch anybody—this is more of, like, a feelings-y piece, I want to talk to people about emotions—”
She made a farting noise, and told me to exit at the fairgrounds. We were headed straight from the airport to Smash-It-Bash-It Bash 4 Cash, a huge demolition derby event located midway between Cincinnati and Pike County, to see what derby fans thought of the recent rumors.
Smash-It-Bash-It was a mud pit framed by concrete barricades and flanked on either side by stadium bleachers. Thousands of people from Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere had come to watch boxes destroy themselves.
Everyone there wore bright neon or camouflage—actual camouflage; the kind carefully tinted to blend with mucky trenches—dappling the risers with radioactive blue, pink, yellow, and sludge-brown. From far away, the bleachers looked like a rotting bouquet of dyed daisies.
The rules were last man standing—whichever crumpled car ran longest, won. To make it fair, derby drivers were required to hit each other every sixty seconds. The grand prize was $11,000.
While Allis made fast friends, I let my sneakers sink into the muck, feeling self-conscious as I wondered whether I’d arrived to report too soon after the terrible tragedy. What if people were offended by my questions? What if I was harassing mourners?
“I don’t give a fuck about those people,” announced Kyle, the only man I met at Smash-It-Bash-It who remembered the Rhodens by name. As we talked, a re-fabbed orange Toyota spun its wheels between two smoking wrecks, kicking asteroids of dirt into the air. Women held blankets over toddlers to shield them from the flying mud. A short, pimply boy whose dentures were askew approached us, hollering, and Kyle pushed him away.
When I asked Kyle about the Rhoden Massacre, he said, “No one cares about white trash.” He said I was there to cover “old news,” and suggested I write about something important, like his deer farm—“a farm where I raise deer and guys pay me to come shoot them—what are you, fucking retarded? You don’t know what a deer farm is?”
“Write about my dick,” he said.
“It’s only been five weeks, though—aren’t you hurting? Aren’t you scared?” I said. I repeated what I’d told Allis on the plane, explained that I was there to do “sort of a feelings-y piece” about how Pike Countians were coping in the wake of a major tragedy.
In response, Kyle dragged on a cigarette from one hand and chugged beer with the other, exhaling with a burp. When I pressed him for answers, a woman reached down from her perch on a golf cart to flick me in the head.
“She do not like you,” Kyle muttered.
I kicked muck off my shoes against a child-sized, confederate-flag-decorated four-wheeler and went to find someone who, unlike Kyle, was not so drunk. But the elderly woman tapping her cigarette into a Dr. Pepper, and the family crouched on their golf cart for a better view, and the men selling giant chrome engines near the deep fryer all said the same thing about the Rhodens: no one worth anything associated with people like that. Onlookers warned me to prepare myself for extreme poverty.
“Rich city girl like you,” they said, shaking their heads. “One look at the crime scenes, and you’re gonna get your butt kicked into your heart.”
“Blood?” I said.
“Did you know them?” I kept asking.
“Hell no,” they said.
They seemed to think that’s where the Rhodens were now: hell. But I found them beneath strips of soil packed with straw to help the grass grow, within eyeshot of a giant tombstone emblazoned with the last name JUSTICE. Dana and Chris Sr. had been submerged side-by-side with their children Frankie, Hanna and Chris Jr. sunken at their feet. In lieu of headstones, which came at additional cost, each person’s name had been spelled out on plastic cards stuck into the ground. The display looked particularly meager in comparison to the Rhodens’ newest neighbors, the Donleys, whose joint tombstone was etched with illustrations of a motorcycle and a pair of hands clutching a cross. On the lip of the monument balanced a burly and probably expensive garden gnome, customized to look like Elvis.
Status of any kind requires outcasts, and even in the depressed Pike County region, Piketon residents were considered poor, making them easy scapegoats for an impoverished community eager to establish a social hierarchy. Nearly twenty percent of Pike Countians under sixty-five were disabled. The nearby cabinet factory shut down years ago, and 1,200 people were laid off in a county populated by approximately 28,200. People shared trailers with in-laws and extended family, and the median household income was less than $40,000 per year. Residents said working at the Uranium plant, one of the main sources of employment in the area, gave you cancer.
Locals I spoke to called the Rhoden family “rough” and “country,” a group “without any manners,” who were “fighting constantly.” For his part, Chris Sr. fixed and bought cars. He grew weed, hauled gravel, raised dogs and chickens. Leonard says there was no real roof on his trailer—it was just a box. Leonard and Judy, who lived just down the road, seemed even worse off. Bobby worked in exchange for friendship and Leonard scraped by on manual labor: a tree branch injured his neck and the hospital stuck a pole up his spine.
It wasn’t the first time a tree fell on the Manleys; Leonard’s dad cut timber and died on the job in 1973. Leonard found the corpse in the woods and carried it about a mile to the house.
Allis had forgotten her knife. So we went from Smash-It-Bash-It to the nearest Walmart, where she planned to buy a gun.
“Ugh, they don’t have any,” she said, dropping two pink canisters of pepper spray on the Hunting and Fishing counter. Behind the cash register, a flat screen TV played videos of wild turkeys getting shot, on loop. Next to us, a pregnant teenager and her boyfriend surveyed knives. The girl wanted a bone handled one, but her boyfriend kept shaking his head.
“You’ll cut off your fingers,” he said—a comment that seemed condescending until he held up his hands to reveal several missing digits.
On the way out, I found myself dawdling in the aisle for memorial garlands and fake funeral flowers. “Do all Walmarts have these?” I asked Allis. “Or do people in Pike County die more often, necessitating special supplies?”
“Quit being weird,” she said.
Back on the US-23, red, white and blue flashed in our rearview mirror, and Allis cursed at me for speeding.
“I can be a mean guy, or I can be a nice guy,” the trooper said when I rolled down my window.
I smiled at myself in his reflective sunglasses and said I’d much prefer he be a nice guy. He gave me a ninety-dollar seatbelt violation, then leaned against the car and asked where we were going.
“Piketon,“ I said.
“Why?” He said.
I explained our purpose, and he shook his head. “Bedbugs.”
“No, not that motel—I saw that one on Trip Advisor. We’re booked at the Comfort Inn.”
“You better hurry,” he added, scanning the sky. “Sun’s about to set.” He explained that it wasn’t safe to go out at night in Piketon; we should go straight to our motel room, and lock ourselves inside. Again, I thought this advice was predicated on killers being loose. But when I asked if that’s what it meant, he scoffed.
“You mean that druggie family, gotten themselves murdered?” he said.
The trooper admitted that he didn’t know much about that stuff, or about the Rhoden case—they “had BCI guys … over from out of town handling that part.” He gestured expansively to the endless highway, flanked by multitudes of billboards advertising tip lines for reporting pilled out drivers and emblazoned with the names of addiction treatment centers. He told us that US-23 was a drug route. Drug dealers and users stayed at the Comfort Inn, where we were headed. He pointed across the highway to a boarded up red building, which essentially marked the entrance to Pike County. “That’s a heroin den,” he said. “And people in Piketon are scrot bags.”
I nodded, reaching for my reporter’s notebook. “Scrot bags, as in scrotum?”
After a long silence, he told me I could pay the ticket over the phone, and went back to his car. Allis imitated me for the next hour, in a British accent—“Erm, excuse me, sir?”—and with an increasingly Shakespearian affect—“Art thou to mean, scrotum?”
Piketon itself was tiny—2,000 or so people—and even though the sun was only just setting, the residential streets were empty. We ignored the trooper’s advice about dusk out of hunger. The only place open had some plaques on the wall, commemorating kids in the area who’d died over the years, but nothing for the Rhodens. The employee who handed us our pizzas said they weren’t allowed to talk about it.
“Why?” I said.
“Because it’s bad for business.”
“Best to just move on,” she said, indicating one of the memorial plaques, inscribed with a poem titled “Miss Me But Let Me Go”—
Miss me a little—but not too long
And not with your head bowed low…
It’s all part of the Master’s plan
A step on the road to home—
“Wow,” Allis said, pretending to look at her watch, “Yeah, five weeks, that’s definitely too long to remember anybody.”
The pizza lady smiled, glad we understood.
The next morning, at Union Hill Church, Allis quickly befriended the entire congregation. When the girl sitting in front of us found out we were there, in part, to try to talk to the pastor, she laughed—“I’m his granddaughter! Jessica”—and started snapping her fingers at an older, smiling gentleman, loping down the aisle in an American Flag tie.
“Hey,” she hissed, snapping. “Phil!”
She snapped some more.
“He’s a little deaf,” she explained to us.
Pastor Phil spotted her and bounded to meet us with his hand outstretched. He agreed to talk to me after the service. Then he took his place on stage, backdropped by a mural of Jesus standing in the Appalachian foothills. Phil’s wife jammed on the piano in time with his prayer announcements.
We were instructed to pray for all the little girls in Pike who had cancer, and the small boy with a tumor, and for several other residents who, like Phil, had prostate cancer.
“Manleys, three o’clock,” Allis hissed.
Across the aisle from us, Bobby sat with her parents, Leonard and Judy. All three stared straight ahead, watching impassively as the prayer requests closed without mentioning their family.
A projector screen lowered from the ceiling, covering Jesus’s face. The young pretty Jessica and her cousin climbed the plush, maroon-carpeted stage, grabbed microphones, and updated the congregation about the cousin’s recent mission trip to Sweden. Then they began singing about Satan, lulling Bobby to sleep.
If I’d stay on my knees /
When Satan wants me /
Then he’d have to walk through the blood!
Allis snorted, but much to her chagrin, the song was actually very catchy, and for anyone who didn’t think so, lyrics flashed provocatively on a projector screen. It only took a few verses until we both joined in, full voice, belting out the final lines of each section with vibrato, with solemnity and splendor: “The blood!”
“Christ,” Allis cursed. “There goes Leonard—I think the family’s bolting. Stay here!” While she put in the legwork, I held a stranger’s baby and clapped his hands while Pastor Phil praised God, kicked the air, and entranced us with his dance moves. Jessica whispered to me that once, when they were kids, her brother had tried to imitate Phil’s “Christian Dynamism,” and ended up kicking himself in the face, “blood everywhere.”
“IS IT WELL WITH YOUR SOUL?” Phil shouted.
He leapt from the stage, and, in turn, dozens of parishioners leapt from their pews, moved by The Spirit. Mumbling their own impromptu prayers, they surrounded him, hands on each other’s shoulders—and as his wife continued pounding the piano, Pastor Phil disappeared shouting in the huddle. I stayed for bible study until Allis got back, and then Pastor Phil and Jessica walked us into the parking lot.
“I got arrested once, you know,” he said.
“Why would anyone arrest you,” Allis said lovingly. “You’re a peach.”
He blushed. “I had these Ten Commandments, sort of shaped like gravestones, and I set them up on all the schoolyards, and the state ordered me to take them down, so I knelt in front of them.”
He shook our hands, echoing those we’d met at Smash-It as he gently warned us that we should prepare ourselves, emotionally, for the sight of Leonard’s trailer.
“You haven’t seen that sort of poverty before,” he said, beeping his van unlocked. “Jess?”
“I’m coming,” Jessica said, turning back to us.
“You can go see those crime scenes while you’re over there at Leonard’s,” she whispered rapidly, squeezing us goodbye. “The roadblock’s down because they took away those trailers, so now you can just drive right in. People say there’s barbed wire, and NO TRESPASSING signs from the hardware store, but that just means they’re allowed to shoot you if they catch you, and most of the people who would shoot you are already dead anyway, so—”
She put a hand over her mouth, catching herself.
“What I mean is: I don’t think you can get arrested. It’s sort of like a museum until some hillbilly chases you away.”
When they drove off, Allis turned to me.
“Good thing you brought your running shoes.”
We hated ourselves for gawking at the crime scenes, but did it anyway. Union Hill Road was deserted. Most of the people who lived there were busy that afternoon with the high school graduation. Later we learned the school had set out a chair in honor of Hanna. Her grandparents, Leonard and Judy, were there, one of their many other grandchildren was graduating that day. They watched as administrators called every other senior to the stage, but discreetly skipped over Hanna. Not one person who spoke into the microphone mentioned her name.
Investigators had hauled away the trailers, leaving behind disconnected wooden steps and cock-eyed porches. Like Dana Manley’s grave, the rectangle of soft earth where her trailer used to be sat naked. No flowers marked the site except for the fake, three-dollar wreath that had fallen from her door when law enforcement lifted the house away. I recognized the garland from the discount shelf in the funeral aisle at Walmart; she’d marked her home with cheap decorations for the dead.
Down the road at Chris Sr. and Frankie’s upturned properties, where Bobby had found four of the eight bodies, investigators had packed up certain things and tossed out others. I saw an empty bag of dog kibble stuffed into a child’s broken playpen, a plastic storage bin filled with balled up yellow caution tape, and a dead man’s shoe. It had been five weeks since the murders, and two weeks since the trailers were removed, and no one had picked up the pieces.
That night, we fed our depression at Denny’s Doghouse, a dive bar in nearby Waverley, where I asked the two drunk men sitting next to us why nobody remembered the Rhodens.
“I heard the one discovered them’s retarded,” one said.
“Whoa!” Allis yelled.
“I think that retard did it,” the other said.
“No, she couldn’t have exactly because she’s retarded,” the first one countered.
The bartender pushed two rusty Altoids tins in front of Allis and me in case we needed ashtrays, and turned up the TV overhead.
“Well, look at that,” the bartender said, turning up the volume. “Can you believe it?”
A small boy had fallen into the gorilla cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, and officials, out of fear for the boy’s safety, had shot the animal dead.
“Not right,” one of the drunks said, shaking his head—and a conversation ensued about the ethics of killing the gorilla. Everyone thought it was wrong, and sad, and that the mother should have watched the boy better.
I asked if anyone found it strange that we were wrapped up in a conversation about a dead gorilla when eight human beings were dead and a killer was at large?”
“Oh honey,” the bartender said. He and the drunks mistook my questions as concern for my own physical safety, and told me not to worry. They reassured me that, given the targeted nature of the crime, no one else would get hurt.
“They pissed off the wrong people,” the bartender said, blaming the victims. I wondered if it was a coping strategy—maybe locals were trying to distract themselves from the fact that there was a fugitive at large by pretending the Rhodens brought it on themselves?
Allis put money on the table and told me she’d meet me at the car.
“It’s compassion fatigue,” she said when I slid into the driver’s seat. “People can only care about one thing at a time, and today it’s the gorilla. It stopped being the Rhodens a long time ago.”
Leonard Manley said Pike County police had spent the five weeks since the grisly murders bothering him and his family. We were standing at the edge of Leonard’s driveway, so close to where his daughter, Dana, had been brutally murdered. “You can come here and say 100,000 words but it ain’t gonna bring Dana back and it ain’t going to make me feel any better,” he said.
But Allis joked with the grieving Leonard until he giggled. On the way over we’d picked up balloons and sparklers at the Dollar Store. There were some little kids at Leonard and Judy’s place and we chatted with them, offering our gifts.
“If it was Mexican, they’d have chopped you up in little bitty pieces, killed them dogs, and killed them babies, too,” said Leonard.
“Yep,” said Allis.
“If they go after you, they kill everything in [their] path, and most time, they burn it up to pieces,” said Leonard. “Whoever done this must have had a little bit of mercy for them three babies … I don’t think anyone in their right mind would shoot someone in the face [when] their baby is nursing them.”
“Yep,” said Allis.
He told us we’d be surprised by how much had been covered up in Pike County. Only one incident report had been filed on the case. It described the scene at Chris Rhoden Sr.’s trailer, and the bodies found there, but said nothing of the three other crime scenes. (When asked, a representative from the attorney general’s office said that the other crime scenes were so similar that filing additional reports seemed unnecessary.) The whole thing was “screwy,” Leonard said, emphasizing to me that cartel had nothing to do with this, but the organized nature of the crime pointed to someone smart. “If you get digging here in Pike County, you’d be surprised how much has been covered up,” he continued.
“Cops is really stupid,” he added, “When it comes down to common sense, they ain’t got none.”
I asked him what happened to his hand—he was missing a finger—and he gestured to some crumpled dirt trackers rusting out back. He’d been working on “one like that” when his finger got pinched. He turned to show us the scar that stretched down his spine from when the tree limb fell on him.
About an hour later, Bobby’s truck tires crunched the gravel. She spotted the Memorial Day balloons intended for the children and smiled lopsidedly.
She picked up the balloons and crossed the grass to join us.
Bobby started talking about a polygraph the police wanted her to take. The polygraph was voluntary, but she said of course she’d agreed to one. Allis told her she should have a lawyer present.
“Don’t need no lawyer,” Leonard said. “Just let them do their thing and once she gets through with that lie detector test, then she can do something about it. Hey Bobby, tell her what they been asking you.”
“How much someone paid me to kill my family,” she said. We told her that sounded hard, that we would have wanted to cry.
“I did cry,” she said. “I jumped up and I was wanting to deck them, but I caught myself just in time.”
Then she began to tell us the story of the crime scene. “I walked in,” Bobby said, “I found my brother-in-law dead. He’s covered up. I pulled the cover up and said, ‘Rhoden, Rhoden’—”
I watched Leonard wander off, looking uncomfortable as he pretended to consider some grime on the side of his trailer.
“—I saw his cousin laying there and went up to my nephew’s house. That three-year-old let me in there. I asked him where his dad was, he pointed to the bedroom.”
She was hyperventilating, looking delirious, as if talking about the bodies had transported her back into the bloody trailers, and now she was trapped.
“Six-month-old baby covered head-to-toe in blood, going like this to his daddy”—she pet the air—“… her left boob was out when I went there and found them … I got Dad here and no one’s going to touch me, and I’ve got Mom.”
The next day, I visited Sherriff Reader in his office, and asked him about the polygraph. “Wow,” Reader said, blinking hard. He admitted that he hadn’t known about it; he’d called in big city guys from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and they were leading the investigation. Their expertise outstripped his. “You got all these people that are very well educated and they’re sitting there, telling the Sheriff of the county, ‘Hey, it’s our first time too … we’ve never handled anything like this!’”
In September, a local Ohio news channel reapproached the redacted autopsies, this time analyzing why the bodies arrived at the medical examiner’s with paper bags over the hands. Crime scene investigators bag victim’s hands to preserve any DNA evidence that might exist, but the investigative team at Cincinnati’s WCPO argued instead that the killers could have put the bags on the Rhoden’s hands prior to killing them, pointing to a team of assassins so thorough that they kept their victims’ fingernails clean.
In October, investigators said they now think this was a local job, finally discrediting rumors that whoever murdered the Rhodens was some out-of-town psychopath or Mexican cartel assassin. Locals reported thinking very little of the crimes. The massacre had drifted out of their collective memory, they said, and people felt safe. When asked how they managed to feel secure in a place where, in a single night, eight related people had been wiped out in their various homes, residents reiterated what Pike Countians had told me when I visited: that what happened had happened to the Rhodens specifically, and because no one but the Rhodens had been targeted, nobody else need worry.
It’s now been more than eight months since the Rhoden Massacre, and zero arrests have been made. Virtually no one is reporting on the investigation, because there’s nothing to say. A gag order has been placed on the family about the custody battle over Ruger and Kylie, and the Pike County Coroner’s Office won’t make public its final autopsy reports on Chris Sr., Gary, Dana, Frankie, Hannah Gilley, Hanna Rhoden, Chris Jr., and Kenneth. The Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch recently sued the state, accusing Pike County officials of breaking the law by continuing to keep such records private.
Allis and I were back home in Los Angeles, having drinks in our neighborhood, and she was eating olives out of my martini glass. I asked if she thought maybe I should go back to Ohio. “No one will return my phone calls.”
I’d spent a lot of time wondering who killed the Rhodens, and worrying about Bobby, and generally feeling paranoid that there something amiss in Pike County—but nothing I could prove or put my finger on.
“You need to hand in that piece, Hale, get the Rhodens out of your head—stop trying to make this a novel. Not everything has a beginning, middle and end.”
Allis took out her phone and set a timer. She had recently returned from a paleontological dig, and told me she would talk to me for five more minutes about the Pike County murder, but that was it—after that, she was going to make me look at pictures of dinosaur bones.
“Remember Leonard?” she said. “When he walked away from Bobby because she was crying? Now that’s a man who knows how to survive. His finger got chopped off, a tree fell on him, and his daughter and grandchildren got their faces blown off down the street. But he keeps chugging, because every day of his life is a hell, and if he stopped to think about it for even a second, he’d die.” I had other pieces to write, she reminded me, and bad things happen every day, and if I let myself get bowled over by this one mystery, how would I tackle those to come? She urged me to relinquish hope and move on to the next tragedy—and when the timer on her phone dinged, she leaned toward me, thumbing excitedly through photos of fossils. “You just dig and dig and dig,” she said.
Research editor: Erin Sylvester