What happens when one of the primary suspects in a murder case pleads guilty in the middle of the production of season two of your podcast that is solely based on that very story?
You pivot. You reinvent. You adapt. And all those other annoying words you’ve heard during the pandemic!
That is exactly what the team behind The Piketon Massacre podcast—an iHeartRadio original co-produced by KT Studios—did. In a recent interview with Stephanie Lydecker, Courtney Armstrong, and Jeff Shane, they shared a very similar reaction to the amount of chaos Jake Wagner caused when he plead guilty to five murders committed on April 22, 2021, less than three weeks before the launch of season two.
“It was a LOT!” they said, nodding in unison.
First, a bit of backstory:
The Piketon Massacre is the most notorious mass murder in Ohio’s history. “[It] happened on the night of April 21, 2016, in rural Pike County. Four crime scenes, thirty-two gunshot wounds, eight members of the Rhoden family left dead in their homes. Two years later, a local family of four, the Wagners, [were] arrested and charged with the crimes.”
Never heard of it? That’s not necessarily surprising. Although this case did make national news and was the second largest mass murder in the country that year, it was largely overshadowed by the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016.
The KT Studios team—Stephanie Lydecker – CEO and Founder, Courtney Armstrong – CCO, and Jeff Shane – VP of Development—dug into the case by examining crime-scene forensics, legal proceedings, and the ties that bind the victims and the accused.
On the five-year anniversary of the Piketon murders, the team was well into the production of season two when Jake Wagner entered the unexpected “guilty” plea.
“We were well down a path,” commented Stephanie, “by that point.”
“We were quickly alerted,” Courtney chimed in. “We have the best contributors, who all follow [the case] in real time, so we were getting texts. We all watched it, mouths open, on the livestream. It was shocking.”
“I started to cry,” added Stephanie. “It was a two-part cry. We were knee-deep in episode five of season two. So obviously, that meant starting over. But moreover, we were not expecting [the plea] in the slightest. If we were putting money bets on anything, which of course we don’t, Jake not only confessing but confessing to five of the eight [murders] was sort of terrifying.”
Although the surprise plea may have reinforced some of the theories the KT Studios team had hypothesized while covering the case, it also certainly threw a wrench into the works of season two.
“Yes, huge monkey wrench,” agreed Stephanie. “But I think ultimately for the better. We’re still tracking it in real time. It was a complete switch and move of direction, but ultimately, it was for the better.”
“We were weeks away from premiering,” added Jeff. “It was shocking, because we had been following the case for so long, and [Jake] had been claiming his innocence. He wanted to catch the ‘monsters’ who had done this. So for him to change his plea was shocking.”
“Not in a million years did we think Jake Wagner would confess. That applies to some degree to the entire Wagner family,” Stephanie reflected. “They were so committed to their innocence. As a human being, I personally wanted that to be the case. You don’t want to believe someone who knew the Rhoden family so intimately could possibly do this, and do it so well. We don’t know the Rhodens personally. We weren’t raised in Pike County. But you end up feeling so wildly connected to the case. I really thought there was going to be some real twist that would prove [the Wagners] didn’t do it. Seeing Jake stand there, accepting guilt for murdering so many while simultaneously accepting the fact that he is going to have to testify against his own mother, father, and brother is really unheard of.”
“Throughout the first season, we spent time working with members of the Wagner family who did nothing but talk about how innocent they were,” Jeff chimed in. “You want to believe what people tell you. It’s still unbelievable I think even now that Jake is admitting it.”
“As producers, we asked, ‘How are we going to do this?” Jeff continued. “‘How are we going to tell this story and pivot this podcast?’”
At the time of this writing, the Piketon murders is a very fluid case—meaning, more twists and turns might happen by the time this goes to print. If so, it is almost a guarantee that those new developments will have been superbly reported by the KT Studios team within The Piketon Massacre podcast, given the aforementioned contributors including reporters, attorneys, and other professionals working on this case.
Kudos to the team for adapting to the flow of the case. A lesser team would have simply tossed a disclaimer into the intro and rolled with the already-produced five episodes they had on hand.
“That wouldn’t have done the story justice,” Jeff commented. “So, we switched gears and decided to cover it in real time.”
“We called our executives the moment Jake confessed,” added Stephanie. “We had already handed in the trailer and episodes at that point. We spoke to Tyler Klang [Executive Producer at iHeartMedia] to say, ‘Stop the presses!’ iHeart was very supportive.”
“It was a huge pivot,” Courtney explained. “It would have been unfair to people who had spent time listening to the podcast to not tell them what was going on. The choice was pretty clear to all of us very quickly.”
In essence, the team made the change from storytelling to a reporting endeavor. Courtney went into detail on the new direction:
“It was about how we could further the story. So we re-interviewed everyone and examined the investigative pieces, what was looked into by the prosecution, and what will be coming out in court eventually.”
“We have such supportive fans who we are so thankful for,” commented Jeff. “We wanted to deliver the best version of the story for them.”
When it comes to the difference in how they’re approaching the case now, Stephanie said, “The gloves are off. [Jake Wagner] has confessed to doing something that is unimaginable. We have the chance, on behalf of the Rhoden family victims, to really unpack the story and make sure that people are angry. These types of things just can’t happen in the dead of the night with nobody hearing about it.”
“Dana Rhoden, who was the matriarch of the Rhoden family, was coming home that night from work as a nurse,” Stephanie continued emotionally. “Imagine that! Her 16-year-old son and her daughter who just had a baby four days prior are home. These were regular people, just like the rest of us. Now that we might know who the ‘boogie man’ is, we really need to make sure that people are mad as hell about it, and that justice gets its day.”
It’s obvious in listening to the podcast and speaking to the team directly that there is a lot of emotion involved in covering this very unique case. The most disturbing aspect of the story for each of them?
“The decimation of this family,” answered Courtney. “Generations [are gone]. The implications of this one night are so far-reaching for [the Rhoden family] forever. The children aren’t with their loving mother, because she’s dead. It’s beyond words, what this family has had to go through.”
“I think the kids being left alive at the scene,” answered Stephanie. “A four-day old, a six-month old, and a three-year old left alive among their murdered parents. It’s hard to even speak about.”
“When Jake Wagner admitted to all these things, he smirked,” answered Jeff. “It was very obvious, when Hanna Rhoden’s name came up. To me, that’s the most disturbing thing. That did not look like someone who was sad. He was smiling. That’s f—ed up!”
There is certainly plenty to be disturbed about when digging into The Piketon Massacre. And again, there may also be a few more sharp twists and turns coming. If that happens, it is almost certain that the KT Studios team will be there to report it as in-depth as possible in the podcast. The rest of the ride will probably be a bumpy one, but as Stephanie said, “Life is messy, and sometimes making a podcast is, too.”
August 2021 Issue