The Rev. Phil Fulton knew some of the eight family members who were shot dead near his rural southern Ohio community this week. The victims’ shaken relatives, he says, are asking roughly the same question as police: Who would do this?
“Just heartache,” Fulton said Saturday, describing the relatives’ reactions a day after police said seven adults and a 16-year-old were found shot in the head “execution-style,” most while they slept, in Pike County.
“You try to think (about) the whys and who, and no one has any idea why this would take place,” said Fulton, pastor of Union Hill Church in neighboring Adams County, which some of the victims had attended.
The eight members of Rhoden family — including a mother who investigators say was killed while her 4-day-old child lay beside her — were found dead Friday at four crime scenes, authorities said. That child, along with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old, survived the killings.
The mystery of who killed the eight has moved not only people living in the area of Piketon, a town of about 2,000 residents 90 miles east of Cincinnati, but also drawn the attention of top state officials.
A Cincinnati-based restaurant owner, Jeff Ruby, has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Saturday.
Officers are searching for the killer or killers, who are probably armed and a danger to surviving family members, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said Friday.
“We have a specific family that’s been targeted but I don’t think there’s been a threat to any other members of the community,” he said. “I’ve given the family precautionary measures to make. They know we’re available.”
Reader didn’t name a suspect or give a motive, but said all victims are members of the Rhoden family.
“We’re advising family members to be very careful and take particular caution,” DeWine said Friday. “This is a matter of public safety, especially for the Rhoden family.”
“What makes this particularly grisly is you have three children involved who were there when the executions took place,” he said.
Eight victims at four crime scenes
The sheriff’s office was notified about 7:53 a.m. Friday that two bodies were found at a bloody scene, Reader said. Officers were flagged down and told other bodies had been located.
At first, officers found seven people killed at three residences in the county, two “within walking distance” of each other and the third about half a mile away, Reader said.
An eighth body was located Friday in a fourth residence, about 8 miles away, Reader said.
Relatives of the eight released a statement Saturday through the Ohio Crisis Response Team, a volunteer organization that advocates for victims of traumatic events.
“The Rhoden family would like to thank everyone for all the outpouring of prayers and support their family,” the statement reads. “They ask that you continue to keep them in their prayers.”
‘There may be more than one’ killer
DeWine said this week that it appeared all of the eight were shot in the head.
“It would appear it occurred at night. … The mother was killed in bed with the 4-day-old right there,” he said Friday.
The deaths are homicides, DeWine said. Nobody killed themselves.
“The Rhoden family was targeted and we’ve talked to the family and expressed our concern,” he said. “The sheriff’s office will work with them for protection.”
Reader said other law enforcement agencies have come to Pike County to help his department, which has 13 road deputies.
“We have a lot of people dedicated to finding this murderer, or these murderers,” DeWine said.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is leading the investigation. It sent more than a dozen agents to assist the Pike County Sheriff’s Office after the request for help came in at 8:21 a.m.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich called the situation “beyond comprehension” and said the state is working with local law enforcement.