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PIKETON, Ohio – Six months after someone shot eight members of an extended family to death in their homes, surviving relatives are still waiting — for an explanation, for an arrest, for a hint of closure.
"I just want to know why?" said Tajianna Mead, of Waverly, whose 44-year-old father, Kenneth Rhoden, was among the victims.
When the slayings were discovered the morning of April 22, rural Pike County in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio was coming to life with the colors of greening hardwoods and the white petals of dogwood trees. Half a year later, colors are changing again as leaves turn to burnt yellow and red across the thickly wooded hills.
Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader told WCPO-TV this week that he now believes the killers were local .
Union Hill Road, where seven of the victims were found on three properties, is open again to traffic. "Private Property: No Trespassing" signs are posted at the end of the homes' driveways. Porches sit stranded in yards, their steps leading nowhere: In May, investigators moved the mobile homes where the killings occurred to a secure location as the investigation continued.
Leonard Manley, who lost his daughter, Dana Rhoden, and three grandchildren, lives on Union Hill Road near all the crime scenes. He spends his days tinkering after retiring two years ago from cutting timber. He doesn't know who committed the crime and questions whether it will be solved in his lifetime.
Manley, 65, has long thought the killers knew the properties intimately, in part because Christopher Rhoden Sr. had a security system, as well as a pit bull and bulldog, that would have been hard for a stranger to get past.
"You wake up at night, and you wonder. I get up of a night, 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. Can't go back to sleep, thinking about things," Manley said.
The victims were Kenneth Rhoden, 44; Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence "Frankie" Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr. and 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden; a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden; and Frankie Rhoden's fiancee, 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. Adding to the family's pain is a legal fight involving three family members seeking custody of the children. A Pike County judge is shielding public access to those court hearings and records.
Most of the victims were shot multiple times in the head and, in the case of Christopher Rhoden Sr., in his upper body and torso, as well. Some bodies showed signs of bruising, as if they'd been beaten. Kenneth Rhoden's body was found at his trailer a few miles away from the properties on Union Hill Road.
Kendra Rhoden, Tajianna's sister, says her father, Kenneth Rhoden, was a wise man who taught her lessons about dealing with life, heartbreak and all. The 19-year-old is studying to be a licensed practical nurse. Like others, she believes someone in the community knows what happened but is afraid to come forward.
Regardless of the delays and the mystery surrounding the deaths, Kendra Rhoden believes the case will be solved.
"My dad taught me to have hope," Rhoden said.
Early on, 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, leading to suggestions Mexican cartels might have been involved.
Large marijuana operations are common in southern Ohio. Investigators in 2012 said the seizure of about 1,200 plants in Pike County could be related to a Mexican drug cartel.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, overseeing the investigation along with the sheriff, will say only that the killers had to be familiar with land around the properties, as well as the properties themselves.
Though many residents of the rural county about 80 miles south of Columbus also believe the killers are local, most aren't worried about their safety. They believe the family members were specifically targeted.
"I don't think nobody's going to come forward and say, 'Oh, I know who did this,'" said Dana Lansing, who lives with her husband about 3 miles from the main crime scene and who was a longtime friend of Dana Rhoden. "Because it's too big. They would fear for their own lives if they did."
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins