PIKE COUNTY, Ohio — 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.”
Pike County’s ties to the drug trade
The killings have cast a spotlight on the remote region’s ties to the drug trade, thanks to its obscured terrain and U.S. 23, the north-south highway that splits Pike County in two.
The road, which goes from Michigan into Florida, is a known trafficking corridor because of its proximity to major markets, including Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
Annual law enforcement flyovers target areas between U.S. 23 and Interstate 70, a hilly, wooded area known to cartels and local growers as an effective hiding spot, said Dan Tierney, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, almost one-fourth of all the marijuana seized by authorities in Ohio came from Pike and five neighboring counties, according to data from the attorney general’s office.
Despite all this, you don’t hear as much about marijuana in Pike County these days. In the past decade, opioid abuse has become one of the region’s biggest public health issues, mirroring state and national trends. Joint efforts from state agencies took down pill mills and made a dent in prescription drug abuse, but homemade methamphetamine still runs through Pike County and much of Appalachia. As prescription drugs have become more scarce and costly, heroin has come up as a cheaper option, Tierney said.
DeWine announced in August 2012 that law enforcement officers found a major marijuana grow site in Pike County with suspected ties to a Mexican drug cartel. Investigators destroyed about 1,200 marijuana plants and found two abandoned campsites they believe belonged to Mexican nationals, the release said.
These days, arrests related to methamphetamine and heroin are more likely to make the front page of the Pike County News Watchman than marijuana busts. Since April 22, it’s been all Rhodens.
Just another small town?
Signs along U.S. 23 advise people to report “impaired driving” and “drug activity.” Another billboard with an image of a needle hanging from a person’s arm asks “Addicted to painkillers?” and shares a hotline number.
It’s a jarring contrast to the Instagram-worthy landscapes along U.S. 23 south of Columbus. It starts with tall power lines criss-crossing swaths of farmland, mainly corn and soy. Commercial plazas and business parks break up the scenery with familiar big box stores, plus a few Ohio mainstays: Bob Evans, Wendy’s, Gionino’s Pizzeria. Farther south, past Chillicothe, the commercial centers become more sporadic as family-owned farmland and mom-and-pop stores take over.
Typical measures of affluence don’t seem to apply: Sprawling, multilevel homes surrounded by fleets of gleaming trucks sit next to dilapidated trailers and auto junkyards. It’s hard to tell what poverty looks like.
Waverly, the county seat of Pike, has a Wal-Mart, a Kroger and a new Dollar Tree. Five miles down the road in Piketon Village, the long-standing Riverside Restaurant greets visitors next to an abandoned Bi-Lo gas station.
Along the tree-lined streets of Piketon Village, families gather on porches at dusk to enjoy the pleasant spring weather. A woman, cigarette hanging from her mouth, pushes a child on a swing.
It feels as though you could be anywhere in the United States. Except, perhaps, for the Confederate flag flying from a nearby home.
The town’s history of drug activity has fueled speculation here that Mexican drug cartels were involved in the Rhoden slayings, something law enforcement has neither confirmed nor denied.
A few people in town said the Rhoden boys could be rough around the edges and prone to fights. In trying to make sense of the killings, some mentioned the possibility of a family affair or a grudge that got out of hand.
But all refused to attach their names to such statements, citing respect for the family. No one wants to publicly speak ill of the dead. With more funerals continuing into next week, the focus is on the surviving Rhoden relatives.
Amid the scrutiny, the family has begun to close ranks. Family friend Lisa Wallace addressed a media gaggle on Wednesday outside visitation services for Gary Rhoden, 38, uncle to Hanna, Chris and Frankie, who was buried the next day in camouflage.
Wallace declared the killers “cowards” and emphasized the victims’ blamelessness.
“They were all great people. They would do anything for you,” she said. Gary Rhoden was especially harmless, she said.
“Hurting Gary was like kicking a dog.”
Whatever was behind the killings, the grim aftermath has united the community. Dennis Tschudy and his wife organized a candlelight vigil on Friday night to bring everyone together. Within days, others stepped up to organize bake-sale fundraisers.
It’s what small towns do best, Melissa Tschudy said: Look after each other like family, especially in times of need.
“Everybody feels so bad. This is not supposed to happen in small towns like this,” she said. “Everybody’s hurting and they want to help.”
‘The devil makes work for idle hands’
Those relationships are the reason the Tschudys and others stay in Pike County, despite high levels of unemployment and poverty. Pike is one of seven “distressed counties” in Ohio, the Appalachian Regional Commission’s designation for counties that rank in the worst 10% of the nation’s counties based on low per capita income and high rates of poverty and unemployment.
The March 2016 unemployment rate was 8.6% compared to 5.4% in the rest of the state and 5.1% nationwide. That’s better than it was during the recession, when the annual average peaked at 15.3% in 2009. But it’s up from the average in 2015, 7.4%.
Educational attainment in Pike County is among the lowest in Ohio. Little more than 12% of people 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree; 77% of people 25 and older have a high school diploma.
Such factors contribute to drug addiction, said Lori Taylor Moore, program director of the Recovery Council, a residential addiction treatment program in Waverly.
As the saying goes, “The devil makes work for idle hands,” she said in an interview Thursday in her office. When people don’t have jobs or hope, they turn to drugs to feel better, she said.
She knows from her work that there’s a growing problem. Since Moore started working for the Recovery Council in 2010, the staff has grown from 16 to 160 people. Currently, they have a waiting list of 14 people two months out.
Moore was born and raised in Piketon. She remembers a time when everyone left their doors unlocked and neighbors were expected to look after your kids. That’s why she moved back in 2000 after attending college in Cincinnati. She wanted her kids to grow up knowing that others cared for them, and that they were being watched.
By the time she returned to Pike County its economic fortunes had changed. Most of the large corporations that ran plants and mills had pulled out of the region, leaving a uranium plant and a handful of small timber mills.
Prescription drug abuse had taken hold of the region. DeWine made prescription drug addiction a priority after taking office, working with Gov. John Kasich and local law enforcement across the state to shut down pill mills.
The success of their efforts drove up prices of prescription drugs, which had the unintended (though not entirely unexpected) consequence of causing people to turn to heroin as a cheaper option.
Moore sees hope for her community in the addicts that come to Recovery Council for help. They are living, breathing examples that it’s never too late to change course.
As a sign in her office reads, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
‘What Pike County is all about’
The sheriffs of Pike and Ross County did not return repeated requests for comment related to drug interdiction efforts and statistics on drug-related arrests. In the next county over, however, Adams County Sheriff Kim Rogers has different ideas about drug treatment and prevention.
To him, it starts in schools.
“We are spending millions and millions on jails and prisons and drug treatments,” he said. “We’re fighting this drug thing on the wrong end by waiting until someone gets drug addicted.”
Rogers regularly visits middle schools and high schools in Adams County to warn students of the dangers of prescription drugs and meth. As part of their English curriculum, students are assigned to write essays on the perils of addiction.
“They can talk about interdiction all they want but we cannot shut down the supply of drugs,” he said. “if we were spending one-third of what we spend on the aftermath on classrooms and schools instead we would be much more effective.”
Fear and uncertainty may lurk in the community’s subconscious until the killers are captured. And yet, life must go on.
State testing continued as planned at Pike County High School and the prom committee is hard at work.
The Friday night candlelight vigil initiated by Dennis and Melissa Tschudy drew around 3,000 people.
“It was a very emotional night,” Dennis Tschudy said. “I felt it pulled the community together to show what Pike County is all about.”
Resilience is what everyone is hoping for.